Welcome to Saint Herman's, Hudson, Ohio

This blog is a partial compilation of the messages, texts, readings, and prayers from our small mission community. We pray that it will be used by our own people, to their edification. And if you happen by and are inclined to read, give the glory to God!

The blog title, "Will He Find Faith on the Earth?" is from Luke 18:8, the "Parable of the Persistent Widow." It overlays the icon of the Last Judgment, an historical event detailed in Matthew Chapter 25, for which we wait as we pray in the Nicean Creed.

We serve the Holy Orthodox cycle of services in contemporary English. Under the omophorion of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Bulgarian Patriarchal Diocese of the USA, Canada and Australia, we worship at 5107 Darrow Road in Hudson, Ohio (44236). If you are in the area, please join us for worship!

Regular services include:
Sunday Divine Liturgy 10AM (Sept 1 - May 31)
930AM (June 1 - Aug 31)
Vespers each Saturday 6PM

We pray that you might join us for as many of these services as possible!

Monday, November 28, 2011

What Are We Becoming?

In the spirit of the title of the blog, we echo a report this past week that was "in the news"....

A sheriff's deputy was dispatched last week to a Florida elementary school after a girl kissed a boy during a physical education class.  School officials actually reported the impromptu kiss as a possible sex crime, according to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.  The assistant principal of Orange River Elementary School called the police after a teacher spotted the act on Wednesday at the school. Teacher Margaret Ann Haring, 56, initially called child welfare officials, who directed her to contact the sheriff, according to the report.  The kiss apparently occurred after two girls debated over whom the boy liked more. That’s when one of the girls “went over and kissed” the boy. The redacted sheriff’s report notes that Haring “stated there were no new allegations of sexual abuse as far as she knew.”  Deputies do not appear to be further probing the preteen kiss.


By now, I'm considered ancient by most young people.  And I can remember that it was not unusual for little girls to try to embarrass little boys by kissing them unexpectedly.  Does anyone remember "Sadie Hawkins Day"?  Look it up, if you don't.


We've given over the control and charge of our youth to others outside the family.  Yes, rapes occur in our world, and it's a terrible thing to even have to address the issue juxtaposed with a report like the one above.  Excluding those acts of truly physical attack, I know of only one time that a kiss has been foul - the one that was given by Judas to our Lord.


When did we stop being parents?  When did we abdicate our ability to discipline our children, either in or out of the school, without fear of reprisal from police?  Yes, again, I know that there are instances when parents go too far, and we never want to condone those acts.  But people go too far in many of life's pursuits, and we hold the aberrant behavior in contempt while holding the righteous up to praise.


"Praising child abuse, Father?"  No - NEVER!  But can we not find the place as responsible parents to not spare the rod and thereby spoil the child?  Can we not find a place in our world for God's word to be employed as He intended?  "Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness...." (Ps 141:5)  "Strike a scoffer, and the simple will become wary; rebuke one who has understanding, and he will discern knowledge..." (Prov 19:25)


As a parent, we should applaud righteous chastisement of our youth, and we should reinforce the message with them when the opportunity presents itself.  Unfortunately, all too often parents (and I have adult children who are teachers, so the following is not opinion as much as survey) blame those in authority for being "too hard, singling out only my child instead of others."  It's never our children's fault.  And, as in most instances, we turn to lawyers and courts to settle what should not even be an issue.


No, this is not an attempt to speak on both sides of an issue.  The teacher who reported a simple childish kiss as a crime would have no such opinion even come to mind if it weren't for her being "conditioned" to believe that she has the ultimate moral authority in the life of the child, instead of the parent.  And that's the abdication of authority that we must find the way to return to righteous normalcy.


How can we do this?  First, pray.  Then, clear schedule to spend time with our children - not watching them from afar as they perform in sports or clubs or events, but at their side, being with them.  Finally, pray some more.


And if you have time left over afterwards, pray for me..... and 'ancient' child.....

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The "Wall of Partition"

Saint Paul says in today's Epistle, “(He) has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.”  In other translations, these words are different, for they say with somewhat more clarity, “(He) has broken down the middle wall of partition.”  The reference to the “middle wall” relates to the Temple of Solomon.  Excavations of the temple site show that there was this “central wall” beyond which only those who were Israelites were permitted entry.  In that excavation, a stone was found on which was engraved, “No man of another nation is to enter within the enclosure round the Temple.  Whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.”


Saint Paul uses the wall as an analogy to the wall that was present between God and man because of sin. It separates us from God eternally unless it can be torn down.  Christ came, He lived in our flesh, He demolished the wall by living a sinless life and, through His death and resurrection, the wall is removed and we are restored to the presence of God.  No barrier remains.
 
Saint Paul continues that our Lord has done this great work “so that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two.”  Saint Paul refers to the two who are on opposite sides of the wall – the first, we who live in the fallen world, who have no hope of entering into the other side, and the second the Man who is God who is the only one worthy or eligible to be on the inside.

The prophet Isaiah says, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you.”  This is the separation that has been removed for us by our Lord.  This is the wall of enmity that has disappeared – the wall of our sins.  

"(You are) built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit."  By breaking down the wall, the Lord reuses us, the bricks, in a new structure. He creates from us a temple for the Holy Spirit, Whom we know, Who is our Comforter, Who lives in and among us, to Whom we pray always that He will "come and abide in us,"  we who are held together, made fast by the Cornerstone, Jesus Christ!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Evil One

Today's daily readings carry with them a wonderful happenstance in that the Epistle reading ties nicely to the Gospel reading.

Saint Paul (from 2Cor 11:1-6) teaches, "I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ."  This ties nicely with the comment from our Lord in today Gospel (Luke 10:19-21) to His Apostles, "Behold, I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy..."  It is the same enemy in both cases, and it is the same enemy who attempts to deceive and corrupt us to this very day "by his craftiness."


If you've ever read "The Screwtape Letters" by CS Lewis, you've been exposed to a wonderful range of the depths to which the servants of the devil will go to tempt us and to force us to fall from grace, fall from communion with Christ.

In the novel, Screwtape sends letters of advice to his tempter, who is attempting at all turns to get the man to whom he is assigned to fall.  One such piece of advice is, "How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition."

The tempter advised by Screwtape is the same "scorpion" spoken of by our Lord.  It is the same serpent who beguiled Eve.  Our failings are presented to us subtly, so that like the proverbial frog placed into ever warmer water, he does not know until it's too late that the water is beginning to boil, and that the end is near.

The world around us attacks us subtly.  "Miss Church to go to the professional football game.  It's just ONE Sunday...."  "Come with us on a golf outing.  You're at Church too much as it is....."  Then there are the non-verbal pressures, like eating with 'friends' who tear into their meals so quickly that you feel self-conscious about bowing your head in prayer before you take a bite.  Or as you're on the bus, and you see a homeless person on the side of the street, you feel awkward making the sign of the cross and offering a short prayer for the person because others around you in the bus will judge you.

Do you see how the serpent beguiles?  Can we understand how the water is warming, and that Screwtape's advice is gaining favor in the world around us?

How do we reverse this?  Start with the one. Start with ourselves. Start with not worrying about what others think of you when you pray, public or not.  Start by making just one small movement to add to your spiritual arsenal.  When you feel tempted, make the sign of the Cross, wherever you are.  Approach the Chalice at every opportunity - after making a proper confession.

He has given us 'power', meaning the authority, to trample under foot all that are sent to cause us to fall.  And "nothing shall by any means hurt you".

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Final Note on Being Thankful

Be thankful that you don't already have everything you desire.
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don't know something.
It gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times. 

During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations.
They give you opportunities for improvement.


Be thankful for each new challenge.
Each builds your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes. 

They teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you're tired and weary.
It means you've made a difference.

It's easy to be thankful for the good things.  A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who are also thankful for the setbacks.  Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.  Find a way to be thankful for your troubles, and they will become your blessings.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

Each year, on this particular Thursday in November, the people of our country 'celebrate' Thanksgiving.

Yes, we still give the day the honor of a "capital T", indicating that it's something Holy.  Unfortunately the day, like most things that start out having a sacred focus, has become more about gluttony, a day off the job, football, or sleeping in advance of staying awake all night for Black Friday sales than it is about prayerful thanks to God for the benefits and bounties He has bestowed upon us.

The psalmist long ago wrote, "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His mercy endures forever."  I'd give the reference to the Psalm, but there's not only one.  These words are contained in Psalms 106, 107, 118 and 136.  Based on their repetition, you might conclude that this phrase is fairly important.

When we look at the issue of thanks, we should do so through the lens of our Lord's own words, through the inclusion of the issue of thankfulness within His life and ministry.  In Matthew 15:36, we find the Lord giving thanks over the loaves and fish before He feeds the four thousand.  In Matthew 26:27 we find Jesus again giving thanks as He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  In Luke 17 we find the Lord healing the ten lepers, and when He questions, "Where are the (other) nine?", indicating to us how important it is to give thanks to God.

All of these instances notwithstanding, we need to look at the ending phrase from the psalmist above.  Why should we give thanks?  "For His mercy endures forever."  While the entire phrase is repeated in the aforementioned four Psalms, this one phrase is repeated 26 times in Psalm 136 - once in each verse of the Psalm.

On this day, a government once supportive of Judeo-Christian worship and values still declares it proper for us to take the time to give thanks to God.  But for us as Orthodox Christians, we recognize that this act of giving thanks is not a one-day-per-year event.  It is not a daily act.  It is a portion of our "prayer without ceasing". (1Thes 5:17)  And the thanks that we give, in very great proportion, is specifically because "His mercy endures forever."  Without our Lord continuing to show us His mercy, what would we have to be thankful for?  What possible benefits would we find in our lives, separated from His mercy?

On this day, we must remember to give thanks, just as we do on every day - "for His mercy endures forever!"

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Things Which Are Impossible With Men...

What things are impossible for men?

Today, we have scientists who preach to us that they understand the very moment of creation, although they deny that "creation" exists, that we're all just a strange and wonderful "accident".

We have scholars who preach that we are descended from single cell living entities that are billions of years old, and yet they fail to be able to explain the path to the complexity that is human life, and more importantly, they deny the gifting to this one particular life form of a soul - that which causes humanity to truly share in the image of God.

We have genetic experts who claim to know how to modify plant life so that it will survive in any climate.  We have nations that produce far in excess of their own needs in terms of food crops.  And yet the world remains held in the grasp of famine.

We have politicians and ambassadors who know that war and conflict solve no problem, and yet today there are 56 countries currently involved in wars or skirmishes with over 200 countries or insurgent groups.

We have doctors who tells us that they can heal the most complex diseases, and we are indeed blessed to have such magnificent talents in the world.  But these same doctors can't cure the common cold, and cancer still runs rampant in our world, as does AIDS, and also many other fatal diseases.

We have bankers that preach to us how we need to provide for our security by entering various markets, telling us that we're too inept to know how best to manage our own God-given resources, and that we need to trust them to do this for us, and yet it is these same people who have been bailed out by a government on the verge of failing itself.

What things are impossible for men?

It is impossible for us to live without sin.  And yet one Man managed to do this.

It is impossible for us to achieve salvation based on our own merits.

It is impossible for us to love others to the depth that our Creator loves us.

It is impossible for us to live and maintain any semblance of true joy in our lives without having the Cross, the Tomb, and the Resurrection as our focal points.

It is impossible to offer sufficient thanks to God for the blessings we have received from Him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rejection

Today's Gospel reading ends with the words from our Lord, "(The Son of Man) first must suffer many things, and be rejected by this generation." 

Those of us who have been ordained to minister to others, and to preach meaningfully to others, we often question our messages.  And that is a wonderful thing to do.  Unfortunately, sometimes, in my own questioning, I'm led to a point of dejection.  It's not despair.  It's just disappointment.  We want to see that the words we're led to speak are changing things.  We desire with all our hearts to see people finally come to accept the faith in its fullness.  We hope that the things spoken in homilies or in counseling sessions or in private conversations result in confessions, turned hearts, more participation in all the services, greater almsgiving - whatever the case, we desire to see the fruits of the seed we believe we've been called to plant.

But all too often, that 'vision' - that 'seeing' of fruit developing is nowhere to be found.  And worse still, the words the Lord allows me to speak, they have not changed my own heart to make it acceptable because of my greater love of sin than of my Lord.

This message is not only for clergy.  It happens to us as parents as well.  We take our children to church.  We encourage them to pray.  We instill in them the importance of faith in our lives.  And as they grow to maturity, we watch them make our faith a byword in their mature lives.  We see them drift to places we would not choose for them to go.  And perhaps we think, "Why should I be surprised when I don't see a change in myself...????"

There are two things to keep in mind about these observations.  First, we see from the words of our Lord Himself that this also happened to Him.  Jesus speaks today of His being rejected by His own people, the ones who were waiting, LONGING for the coming of the Savior.  They knew what to look for, and still, when He came, he was rejected by them.

Second, there is no coercion when it comes to faith.  You accept in faith, or you reject.  This is also quite clear in our Lord's own words: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." (Mat 23:37)

The image is a loving one.  The reality points us to the rejection of our Lord and His Gospel in the world to this day, and until He returns.

So, what are we as pastors, teachers, or parents to do?  Should we just give up?

You know the answer to the question.  Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, "Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved."

The path we should take is reinforced in what the Lord says earlier in today's Gospel to these same Pharisees who are questioning Him.  They seek from the Lord an indication of "the sign" for which they should look that tells of the coming of the Kingdom.  Failing to recognize that the Kingdom is before them in the person of its Master, Jesus patiently and lovingly teaches even these men.  "Indeed, the Kingdom of God is within you...." (Luke 17:21)

Let those of us who know Him not reject Him.  He waits to gather us together, as well.  And so, let us pray to Him:  Maranatha! - Come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Entry of the Theotokos

"Today is the prelude of the good will of God, 
of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God
In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her:
'Rejoice, O fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation."
(Troparion of the Feast)

A prelude - an action that precedes a more important one, and also an introductory performance.  The good will of God has always been with us, but on this day He brings to us an introductory act.

The preaching of salvation - Mankind lives separated from God, but on this day we are granted the glimpse of His plan of redemption, of bringing us back to Him.

The Virgin appears in the temple of God - Mankind built an earthly temple according to His command.  And yet God has prepared His own Temple, and it will be the womb of the child who today enters His earthly and physical temple.  A temple in a temple!

In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all - This child is carried to the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells within the temple of Solomon, and in so doing she shows the presence of God, the presence of the Son of God, to be coming forth from her fleshly temple and into the world.

Rejoice, fulfillment of the Creator's dispensation! - We use the word "Rejoice!" freely in connection with the Theotokos.  It is present in the Akathists to her.  It is used in hymns we sing to her.  It is the angelic greeting to her at the Annunciation!  And in the word, we link the human concept of bliss, of delight.  These are true in the way we sing of the virgin.  And yet we remember the words of the Idiomelon (by St. John of Damascus) of the funeral service.  "What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief?"  The innocent child we watch today, as she ascends the steps to the temple, leaving behind mother and father instead preferring to live in the presence of God, this joy, this bliss will be with her until the time of her betrothal.  But this same child will be called to stand at the foot of the Cross, to watch the life drain from the pure Body of her Son and her God, filling her with that earthly grief.  But she too will be among those women - in fact, tradition holds she is the first to hear the proclamation of the angel of the Lord's resurrection, and the first to behold His risen Body.

This is the fullness of the Creator's dispensation.  And we, too, must rejoice!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"I Will Follow You Wherever You Go..."

In today's Gospel reading (Luke 9:57-62), this "certain man" is different from me in exactly what way?  In fact, I am representative of all of these who come to the Lord.  We seek to "follow", but only when and where it is convenient for us.

Jesus is calling, "Follow Me."  We have already "come and seen" - we know the bounties that He has and that He continues to bestow on us.  But the world continues to hold rein on us.  I've not failed because I go to bury my father in the flesh, but who is my father in the world?  Is it my job?  "Lord, let me finish my career before I commit to doing what You truly seek for me to do...."  Is it my family?  "Lord, let me get my children through college before....."  I no less desire to "bury" a portion of that which holds me here than the man mentioned in today's Gospel.  Remember - "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."  (Mat 10:37)

The Lord's admonition, "Let the dead bury their own dead" at first sounds like nonsense.  How can dead bodies bury those who are dying?  But what Jesus is saying is that the things of the world are death.  There is only one source of Life, and it is with the Word of God!  Those things in the world, though they be breathing, are nonetheless dead if they are separated from the Kingdom of heaven, and from God.

"No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."  Once you've made the commitment to set out on the path, the act of "looking back" is longing for what was left behind.  Can we not see the riches and the benefits of what lay ahead instead?

Jesus says, "The Son of Man has no place to lay His head."  Our Master comes in poverty, at least as defined by the world.  How do we expect to "follow Him" and have more?  For "a disciple is not above his Teacher, nor a servant above his Master." (Mat 10:24)

We are all His servants.  Let us seek to truly accept the mantle of being disciples, those who choose with their whole heart to follow - and not look back.

Friday, November 18, 2011

God Knows Your Hearts...

Today's Gospel reading takes us to the all-knowing aspects of our Lord.  The title comes from the first verse (Luke 16:15):  "And He said to them (i.e. the Pharisees), 'You are those who justify yourselves before men.  But God knows your hearts.'" 

The Lord knows how to reach me exactly where I am, doesn't He?  I make an error, or I do something which is designed to exact retribution, or I exhibit gluttony, or I gossip - whatever my failing, I attempt to justify it.  I do this not only before men, but I do it even before my confessor!  "Father, I was angry with so and so, and it happened because he did this - ....."

The ending to that confessed item is irrelevant.  What another does to, with, for, or against me has nothing at all to do with my succumbing to temptation and failing to follow the commandments of my Lord.  I would be far better off if through tears I simply admitted to my confessor (and therefore to God), "I was angry, and so I did this.  I failed, and I am sorry for my failure, for my sin!"  The earlier answer is aligned with the positions of the Pharisees throughout the ministry of our Lord.  The second is aligned with the heart of the Publican (Luke 18:13), who could not raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his own breast, crying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"


The heart of that Publican - THIS is the heart we are trying, striving to cultivate during these days before the coming of our Lord in the flesh.  The recognition that we have failed is the key to turning and seeking the Lord fully.  When our hearts are filled with pride, or even with just self-justification, what need do we have of a Savior?  In our judgment, we have already justified ourselves.  There is no need of One Who will forgive me.  I have concluded that I am already pure enough as I am.

God forbid that any of us adopt such a perspective!  The Psalmist teaches us the path to the Lord's door.  "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.  A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise!" (Psalm 51:17)

He is at the door.  In this contrite spirit, seeking His mercy and forgiveness, knock - the door will be opened. Since God knows our hearts, seek to purify the heart.  "He who loves purity of heart and has grace on his lips, the King will be his friend." (Prov 22:11)

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fast of Philip

As we find ourselves at the threshold of the Advent Fast, some may note that the period is also often referred to as the "Fast of Philip".  This is due to the fast beginning on the day following the Feast of the Holy Apostle.

While the proximity of this Feast to the beginning of the Advent Fast is truly just a coincidence, in our constant pursuit of the concept that "nothing is an accident" in the Lord's work, we can certainly find edifying elements in the connection between the two.

Firstly, Philip is one of the first to be called to be an Apostle by our Lord.  And among Philip's first actions afterwards is his going to call his friend Nathaniel.  The call then, as is our call now, is "Come and see."

The ministry here in Hudson is one of a mission.  And being in that state, sometimes we think that we should be able to simply enter the public forums, issue our invitations, and fill the building with new members.  Those who have walked that path know that, like the case of the parable of the wedding feast (Mat 22 and Luke 14), those who are invited often find reasons to refrain.  Even more disheartening is the fact that those who are members of a parish community often find reasons to reject the same invitation.  In any community, the number of places occupied by faithful on a Sunday is routinely about 30% (or less) of the "total membership" of the community.  This is not a published scientific statistic - it's an observation from a number of communities with which we've been blessed to have connections over the years.  And when the focus shifts to non-Sunday Liturgy services (i.e. Vespers, weekday or weekend Liturgies), the numbers dwindle further.  Much further.

If we, in this Advent season, do not develop the heart of Philip, the heart that first desires within ourselves to "come and see", to be part of the continuing salvation our Lord is working in our lives, we cannot hope to find ourselves in the position of Philip, where we can invite a friend to "come and see."  What invitation is meaningful when the one who invites is not present him- or her-self?

Through this Advent Fasting season, let us pray that our Lord will open our hearts and fill them with the hunger to be near to Him.  There are those who will argue, "I can be near to the Lord in my car, or in my home."  And this is certainly true.  We are all called to "pray without ceasing" by Saint Paul (1Thes 5:17).  But there is no substitute for "lifting a load" with the help of others.  Our prayers are necessary when we're alone.  But they are wonderful when they are offered in concert, in one voice, all praising God or seeking His mercy.

Can your prayer be more meaningful, more effectual, than when you offer it alone?

Come and see.....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

There Shall Be Joy in Heaven...

Joyous Feast to all who hold as Patron or who bear the name Matthew!

In today's Gospel reading (Luke 15:1-10), the Lord is being chastised yet once again by His critics, the Pharisees, who are accusing Him of "eating with sinners." 

Goodness!  I do that every day, and most often I eat alone....

But our Lord does not yet hold these ruthless men in contempt.  Rather, Jesus is still attempting to teach.  It's a wonderful thing to observe.  We sing in the Divine Liturgy from Psalm 103 "the Lord is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering, and of great goodness."  When we think of His long-suffering, do we often consider how long it has been that He has allowed us the time to struggle with our sins, to attempt to bring them into submission by way of the things He has already taught us?  How many times does He allow us, in His compassion for us, to turn from our sin and return to Him?

This is the essence of the parables the Lord offers in this reading.  The lost sheep being carried by the Good Shepherd is a central image in the Christian faith.  In Vespers, we sing, "The prophet David was a father of the Lord through you, O Virgin.  He foretold in songs the One Who works wonders in you.  'At Your right hand stood the Queen, Your mother, the Mediatrix of Life, since God was freely born of her without a father.'  He wanted to renew His fallen image made corrupt from passions, so He took the lost sheep upon His shoulder, and brought it to His Father, joining to the heavenly powers, Christ, Who has great and rich mercy has saved the world, O Theotokos!" (Theotokion, Tone 4)

The "one lost" sheep is us - humanity, and Jesus leaves the 99 (the heavenly powers) to reclaim, to save, to show His divine love for us!  Saint Gregory teaches that the 100 is a "perfect number", ten groups of ten.  Saint Luke records in this gospel that when the Shepherd has found this one lost sheep, "He lays it on His shoulders, rejoicing!"  The Lord's teaching continues, showing us the true essence of His message.  "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance."  For there is only One in heaven Who needs no repentance, and it is He who leads the rejoicing!

Heaven rejoices when we "finally get it"!  Within the Advent Fast, may we be led in that direction.  I am certainly lost, but I trust that the Shepherd is looking for me, and I know from His own words that if I can find my way to repent, to turn around from the direction that has separated me from Him and His love, He will find me and will rejoice!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Making a Good Start

With the beginning of any fasting season, we find three distinct groups of Orthodox Faithful:
1)  There is a group which denies the Fast in one way or another, deciding that it is just another negative in the life of the church, and of no particular benefit to their spiritual walk.
2)  There is a group which sees the Fast as an inconvenience, something to be endured, even if disgruntledly, by increasing the fasting from Fridays to maybe an occasional Wednesday.
3)  There is a group which sees the Fast as a spiritual tool, a blessing which brings focus once again to a life in need of repair.

Just about every community has people who fall into each of these groups.  This past Sunday, after reminding the congregation that the Fast began today, one wonderful woman said to me before she left, "But it's so hard..."  The reply to her was, "Great!  It should be, and if it is, then you're doing it right!"

We see the word "fast", and we immediately snap to the issue of meat.  But fasting is more than just a hamburger.  Fasting is the removal from our daily lives of the things of excess, the things which tie us to this world, instead of the world to which we truly belong, of which we are citizens already.

One definition of "fasting" means to abstain from all food.  When Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days, He ate nothing!  Another definition of fasting means refraining from eating certain kinds of food.  But fasting does not simply refer to food.  We can "fast" from television, from gossip, from internet addictions, from alcohol, from outbursts of anger, or from using foul language.  If we see fasting as only the elimination of beef from an otherwise over the top diet, we're missing the point.  How?  Even vegans can "fast" - by eliminating from their diets those things which perhaps they find most enjoyable.  Move toward some level of discomfort!  As stated before, it should be difficult!

Why do we fast now, for the Advent season?  It's a question that is posed so very often inside Orthodox churches, mostly because it is counter to what the world is doing right now.

Beginning with the weeks we are in, you can walk into any shopping area and you are perceptibly attacked by holiday music (we're no longer allowed to have Christmas carols....), by holiday trees (we're no longer allowed to call them Christmas trees.....), by decorations (that say Happy Holidays!, not Joyous Nativity!), by an endless onslaught of marketing designed to separate you from the resources God has given you under the premise that huge misery will result unless you spend more than you have to purchase happiness for others.

Does anyone deny this scenario?

And what is the Church doing right now, as opposed to that which we outline above?

Today in the Church, we are watching a young maiden, probably in her mid-teen years, who is in the 34th week of her pregnancy.  She is unmarried, but betrothed.  She is aware that the Child she carries is a gift from God, in a way that has never occurred before in human history.  She is obedient to her betrothed and she is preparing for a long journey for the purpose of being counted in a census.  Beyond this, she prays - for her Child, for God's will to be done.  And she prepares as best she can for the coming of this precious Child into the world.

Seeing the difference between the Mother of God and her actions in these weeks, and those actions that are occurring in the world around us, actions which the world around us calls us to conform to its deformed and distorted reality, which should we choose to follow?  The world?  Or should we follow the Mother of our Lord?  And if we can't find inspiration in the Mother of God, then consider God the Son, who is in the Father, Who is coming into the world, Who has condescended to occupy the womb of this same maiden - He who is above all creation, Who cannot be contained, is taking flesh from His own creation.  He who possesses all things comes devoid of everything, taking only what the young maiden provides.

It's not that these are "unhappy" things.  But they are very serious things - things which even in our own lives cause us to ponder and fret.  Find a family near you who is having a baby in December and see if their lives are filled with the raucous partying of the world, or if they are tempered, metered, seriously caring for themselves so that the coming into the world of their own "new life" will be a coming for which they are prepared and have taken all prudent precautions.

Fasting is our way of doing such preparation on a spiritual level, of "cleaning our own house."  At each Proskomedia, we pray portions of the Troparion of the Pre-Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, which says, "Bethlehem, be prepared, for Eden is opened to all.  Ephratha, be made ready, for in the cave the Tree of Life has blossomed forth from the Virgin, for her womb has been shown to be a spiritual Paradise, in which is the Divine Plant, from which having eaten we will live, and not die as did Adam.  Christ is born to raise the image that had fallen!"  The tree from which Adam and Eve ate caused them to die in the flesh.  The Tree within the Virgin is the true Tree of Life, and eating of His Body and Blood brings us to eternal life in Christ!


We live in a fallen world, and our sins separate us from our God.  Our only hope is for God Who created us in the beginning to come and to re-create us again.  Saint Athanasius says, "the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning."  
 
Our Creator is coming - in 40 short days.  Let us fast according to our individual ability and need.  First, let us fast from judging others.  Then, let us turn our focus inward, seeking to cleanse our souls so that when the Divine Child enters the world, and in so doing presents Himself anew to us, we present ourselves to Him as a manger, a lowly place for certain, but one that wishes to welcome Him with all our being!