Friday, November 30, 2012

The Testing of our Patience

Dear Parish Faithful,

I would like to expand on a point that I included in last Sunday’s homily concerning the nature of the Nativity/Advent Fast.  That would be about the necessary virtue of patience that accompanies any period of preparation in the life of the Church.  We are directed to observe a fast as we prepare for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh.  This is only for forty days, but that can seem like a very long period to make some alterations and adjustments in our lifestyles!  Clearly, it has its challenges, all of which we are very much aware of.  We know that  the “sacred” number of forty – years or days – is a very scriptural number, always implying a period of expectation and fulfillment, a movement begun and completed in accordance with the express will of God.  That could be the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the desert, or the Lord fasting for forty days in the wilderness.  Yet, less specifically, we need to understand the great length of time that Israel was forced to wait for its deliverance.  If we think in terms of Abraham to Christ, we become aware of the 3x14 generations that St. Matthew lists in the opening genealogy of his Gospel.  That is a long history indeed, filled with God’s providential care for His chosen people, but also filled with apostasy and betrayal on the part of Israel.  A history embracing Israel’s victories against its surrounding enemies, but also its subjugation and humiliation at the hands of other enemies.

While this tumultuous and even torturous history of Israel was unfolding, the prophets were both exhorting and chastising the people, but also speaking of deliverance.  Although this is a very complex development, there were clear indications among the prophets of a Messiah figure – sometimes very human, but at times a transcendent figure – around whom and in whom these longings for deliverance were concentrated.  He would be the Lord’s Anointed, and as such he would proclaim deliverance and salvation to Israel.  That profound and poignant sense of longing for deliverance is beautifully expressed in the two hymns found in the opening chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel, the first from St. Zechariah (LK. 1:67-79); and the other, the Magnificat of the Theotokos (LK. 1:46-55). One needs only to read the Book of Isaiah to get a sense of this messianic longing which took on universal dimensions, so that all the peoples of the earth would come to know the one true God and then come to Zion to worship Him.  We read of The Prophet, the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, and of the Messiah throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament.  This basic human longing for regaining a “lost paradise” in one form or another was gathered around these mysterious figures “promised” by the prophets who, in turn, were those chosen by God to deliver God’s word to the people of Israel.  But many generations were disappointed that these prophetic promises were not fulfilled in their time.

If we can appreciate this sense of waiting and longing, we can understand better how we, as contemporary Christians, in a very modest sense, are re-living or actualizing the experience of Israel as we await the advent of our Lord in a specially-designated period known as the Nativity/Advent Fast.  This designated forty days serves as a microcosm of Israel’s testing and preparation. Waiting implies expectation, perhaps even a certain sense of excitement. (Ask your children about that!). But it also implies patience, stabilized and strengthened by trust and faith in God, especially when we encounter obstacles, temptations, doubts, diversions and distractions.  Therefore, if Israel waited for the Lord’s Anointed, so will we as the New Israel of God.  Of course, we know and believe that the Messiah has come as Jesus of Nazareth, and our festal cycle again allows us to also re-live and actualize that advent on an annual basis, so as to renew our sense of fulfillment of the prophecies of old, and to again “greet” the newborn Christ Child with great joy and thanksgiving to God for working out our salvation “in the midst of the earth.”  All Christian believers of all ages can experience a child-like joy in the birth of Christ, the Son of God who became flesh.  We have the decided advantage of knowing all of this in advance, and this has been expressed very powerfully in the Epistle to the Hebrews, wherein the author, after reminding the early Christians of the great faith of the saints who lived before Christ, further reminds them of the great privilege of having lived in the time of fulfillment:  “And all these, though well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect”  (HEB. 11:39-40).

We cannot join “the world” in its indifference to Christ. And we cannot descend to the level of the crass commercialization of Christmas.  We are, after all, Christians!  Our goal is to fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul (heard last Sunday as the Epistle reading):  “I therefore … beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”  (EPH. 4:1-3).  This will test our patience, our trust in God, and our faith.  It has never been otherwise.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'But our commonwealth is in heaven...'

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (MATT. 22:21)

The 2012 presidential election is now over, and President Barak Obama has been re-elected, creating a sense of satisfaction, joy and post-election euphoria for over 59,000,000 million US citizens; while Mitt Romney’s defeat has created a sense of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and post-election blues for over 57,000,000 million US citizens.  No other event in our country’s shared political and social life involves so many people focusing their attention and passion on that singular event as does the presidential election every four years.  Given the emotional and intense partisanship created by the presidential election, we thank God that the process remains orderly and peaceful, and that the results are accepted without overt expressions of civil unrest – something that remains a real threat in other countries throughout the world.  Life goes on.  At that level the democratic process is highly successful.  (However, I read that as many as 23% of population claimed that the election adversely affected inter-family relationships.  Hopefully, those relationships will heal with time).  If anyone has awakened with a post-election “hangover” further irritated by disappointment or even anger, I would suggest following the gracious lead of Mitt Romney, who said in his concession speech that he would pray for president Obama’s success for the sake of the country.  We do this, of course, in every major liturgical service within the Church when we offer the following prayerful petition to God:  “For the president of our country, for all civil authorities, and for the armed forces, let us pray to the Lord.”  We need every president – despite the litany of unrealizable promises that we hear - to succeed at some level regardless of our political party loyalties.  We all co-exist in the same country, regardless of ideological or party differences.  And we all want a promising future for our children and grandchildren – though we live with the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed.

In the New Testament there do exist passages that display a positive assessment of the civil authorities, beginning with the well-known words of the Apostle Paul:  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  (ROM. 13:1)  Elsewhere, we read in one of St. Paul’s pastoral epistles:  “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.  This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I TIM. 2:1-4)  Yet, the words of Christ cited above make it clear that “Caesar’s” authority is limited to the political sphere of our lives, pervasive as that may seem to be at times.  Ever since Aristotle, at least, there is a deeply-entrenched belief that we, as human beings, are best defined as being a “political animal.”  There is no denying that that is true to a certain extent, but it fails to account for us as spiritual beings who have received the “breath of life” from God, making each and every one of us “a living being.” (GEN. 2:7)  In that sense, Caesar cannot touch the “things that are God’s” – our soul, our conscience, our heart and our relationship with and ultimate loyalty to God.  In fact, the teaching of Christ leaves room for peaceful civil disobedience, when the “things of God” clash with the “things of Caesar.”  Any law that we, with a good conscience, believe violates the Law of God, we have every “right” to protest with all of the legal means at our disposal and to resist at least on an internal level.  Even if we think we are fighting a losing battle.  That is true for a democracy and not just limited to more totalitarian regimes.  So, we can pray for our civil authorities, even though we may (vehemently) disagree with certain of their policies that clash with our Christian worldview.

I do hope that if you find yourselves aligned with the disenchanted this morning, that you not only “move on” – a rather superficial admonition often callously and cynically tossed off by the victors – but continue holding in respect the process we thankfully embrace for electing our public officials, including the president of these our United States.  (There’s always the next election!). Again, life goes on.  For any mature citizen – and especially for a Christian – party affiliations must be subordinate to a desire for the common good, regardless of just how hard you may have to swallow, or how tightly you may have to grit your teeth.  That common good is the prayer of the Church which can lift us above the level of the merely political into the bright light of the Kingdom of God.

But our commonwealth (Gk. politeuma) is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ …”  (PHIL. 3:20)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Faith, Voting, and our Ultimate Loyalty

Dear Parish Faithful,

Tomorrow is Election Day 2012.  By late Tuesday evening or early Wednesday morning, the American people, within the democratic process, will have either re-elected President Barack Obama, or replaced him with Gov. Mitt Romney as the new president.  It has been a brutal campaign in many ways, and potentially divisive as party allegiances have been sharply drawn and fiercely defended.  This evening, in our Fall Adult Education Class, we read and discussed together a fine article entitled “The Kingdom of God:  the Apostle Paul’s Perilous Proclamation.”  The final section of the article is further entitled “Application of Paul’s Proclamation for Orthodox Christians Today.”  The author, John Fotopoulos, offers an excellent paragraph in this section that makes essential reading before voting tomorrow, at least in my opinion.  This, because he places this election and “politics” in general, within a much wider context that is about our ultimate loyalty.  Here is that challenging paragraph as we conclude the eve of the election and prepare to exercise our right to vote tomorrow:

“Paul’s proclamation declares in no uncertain terms that Christian identity is to be found primarily in the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Paul did not ask the Roman Christians that he converted to renounce their Roman citizenship, but he did remind them that their true citizenship was in heaven from where they were expecting their savior to return.  Today in the contemporary American political scene, many politicians and televangelists have framed Christian faith and identity as loyalty to a particular political party.  Some Americans cannot even imagine the possibility of being a Christian without loyalty and support of some political party.  But what light do Paul’s writings shed on these ideas?  For Paul it would seem that political affiliations are permissible, but this should not be the source of one’s views or identity, nor should it be the chief focus of one’s loyalty.  Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God are to inform an Orthodox Christian’s identity, and this is to be the source of an Orthodox Christian’s thought and ideals.  One or another social or political issue must not define the views and political affiliations of Orthodox Christians, but rather these views and affiliations should b shaped by the totality of the gospel message.  In short, Orthodox Christians are not to pick and choose what they find appealing and what they do not in the gospel.  Paul the Apostle challenges Orthodox Christians to bring their beliefs, affiliations, concerns, and behavior into union with the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, something for which no human leader, political party, social group, or nation can serve as substitute.” (. 39-40)