Why is it, that we have such a difficult time cultivating our spiritual lives on the good soil? It is because living a true Christian life is hard…and we have to do things in life that from the worldly perspective that stink. But any farmer will tell you that in order to have a good crop, sometimes you have to put fertilizer on it. And although that fertilizer stinks, it ultimately it bears the best fruit possible
Fr. Gabriel uses the example of the Theotokos to explain the proper mindset of all Christians in growing their relationship with God.
Today, we celebrate one of the feasts of Mary…the feast of the Prokrov…or of the Protection. This feast always come just shortly after we begin the Liturgical year with the feast of Mary’s Birth. Next August, we will finish that same Liturgical cycle with Her Dormition. The fact that the Church puts such a large emphasis on the Virgin Mary, brings up an interesting question to those who did not grow up in the Ancient Faith.
Why is she is so important?
This past week, I had a beautiful opportunity to contemplate this topic, as I was blessed to attend a Clergy Retreat at Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction with His Eminence Archbishop Alexander and the rest of our diocesan priests and deacons. Thank God that we had it scheduled for the end of the week, because the weather was absolutely perfect!
After the first set of meetings, I took advantage of a cool fall day and went out into an empty gazeebo which overlooks the monastery cemetery. Sitting in peace, away from the main road, with nothing but the crickets chirping and the birds singing, with my mind finally being able to settle down after a few short moments, my gaze came upon some of the newer graves in the cemetery.
It was in those moments of contemplating death, that I realized what made the Virgin Mary the greatest of all the saints. She was the first person to truly realize the reality of our human existence: “We are Nothing.”
We learn from Genesis, that at our very core, we are made of dirt from the ground. Eventually, no matter what our race is, no matter what our social standing is, and no matter how much people loved or hated us in this life…we will all end up as dirt once again…in the not so distant future.
“We are nothing”
These were the only words that mattered to Mary in her life. She didn’t care or think about herself…about her personal wants, her dreams, or her desires. When the time of the annunciation came, her response to the angel Gabriel selfless…as if spoken from a person who knew exactly what she was. She said to this incredibly mind-blowing miracle: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord…let it be according to your will.”
“I don’t care what happens to me Lord…do with your handmaiden as you will.
“I am nothing”
This sounds like such a depressing statement to the human ear doesn’t it? It sounds even more depressing, living in a country whose motto is something exactly the opposite of depressing: ”we all have the RIGHT to happiness!” If we were to walk into a therapists office this afternoon, and the first words out of our mouths was “I am nothing”…they would book a special appointment for us right there on the spot!
We have become so obsessed with trying to live our lives on our own strength, by our own rules, and with our own sets of standards, that to admit failure...to admit that we are not capable of doing something, is considered a weakness. It is a disease that we need to be treated for.
So how is it, that this simple statement means everything to us as Orthodox Christians? Why is it, that we will never be able to enjoy eternal blessings and communion with God until we are able to stand before His throne and say: “Let me be nothing…let me disappear before you…let it be done to me as you will.”
Because it is in that moment, that we will be able to remove the scales of pride that sit over our eyes, rid ourselves of our own self-centered wants and desires, and acquire the number one virtue that God is drawn to…humility.
We hear that word a lot in Orthodoxy don’t we? Humility. Every single Gospel lesson we read during the Liturgical year has SOMETHING to be pulled from it that has to do with selflessness…with humility. The gospel lesson today for example, is about learning to put everyone, EVEN OUR ENEMIES, above ourselves. Our task is to Love everyone else in this world…and doing so will take our minds off of ourselves….helping us get to that state of humility where we can once again recognize that without God…we are lost.
The Gospel, the writings of the Church fathers, all of the Saints that have written books on how to live a holy life…all of them harken back to one theme: the humility that is gained by realizing that without God, “We are nothing”.
I know many of you are probably thinking that this must have been one depressing moment sitting in the gazeebo over-looking the cemetery…with all of these graves reminding me of the frail reality of our existence. This is why I saved the best part for last, because it didn’t take me long to turn my gaze from what was in the ground…to what stood above it. Rows and rows of the most beautiful marble crosses littered the cemetery above the gravesites, and were put there to remind us of a wonderful truth:
Standing next to God….we are nothing…yet we mean EVERYTHING to Him.
This is the great and universal truth about our lives dearest brothers and sisters. Yes, there are difficulties. Yes, there are struggles. Yes, there are times when we feel lost, broken, and “like nothing”. But the one thing that can never be taken away from us, is that no matter how bad life can get, no matter how much the devil plays his games with us, the cross is always there to remind us of God’s love for us. The world can take EVERYTHING away from us…but the one thing it will never touch…the one shred of hope we always have to hold on to…is how precious we are to our creator.
May we continue to be enlightened, day after day, as to what that statement truly means…Amen, Amen, Amen
Dearest Brothers and Sisters in Christ
A few moments ago, we found ourselves once again standing and bowing down at the foot of the cross. We venerated the instrument of our salvation adorned with flowers, and were reminded once again what we talked about last week…that we have a God who has done so much for us…because He loves us beyond human comprehension.
It is for that love that we bow down before the cross. There is no more appropriate position for us to be in day after day, than to fall down before our Lord to worship, and give thanks to a God…who loves.
That word “Love” always seems to come up in the Gospels around this time of the cross. Today, our Lord tells us that the greatest commandment that we are given in this life is to return that same love that we receive back to God:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your mind.”
This past week, for those who have ever been to a service for the exaltation of the cross, there is a part of the service during matins where the Cross is brought out to the center of the Church. A litany is then said, asking prayers for our Churches and all of the people, while the choir sings Lord have mercy 500 times!
Every time I have seen that service done, I am usually thinking what most others are thinking in the Church: ”this is a lot of Lord have mercies!” But when you dig deeper into the meaning behind all of this…the reality of the moment is quite powerful.
In English…saying “Lord have mercy” has a bit of a strange meaning to our ears. It sounds more like “Have mercy on us from punishment…” or “have mercy on our weakness.” In reality though, that word mercy, in Greek “Eleos”, and that entire sentence “Kyire Eleison”, means “an overflowing of Goodness, of spiritual riches, and of salvation.” So when we say Lord have mercy, we are saying: “ you who are a merciful and loving God, send down upon us your goodness and spiritual richness” for whatever petitions we are praying for.
We ask that of God 500 times during that service…because it was from the Cross that we received the ultimate gift of love and of mercy (eleos) that we could ever ask for.
This morning, Dearest Brothers and Sisters in Christ, as a spiritual exercise for all of us…let us take a moment and imagine a world without that mercy. Let us try to imagine what life would be like with absolutely no hope for the future…no rock to stand on in difficult times…and no reprieve from the incredible burden which our sins place upon us.
What would life be like…without the cross?
I spent some time this week trying to imagine what that life would be like, and the closest situation I could think of was from the movie “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks. For those who have not seen it, Tom was a executive for Fed Ex, and in some urgent business he leaves his fiancé for a business trip on Thanksgiving which took him halfway across the world. The plane he was on ends up going through a storm and crashing in the middle of the pacific. He somehow survived the crash and ended up on an island, where he learned to survive by fishing, making shelter, and learning how to start a fire.
At about the midpoint of the film, Tom came to the realization that everyone thought he was dead and no rescue would be coming for him. So he spent a lot of time in a cave, living with regrets about leaving his fiancé behind. Even after realizing that he could survive on the island, he tried hard to escape on a makeshift raft, but was denied by the high waves and eventually was pushed back to the island.
With all hope being lost, Tom eventually went to the top of a high mountain several times…thinking it would be better to put an end to his miserable existence.
This existence,brothers and sisters in Christ, is what the life would be like without the Cross. Death would enslave us, and we would have no power to stop the devil whatsoever. Our sins would be unatoned for, and we would become sick, as the diseases of our body and soul went unhealed. Eventually, our conscious would destroy us, as we contemplated the horrible things we had done in our lives
But perhaps the worst thing of all, like Tom Hanks did in that story…we would lose the one thing that makes us want to continue living. We would lose hope!
At the end of the movie, Tom eventually does get off of the island, because he found a package that washed up on shore which gave him something to live for. He wanted to do what he was originally sent out to do, and at all costs, he convinced himself that he would eventually deliver that package.
The last sentence in the film was him delivering the package to the owner saying: “This package saved my life”!
That is exactly what the cross does for us dearest brothers and sisters in Christ…it saves our lives!
It is not hard for us to imagine a life without the cross, because all we need to do is turn on our television set and open our eyes to the fallen world, who has forgotten what the cross is! As God and the knowledge of the power of the cross is taken out of our government, out of our schools, out of our places of business, and out of our homes…so many of our brothers and sisters have lost hope in their existence.
Depression rates have skyrocketed in this country, and have more than doubled in the past 2 decades, with the World Health Organization recently calling it a “World Wide Epidemic”. This is a by product, dearest brothers and sisters, in (to quote the psalms) “putting our trust (and our hope) in “princes…in sons of men….in whom there is no salvation...”
But when we place our trust on the cross…when we contemplate what it means for our lives….the purpose it serves...the reminders it gives us…we gain not only hope, but VICTORY. And that is the only thing that can help us fight off the attacks of a truly powerless devil, as he tries to knock us off of the path to eternal life with our creator.
May our Lord continue to implant the hope of the cross in our hearts! Amen Amen Amen!