Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever!
I missed you all last week, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ, as I travelled to Los Angeles to assess the heartbeat of some of the smaller parishes in our diocese that are located on the west coast.
To cap off the short trip, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy last Sunday with the St. John the Baptist Community, which was mostly also made up of Romanian Immigrants. The service was held in an old Anglican Church, where one of the readers in the parish would get there early and transform the Church into something a little more Orthodox. He put Gold covers on the altar, lit candles, and hung up icons anywhere that he could. He then would get the gospel, the chalice, and the diskos prepared…and light some incense which permeated the worship space.
At the end of the Liturgy, I made the comment to the congregation that despite being in an Anglican Church…despite not understanding the responses that were in Romanian, despite not knowing what to expect as far as Romanian customs during the Liturgy are concerned …despite all of these differences…it felt right. It felt like home. It felt Orthodox.
When we move into the Church, regardless of where it is or what language it is in…we enter life. We leave the darkness of the world behind…and we enter light.
I am sure all of us, at one point or another, have experienced a time where it was hard work to come to Church. This reality I think sometime hits our particular parish community hard, because we have here a commuter parish where a good majority of the families are working full time jobs. After a long and stressful week, for many of our families, its difficult to wake up on Sunday morning….physically and mentally…to get ready to go to Church. Its hard to ignore that voice in our head to just “stay into bed”.
One reality that I think it typical amongst those who deal with those temptations, is that once you walk past those glass doors…all of the difficulties of the morning slowly start to melt away, because we are entering into life and light. The Church for us is a place where heaven literally touches earth…where the angles are swaying to and fro while we offer our praises to God. The Church is full of potentiality, every time we come into God’s House. When we leave, no matter how we came in at the beginning…we are changed and transformed for the better.
It today’s Gospel, we hear the famous story of the Prodigal Son, which in itself is a beautiful image and reminder of the importance of coming to our calm haven here at St. Mary Magdalene. This one parable summarizes the entire Gospel…because it describes mankind’s entire relationship with God and the Church. We hear about a young man, who like so many of us, lived in His Father’s house, but had no idea what he was doing there. He was living in paradise…but was sleeping. The young man wasn’t aware of the magnificence of being around his dad, and he started listening to evil thoughts…thoughts that I’m sure we all have had to endure while living and being in the Church:
There is nothing special about being here. All of the things you were taught, are worthless. Leave the house…enjoy yourself… because all of these fasts, and prayers, and services aren’t worth your time. All of these religious people are trying to steal your fun!”
Turn on the television, read a newspaper today, or spend one Saturday night or Sunday morning, driving up Hollywood Blvd and watch the antics that are being played out by all of the prodigal sons who are out in the world. Doesn’t this sentiment sound familiar?
I think everyone in their life probably goes through a period, even if it is just a faint and quick blip that lasts for a few minutes…that all of this isn’t worth our time. Society, and now even some in our own government will tell us, that if we truly do Love God and keep to the standards and practices of living a truly Christian life…we will lose our freedom.
During the Communist Revolution in Russia, the state tried to rid the country of the Orthodox Church, calling it “an opium of the people” and comparing it to some drug. They pushed propaganda that said that the Church and it’s teachings are not good for the country…the Church clouds your judgement and deprives you of the freedom that is necessary for success in this life. These are exactly the very thoughts that came into the young man’s head in the Gospel this morning. So he went to his dad and said “Give me my inheritance now”, and he left his family and his house in order to test the theory that the demon’s planted in his head:
“Is it really true that life is better away from my father? Is it true that my life outside of the Church is good…if not BETTER for me?”
After some time of indulgence, the young man realized just how big of a miscalculation he had made. He sold himself as a slave to his passions, and found himself so hungry, that he wanted to eat the pods that he was feeding to the pigs.
Finally, while sitting in the midst of the filth of the world…he did the first smart thing of the parable: He took custody of his mind. Rather than continue to be full of pride about his decision, he blocked out the temptations of the devil and said: “My life would be better if I went to my father…even if it was to live as his “slave”.
So the young man returned to his father’s house and was received; not as the slave that he deserved to be…but as the lost son who returned home into the loving embrace of His Father.
The parable of the prodigal son is the model for the power of repentance. The young man changed his mind…he changed his heart…and he abandoned his wayward life in order to find something that he should have known all along:
He realized how incredibly amazing it is to be in the Father’s house.
How blessed we are, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ, to be apart of this parish family, all serving God together in this incredible Church of St. Mary’s. The same temptations that prodigal son fell prey to, are a little bit easier to thwart when you are surrounded and supported by a faithful and strong community.
This is important to remember for all of us, because there will be a time, probably here in the near future, where we will all fall prey to the temptations of the prodigal son. There will be moments during the great fast, where we will be tempted to think all of this fasting isn’t worth it. During the first week of Great Lent, when we do that beautiful and powerful Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (Every night, the first week, at 6:30)…we might go to the first one or two and be tempted to say: “I’m good”. Or you might not come at all during the week and say: “well, I’ll make sure I go to pre-sanctified on Friday”. Or, God forbid, we will completely abandon the Father’s house for that entire week, and will be tempted to say to ourselves: “I don’t need all of that preparation…I’ll see you on Orthodoxy Sunday”
Temptation is commonplace for those who are trying to live a life like Christ…especially when our focus and efforts are doubled during Great Lent! But in those moments…remember today’s Gospel Lesson. There is NOTHING in this life that is worth time away from the Father’s House. There is only one place in our world…where strength, beauty, peace, life, and light are found…and it is here in the Church. And these virtues are not only present, but are necessary, for the betterment of each and every one of our lives.