St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church

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4/14 - Ladder of Divine Ascent - Fr. Matthew Garrett

In the appointed readings for this past week, we read about the tower of Babel. Men, united together in one language and possessed with materials and skills set out to build a tower, whose top will reach to heaven, not as a means for reaching God, but so that they might make a name for themselves, so that they might not be dispersed across the whole earth. They desired to be self-important, and so God humbled them, he divided their languages and scattered them. They sought greatness and lost even that which they had.

Contrast that to the account of Jacob’s Ladder. Jacob had stolen the birthright of his brother Esau, and compounded this by stealing the blessing of his father Isaac which was meant for his brother. He fled to his relatives in Mesopotamia in order to escape the wrath of Esau. As he journeyed, Jacob laid down to sleep, and as he dreamed he saw a ladder set up on the earth, and its top reached heaven, and the angels of God ascended and descended on it. The Lord spoke to Jacob in the dream to tell him that He would surely keep the promises made to his fathers Abraham and Isaac. It is this image of a ladder ascending to heaven that Saint John Climacus – Author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent – takes as an image of the spiritual life. But why should Jacob’s ladder be a better image than the tower of Babel? Hopefully we see the sins of vainglory and pride behind the building of the tower, but Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, and he lied to do so.

But Jacob’s brother Esau didn’t care for what he had received. He sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. It meant very little to him compared to his physical hunger. He preferred immediate gratification over the covenant of his fathers. Jacob, on the other hand, desired to receive this covenant in full, to inherit what had been promised, and so he even transformed himself as a means of receiving a double portion of the inheritance. We see in these two brothers the image of Israel and the Church. The Church is the younger brother, but it receives a greater inheritance because Israel rejected the covenant that was given them.

The vision that Jacob saw of a ladder whose top reaches the heavens is given to us as an image of the Mother of God, the heavenly ladder by which God came down according to the Akathist Hymn. God descends this ladder taking on our human nature that we might be partakers of the divine nature by grace. And so we see that the one who ascends this ladder does so by a desire for the inheritance that has been promised to him, and that the ladder itself is of divine origin. It connects what is earthly with what is heavenly, and we know that each rung of this ladder is a rung which connects us with the Creator of All who descended to us that we might ascend to Him.

This ascent, then, is not an ascent based in our vain or selfish desires, nor is it an ascent by our own means or strength, it can only be accomplished by uniting ourselves to God first and each other second. We certainly must seek God in communion with one another, but we do not conspire by the strength of our numbers to take what has not been given to us.

Saint John of the Ladder speaking of what happens when someone leaves the world to enter the monastic life writes “I have seen how in the world they planted many different plants of the virtues, which were watered by vainglory as by an underground sewage pipe, and were hoed by ostentation, and for manure were heaped with praise. But when transplanted to a desert soil, inaccessible to people of the world and so not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity, they withered at once. For water-loving plants are not such as to produce fruit in hard and arid training fields.” So we see the difficulty of a self-directed spiritual life. And this is where so many of us find ourselves.

Everything good thing that we do becomes an opportunity for the pride and vainglory that leads to destruction, to the loss of all that we have and to being scattered and dispersed abroad from the very Body of Christ. We must instead flee from the world and its vanity, we must practice true repentance for our sins, choose to live in obedience, remember death always, and seek to free ourselves from all the sins that still seek to enslave us, and seek to live in prayer and vigil, being freed from the passions and united to God.

God meets us every step along the way, Saint John the Evangelist tells us “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” He meets us in our repentance. Saint Paul tells us that our Lord “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” From the very first miracle at Cana in Galilee, our Lord spoke of His hour, of the time when He would be glorified by being lifted up on the cross. Though this is a simplified presentation of the 30 steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we must understand that God is there every step of the way because He came down to meet us by this ladder and He gives us His grace to ascend it.

But like any ladder, there is danger if we are careless, and it takes effort to ascend it. We heard in the gospel reading this morning about a man whose son was possessed by a spirit whom even the disciples could not cast out. Our Lord tells them that this kind cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. We are often assailed by sins and temptations that are stronger than us, and we are given these tools of prayer and fasting to fight them. But notice that it was not the demoniac that prayed and fasted. It was not even the father of the demoniac who prayed and fasted – indeed, he couldn’t even bring himself to believe enough, but had to ask the Lord to help his unbelief. Rather we all pray and fast that we might help one another through our prayer and fasting. We assist each other in the community of the one Body of Christ. And so I pray and fast not just so I might benefit, so that I might ascend the ladder to the Kingdom, but so that others might be freed from their passions, so that others might be given grace to continue to struggle.

We must struggle in this life to draw nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven to seek God and receive grace from Him. We do so sons and heirs of God. Saint Paul reminds us this morning that it is impossible for God to lie, and that we can be sure of His promises that “we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast.” We can be certain of our inheritance, we can be sure that this ladder whose top reaches heaven has indeed been given to us by God, that He Himself meets us on it, and that as long as we keep our eyes on Him, and not on the world which is perishing, we will find rest in His arms.

4/7 - Be It Unto Me

Mark 8:34-9:1 & Luke 1:24-38

Today we have a remarkable coming together of two great events.  Today, the third Sunday of Great Lent, as we begin the middle week of the fast, we remember the Holy Cross of our Lord.  Today is also the Great Feast of the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the incarnate Son of God. These two commemorations may seem to be very different, but in fact they point out to us one and the same lesson.  In the Gospel today for the Cross, we heard the lesson plainly set out in the words of our Lord, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”  It is in the feast of the Annunciation that we see this lesson played out before us in the life of the Virgin Mary.

The Lord sets out three steps necessary for our salvation: to deny oneself, to take up one’s cross and to follow Him. The Virgin Mary was dedicated to the service of the Lord from the moment of her conception by her parents Joachim and Anna.  She was born as the fruit of their fervent prayers to God to give them a child (despite the fact that they had been childless and were now in their old age).  At the age of three, her parents brought her to the temple where she would live and work in the service of God.  In an act of prophecy, the high priest at that time, Zachariah (who himself would become the father of the Forerunner, John the Baptist) led the young child into the holy of holies.  Since the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the holy of holies had been empty; the ark of the covenant, the altar of incense and the holy fire, had been taken by the prophet and hidden in a cave to preserve them from the destruction of the temple by the Babylonian conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar.  Now the new ark, the true throne of God incarnate, enters the Holy of Holies and fills it again.  From that time on, the Virgin continued in prayer in the temple, often in the holy place. She was given the task of spinning the thread with which the curtain which set apart the holy of holies was made.  She was visited by heavenly angels who brought to her the heavenly manna as her food. 

This life of prayer and dedication to God continued until her maidenhood (adolescence) when it was no longer possible for her to remain in the temple.  Other girls who lived in the temple, when they reached this age, returned to their homes and entered into marriage, but the Virgin Mary was by this time an orphan and she had no desire to enter into marriage, for she wanted to maintain her purity as a gift to God.  The priests of the temple, seeking to honor her piety and yet also to follow the law of Moses by which their lives were governed, sought a guardian for her.  One who would take her into his household and protect her as she continued her life of prayer and devotion to God.  By a miraculous sign, Joseph, an elderly widower with adult children, was chosen for this task.  He was betrothed to the Virgin Mary to be her protector and guardian.

Being established in the household of Joseph, the Virgin Mary continued her life of prayer and devotion to the service of God.  As she was praying one day, an angel appeared to her.  This did not frighten the Virgin as she had been visited by angels when she lived in the temple.  This angel (in fact he was the Archangel Gabriel), however, spoke to her saying, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”  This saying troubled her for it was unfamiliar and she feared that it might be a temptation of the devil to deceive her and lead her away from her worship of God.  But the archangel reassured her and announced to her that she would become the mother of the promised Messiah, the chosen one of God.  Knowing that she had dedicated herself to a life of virginity and service to God, she became troubled with the thought that somehow her purity might be violated or that she might succumb to temptation and asked the archangel, “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?” 

Notice here her careful approach – she did not at once accept this suggestion without questioning and discernment.  What the archangel was saying was blatantly impossible without some great misfortune in her own life and disruption of her love of God.  But again, the archangel Gabriel spoke to her of the great mystery set forth by God Himself – the mystery foretold by the prophet Isaiah, that a virgin would conceive and bear a son.  It would not be by concourse with a man that this child would be conceived in her but rather by the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit.

At this point we see the action of the virgin which would put her on the path described by our Lord.  Having discerned the truth of the archangel’s announcement, she denied herself – that is she set aside her own reasoning, her own doubts and fears, her own wishes and desires – and she said to the archangel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”  This is what it means for us to deny ourselves and enter upon the path of salvation.  The Virgin Mary, placing all her trust in God’s care and provision, set aside herself, her own ego, her own will, her own reasonings, and placed herself completely in God’s hands.  She acted in faith – not knowing what would happen or how it would happen, but trusting fully in God.  This is the life of faith of which we have spoken before – to take the step that God puts in front of you without knowing where He will lead you, but knowing that He will bring you, step by step, into His presence.

This act of self denial, this step of faith was also the first step in taking up the cross.  Almost a year later, after the birth of Jesus Christ, she would bring the child into the temple to be dedicated according to the law and the prophet Simeon would take the child and proclaiming Him to be the salvation of God for the world would also prophecy that on the account of her son, “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.”  And indeed, as the Mother of God saw Him on the cross, her own heart was pierced with pain, grief and sorrow at the suffering of her Son.  And yet she never lost faith in the providence of God.  Even here her words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” would remain – for it is the word of God and our submission to Him and trust in Him that brings us hope even as we are crucified with Him.

The Virgin Mary never lost hope or fell into despair, even in the midst of her Son’s crucifixion, death and burial.  She continued in fervent hope and prayer to God and on the third day her Son appeared to her, having risen from the dead.  And then she continued in the life that she had undertaken to this point – she followed the path that He set out for those who followed Him.  After our Lord’s ascension into heaven, she lived in the household of John who took her as his own mother and she worked with the other disciples and followers of Christ in the preaching of the Gospel.  She became a mother not only to John, but to all the apostles.  Not only that, but, mystically, she became a mother to the whole Church – she became our mother.  This is the path that our Lord set before her and she continues to follow Him on this path even to this day and throughout eternity.

The teaching of the Cross is to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ.”  The finest, most perfect and best example of this is given to us today – that example is the Virgin Mary who, in response to the mystery revealed to her by the Archangel Gabriel responded, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”  And her response is our response if we would follow Christ: “be it unto me according to Thy word.”

3/31 - God Goes Among Us - Fr. Matthew Garrett

As the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness to the land which the Lord had promised to Abraham and his descendents, Moses went up Mount Sinai and received the tablets of the law from God Himself. He came down the mountain to find that the people had become impatient waiting for him, and had fashioned a golden calf that they might worship it and follow it instead of following him. In the aftermath of this incident, the Lord told Moses “I will send My Angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite and the Amorite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33: 2-3)

God is faithful to His promise, and as such He still will bring the people to the promised land, and drive out the inhabitants of the land, but He tells Moses that He will not be in their midst. Even the words “My Angel” refer to the eternal Son of God who will go before them and be their deliverance, but His presence will not be with the people because “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Moses intercedes on behalf of this faithless people, and God tells him, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Moses responds saying, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us?” (Exodus 33: 14-15)

Our God is a consuming fire, but to be God’s people is not just to have a relationship with Him, but to be graced with His presence. When the Israelites built the tabernacle, God’s glory came and filled it. The same thing happens with the Temple. And it happens to those of us who have been made temples of the living God through Baptism and Holy Chrismation. To be a Christian, to be one of God’s people is to have God come and make His abode within you.

When Moses ascended the Mountain to receive the tablets of the law again, the Lord placed Moses in a cleft of the rock and passed by Him in His glory. As His glory passed by Moses, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” This is the God that Moses saw a glimpse of and with whom He spoke face to face as one speaks with a friend.

Moses in response, bowed down to the ground in worship saying, “If now I have found grace in Your sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray, go among us, even though we are a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance.”

Saint Paul says this morning “You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; And they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed.” We have boldness toward the Lord God, the Creator of All, because He has shown us that He wants to be known, that He wants us to enter into union and communion with Him, and for this reason, He comes to us this very day in the Divine Liturgy.

But why does He come to us Himself? Why not send and angel? Why not simply be known in the Scriptures, or through prophetic words? Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke these words: “If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” We know how to give gifts. If an earthly father were to leave his children behind but still send gifts for birthdays or holidays, could those gifts ever replace him being with present with them and for them? Would they not be impoverished even if they were given everything they asked for?

Our Lord continues, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke: 11:11-13) God goes with us, He is present with us, and in us, not in mere symbols or through His creations, but in reality. We receive grace from God, not material blessings, but uncreated grace. We receive from God what we need to live a life of communion with God, that is, we receive God Himself – as far as we can bear it.

To underscore this point, in the gospel this morning, our Lord encounters a paralyzed man, and rather than simply healing his paralysis, an easy thing for Him to do, instead He forgives the paralytic of his sins. He offers the perfect gift and merely confirms this gift by the lesser gift of bodily healing. Our Lord desires to give us “every good and perfect gift.”

We celebrate today the memory of Saint Gregory Palamas, a monastic, Archbishop, and Saint of the 14th century, who defended the teaching of the Church that God is unknowable and inexpressible in His essence, but that He is known and can be spoken of in His energies. We come to know God through unmediated experience. Through prayer, fasting, and the Holy Mysteries, God gives Himself to us, and we participate in His divine energies.

But even as we become “partakers of the divine nature” as Saint Peter puts it, we do not become God Himself. Our God is not distant and unconcerned with human affairs, He does not communicate with us only through ideas or symbols, but rather He is present in us and among us, and transforms us by grace into what He is by nature. But this does not diminish Who God is because He still surpasses our understanding. As such, this gift is truly immeasurable. Through the incarnation of our Lord and through the descent of the Holy Spirit, we receive what Moses beheld from the cleft in the rock, and experience which caused his face to shine with the uncreated light of heaven so brightly that he had to veil his face when speaking to the people.

But what do we do with this gift? When we leave Church today, will we go about our day as if nothing has happened or will people see even a small light shining in us? As we bring ourselves to Church for the rest of the services of Great Lent and Holy Week, will we seek to encounter God as fully as possible through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, or will we be here in body, but remain far off in our minds or our souls? Will we seek to keep His presence in our hearts even after Pascha, or will we depart from Him when we have satisfied our bellies with earthly foods?

Having passed through the first two weeks of Great Lent, we have a long way to go. Will we echo the words of Moses and beg the Lord to go among us, pardon our iniquities, and take us as His inheritance? This is what He wants to do, He wants to give Himself to us, not so he can lead us to a land flowing with milk and honey as though material blessings were all we should enjoy; not to some earthly paradise where there is no sickness, sorrow, or toil; not so he can give us the inheritance of Abraham, but so that He can make us His children and inheritors of His heavenly Kingdom, so that He can give us Himself fully and transform us into children of light.

3/24 - Search for Truth

John 1:43-51

The search for truth seems to be ever-present throughout the history of mankind.  Pontius Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” seems to echo down through the halls of time reaching from the Garden of Eden to this very day.  When Adam and Eve “bit the apple” so to speak, they were in search of “truth”.  The ancient Greek philosophers were looking for some definition of truth.  In the modern era, science seems to be a never ending quest for truth.  Everyone wants to find truth.  And everyone who searches for truth following Pilate’s question, “What is truth” is looking in the wrong place.  If we look for truth as a system of knowledge, as a basic gathering of facts, or as an understanding of basic principles - in essence, if we look for truth as some-thing, then we are looking in the wrong place.  Truth is not a what; Truth is a Who.  Pilate stood in the presence of the One Who is Truth and asked “*What* is truth”.  Our first parents walked with the One Who is Truth daily in Paradise, but then looked away for “truth” somewhere else. Philosophers look for truth in a system of understanding and theologians all too often look for truth in a system of belief, forgetting that He Who is Truth can be found only in a relationship, not in a system.  Science seeks to “prove” truth by amassing observable evidence and repeating phenomena, but it misses the all important idea that all these observations and facts point not to a single unified theory, but to a Person. 

In the Gospel today we heard about two men who were seekers for truth, two brothers named Phillip and Nathaniel.  They were not scientists or philosophers or theologians looking for a system, they were instead simple men who hearing that God had promised to send a Person Who would redeem all mankind and reveal the Truth to the world, began to search for that Person.  When Phillip found Jesus Christ (or rather as the Gospel says, was found by Christ), he knew that he had found this very person and so he ran to tell his brother that their search for Truth was fulfilled.  When Phillip told Nathaniel that he had found the One for Whom they had been searching, Nathaniel responded asking for proof.  Knowing that this wasn’t a matter of proof, but of knowing Phillip responded to him with the simple statement, “Come and see.”  Nathaniel came and when our Lord saw him, He reminded Nathaniel of a very personal and private relationship - one which was not revealed to us - simply saying, “I saw you under the fig tree.”  Nathaniel was not convinced by argument, but rather by relationship.  This is important for us as well for we too are seekers after Truth, and we have come seeking Truth.  We will not find Truth in facts and systems, in dogma and doctrine, in systems of belief - we will only find Truth in a relationship with the One Who is Truth.  That One is the God/man Jesus Christ.  God, who has revealed Himself to us by becoming as we are so that we might know Him, so that despite our sinfulness, we might walk with Him again and talk with Him and hear from Him all that is good and true and beneficial to our souls.  We come here seeking Truth and we find the Person Who is Truth.  Now having found Him, we follow Him as He leads us into all Truth - into that ultimate relationship such that we participate His life as He lives in us and we in Him.

How is it that this can be accomplished, how is the path laid out before us.  Our Lord does not abandon us, but rather places us in the company of His servants, in the Church so that we are surrounded by those, who like ourselves are seeking to follow Christ.  But the Church is no ordinary gathering of likeminded people, it is not a “club” or a human organization - but rather it is a divine/human organism.  In the Church we not only follow the path of Christ, but He sends to us the Holy Spirit who guides us in that path, Who strengthens us to walk that path, Who dwells within us sharing the divine life with us even now.  The Holy Spirit unites us not only to Christ but to one another so that we find we are not part of an organization, but we are part of a divine/human organism - the Body of Christ.

St Theophan the Recluse tells us, “We know what technology teaches us, what mechanics teaches us, law, economics (and so on). But the Church teaches us about the movement of our heart.  Therefore, learn and keep in your heart everything that the Holy Church teaches, and receiving Godly forces through the sacraments, and quickening them through the holy services and prayers of the Church, go unswervingly the Way of Christ’s commandments under the guidance of lawful shepherds, and you will undoubtedly reach the Kingdom of Heaven and be saved.”  The Church throughout the centuries has unerringly taught the path to salvation, has taught us about the movement of the heart to Christ.  The Church is the path toward the One Who is Truth.  From the Church we learn how it is that the heart moves, how that movement can be directed always towards Christ, how that movement is maintained and how we avoid obstacles (sin) in the path of that movement.  All the doctrines, traditions, scriptures, laws, teachings, sermons, examples of the Church serve one and the same purpose, to help us find and stay on the path to Christ.  He came into the world and established this Path, and that path is preserved clear and accessible in the Church - all we have to do is to walk on that path.

Today, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we celebrate that path, we celebrate the fact that in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that Path to Salvation has been valiantly maintained straight and true, free and clear of all obstacles and that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the enemy of mankind has not been able to destroy, block or turn aside that Path.  On this day, when we end the liturgy, we will sing, as we always do this hymn, “We have seen the true light, we have found the true faith, worshipping the Undivided Trinity, who hath saved us.”  When we do, let us also give thanks to God that He has given us this unfading light, this unwavering path, this true faith so that we can come to Him and find the One Who is Truth and share in the life of the Holy Trinity.

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