Lenten isolation.

Homily 400 – 3rd Sunday of Great Lent
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 22, 2020
Epistle: (311) – Hebrews 4:14-5:6
Gospel: (37) – Mark 8:34-9:1

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

When have we not lived in difficult times?

2,000 years ago our Lord told us that in order to follow Him, we would need to deny ourselves, and take up our Cross. 2,000 years ago our Lord told us that we shouldn’t expect life to go as we would choose. Or want.

He said, “Deny yourself.” Practice self-discipline. Don’t let your wants, even your needs, to get in the way of your salvation.

During this time of isolation, many tend to dwell on what they are losing. They are lamenting those losses. Confused and angry, they look to place blame.

On the government, on the foreigners, on God. However, blame accomplishes nothing. Nothing.

I have to say, here, that many both inside and outside the Church have been critical of the Church’s response to this pandemic. Perhaps, in our fallen nature, it is understandable.

Some call for us to not have services at all, some call for us to continue to have services open to the public. Some want changes in how we distribute communion. Others remind us we have nothing to fear in Christ.

Maybe it is time to turn that dynamic around. I have been, and the Church has been, very transparent in how we do things and what we believe. Even if the Churches are open and communion available, there is no compulsion in God.

We can choose to not participate, to not be present. People should never feel obligated. The Church offers – never compels.

We should take responsibility for our own actions – our own choices – and not blame others for our actions or inactions. We are not mindless blind sheep. Unless we choose to be.

If you don’t want to infect others, by all means, stay home. If you don’t want to be infected yourself, by all means, stay home.

And if the Archbishop, in conjunction with the authorities, tells us to not have services, we will be obedient, and follow that directive. Which, by the way, he has done. If we have a “shelter in place” or similar order here, we will suspend all of our services and offer our prayers at home.

So don’t blame others. It isn’t helpful and accomplishes exactly nothing.

In telling us to “deny ourselves”, then the blame belongs only to us. We are expected to deny ourselves, and this is our decision. Isolation, sheltering-in-place, giving up the contact and interaction with others may not be what we were giving up for Lent.

But apparently it is what God wanted us to give up for lent.

Jesus offers a second part, the part after “Deny yourself.” He tells us to “take up our Cross.” Do something positive – in this instance, what God is asking us to do, is learn to pray on our own.

I admit that prayer is not something I’m terribly good at. Likely, because I am unaware of what prayer really is. I imagine it is standing in front of my icons, and offering the words in the prayer book.

That is the starting point for prayer. As we celebrated last week in honoring Gregory Palamas, it is only the starting point. The Church has always taught us to pray without ceasing – St. Paul tells us as much.

The monks and nuns, as well as the pious layperson, carried on that tradition. Gregory Palamas institutionalized it, with the approval of the Church.

The services teach us to pray, without explicitly teaching us. What I mean by that is the services “form” us. Without our conscious understanding, the services change us and shape us.

They allow us to experience, in a very basic way, the worship of God in reality – in Truth. This is what our Archbishop Alexander teaches about St. Dionysius. We experience in our heart, what is happening in heaven, and what is modeled in the Church. We begin outside and move closer, both physically and metaphorically. And truly! Reality!

It happens each time we celebrate the services here, but also the service of our lives. We begin outside, then we enter the Church through baptism and chrismation, then we become priests, offering ourselves on the altar of our innermost being – our soul, our heart, our nous.

Just has here, we take the wheat and grapes and turn it to bread and wine, and offer it to God on this altar in the unbloody worship. What we offer is ourselves – our effort, our very being.

And in every case, be it the temple as revealed to Moses, or the Church, or our own interior being, God returns and tabernacles there – He has an address, and it is with us, in us.

Understand, beloved, what this means. The ultimate goal of life – the meaning of life itself – is found in God taking up residence within us – “tabernacle-ing” within us.

And every single thing that happens to us – everything – be it life, or joy, or pain, or sickness – absolutely everything is turned to good because we experience those things and draw closer to God dwelling in us.

We are cocooned within God, who is within us. And we offer ourselves – deny ourselves and offer ourselves not for our intentions, but for His.

What God desires from us is our undivided attention. Not distracted by the world, not distracted by our bodily needs or desires. Not anxiously attending to the future, but focusing all our effort, all our love, on Him.

On the one who made us, and lives, tabernacles, within us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!