We discover in the Gospel today what it means to be a real Christian, a real follower and disciple. Lots of things are useful to us, but what is essential, what is necessary, what is the most important thing of all is this…
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.
This is something that God says to us all, whatever our age, and whatever our circumstances.
But what is the heart? Our Lord Jesus teaches…?
When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
This secret place is the heart. It is that part of us, which was created for union with God, and to be the place where the Holy Spirit dwells within us. It is that deepest part of our being which is the person who we really are. Our heart reaches out unceasingly for God even when every other part of our life is filled with distractions and overwhelmed with difficulties and sin. When we feel lonely it is our heart that is lonely because we are not united with God as he wants for us. When we are bored it is our heart that is bored because we are not united with God as he wants for us. When we are overwhelmed with anxiety and worry it is our heart that is anxious because we are not united with God as he wants for us.
We are made to be united with God in our heart, in the deepest place of each one of us. To be united with God is to turn all of our effort and energy and strength and thought towards growing as close to God as possible. And this is what he wants for us, and what he made each one of us to experience. God wants you and I to live in the closest possible union with him in every moment.
What is prayer? It is not saying words to a distant God. It is not always asking for things. It is not a religious practice that will keep us in God’s favour. In our Christian spiritual life, it means entering into God’s presence, to meet with him in the heart, and to commune with him. True prayer produces what our heart desires, the experience of union with God and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We do not need to ask for these things, rather when we turn to God in prayer with our whole heart and seek to enter his presence, we already discover his light and love in which we find ourselves immersed when we pray.
The heart is restless until it finds it rest in God. It is only in union with God, unceasing communion, that we find peace and experience what it means to be truly human. This life which God wants us to enjoy with Him cannot be achieved by praying just occasionally. The Psalmist David says…
With my whole heart I have sought You.
I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart.
I cry out with my whole heart.
The whole of our heart, the deepest most secret place where we really ourselves, is to become transformed into the throne of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. As much as we give ourselves entirely to God, we will experience union with God. When we withhold our heart from God and give all our attention and energy to other things, then we cannot share in the divine life of grace as God wills and desires for us.
How do we begin? We must understand that salvation is not found in doing good things to please God in the hope that he will let us into Heaven when we die. We must understand that salvation is not performing religious practices to try to turn away God’s anger and wrath and avoid his punishment. Salvation is no less than to begin to experience the divine life of the indwelling Holy Spirit and union with God now, in this life. If this is our goal, then the spiritual life of our Orthodox Church begins to make sense.
We are baptised to be made new in union with God by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We receive divine life and energy in communing in the divine and immortal mysteries of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. And we follow the fasts and we pray as unceasingly as possible, so that this divine grace might be worked out in us in an increasing union with God.
The services of the Church are not to be considered an obligation, but an opportunity. We do not attend to please God, but to enter into his presence, which is true and abundant life. We need this life. We are not giving God anything he needs, though he loves us to be in his presence and receive gifts from him. To prayerfully make the words of the Liturgy our own, to humbly receive Christ himself from the hands of the priest, this is salvation for us. This is divine life and energy, a spiritual medicine for every spiritual illness and sickness.
And St Paul instructs us to offer intercessions and supplications, to be thankful at all times, and to repent quickly when we have sinned. All of these are also a means of entering often into the divine presence within the heart until we have made it the Temple of God. Our sins and weaknesses should drive us to repentance and lead us to growing closer and more careful in our union with God by the Holy Spirit.
And finally, the Fathers have taught us that the way to experience union with God in an increasing measure requires the use of a constant calling out to God, and the most widespread form of this constant prayer has been the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me or have mercy on me, a sinner, or as we pray in the Tasbeha – My Lord Jesus Christ, help me. All of these are a way of entering into the presence of God in the heart when we fill our heart and mind with the name of Jesus and offer unceasing prayer in this way.
The desire to be close to God at all times is something for all of us, whatever our age. We can all pray to God as much as possible. We can all try to concentrate on our prayers so that it comes from our heart and not just from our mouth. We can all seek in every moment to be with God and discover that he is already with us. We can all pray very often, My Lord Jesus Christ, help me, whatever we are doing each day. This is what our Christian faith truly means, and this is the desire of God for each one of us.
Scriptures – Matthew 22
1 Jesus answered and spoke to them again in parables, saying, 2 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who made a wedding feast for his son, 3 and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner. My cattle and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding feast!” ’ 5 But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his merchandise; 6 and the rest grabbed his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 When the king heard that, he was angry, and sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city. 8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. 9 Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the wedding feast.’ 10 Those servants went out into the highways and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good. The wedding was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who didn’t have on wedding clothing, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here not wearing wedding clothing?’ He was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and throw him into the outer darkness. That is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be.’ 14 For many are called, but few chosen.” 15 Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entrap him in his talk. 16 They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach; for you aren’t partial to anyone. 17 Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the tax money.” They brought to him a denarius. 20 He asked them, “Whose is this image and inscription?” 21 They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marvelled, and left him and went away. 23 On that day Sadducees (those who say that there is no resurrection) came to him. They asked him, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring* for his brother.’ 25 Now there were with us seven brothers. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 In the same way, the second also, and the third, to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection therefore, whose wife will she be of the seven? For they all had her.” 29 But Jesus answered them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like God’s angels in heaven. 31 But concerning the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 When the multitudes heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. 34 But the Pharisees, when they heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, testing him. 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” 37 Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “Of David.” 43 He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’? 45 “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 No one was able to answer him a word, neither did any man dare ask him any more questions from that day forward.
From the Fathers
Jerome (347-420 A.D.)
Further, he quotes Moses to explain the eternity of souls: “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” and immediately he adds, “For he is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Thereby he shows that souls live after death. To say that God is the God of the dead is to consign the life of God to those who have no life. The nature of the resurrection and how it is the resurrection of both the good and the evil is pursued by the apostle Paul more fully in the last part of his first epistle to the Corinthians.
[It is not always clearly understood that the Resurrection of Christ has an effect for all of mankind. It is not only Christians who will rise from the dead, and receive a resurrected body. Every human being who has existed will overcome death in this way because Christ, God the Word made man, has overcome the power of death as one of us, and for us. This does not mean that every person will experience the same life of blessedness, but it does mean that every person will rise from the dead because of the death and resurrection of Christ.]
Maximos the Confessor says,
Love is a great blessing and of all blessings the first and supreme, since it joins God and men together around him who has love, and it makes the Creator of men manifest Himself as man through the exact likeness of the deified man to God, in so far as this is possible for man. This is what I take to be the actualization of the commandment, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself.
As he says, it is Christ himself who becomes that man who loves God with all his heart, and soul, and might. It is as we grow into union with Christ that we grow into union with God, because Christ is both God and man and unites in himself mankind with God. But it is by the experience and exercise of love that we especially participate in this union. Indeed, there is a sense in which the experience of the love of God and wholehearted love for God is what this union with God means.
There can be nothing more important in our Orthodox spiritual journey than to seek this love of God and in sharing it to be united with Him. Our prayer and fasting is an expression of this love for God, this desire for union with him, and our service in humility is the expression of the outpouring of this divine love for others. Everything is love in the Orthodox spiritual life, for God is love.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening.
7. In the Coptic Orthodox daily prayers we pray Psalm 51. Now add this to your daily devotions in both the morning and the evening.
8. Reflect on how you are experiencing the sustaining love of God, and how far you are sharing that divine love. How can you seek and share that love today?
The Liturgy is the place where we meet Christ. He comes to us in his humility. We offer Bread and Wine, no great banquet of the finest foods. He transforms them into his own Body and Blood in humility and allows us to handle and consume him for our salvation. This heavenly and saving feast has been celebrated by Christians in homes, in caves and tunnels under the ground, in forests, in prisons. It has been celebrated by small groups of the faithful, sheltering a priest in danger of his life. It has been celebrated by congregations whose churches have been burned and destroyed around them. The essence of the Liturgy is not the external quality of the place and the sight and sound, but faithful hearts turned towards God even in the most humble circumstances.
If we worship from the heart, so that we encounter God truly, and are also in a beautiful place, then we are blessed indeed. But the encounter with God is the essence of the Liturgy, and this can take place even in a stable if we are spiritual in our thinking and understanding. This encounter with God requires us to see beyond humble circumstances, if that is where we find ourselves, so that we discover that what matters most is that God is present. When he is present everything is transformed. But if we only have our eyes set on the external circumstances then we will fail to perceive him. We will say that nothing has happened, nothing has moved us, there was nothing impressive and inspiring there for me. If we say such a thing when God himself is present then we have not understood and not participated at all.
We find Christ present to save and transform us when we concentrate on the words of our prayers and praises with attention, and offer our own part as the congregation, or deacon, or priest, with attention and warmth. When we look at the humble circumstances, as if they were all that was present, then we fail to see the heavenly environment which becomes manifest to those who have eyes to see. Indeed, there is a danger that in the place with fine singing, and beautiful decoration, we can be deceived and distracted and think that our emotional response is the same as a spiritual one. As if being moved by music is the same as being moved by the Holy Spirit.
The heart of the Liturgy is the encounter with Christ and with each other. This may take place in humble circumstances and expose our own weakness. But it is when we put aside all reliance on pleasant circumstances, beautiful decoration and majestic singing that we discover whether or not we encounter Christ. If we say, I cannot encounter Christ here, then we will never encounter him anywhere. His Temple is made up of fleshly stones in human hearts. Hidden in a cave, he becomes present. In the corner of a prison cell, he becomes present. In a burned ruin of a Church, he becomes present. And if he becomes present there then he will become present wherever we gather in faithfulness to him, and to the community in which he has placed us, however humble.