• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

A Life Adoring God

"Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun…question the moon…Question all these things. They all answer you, "Here we are, look; we're beautiful!' Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?"

St. Augustine wrote these words as the barbarian hordes sacked Rome. In many ways, his times weren’t too different from ours. Everything was changing. Everyone was confused. No one knew what tomorrow would look like and the world felt that the carpet had been pulled from under it’s feet. And yet, at the same time, Augustine could look at the beauty of the earth and sky in this way and see something utterly important. There wasn’t an aloof bone in his body. If any man ever had his feet planted on the ground and his eyes open to the world around him, it was Augustine. But this saint knew something about life that we all too often forget. He understood what it really meant that Christ has risen from the dead.

Last week we read from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).

Like St. Augustine, Paul tells us to look up. Our life is “hid with Christ,” not down here, but we forget that don’t we, and so the saints and the birds and the sky and everything tuned to God gives us the same message over and over. Look up.

“Christ is Risen!”

We say that every year when Pascha comes. But do we really get it?

There’s nothing so invigorating as our Pascha Vigil, on Saturday evening, when we turn on the lights, pull down the veils over the icons, ring the bells and sing the Gloria. After wearing purple for forty days, the white and gold vestments of Easter seem like their shining. All across the world, Orthodox Christians are feasting and shouting, “Christ is Risen!” and the grace and joy is intoxicating.

But what about the Monday after Easter Sunday, or the Tuesday after that, or all the weeks that follow through the rest of the year?

This year the clouds were pretty gloomy on Monday morning. If you stepped outside, you’d see that the streets and cars and town looked just about the same as any day. Perhaps, you’re exhausted from Holy Week. Maybe your stomach ache’s because you ate too much meat the day before. Zoe and I celebrated with the Greek’s after celebrating here, and I was so stuffed of ham and goat that I could hardly move. You get up in the morning, and then wonder, ‘Okay, so now what?’

And perhaps that’s why the Church has us read the story of Doubting Thomas the week after Easter.

It was the third day after Christ hung on the cross. The disciples were hiding, heart broken after all that had happened, and confused, perhaps, since the ladies had strange news about their visit to the tomb. It was empty, they reported, and they claimed to have seen the Lord Himself. Then, at last, Christ reveals Himself to the disciples. But one man was missing – Doubting Thomas. And that’s what our gospel is about this morning.

It always feels a little unfair when you read about Thomas being away. God orders everything. Couldn’t He have arranged it so that all of His disciples were there when He appeared? We don’t know what Thomas was doing. Maybe he went to town to buy a little fish or a little bread. Or maybe he just stepped out for a little fresh air – the other apostles had been pacing back and forth so much they were driving him crazy, or something. There he was, just kicking stones in the street, and Christ chose that moment to appear to the disciples.

But Thomas, in so many ways, is a great gift to us today. For, he represents you and me. Just as he was absent when Christ showed Himself to the disciples, so we were absent when our Resurrected Lord still walked on earth.

You can imagine how Thomas must have felt when he next met the disciples. They were exhilarated and kept repeating all that they had seen. But he hadn’t. And so, we can read all the stories about Christ dying and resurrecting and teaching those early Christians how to live, but…I wasn’t there, and you weren’t there. Where is this resurrected Christ? Thomas tells the apostles, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And perhaps Thomas speaks for you and me, who may struggle to comprehend this good news taught everywhere.

Then what happens?

Christ at last appears to Thomas. He says to the doubting disciple, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas reaches out and touches the hands and side of Christ, and when he does he declares, “My Lord, and my God!”

Doubting Thomas is for all of us today, who live in a world so removed from that time 2,000 years ago. Thomas is for everyone who wakes up the Monday after Easter Sunday to see gloomy clouds and a world going about it’s own business, as though nothing has happened.

You have to realize that Thomas wasn’t the only person in Jerusalem that day doubting whether Christ had risen. Hundreds of other people knew Christ before He was crucified and must have been wondering what would come of it. But where were they? Why weren’t they there with the disciples too? And the point is, most people didn’t care. They were too busy, perhaps. They had their jobs to get to, their romances to pursue, their hobbies and ambitions. But Thomas was different.

We live in a culture full of skeptics and agnostics. We tend to think, “I won’t believe it until I see it with my one eyes.” And, maybe, the modern person feels that he can identify with Doubting Thomas. But we can’t forget what set Thomas apart from the others. He really wanted to know the Resurrected Christ. Sometimes we confuse skepticism with laziness, or doubting with indifference. Doubting Thomas is a saint precisely because he cared. The rest of the world doubted too, but then they were mostly indifferent. And so is the world around us, running back and forth, wrapped up in things here and not things above. When Thomas said he wished to touch the mark on Christ’s hands and side, he really meant it. When Christ finally appeared to Him, he seized the moment and reached out to the Lord.

And so we too must reach out to Christ.

“Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:1-3).

"Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air…the sun…and the moon” (St. Augustine).

What are we supposed to do Monday morning after Easter Sunday? How are we supposed to live now, during these forty days of Pascha, and as the weeks and months go by? How must Easter change our lives this year and ever year?

St. Paul tells us. Augustine tells. Doubting Thomas tells us. So Christ is Risen, but this means you and I have work to do. When we doubt God, when we can’t feel His presence, or when the Resurrection seems distant and removed…don’t let Easter slip between your fingers but take the opportunity and yearn for God. If you do, you can be sure you’ll find Him.

After first appearing to the disciples Jesus Christ gives them a mission. “Peace be with you,” He said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And He tells us the same thing. It isn’t enough that Christ is Risen, we too must rise with Him.

And this is our work through the 40 days of Pascha.

An Orthodox priest once taught that Americans who join the Orthodox Church have a harder time learning how to feast then they do learning how to fast. That sounds a little peculiar doesn’t it? No one would doubt that we Americans aren’t good at fasting. But feasting?

The truth is, it’s one thing to learn to give up meat for forty days. It’s another thing to learn to worship God by the way we savor the taste of wine and enjoy the beauty of nature or the companionship of your friends. Honestly, we sometimes push ourselves so much through Lent that, once Pascha arrives, we crash and let it all go. But if all we do is fast through Lent, and stop there, then all of our work was for nothing. Now it’s our turn to learn how to feast: to take that juicy burger and remember that it is a gift from God, to look out at the field of grass and join nature and all it’s beauty in praising God, or to listen to a bit of music and let it awake in your heart a sense of gratitude for all that you have. Throughout Lent, we were reminded of our crosses and the little deaths around us, but it’s not enough to stay there. So God has taken something away from you. What has He given to you?

This is why Orthodox Christians, all across the world, break bread together, dance, and drink wine every time they’ve gathered at church for a great feast. Not just once or twice, here or there, but throughout the year. There’s nothing private about your relationship with God, it has to be shared, or it’s no relationship at all. Feasting, for the Orthodox Christian, is a way of life.

Church has nothing to do with being comfortable, but it has everything to do with feasting.

I remember celebrating Pascha in Greece. The whole country was celebrating, not just for one day, but for days on end. The churchyards were full of people, roasting goats, toasting to the Resurrection, singing songs about life and joy. There wasn’t anything cultural about this. This is the very essence of Christianity.

Christ is Risen. Now what?

We’ve been given so much: the air we breathe, our friends and family, the roofs over our heads, the beauty of our worship, the new faces around us, the new opportunities to grow…the Resurrection. It’s all about perspective. We can look at the losses and changes in our lives and just keep remembering how things used to be. Or we can look at those same losses and changes and discover the good in them.

We may hear at church or from our own lips that “Christ is Risen,” but will we take the time, here and now, again and again, and take that to heart? Can we remembering Doubting Thomas, and like Him, make the effort to reach out?

How do we do this?

“Seek those things which are above…Set your affection on things above” (Col. 3:1-3). Question the beauty of the beauty of the sea, the air, the stars and the sun. Whether in meditation, prayer, reading scriptures, or by simply choosing to enjoy the beauty of God in our worship, our neighbors, or nature itself, whatever you can do simply lift your eyes to the Lord. However you can manage it, when you get up in the morning or lay down at night, or at each breath that you take, try to be a resurrection person. Now is the time, not tomorrow, not yesterday, but now, to strive for one aim: to live a life adoring God.

The universe is the banquet table, and the feast is ready. The Lord is Risen, and He invites us to join Him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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Wichita Falls, TX, 76309