Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 21, 2008

Christmas 2007

On behalf of the Chicago-based Mar Toma (St. Thomas) Parish, I would like to share the remarkable and historic night for the Mother Church of the East that occured last night.

Holy Place & Time: Our Beloved Bishop Mar Bawai Soro celebrated Christmas Mass (Shaharta), Monday, (12/24/07) in comprehendible Modern Aramaic (Leeshana Khata) at the Mar Odisho Ancient Church of the East in Chicago at 8:00pm in front of an anxious and excited crowd that had overflowed the church compound. Those who even arrived early were directed to the basement for a simulcast of the Mass which eventually shared the same occupancy predicament as the hall.

Those who have subscribed to the heavenly messages of truth, justice, peace, love, forgiveness, unity, and reform for our Blessed Mother Church of the East had flocked to Mar Odisho from all nearby cities and faraway suburbs. Tangible unity and movement was not only witnessed in the travel and the massive attendance of these unity and reform adherents in a lightly publicized Mass at a sister church, but in their donations (dwekhwateh). Donations of both monetary form and their will to become official members at the occasion of worshiping the birth of Our Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ!

Christmas Decrees and Hope: Bishop Dr. Mar Bawai Soro relayed the expressions and goodwill decrees of both Patriarchs of the Churches of the East; Chaldean Rite and Old Calendar. H.H. Mar Emmanuel Delly had spoken with Mar Bawai earlier and asked him to deliver his wishes and prayers of healthiness, success, and unity for his Bishop’s flock. Following such great news and hope from our sister Chaldean church, Mar Bawai revealed that H.H. Mar Addai also had asked Mar Bawai to deliver a similar hopeful message for those celebrating New Calendar Christmas. He also added that H.H. Mar Addai is currently in Canada and is scheduled to visit the U.S. where the Ancient Church Patriarch is looking forward to and will commence unity and reform meetings. Glory be to God for these tangible acts of unity!The title for the sermon that I coined was “Accepting Christ: The Path of Change, Humbleness, and Love.” It is only appropriate to dedicate an entire new thread to this empowering and inspirational sermon where Bishop Mar Bawai emphasized the birth of Christ as a time for donations, not just of gifts and Christmas cards, but of our hearts and love to Christ and others in His name. He also touched upon acceptance of Christ translates to change, taking earthly risks for Christ, being a pipeline from God to others, loving is unifying and showcasing our love for Christ, and other life-changing themes. Await to be enlivened.

Bishop Mar Bawai ended both his sermon and Mass in heavy emphasis of our people in our homeland, Bet-Nahrain. That our donation this year is to love, pray, and work tirelessly to ease their sufferings and propagate not temporary quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for them as well as our Nation.

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Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

Euthanasia

LIFE AND DEATH

“I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Euthanasia is the intentional killing of a terminally ill or otherwise dependent human being, whether by active means (such as giving a lethal injection) or passive means (withholding ordinary care such as food and water). As such, euthanasia violates the fifth commandment against killing. Like abortion and capital punishment, the issue of euthanasia relates to what the Church has called the consistent ethic of life, where all human life is to be respected from the moment of conception until natural death.

The word euthanasia is used appropriately when the intention of what is done is to bring about or hasten the person’s death. The use of strong pain medications when the intention is not to kill but to alleviate pain, even when their use may hasten the person’s death, is not euthanasia. Trying to save a person’s life through a difficult, risky surgery or other procedure would not be euthanasia if the person died, for the intention was to save life, not to take it.

When discussing euthanasia, it becomes clear that it is often suggested to put an end to a person’s pain and suffering; in other words, euthanasia is seen as a compassionate measure when someone we love is suffering greatly. Especially when that person is terminally ill, perhaps on life support systems or in a coma or permanent vegetative state with no hope of recovery, or even in the case of elderly nursing home patients who are more or less physically sound but mentally devastated by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, euthanasia is promoted as a way of hastening what will happen naturally. The person will die, sooner rather than later, bringing their suffering to an end.

Sometimes people who promote euthanasia in a particular instance will say that a person in a coma or on life support would not want to live that way, whether dependent on machines or not. They also struggle to see the person they love in such a state, giving rise to conflicting personal feelings about the situation.

Other reasons given to support the idea of euthanasia are that it frees up financial and medical resources to be used to greater benefit on other persons more likely to recover. A family’s finances can be devastated by a serious illness, especially a prolonged one without hope of recovery. Medicines and the skills of doctors and nurses are used in what seems a hopeless situation where they could be used to help others. Thus euthanasia is seen as a measure that alleviates suffering and relieves other excessive burdens.

The Christian Church rejects the direct and intentional taking of human life in such cases, as it does with abortion and capital punishment. Recalling the dignity of the human person and the importance of the basic right to life (rooted in the fact that every human being has been created in the image and likeness of God), Christianity calls upon her members and all members of the wider human family to respect human life always.

Scripture teaches respect for the elderly. In addition to the fourth commandment of “Honor your father and your mother,” we read “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate with him; revile him not in the fullness of your strength.” (Sirach 3:12-13) Today when medical technology permits people to live longer, the physical and mental strength of our parents and the elderly in society may fail with age. Scripture teaches us to treasure and protect them.

Jesus, throughout his ministry, showed his special love and care for the poor and the sick. He cured lepers, cripples, the blind and deaf, and people with many different types of diseases. These were people the society of the time had given up on as hopeless cases, but the heart of Jesus went out to them. He went out of his way to show that no human being was beyond the reach of God’s love. He taught his followers that same respect and love for everyone. Those who are handicapped in body or mind, in any way, deserve to be protected and respected.

Popular today as a tool for ethical decision-making is the acronym WWJD, which stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” It’s a simple way for people to look at a situation and try to decide what is the right thing to do by imagining how Jesus would handle it. Sometimes this technique can be abused, however. For example, someone who has decided that euthanizing another person would be the best thing might say, “Jesus would have compassion on this individual and not want them to continue living in this state.” While the basic concept of WWJD is sound, an approach like this latter one shows a basic ignorance of the person, life, mission and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is always for life, not death, for healing, not killing.

As disciples of Jesus, members of the Church seek to emulate his love, his genuine compassion for the human person, his deep respect for human life and human dignity. This is shown most easily in how we treat the weakest among us, whether the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped, or anyone in need of society’s protection and special respect. Where society promotes death, not life, it fails in its sacred duty to all its citizens. Where society respects the right to life and the dignity of every human being, it lives up to the authority and trust given it by God, from whom life flows and to whom all authority, ultimately, is responsible.

Motivated by a false sense of compassion, euthanasia (or “mercy killing,” as it is sometimes called) masks what it really is: just plain killing. What would Jesus do? He would reach out in love and kindness, with hands for healing, with words of hope. So must the Church teach society to do.

Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

Abortion

CHOOSE LIFE

“And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:5)

Ask ten people what they see as the greatest challenge in human society today and you’ll get ten different answers or more. Poverty, the cost of health care, hunger and starvation, terrorism, the divorce rate, political corruption, homelessness, a crisis in education, trade and budget deficits, a lack of involvement – the answers are many and the challenges are real.

These issues and more threaten the fabric of society by making it more difficult for people to live in justice, love and peace with one another, as Jesus taught. Many issues challenge human society today and they all, in one way or another, impact on the freedom that people should be able to enjoy.

In the United States and elsewhere in the world, one particular issue has become politically and religiously very intense, a concern that is the most important human rights issue of our day: abortion. The direct killing of an unborn child by abortion has become an issue that divides people, who hold very strong opinions and beliefs about it.

The word abortion applies to two similar and yet radically different events. First, the natural miscarriage of a fetus before it is born can be called an abortion. It is spontaneous and does not refer to the type of abortion that has become so contentions today.

The second event described by the word abortion refers to the medically induced direct and deliberate removal of a fetus from the womb before it is fully developed and able to survive, causing its death. Most often an abortion is performed in such a way that it directly kills the unborn child as its intended effect. This direct killing is what most people are thinking of when they use the word abortion, although they may not use terms like “killing.”

The Church has always taught that taking an innocent human life is a violation of God’s law in the Ten Commandments and in the teaching of Christ. The fifth commandment as given in the Book of Exodus or in Deuteronomy simply states, “You shall not kill.” (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17) The Lord also warned his people against the abominations of surrounding nations, which many times included infanticide (cf. Leviticus 18:21, “You shall not offer any of your offspring to be immolated to Molech,” referring to the practice of throwing infants into a fire dedicated to the god Molech.)

Jesus always showed a deep respect for life in the way he treated people, in his teaching, healing, and miracles, and in the ultimate gift of his own life for his friends (John 15:13). In the gospels he taught his great commandment of love, on which the whole law and the prophets is based. Love God with all your mind, strength, heart, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. “There is no greater commandment than these,” Jesus taught, (Matthew 22:38-40) and “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Those who promote abortion on demand note that Jesus did not specifically forbid abortion in the gospels – he did not use the word “abortion” or talk directly against it. Clearly he did not need to. The Ten Commandments are unequivocal, and Jesus upholds the law of his Father, even the “smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter” without exception (cf. Matthew 5:18), strongly cautioning those who break God’s commandments (cf. Matthew 5:19).

In the early Church, the document called the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) specifically refers to abortion and teaches against it. “There are two paths, one of life and one of death, and the difference is great between the two paths” begins the Didache. Later it repeats the commandment “you shall not kill” and then, in that same section, teaches “you shall not kill a child by abortion, neither shall you kill it when born.” (Didache 2:2) Clearly the Didache was responding strongly to problems that it recognized in the community at the time, using the moral authority Jesus gave to the Apostles to reinforce the Church’s respect for all human life.

Today the Christian Church continues to teach forcefully against abortion. Many Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Church leaders have tirelessly written and spoken about the dignity of the human person, about respect for life, and against the evil of abortion. Because of the gravity of abortion (which amounts to murder), there can never be an exception. Abortion is never a right moral choice.

Abortion is morally wrong for many reasons. It is contrary to the law of God, who is the author and giver of all life. It also offends the dignity of the human person, created by God in his image and likeness. No human person, no matter how small or large, how young or old, how healthy or sick in body, mind, or spirit, ever loses the gift of human dignity given by God. An unborn child in the womb, small, defenseless, unseen, incapable of self-defense, has immense dignity in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the disciples of Jesus.

Abortion is also contrary to human rights. Among these rights, the most important is the right to life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in General Assembly by the United Nations in 1948, upholds the dignity of the human person and of human rights. The Declaration recognizes “the inherent dignity and [the] equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” (Preamble) It teaches that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Article 3) Abortion sins against the most basic human right of the most innocent and defenseless among us.

For the whole Church, the gospel of Jesus is a gospel of life, not of death. For believers of all faiths, life is a precious gift. As Jesus brought the gift of salvation and life by his death on the cross, so does the Church promote a culture of life, over against the culture of sin and death that grips so many people in the modern world.

Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

Eucharist/The Holy Qurbana

TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU

“This is my body. … this is my blood of the covenant.” (Matthew 26:26-27)

As members of the Church, we hold the gift of Jesus in the Holy Qurbana to be the most central act of prayer and worship that we know.

The very young are brought to the liturgy of the Qurbana before they can understand its meaning. The very old find comfort and meaning in their lives by deepening their spirituality at the wellspring of the Lord’s banquet. From life’s beginning to its end and all times in between, believers of all ages and walks of life take part in the very sacrifice of Jesus.

The mission of Jesus, as the early Church came to understand it, was to bring forgiveness of sins to God’s people, in order that they might receive salvation and, one day, eternal life in his kingdom of light, happiness, and peace. Throughout his life and ministry Jesus brought that forgiveness, forging anew the relationship between sinners and God in a new, powerful way.

Jesus likened himself to a physician who heals the sick, not those who are well; he often said that he came for sinners, not for the self-righteous (Luke 5:31-32). He taught his followers to call God “Abba” – Father – as he himself did (Luke 11:2-4). He taught them a new way of living in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5) and a new way of loving, even one’s enemies: a new commandment of love (Luke 6:27-28, John 13:34-35).

All that Jesus did in his life leads him toward Jerusalem, toward the Cross. Every person he touched, every word he spoke, every prayer to the Father, every disease he cured, every sin he forgave: all these showed who Jesus is and what he came among us to do. And it all leads toward his passion, death, and resurrection. It all leads to the Holy Qurbana.

The word “Qurbana” itself comes from the Aramaic word meaning basically “to offer”. In the Qurbana we celebrate the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through the Qurbana – which means the liturgy, the act of celebration, the banquet, as well as the species of the body and blood of Christ – we praise and thank the Father for the salvific acts of Jesus, and we are drawn further into the divine life of God.

It is important to understand the relationship between the gift of his body and blood that Jesus gave at the Last Supper and the outpouring of his life on the Cross. Theologically they are one and the same. Jesus who allowed his body to be broken and who poured out his blood on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins has made the Qurbana central to the life of the Christian people. The Qurbana is, to use ecumenical language, the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross in an un-bloody manner (Jesus died once and only once on the Cross; he has risen from the dead never to die again). At the liturgy, when we partake in the celebration and then receive the body and blood of Christ, the Last Supper and the Cross are made present to us again, so that we take part in those core acts of salvation, with Jesus, personally.

This is not to say that we are transported back in time to sit at the table or to stand beneath the foot of the Cross, as if we were whisked away in a time-machine possible only in science fiction. Yet when we worship God at the Holy Qurbana, when we hear the priest say the words of Jesus in the institution narrative and when he invites the Holy Spirit to dwell within the elements, when we eat his body and drink his blood, we do sit at the table with Jesus, we do stand beneath the foot of the Cross, we do share in the life of the Lord.

Jesus died once for all, so that all may share in the gift of life that he brings. It is that gift of his own life that Jesus shares with us when we receive the species of his body and blood.

Central to the Church’s teaching on the Qurbana is that the bread made of wheat and the wine of the grape used in the hollowing are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They become substantially changed, no longer bread and wine but the body and blood of Christ. Through the action of Christ in the bishop or the priest who presides at the liturgy, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made real and present to us, for Christ himself is really and truly present in what once was bread but is now his body, what once was wine but is now his blood.

The importance of this teaching cannot be overstated. We believe that the Jesus who was born in a humble stable, who grew up in a small town and learned the carpenter’s trade, who came out of the desert filled with the Holy Spirit and began to teach, to heal, and to proclaim a gospel of love, who suffered on the Cross, died for our sins, and rose from the dead, is real and present – body, blood, soul, and divinity – in the Holy Qurbana.

Explicitly stated in the gospels, where Jesus tells his disciples that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they do not have his life in them (John 6:53ff), and especially in his acts and words at the Last Supper, this teaching on the Holy Qurbana has been more deeply studied and understood throughout the Church’s long history.

No human mind can comprehend this mystery fully. Just as in Jesus’ time, so throughout history and today, some have rejected the reality of this supreme gift. For us, members of the Church who believe all that Jesus taught and did, the Holy Qurbana is the sign and source of the Church’s unity in Christ, our supreme act of worship to the God of life and love.

Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

Basics of Faith Part 3: “The Kingdom of God is at Hand”

Part Three
THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AT HAND

After Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days and was tested by the devil, he “came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15) With this proclamation he began his public ministry.

After Jesus died and rose from the dead, he made many appearances to his closest followers. He commanded them to meet him, once again in Galilee, before he returned to the Father. “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he told them. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

These two events bracket his public life, beginning with fasting and prayer, and ending with his promise to be with his followers to the end. In between he traveled the countryside, teaching, preaching, healing body and soul, proclaiming a new way to live in love, making friends and enemies alike.

The seminal events of Jesus’ mission – his passion, death, and resurrection – echo the way he lived his entire life, and the way he taught his followers to live. Central to that way of living is a focus on God and on others, as he taught in his great commandment of love – culminating in laying down his very life for his friends (cf. John 15:13). Along with that great commandment are the kingdom of God, repentance, belief in the gospel, and a recognition that God is bringing all to fulfillment, also central to the life of Christian believers.

The word “Christian,” of course, comes from the word “Christ,” meaning “anointed.” At our baptism we are washed clean of sin and anointed as disciples of Christ, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and being baptized in the Trinity for our life on earth. In obedience to the command of Jesus, the Church goes to every people and nation, bringing the life-giving power of baptism, and teaching as Jesus taught.

As the Church has grown and moved into every nation and culture, it has never ceased to identify ways to bring that teaching into the lives of people in a powerful, meaningful way. The kingdom of God, not of this world (John 18:36), nonetheless draws the world into the life of God. Christians bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ. This is central to the mission (the word means “sending”) Jesus gave to the Church. Jesus sent us to bring his life and redemption – his salvation – to everyone.

What Jesus taught has filled volumes of Scripture and Church teaching for two millennia. Branches of theology have sought to explain and understand more fully what God has revealed about himself and his plan for creation – his divine plan for us. Every culture and age has struggled to believe and to live according to the gospel, our culture and age no less so.

Within the many branches of theology and church teaching can be found many disciplines and approaches toward the Christian life, much of which is basic and foundational to being a follower of Jesus.

Jesus prayed always, with his disciples and by himself, often for long hours in a private place where he could be alone with his Father (cf. Matthew 14:23, for example). He gave us a special prayer that is, for us Christians, the perfect prayer. Prayer is essential to the Christian life. In our prayer we praise God for his goodness, just for being God. We thank him for the many blessings he bestows on us every day of our lives. We offer our sorrow for the sins we have committed. We ask in humble petition for all that we need. A life cannot be truly Christian without prayer.

One most important aspect of prayer is to gather in community to celebrate the Eucharist. At this feast of love given to the apostles on the night before he died, Jesus feeds us with his own Body and Blood. Perhaps there is no greater test of our ability to believe that which we cannot see, for the food and drink we see with our eyes are no longer bread and wine, but are really and truly the Body and Blood of the Lord. Jesus, our God and our brother, feeds us with his very self, for in the Eucharist we receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ.

The sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross are one and the same. Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, he calls upon us to make a sacrificial offering of our lives, to endure faithfully and courageously the suffering that is part of life. Jesus promised that persecution, hatred, suffering, rejection – sometimes to the point of death – would belong to those who loved him. “Rejoice and be glad,” he said, “for your reward will be great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught about the moral life, about social justice, about what is really important in Christian life. To be poor in spirit, to mourn and suffer, to be meek and humble, to hunger and thirst for what is right, to be merciful and forgiving, to have a clean heart, to be peacemakers, and, yes, to suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness – all these mark those who Jesus calls “blessed.” (cf. Matthew 5:3-17) He calls us to become the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

By leading such a Christian life, we become signs that the time is now, that the kingdom is here: we witness to the power of conversion by repentance, and rejoice in the truth of the gospel.

Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

Basics of Faith Part 2: “The Greatest Commandment of Love”

Part Two
THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT OF LOVE

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus’ answer to the scribe who asked him which of the hundreds of commandments first century Jews obeyed was the greatest gave more than he bargained for: not one commandment, but two that encompass one principle. The greatest commandment of Jesus is love, a love of God that comprises the whole being of each human person, and a love of neighbor that is no less than love of self.

“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments,” Jesus said. The Ten Commandments, the Levitical and Rabbinical laws and commentaries, rituals of purification and worship – Jesus boiled it all down to love.

Our Christian faith, beginning and ending in God, is a faith rooted deeply in love. Someone cannot say “I love God” when his actions toward others show that he does not love them also. Someone cannot say “I love my neighbor” while simultaneously neglecting to love and honor the God who created them both. Love is never an “either-or” proposition for Christian’s. It has to be “both-and.”

Many examples from the life of Jesus illustrate how he understood this twin commandment of love in real life, especially when he shows a love for neighbor (all of us sinners), and a love of his Father, that no one else around him can touch.

One episode concerns a woman who was caught “in the very act of adultery,” as the story goes, and the righteous (or self-righteous) members of the community brought her to a public place – naked and certainly humiliated – to execute her according to the dictates of the law, by stoning. (John 8:3-11) They brought her to Jesus and explained about her sin and punishment, and then (“to test him”) asked, “What do you say?”

The scene we know so well from the Gospel of John is famous. Jesus bends over and writes on the ground, saying nothing. They persist, “to have some charge to bring against him.” He stands up and delivers one of the greatest lessons he ever taught in the gospels: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Bending down again to write on the ground, surely Jesus knew how they would respond. One by one they went away – the elders first – until Jesus was alone with the woman. “Has no one condemned you,” he asks. “No one, sir,” she replies. “Neither do I condemn you. Go (and) from now on do not sin any more.”

In their zeal to serve the law of God down to the very letter – to show how intensely they love God with every fiber of their being – the scribes and Pharisees in this story neglect to love their neighbor (in this case the woman) as they love themselves. They are ready to stone her without thinking twice, and without recognizing what Jesus has tried to teach again and again: love entails not merely obedience, but also compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.

Notice that Jesus does not condone sin; he admonishes the woman to go and not to sin again. He does this, not out of misplaced leniency or personal weakness, but again out of love. Jesus knows that his great commandment of love means reaching out, often courageously and standing up to others. Love means speaking and doing what is best for the person. In this case, Jesus knew that it was best for the woman to experience God’s love and mercy, and also to be reminded that (as Saint Paul later taught) sin leads to death. She very nearly experienced that reality, and now Jesus gives her a second chance at life.

Another example is illustrated by one of Jesus’ parables, often called “The Prodigal Son” (cf. Luke 15:11-32). The story is so familiar that it needs the briefest retelling. The younger son, impetuous and eager to go out on his own, leaves his father, family and country behind, squandering his inheritance in sinful living. At last when he finds himself in the dregs of life, he comes to his senses and returns home. His father receives him with great love and joy, which the wretched boy did not expect. The elder son, in anger, demands an explanation, to which the father replies, “your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).

The younger son in this story shows disdain for God’s law by his actions. He leaves all that has real meaning in his life behind, including, we may suppose, the practice of his faith. By turning his back on God and neighbor, home and family, he shows himself to be unworthy of any love that would have to be earned. But the actions of the father show what Jesus is trying to teach us: the love that conforms to the great commandment does not have to be earned – it is freely given, almost recklessly. In spite of the fact that the son apparently loved not God, nor neighbor, nor even himself, God’s mercy reached out to him in his father’s love.

These two examples and others show that, in the life and teaching of Jesus and in our lives, we who profess to be his followers and disciples, love for God and love for neighbor go hand in hand. They appear to be two commandments in the way Jesus responded to the question of the scribe in Matthew’s gospel, but Jesus shows them to be that one great commandment. Love for God and for neighbor are inseparable. This simple aspect of the teaching of Jesus is a great foundation of our Christian faith.

Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

Basics of Faith Part 1: “The First and the Last”

Part One
THE FIRST AND THE LAST

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13) These words of Jesus in the book of Revelation encompass the story of God’s people, the Church.

Our story, the salvation history of mankind, begins with God. From the first words uttered by God at creation, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), to the last words breathed by Jesus on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), the story of the human race begins and continues in God. From the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, the story of God’s family, the Church, is first, last and always the work of God.

All that we are begins in God, who created us in his image and likeness. Our end, our goal and purpose as his creatures, is also in God, who shapes us and molds us as a potter molds the clay (Isaiah 64:7).

Christian faith thus begins and ends in God. To allow God to make faith a living part of our life, we must seek to know him, to make a home for him within our hearts. As we become the clay in his hands, it is his love and mercy, his wisdom and forgiveness that mold us and fashion us into his sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Through Abraham, God revealed himself to the Jewish people as One God. He brought Abraham from Mesopotamia (the Land of our ancestral fathers) to a new land to make him the father of a new people. God gave to Moses and to the Jewish people the Ten Commandments, which first make this declaration that there is one God only, and that the Lord is God. At these moments in which God chose the growing Jewish nation to be his people, he revealed himself as the one and God, and he revealed his statutes and commandments as his special gift to his people.

The Jewish people lived in a cultural climate where their contemporaries believed in many gods, deities who often captured the worst of human nature in their character but yet were mute and impotent, unable to speak or act on behalf of those who put their faith vainly in them. Time and again the Lord God spoke and acted on behalf of his chosen people, so that the Jewish nation itself said, “what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7) They came to recognize the Lord as powerful and yet loving. The God of all creation was interested in them in a special way, so much so that, in the fullness of time, from them a humble virgin gave birth to God’s Son.

Today, we too live among people who have “gods” other than the one, true, living God. Money, power, sex, drugs, food, alcohol, possessions, fame, even other people, perceived rights or causes – these are the modern gods that compete for the attention of today’s people, making them slaves to their own vain whims. They even distract Christians from the way of life Jesus taught us. Yet no more than the false gods and idols of millennia past are these false idols of today able to satisfy the yearnings of the human heart.

The words of the Church Father Saint Augustine from centuries ago are as true today as when he first put pen to paper: “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.” Only in God can the mind and heart of man find peace, strength, hope, forgiveness, love, belonging, tranquility, and fulfillment. Only in the One who is our beginning can we move toward the end and purpose he created us for: to live with him in the place he has prepared for us from the beginning of the world, a place of utter peace and joy.

Each time we worship, the words of the creed reaffirm the basic beliefs that make up the core of our life of faith, and the Eucharist binds us in God’s very life. We believe in one God, the Father almighty; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and risen from the dead; and in one Holy Spirit, the life-giving Spirit of Truth; and in one, holy, apostolic, and catholic Church. In that Church we receive one Baptism for the forgiveness of our sins, and as members of that Body of Christ we place our hope in the God who will raise us up to life forever with him.

How do we live each day as people of God so as to live forever in His presence? It is not just reciting words and going through actions. It is not merely saying one thing while we do another, or promising to act one way and instead failing to live up to the promises we have made. It is, more than anything, a matter of following him as disciples of Christ, and of going where his life on earth did not see him walk, of doing what he left up to us to accomplish. By allowing the words of the Gospel and the life of Christ to work a sound conversion in our lives, we become ambassadors for Christ, as Saint Paul teaches (2 Corinthians 5:19), bringing his Word, the reflection of his presence in the world, and the living Community of faith to all we meet.

In this, the gift of reconciliation between God and man worked by the God-Man Jesus Christ, once for all, becomes a reality in our lives. Christ works through us, bringing his life into the lives of all those who see us, who hear the words we speak, who witness the acts we do, that they may realize it is Christ who motivates us sinners to bring his forgiveness, mercy, and new life to the world.

Posted by: Mar Toma Parish | January 20, 2008

The Christian Prayer

LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY

He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.’” (Luke 11:1-2)

Prayer is central to the Christian way of life. Just as Jesus often and always prayed to his Father in heaven, so he taught his followers also to pray.

What is prayer? One might say that prayer is “talking to God.” Another might see it more as “listening for the promptings of the Holy Spirit” or “raising one’s mind to the Lord.” Some may pray only in a formal way, together with others in a church. Many also pray at home alone, in the privacy of their rooms and their own quiet thoughts.

We pray before meals, in the car on the way to work, when trouble disturbs our lives, when joys lift our minds to God. We pray when those we love are sick, when a child is born, when the elderly die, when tragedy strikes. We pray for guidance when in doubt, for forgiveness of our sins, to ask for help, to give thanks for our blessings. In short, we pray always.

Prayer thus can and should touch every moment of the day. For two millennia, Christian believers have prayed upon rising from bed to face the challenges of our day. Again, at night, Christians have always turned our thoughts inward, reviewing the events of the day and begging God’s forgiveness for sin as we examine our conscience.

Christian prayer over the centuries has taken on many forms. The Eucharistic liturgy, representing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in which he offered his Body and Blood at the Last Supper – prefiguring his passion and death on the Cross – is the supreme prayer of the Christian faithful in the form of a holy Oblation (Qurbana). Within the liturgy we join our minds, hearts and voices to worship God as we offer him our praise, thanksgiving, petitions and intercessions.

Prayer can include meditation and contemplation; reading of the Scriptures or other written works of faith; using the Psalms, the prayer book of the Jewish people and of Jesus Christ, as in the Liturgy of the Hours (Sapra, Tahra, Ramsha & Lilya); free-form dialogue with God, pouring out our hearts and souls to his listening ear; and the Lord’s Prayer and other formal prayers, used at liturgy or on other occasions.

Generally speaking, four basic kinds of prayer can describe what Christians are doing when we pray. We can remember these four kinds of prayer by the acronym “ACTS”. First, there is the prayer of Adoration (praise or blessing). This prayer recognizes and adores God simply for who he is, apart from anything he does for us. We honor and give glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune God, eternal, almighty, Love itself. This kind of prayer is what is most properly called “worship,” for in the prayer of praise we bow down before the Lord of heaven and earth, offering our lives and all that he has given us back to him.

Second, there is the prayer of Contrition. Here we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins. When we nightly examine our conscience, recalling the events of the past day, keen eyes aware of God’s love operating in every moment of the day will see where we have failed to live in that love. To the Lord, then, in a prayer of petition, we offer our sorrow for our sins, and ask the Lord’s forgiveness and merciful love.

Third, there is our prayer of Thanksgiving. Here we offer due thanks to God for all that he is given us – life, health, faith, family and friends, and every other blessing in our lives. Christians are a people steeped in gratitude. No day of our lives should pass without offering thanks to the Lord who has given us so much, and who asks in return only our love.

Fourth, there is the prayer of Supplications. While our praise is due to God simply for being God, and our petition helps us to be rightly disposed to be in his presence, our prayer of intercession offers to the Lord all that we need in our lives. This kind of prayer is probably what most people think of when they use the word “prayer.” We pray on behalf of others (we “intercede” with God for them), we ask God’s help in our lives, we focus on what we need – be it a better job, healing from illness, or anything in between.

In Christian prayer, ACTS therefore stands for:

Adoration,
Contrition,
Thanksgiving &
Supplications.

Special mention is due to what we call the “Lord’s Prayer.” When his followers asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he cautioned them against multiplying words and rattling off long prayers as the pagans do – “For your Father knows your needs before you ask him.” (cf. Matthew 6:7-8) Rather, Jesus said, as he taught them his famous prayer, “pray like this.”

Jesus taught his disciples to address God as he himself did, as “Abba” – Father. Everything else in this prayer and in the life of Christian prayer flows from this relationship that Jesus has reminded us of, that we are sons and daughters of God. Thus, when we revere God’s name as holy, when we pray that his kingdom will come, when we pray that his will be done, we are offering that praise and worship to the Father as his beloved children.

In the Lord’s prayer, we also ask the Father to give us what we need: daily bread to sustain us in life (both the earthly bread, and the Eucharistic Bread, which is the Body of Christ); forgiveness of our sins as we have forgiven others; and that God may strengthen us when we are tempted to sin, and that he may deliver us from the power of evil.

Just as we pray to God on behalf of others and ask their prayers for ourselves, so do we pray to the Saints, that they too will intercede on our behalf to God. This type of prayer is not worship, for worship is due to God alone. But the Church recognizes that those who have died and gone before us in faith are in a unique position to help by their prayers. They remain members of the Church, the Body of Christ, while at the same time being now members of God’s kingdom in heaven. They are still members of the family of the Church, and they reinforce the promises of Christ that he will bring those who love him into the kingdom of his Father.

From baptism to burial, from daybreak to nightfall, at home and away, we Christians are people of prayer. Believers in many religions also pray, according to their own tradition, so we may say that one may pray without being a Christian, but one cannot truly be a Christian without a life of prayer.

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