Title: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Subject: Preparation for the Feast of the Nativity
Age: 11 + years
Liturgical Time: any
Lesson 1: Life
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live." John 11:25
Throughout the New Testament the word "life" appears. One example is found in Matthew's Gospel when Jesus states, "For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life* (Matthew 16:26)?" Earlier in the Book of Matthew He says, "I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing (Matthew 6:25)?"
Life is a powerful word. It is a word that brings to mind many things including even the importance of the very life we live. As the saying goes, "you only have one life to live." So what kind of life do you live? Or to put it another way, what is the quality of your life and how do you measure it?
After Jesus' friend Lazarus died, Jesus reminded Lazarus' sister Martha of Who He is, "I am the resurrection and the life." What does Jesus mean? Is he stating that he his life itself? Yes, but He was also pointing Lazarus' sister to another reality. Our own quality of life is often determined by many factors. Realistically, we tend to place a value on our life and its quality by measuring certain material standards. Such as, what type of income we make, where we live, the amount of free time we enjoy, and the activities we participate in, such as our hobbies or recreation activities. We also measure the quality of our life by our standard of health. Often we say that our quality of life is diminished by disease or injury.
Unfortunately, we rarely look beyond the physical or material. It is rare to hear of someone who measures the quality of life by a different standard; a spiritual standard. It is even more unique to find someone who sees the value of life and its quality as a factor of their relationship with Jesus Christ and their nearness to Him.
In John 10:10, Jesus says, "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly." The thief is anything that enslaves, traps, or binds us to a way of life that moves us away from the true life found in Jesus Christ. It is a life full of the enticement of this world, the fleeting pleasures we hold so dear, the lie of a better life in this world brought about by the teaching of the Devil and his demons. The thief is the Evil One who steals the only thing we have; our time/our life and tricks us into spending it foolishly. They say time is a thief but in reality our time can be redeemed and even fulfilled if only we can use it wisely.
Jesus clearly has a different plan for us. There is a famous inscription that was written above a monastery that read, "If you die before you die then when you die you will not die." I often think of this statement and remind myself that unless I die to the tricks the Evil One I will miss out on what it means to truly live. That is the sweetness that comes from a life lived in relationship with Jesus. This type of life is incomparable to the pleasures of this world. It is why the great Saints of our Faith were so willing to forego the fleeting pleasures that we feel characterize the "good life." Jesus calls us to a life lived in abundance. A life dominated by the Spirit and filled with the eternal pleasures of heaven rather than the external pleasures of this world. Again in John's Gospel, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, "Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:14)."
As serious Christians we have to realize that we are in a struggle for life itself. This struggle requires us to be constantly on guard against the lies and the tricks of the Evil One. Turning towards Christ we find a new reality; life lived not in the flesh but in the Spirit. This is true life and it is truly abundant.
Look up the use of the word, "life," in the New Testament and make a list of the ways it is used.
Define or give adjectives that describe what Jesus means when he uses the word life.
Come up with a list of things that you feel improve your quality of life.
List side by side the qualities of a spirit filled life and a life lived in this world.
Examine your life and try and decide what kind of life you are living.
Come up with some ways that you could live a more spirit-based and spirit-filled life.
*In this verse, the word life could also be translated as "soul." This alternative translation life for soul is an indication the importance of the word life in the New Testament. Just as we have only one life we also have just one soul.
Lesson 2: Liberty: Freedom in Christ, Freedom from Sin
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According to the standards of this world the ultimate expression of liberty/freedom is to be able to follow your own will, without restrictions whether for good or bad. Nevertheless, for Christians the ultimate expression of liberty/freedom is being able to live a life free of sin following God's will. Christ came to "proclaim liberty to the captives" (Luke 4:18) but He did not refer specifically to the "captives" from prison but to all of us who are "captives" of sin. Christ is offering us freedom from sin but once we decide to follow Him we become servants of God, which is the only true and worthy freedom of humanity. "For he who is called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ's slave." (1 Corinthians 7:22).
We do have the amazing opportunity to live in a free country like America, a place in which we can freely practice our religion and express our feelings and ideas. At the same time slavery is alive and well in America and in general throughout the world. We might not have slaves working for us or we might not be arrested for being a Christian, but all of us are in bondage; the slavery of the sin, the spiritual bondage of the heart. Yet we also have complete freedom to follow Christ, in love and obedience to His commandments.
God created us in freedom out of love and since He created us in His "image and likeness", we are free human beings too. We have the freedom to thank Him for bringing us to life and giving us eternal life in His Kingdom and we have the freedom to hate Him or refuse His gifts. God is not going to impose His will, His love, His mercy and compassion on us but the further away we go from our Creator the more lost and confused and enslaved we become.
Paradoxically, we Christians call ourselves free even though we have to obey so many commandments, and always do what we in fact don't want to do, or is not easy to do. Do we always want to forgive or is it easy to forgive? Do we always want to fast? Do we always feel like praying? How hard it is to respond with meekness to violence and yet if we call ourselves Christians we are to follow the living Christ in everything. When are we free? When we stand firm in our decision to keep the fast, or when the slightest craving for ice cream or meat conquers us? When are we free? When we remain in a continuous, loving dialogue with our Creator or when out of laziness and ignorance of God's immeasurable love we don't even say one prayer during the day? Are we free when we say "yes" to things that we can become addicted to and harm us physically and spiritually, or are we free when we are able to say "no" to anything that will separate us from our loving Lord?
Freedom from sin brings us joy and life in the One Who Is Life, the One Who brings us both spiritual and even physical health. Deep within us we all know that we are called to freedom, we sometimes look for it in the wrong places or ways. Let us become free by following the One who freed us from the captivity of sin!
Look up the use of the word, "liberty," in the New Testament and make a list of the ways it is used.
Define or give adjectives that describe what the Gospel means when it uses the word liberty.
Come up with a list of things that you associate the word "freedom" with, both from a worldly and a spiritual point of view.
Examine your life and try and decide what sins are "imprisoning you" and resolve to work on becoming free through the sacrament of confession and prayer, through a more personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Lesson 3: The Pursuit of Happiness
For a printable/editable version, see below.
One of the promises of our country's Declaration of Independence, along with the ability to live with liberty is the freedom to participate in "the pursuit of happiness." It is most definitely commonplace in our times to ask such questions as: "Am I happy?"; "What makes you happy?"; "Do you feel happy?"; "Does he or she make you happy?" There is something, it seems to me, very telling in the Declaration of Independence's language referencing the "pursuit of happiness." It's kind of like the county fair's greased pig chase. There's a lot of pursuing, some touching, but very little hanging onto. The chase is fun (and dirty), the touching exhilarating (and exhausting) and the lack of hanging onto frustrating. Happiness, however, we continue to pursue.
What might the Church say about this pursuit? In order to answer the question, let's first look at the Greek biblical word for happiness. It is "Hara". Perhaps a better translation is "joy." Its root comes from "haris", which literally means "grace." A charismatic person is a "graced" person. This is God's grace that comes from the Holy Spirit within us. Joy or happiness therefore comes from God's grace within us, or simply from God. From a Christian perspective then, to "pursue" happiness simply would mean to "pursue" God. Furthermore, it does not mean pursuing God outside of us, but rather discovering God within us. After all, the Holy Spirit is defined as "God within us."
(Reference: In Father Anthony Coniaris' book, Introducing the Orthodox Church, he states, "The Trinity means that I believe in God the Father who made me, God the Son who saves me and God the Holy Spirit who lives in me… God the Father: God above me. God the Son: God beside me. God the Holy Spirit: God within me and within the Church." (pg. 27))
As I reflect on my life and moments of deep happiness and joy, I remember Marsha and my wedding—touched by God's Grace; the births of our children and grandchildren—touched by God's Grace; a gift received from or given to my family—touched by God's Grace; forgiveness given or received—touched by God's Grace; my ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood—touched by God's grace; receiving and offering Holy Communion—touched by God's Grace; a walk in the country, a fish caught-and-released, a perfect pass thrown and caught, a golf ball hit in the sweet spot—all touched by God's Grace.
Happiness then is not to be pursued in this tantalizing world around us. That pig just cannot be caught. Our happiness, our joy becomes something worthwhile and someone to hang onto when we find God in His great mercy, love and grace within us. The external conditions of darkness simply cannot extinguish this Light of Life and Liberty. We hear in our Lord's own words: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and dine with him, and he with me." (Rev. 3:20)
Read the Paschal hymns (Aposticha) on Page 499-500 in the black Holy Week book and discuss the joy of the Risen Lord that Christians throughout celebrate at Pascha. Why is this joy so special?
Take a walk in the country. Smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Breathe the air. See nature in its beauty. Consider the deep joy you feel in thanksgiving to the Creator, our Living God.
When you wake up in the morning, do your cross, take a deep breath and thank God for loving you. Close your eyes and smile knowing that Nothing can take His love away from you.
Read Romans 8:35-39 as an affirmation for number 3 above.
The next time you receive Holy Communion, taste and see how Good the Lord is. Thank Him for dwelling within you.
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