Sunday, December 4, 2016: Great-martyr Barbara of Syria & 10th Sunday of Luke; Venerable John of Damascus; Martyr Juliana; New-hieromartyr Seraphim, bishop of Phanarion in Greece
We see it again and again in the Gospel. The enemies of Jesus are quick to condemn Him for the mercy He shows the sinner. According to His critics, Jesus’ teaching is a symptom of madness (Mark 3:21), His exorcisms are the work of Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24), the forgiveness He extends to the sinner, blasphemy (Luke 5:21).
And, as in today’s Gospel, His healing of the sick and lame is forbidden by “the ruler of the synagogue” as a violation of the Sabbath.
Seemingly at every turn, Jesus’ offer of mercy is met with resistance and even open hostility. It’s as if people were trying to drown out God’s offer of forgiveness. To do this when God said “Yes!” to someone, there were those ready to say “No!”
“No!” to freedom from the power of the devil.
“No!” to freedom from the power of the devil.to forgiveness.
“No!” to mercy.
One resounding “No!” after another.
As loud as these voices were, and are still today, they can’t drown out God’s gentle “Yes!” to us. This what the Apostle Paul means when he says that in Christ there “is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” While the world looks to limit the mercy of God to this or that group—really their own group—or deny it to this or that person—really anyone other than themselves—in Christ Jesus, God’s mercy will not be constrained, it will not denied.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we must say “Yes!” to the God Who has said “Yes!” to us.
Instead of saying yes to God, I’m too willing to limit the changes I make in my life to externals. A new job, a new house, a car or some other thing.
And I do this in my spiritual life as well.
If only there was more—or is it less?—English, or Greek, or Slavonic.
If only I were in a different parish or had a different priest.
But whether my concern is spiritual or material, what I’m saying in all of this is that things and people need to be different so that I don’t have to change. But saying “Better you repent so I don’t have to” will not lead me to the Kingdom of God; it will only drive me away.
It is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life that repentance is not only how I say yes to God but also to myself. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24, NKJV).
Origen says that this means that salvation requires that we make “a certain good surrender.” What he means by this is that I must say “No!” everything within me that is sinful, self-aggrandizing and an obstacle to the love of God and neighbor.
In its place, I need to cultivate the life of virtue. I do this not only by denying whatever I know to be sinful, but by asking God to grant me the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law”—that St Paul writes about at the end of today’s epistle (Galatians 5:22-23, NKJV).
In these and the other gifts of grace that God is eager to pour out on the Church, we hear God’s resounding “Yes!” to each of us.
And unlike the false egalitarianism that has taken hold in popular American secular and religious cultures, the unity that the Spirit brings is not a matter of conformity. It is rather a flowering of all that is beautiful and unique in each of us.
Without prejudice to the grace of the sacraments—which are always and everywhere necessary for salvation—the gateway to this flowering is our personal “Yes!” to the God Who has said “Yes!” to us.
This “Yes!” must be personal because it must be free. St John Chrysostom says in His “great mercy and loving kindness will have no one serve Him unwillingly and from constraint.” God doesn’t force our obedience by an act of His might but woes us with His love. God wants us to come willingly, of our “own accord … grateful for being allowed to serve Him.”
This is why, to return to the Gospel, I said Jesus’ opponents are saying “No!” to God. They would force compliance to the Law while God “by persuasion and kindness,” as Chrysostom says, draws to Himself only “those who are willing” to follow Him.
God wants nothing more, or less, than our freely given “Yes!”
This is the key to understanding everything we do in the Church; it’s the key that unlocks not only the of the ascetical life but the canons and the Creed. Holy Tradition in all its myriad parts has but one goal: To free us—you and me—from the tyranny of the devil, from whatever “spirit of infirmity” that keeps us “bent over,” so that we can “fully straighten” ourselves and say “Yes!” to God.
Yes, the world misunderstands all this. But then so to do many, many Orthodox Christians. This misunderstanding is the malady that grips the hearts of more than a few Orthodox Christians, laity and clergy.
Let us, to borrow once again from St Herman of Alaska, “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all and fulfill His holy will.”
How do we do this?
By taking to heart the counsel of St Seraphim of Sarov,
… the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this life.
To God be all glory, honor and worship, forever and ever!