The Boldness of Humility

Sunday, May 19 (OS May 6), 2019: 4th Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Paralytic; Righteous Job the Long-suffering (c. 2000-1500 B.C.); Martyrs Barbarus the Soldier, Bacchus, Callimachus, and Dionysius in Morea (362); Martyr Barbarus the former robber in Epirus (IX). Righteous Tabitha of Joppa (I). (moveable feast on the 4th Sunday after Pascha).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Following the biblical witness, the fathers of the Church saw bodily infirmity–blindness, deafness, or in the case of today’s readings paralysis–as symbolic of humanity’s fallen condition. The Venerable Bede writes that “anyone who embraces the unstable joys of the present is as through flattened upon his bed, devoid of energy” trapped as they are by the “sluggishness” of “worldly pleasures” (Commentary of Acts of the Apostles, 9.33).

It’s important to say that neither Bede nor any of the fathers were denying the goodness of Creation or the delights that are to be found in this life. Marriage, to take only one example, is a sacrament of the Church and according to St Paul a revelation of the love Christ has for the Church (see Ephesian 5:32).

No, the problem is not the goodness of Creation but the human hearts indifference to God. As in any relationship, indifference today becomes hostility tomorrow.

It is this hostility born of indifference that leads some among the Jews to condemn the paralytic for violating the law by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. They do this, St Augustine says, because to condemn the healing would have been to invite the rebuke they heard from Jesus at another time. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NJKV)

Instead of criticizing Jesus–and so have their hypocrisy exposed–“they addressed the man, … as if to say: Even if the healing could not be delayed why command the work?” Even so, the question exposes their hypocrisy. Augustine says that to ask this is to invite a response that testifies to the divinity of Christ: “Why should I not receive a command if I also received a cure from Him?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17:10)

For the person, indifferent and even hostile to the presence of God brings with it a heavy cost. Unaware of God’s presence in their lives means as well that they live unaware of His great love for them and for the dignity to which they are called in Jesus Christ.

The full implications of what has happened will take the rest of the paralytic’s life to understand. But while his understand is immature, his experience of God’s love for him makes him bold!

When confronted the man doesn’t conceal the miracle. He doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he had been cured “of his illness.” And when falsely condemned he did not ask “for pardon. Instead, he boldly confessed the cure. This is how he acted” and this is how we are called to act as well (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 37.2).

Both sin and love make us bold. But where the boldness of sin is fool hearted and rash, love’s boldness is courageous.

Look at St Peter.

At this point in Acts, he has already been arrested twice and beaten once. Stephen has been martyred, Saul is arresting and handing Christians over to the authorities, and “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

And yet, Chrysostom says, Peter walks about “like a general … inspecting the ranks.” Because of his great love for Jesus, Peter always

…goes about first. When an apostle had to be chosen, he was first; when the Jews had to be told that these were not drunk, he was first; when the lame man had to be healed, he was first; when the crowd had to be addressed, he was before the rest; when the rulers had to be addressed, he was the man; when Ananias had to be addressed, when healings were worked by the shadow, still it was he.

When “the situation is calm” the disciples “act in common.” But when “there was danger” Peter acts alone. In all of this he “did not seek a greater honor. When there was need to work miracles, he leaps forward, and here again he is the man to labor and toil” (Homilies on Acts of the Apostle, 21).

And when it is time for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, Peter once again takes the lead in following the path Paul has blazed.

In the Christian economy, evangelical boldness the fruit of humility. Peter like Jesus, “Who conquered persecutors [here] below and reigns over angels [in heaven] above spoke … in a humble voice,” (St Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 26.1) because the word he speaks is not his but God’s word to him for the life of the world (see, John 7:16, 12:49, 14:10).

To remain silent about the Gospel is not humility. We have all of us been given a word to speak; we are all of us in baptism called to be witnesses of the Resurrection and evangelists of the Gospel.

But a problem remains. If remaining silent when we are called to speak is not humility, how then are we to speak? In this as in all things, Jesus shows us the way.

Before He heal the paralytics Jesus asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus invites the man to cooperate with grace.

Jesus question reflects the humility of the Father Who never imposes Himself on us but woos us. In doing this He also makes clear “the cruelty of those … who were well” but who never lifted “their hand to help” the man but instead treated him “like an enemy” when he asked for help (Amphilochius of Iconium, Oration, 9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Every day, we meet those who ask for our help in coming to know Jesus Christ; every day we meet those who even if they do so poorly ask us about the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

Humility, to say nothing of love, demands we speak.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Sign of Contradiction

May 12 (O.S., April 29) 2019: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women; Sts. Myrrh-Bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Nine Martyrs at Cyzicus: Theognes, Rufus, Antipater, Theostichus, Artemas, Magnus, Theodotus, Thaumasius, and Philemon (3rd c.); St. Memnon the Wonderworker of Corfu (2nd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43–16:8

Christ is Risen!

As we’ve seen before, the authors of the New Testament are not afraid to air the Church’s dirty laundry. The weaknesses and moral failings of the Apostles and disciples are there to be seen by all. This is certainly the case in the conflict we hear about today.

In the early days of the Church, there was disagreement about whether or not the two groups of widows–those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek–were being treated the same. Whether it was actually the case or merely a perception, the Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows were being “were neglected in the daily distribution” of food.

If only in passing, it’s worth noting that though they spoke different languages, not only were both groups Christians, they were both ethnically Jewish. In any case, St Luke is silent as to the exact nature of the complaint; it is enough for him to note that there was a division in the Church.

This division was sufficiently serious that it distracted the Apostles from their primary mission of preaching the Gospel. Instead, they had to involve themselves in making peace between arguing factions in the Church.

Events like this frequently cause those outside the Church to say “See! You Christians are no better than anyone else!” Fair enough. The Church is as subject to the kinds of petty–and not so petty–divisions that we see in the world.

And why wouldn’t this be so?

After all, what is the Church but that part of the world that is struggling against the very same sins that afflict all humanity? Put another way, the difference between the Church and the world is that the former struggles against the sins that the latter embraces.

This similarity sometimes causes us to act unwisely and make common cause with the world. While there are times when we can work together with those outside the Church, we need to do so prudently. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Church is fundamentally a sign of contradiction to the world that the world can never embrace without thereby ceasing to be the world (compare, Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22).

Take, for example, what happens today in the Gospel.

Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. For all the glory of the Roman Empire, it was a brutal and cruel regime that ruled not only by instilling fear but by humiliating its enemies. In times of social unrest, one could walk along the fabled Roman roads and see mile after mile of crucified criminals and rebellious slaves.

As enemies of the State they were also denied one of the universal marks of respect in the ancient world. The crucified were not buried but disposed of like garbage. There were as humiliated in death as in their dying.

By their quiet acts of piety for their dead friend, Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing women stood in opposition to the Empire.

We shouldn’t think that the cruelty of the Roman Empire was a peculiarity of the times. While not always so dramatic in form, the world–and those who embrace the intentions and purposes of the world–are equally cruel.

Though sympathetic to the real virtues of the Roman Empire, St Augustine in The CIty of God is clear that the City of God and the City of Man are locked in competition for not only the human heart but also material resources and social authority.

To bring home to his readers the willingness of the City of Man–that is, the world–to act unjustly and even cruelly in its competition with the City of God, the Church, he quotes an exchange between Alexander the Great and an unnamed pirate.

In their conversation, the pirate tells Alexander, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply this. The size of their navies. That difference aside, they are in all other respects the same since both are willing to act savagely in pursuit of their goals.

And so back to Acts.

What is surprising is not that there is conflict in the Church. And while it might sadden us to see it, we ought not to be surprised or discouraged when now or then we glimpse pettiness our even cruelty in our Church leader, in our brothers or sisters in Christ, or in ourselves. Again, the Church is simply the world in the process of being redeemed. To not see serious sin in the members of the Church is like not seeing serious disease in a hospital. Both are built to heal, the latter the body, the former the soul.

No, the surprise in Acts is not the conflict, not the willingness of Christians to ape the empire. The surprise is not division but reconciliation. The surprise is not that Christians are afflicted with the same passions that lead to war in the world but that we struggle against them  (see James 4).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never lose sight of the dignity of our great calling in Jesus Christ to be a sign of contradiction to the world. To borrow from St Leo the Great:

…recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.

By our fidelity to our calling, we not only contradict the powers of this world, but we also offer those enslaved to these powers the possibility of true and lasting freedom in Christ Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love Casts Out Doubt

Sunday, May 5 (O.S., April 22), 2019: Antipascha; Sunday of St. Thomas; St. Theodore the Sykeote, Bishop of Anastasiopolis (613).; Apostles Nathaniel, Luke, and Clement. Martyrs Leonidas of Alexandria (202); St. Vitalis of the monastery of Abba Serid at Gaza (609-620).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

One of the best signs of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the willingness of the sacred authors to recount the moral failures of not just the apostles but all the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus and Judas betrays Him.

When the myrrh-bearing hear from the angel that Jesus is risen and are told to “tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7, NJKV), they instead run away in fear, saying “nothing to anyone” (v. 8).

Likewise in today’s Gospel, we see Peter and the disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” We need at this point to pause for a moment and consider more of the context–the timeline really–of what is happening.

Jesus appears to the disciples on Pascha, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” Earlier that day, He had appeared “to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). At first, she doesn’t recognize Jesus mistaking Him for the gardener. But when He says her name–”Mary!”–she immediately recognizes Him and hurries off to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen (see John 20:15-18).

Unfortunately, and this brings us to today’s Gospel, “they did not believe” Mary (Mark 16:11), her words “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Betrayers. Doubters, Cowards, Women. In the ancient world, none of these would have been considered credible witnesses because none could be honorable men. And yet, these are the witnesses that the Church offers us. Far from undermining the credibility of the Gospel, the weakness of the disciples highlights its power.

Turning now to the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostle, and even though “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” even though “the people held them in high honor” they were afraid to publicly follow the disciples. Like the disciples on Pascha, the people were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

Nevertheless, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The reason is because the disciples were eventually able to move beyond the crippling fear and they experienced on Pascha and so counteract the fear felt among the citizens of Jerusalem.

St John Chrysostom explains it this way (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 12): “Earth was becoming like heaven,” because of how the first Christians lived. It was their “boldness of speech,” the “wonders” they performed that cause the residence of Jerusalem to look on the followers of Jesus as they were angels.”

As for the disciples themselves, “They were unconcerned about ridicule, threats, perils.” Instead, “They were compassionate and beneficent. Some of them they helped with money, and some with words, and some with healing of their bodies and of their souls; they accomplished every kind of healing.”

How did the grace of God bring about this transformation in the disciples? How did fearful doubters become bold apostles?

Love.

Of all those first entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel, only one responded with obedience. It was only Mary Magdalene who did as she was told to do.

The reason, as St Mark highlights for us, is because of all the disciples of Jesus, only she knew evil and the power of the devil not simply as an external threat but an inner struggle. It was out of her that Jesus “had cast seven demons.” As Jesus tells us in another place, those “love much” who have been “forgiven much.” As for the one “to whom little is forgiven,” that is who repents only of minor sins leaving unmourned the more serious ones, “the same loves little.” (see Luke 7:47).

It was in her great love for Jesus that Mary found the courage to proclaim boldly the Gospel. This is important because, contrary to what we sometimes imagine, doubt is not a sin of the intellect but the will.

I doubt because I don’t love and I don’t love because I am afraid. I don’t trust God because I have not united myself to Him; I resist His will for my life, preferring my will to His. In its most extreme form, I prefer to fail of my terms to succeed on His.

But “perfect love drives out fear” and the “one who fears is not made perfect in love” (see 1 John 4:18). The apostles doubt, I doubt, because their love, my love, remains imperfect.

St John tells us that anyone who hates his neighbor is “a murder” (1 John 3:15) and that anyone who says he loves God but who hates his neighbor “is a liar: (1 John 4:20) and lives “in darkness” (1 John 2:11).

Jesus tells us what it means to love God perfectly when He says we are to love God with all that is in us and that we are to love our neighbor as our very self (see Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

The love of God is not an idea; much less is it a feeling. Rather, to love God is to unite our will to His. If I love God I will keep His commandments (see John 14:15). Love, in other words, is a matter of obedience.

And just as to love God is to be obedient to God, to love my neighbor means to want what God wants for him. I love you with a perfect love if I want for you all that God would give you.

To be sure, the will of God for me and for you is wider, deeper and broader than what we know. Nevertheless, we know what God doesn’t want. The Ten Commandments offer us a negative expression of God’s will for humanity.

And we know from the Scriptures and the fathers that God’s will for us is–in a positive sense–rooted in our participation in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4).

We come to share in the divine life through our participation in the sacraments of the Church. To share in God’s life means we must be baptized, confess our sins, receive Holy Communion. To these, we add daily prayer and the reading of Scripture and the keeping of the fasts as we are able.

Is there more to perfect love? Yes! But if we do at least these things, God will slowly reveal the fullness of His will for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The fearful, doubting disciples of Pascha we meet today will soon become bold witnesses for Christ through love! In these next few weeks, as we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we are preparing ourselves for a new outpouring of divine love into our hearts. We have this period of rest, in anticipation of the renewal of our witness to the world.

So get ready! There is more to come!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reason & Rejoicing

April 21 (O.S., April 8), 2019: 6th Sunday of Great Lent; Palm Sunday: Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Philippians 4:4-9
Gospel: John 12:1-18

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle tells us that we are to “rejoice always”! This is not a command to ignore injustice or the other manifestations of sin.

It is also not a command to adopt some kind of “positive thinking” or to stand before a mirror reciting self-affirmations like “Everyday, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

We get a sense of what St Paul means in the final verses of today’s reading: “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

But just as “rejoice always” doesn’t mean what we might at first think it means, the objects of our mediation are not simply those things that please us or to which we are attracted. The true, the noble, the just, the pure, the beautiful and the virtuous are all those things that manifest the will of God.

As we’ve seen before, the Scriptures and so the Church Fathers, have a deeper, richer and more expansive view of human reason. Today we tend to limit “true” to what is empirically verifiable because we limit what reason can know to sense data.

But the Scriptures have a more “catholic” view of reason. Human reason has the ability to grasp, even if not fully understand, the divine plan. We have the ability to see events in a larger context than how they affect us at the moment.

To see the truth of something is not to see it just in itself but within the context of God’s will for all creation. To know something means to see how it fits within the whole economy of salvation.

When St Paul then tells us to “rejoice always” he is commanding us to see our lives within the context of God’s salvific will. To do this, I must learn to see events not simply in terms of how they affect me but how they fit into God’s plan of salvation.

This has the practical effect of always challenging me to transcend, to go beyond, my own narrow perspective. Joy can’t find a home in a self-absorbed heart.

We need only look at the Gospel to see how joy is lost.

Today we commemorate Palm Sunday, the Triumphal Entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.

The children of Jerusalem greet Jesus with palms branches and songs. Rightly, they see Him as the One Who will liberate them from the tyranny of Rome. But in a few days, they will turn against Him. Why? Because their view of liberation is too narrow. They limit liberation to the political dimension. In their own way, they are as materialistic as any contemporary secular American.

For the Jews, the love they feel today will turn to hatred because their expectations are not met. And their expectations are frustrated because their vision is too narrow.

This is no different for us.

Disappointment can breed hatred. Whether it is my expectations for my own life–or for you–the experience of disappointment is an invitation to lay aside my own narrow views and see events within the context of God’s salvific will.

And not simply His will for me. This is why S Paul commands us to meditate on things true, noble, just, pure, beautiful and virtuous. I must cultivate a more catholic vision, that is, a vision of how God’s grace is at work in the lives of all men and women and in all creation.

By brothers and sisters in Christ! To “rejoice always,” to enter into the “joy of the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10), requires that we lay aside our narrow, everyday vision of life.

And its place?

In its place, we must open ourselves to the infinitely more expansive vision of God’s will for all humanity and all creation. We must be willing to see the myriad epiphanies of God’s grace that surround us.

We must be willing to see ourselves and those around us as loved by God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Just Talk to God

Sunday, April 14, 2019: 5th Sunday of Great Lent; Venerable Mary of the Egyptian.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14/Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45/Luke 7:36-50

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Unlike contemporary morality that tends to be guilt-based, the biblical moral vision is shame-based. While shame has a bad reputation for us today, in the Scriptures and so the fathers of the Church, shame is what I feel when, intentionally or not, I am unfaithful to the demands of my station in life.

A guilt-based moral system, on the other hand, is concerned with my own internal moral standards. In such a system, I don’t feel bad when I fail to meet the expectations of those around me–again this is the origin of shame. Instead, I feel guilty when I violate my own conscience.

While it’s tempting to pit one moral system against the other to live a morally and emotionally healthy life, I really need both.

A shame-based morality reminds us that we have a role to play in the community; we matter to those around us. Above all, we matter to God.

This, in turn, points us beyond societal norms and l toward our personal vocations. Each of us has been called by God to a unique way of life and task that only we can fulfill.

And so, I feel ashamed precisely when I fail to fulfill the obligations of my vocation (see Genesis 3:7).

Assumed here, however, is that I understand my vocation and it’s obligations. In broad strokes, this is what it means to have a rightly formed conscience. I must know what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ, a faithful husband, a faithful priest. And I need to be able to differentiate all these from what people tell me it means to be a Christian, a husband, or a priest.

But knowing isn’t enough. A vocation is not an intellectual exercise but a way of life.

And so I need to internalize what being Christian, a husband, and a priest. I simply can’t go through the motions. Christian, husband, and priest are not simply the roles I play. They express or should express, who I am.

This is why shame needs guilt! It isn’t just that fail to meet the standards of others–even God. In failing to be faithful to God, I have failed myself as well.

Put in a more positive light, I am only mostly fully myself when I am being faithful to the life to which God has called me and when I work to fulfill the tasks He has given me.

There is great power in knowing and being personally faithful to the demands of my vocation. To see this we need to look no further than to the saint who we commemorate today: St Mary of Egypt.

St Mary was as extravagant in her repentance as she was in her sin. The difference is this. While her sinful excesses brought her no peace, her severe asceticism did.

But the peace St Mary experienced came not from the severity of her asceticism; she didn’t experience peace because her asceticism was hard but because she was faithful to what God asked of her.

Mary’s peace came from freely embracing her ascetical vocation. It was her acceptance of the life to which God called her that gave her the strength to endure the trials she underwent in the desert.

Like Mary, we find peace neither in merely conforming to God’s will nor having the right values. True peace, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” that guards our “hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV) comes only when we are faithful to our personal vocations.

At this point, you might ask: How do I know the life to which God has called me? How, in other words, do I know what my vocation is?

A vocation begins in the sacraments–above all baptism. It is nourished in Holy Communion. And in those moments when we fail to be faithful, we are restored in Confession.

As indispensable as are the sacraments (and the whole of the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church for that matter) in helping us discern and live our vocation, they are not in and of themselves enough.

To know what God wants from me, to know what He wants for me, I must have a life of personal prayer.

By this I mean not only attending service, reading Scripture or saying the prayers in the prayerbook. As important as these all are, there must come a moment when, like Moses, I speak to God “as one man speaks to another” (compare, Exodus 33:11). To know my vocation, I must ask God to reveal to me His will for me.

And here’s the thing. Many of us are hesitant to ask. The reason is easy to understand. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Asking God what He wants from me, isn’t a matter of looking for some objective fact about my life. No, it means opening my heart to God. I can no more rely on simply on the formal prayer of the Church than a husband can limit his conversations with his wife to quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets!

I must, in other words, speak to Jesus Christ as my Friend; as Someone Who loves me and wants what is best for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the end of the Great Fast and begin our final journey through Holy Week to Pascha, we should each of us take some time to speak directly to God.

And when we do, we should ask Him simply and directly, “God what do want from me?”

We don’t need to worry about how it sounds. Our words might be awkward and stumbling. But God hears and receives our words with delight!

And He will answer! He will honor our request and answer our question if only we will ask!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preparing for Joy

Sunday, March 17 (O.S., March 4), 2019: Triumph of Orthodoxy; St. Gerasimus of the Jordan (475). St. Julian, patriarch of Alexandria; (189); St. James the Faster of Phoenicia (Syria) (6th c.); Martyr Wenceslaus, prince of the Czechs (938); Blessed Basil (Basilko), prince of Rostov (1238).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

If our willingness to forgive others is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that God in Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and forgiven us our trespasses, then joy is the evidence of the sincerity of our forgiveness. To see this, we need to distinguish joy from its cousins pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is a bodily experience while happiness is a psychological one. For example, I get pleasure from eating ice cream and I am happy that I have eaten it.

Joy, however, is different. Joy is the conviction that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I suffer or how I fail, God will bring good out of this.

Joy says with the Apostle Paul, “we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). That is to say,

…to those who have united themselves to the God Who has united Himself to them,

…to those who love their neighbor because they love God,

…to those who forgive because they have been forgiven,

…God brings good out of all they experience.

And the good that God brings is not simply for those of us who are believers. The good that God brings for us is not for us alone but for those around us.

We see this in the saints of the Old Testament who endured suffering as they waited for the Messiah. They hoped for the gift we received.

We see this as well in the saints of the New Testament who, like Andrew, having personally encountered Jesus were eager to share their new found joy with others.

Without joy, without the conviction that as Julian of Norwich says that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”  life becomes unbearable.

And life becomes unbearbale whether we fail or succeed.

If I fail, the absence of joy drives me to despair. How can what I have done be undone? How can my failures be made right?

If I succeed, the absence of joy drives me to anxiety. Will I succeed tomorrow? Will the things I’ve done today be undone tomorrow?

Faced with a joyless life I flee to a life of pleasure; I pursue happiness. Only to realize that happiness like pleasure is fleeting. Like an addict, if I pursues pleasure I quickly discover that what felt good yesterday, flees less good today. The same with happiness.

And so when my life is joyless, I soon give up trying to feel good. Since pleasure and happiness are fleeting, I instead work to avoid pain. But this too proves to be an illusion:

The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.ut this too proves to be an illusion (Psalm 90:10).

Where then is joy to be found? How then do I foster a life of joy?

We need–I need–to first realize that joy is not pleasure or happiness; it is neither bodily or psychological but spiritual and as such it is a gift from God. St Paul tells us that together with love, peace ,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Of these, the only one that is at least partially within our power is self-control. To grow in joy, I must first master myself. This is the purpose of the ascetical of the Church.

Slowly, year after year, as I take on the Church’s proscribed ascetical disciplines, I grow in self-control. While never denying the fundamental goodness of pleasure and happiness, the Church’s ascetical tradition teaches me the limits of both.

But the Church’s offers more than simply a lesson of the limits of pleasure and happiness. From the moral tradition of the Church, I learn the virtuous ways to experience pleasure and happiness.

Ultimately though, I find–we find–the source of joy in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Personal prayer and ascetical effort good though they are are insufficient for the joyful life.

Likewise, as good as they are, the liturgical life of the Church–the daily cycle of service, the devotional services and even the Divine Liturgy itself–is insufficient.

We find joy in the sacraments; it is born in the waters of baptism, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion and restored by Holy Confession when we fall into sin.

The season of the Great Fast is nothing more or less than our preparation for joy!

Not simply the joy of Pascha, not simply the joy of the One Day, but of a life of joy!

During the Great Fast we intensify our prayer and ascetical efforts so that we can remove from our lives anything that quenches the Spirit. We abstain from evil, examine our lives carefully, attend closely to the Scriptures, so that we can recognize and “hold fast to that which is good” where ever we may find it (see, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us prepare ourselves for the joyful life that Christ stands ready to give us and, through us, to the world!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

The Joy of Judgment

Sunday, March 2 (OS., February 18) 2019: Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday); St. Leo the Great, pope of Rome (461). St. Agapitus, bishop of Synnada in Phrygia (4th c.). St. Flavian the Confessor, patriarch of Constantinople (449). St. Cosmas, monk, of Yakhromsk (1492).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Every year when we come to this Sunday, my attention is drawn to the kontakion for the feast. Every year we are reminded by the Church that there will come a day for all of us when “the books will be opened and all secrets disclosed.”

This day when the book of my life is opened and all my secrets are revealed is the Last Judgment. And, as both the Scriptures and the icon of the feast make clear, all of this will be public.

It isn’t just, in other words, that the book of my life and my secrets will be known by Jesus; He already knows me better than I know myself. No, on that Great and Last Day, the whole of my life–the virtuous and the vicious–will be laid out for the angels and all humanity to see.

From one perspective, the dread and anxiety that I, or really any of us, feel at the thought of standing naked before all creation is understandable. As we’ve talked about before, all of us have done things about which we are naturally and justly ashamed. This what St Paul means when he says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NJKV).

But if we are honest with ourselves, there is no real comfort in the universality of sin and shame. As will hear next week, after their transgression our First Parents “knew that they were naked” and in reaction “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” to hid not from God but from each other (Genesis 3:7).

However understandable is the dread I experience at the prospect of the Last Judgment, my fear is itself the consequence of sin. Like Adam and Eve in the moments after the Fall, it is because I am still unrepentant that I fear being known not only by God but by you as well.

In a fallen world, we spend immense amounts of time, energy and wealth hiding not only from God and each other but from ourselves. We craft believable, but ultimately false, images of ourselves. We work so hard to remain unknown and unseen even by those to whom we are closest.

The tragedy of all this is that the only real consequence of hiding is that we are lonely.

Seen from this perspective, far from being something to fear the Last Judgment is something to be desired. Rather than flee from the Judgment which is to come, we should prepare for it with joyful anticipation. To know the judgment of God and is to know the fullness of His love!

The Last Judgment is the moment in which finally all the lies we tell ourselves and all the shame that cripple us melt away in the fire of God’s love. It is the moment in which, finally, we are known and loved for who we are and not who we pretend to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we are finally able to love others for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which the power and glory of God’s supra-abundant love are made clear for all to see.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we together with all creation are illumined by that love.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we will come to know not only God but ourselves and each other.

If all this is true, why am I still afraid?

Because my love is still immature, still imperfect. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that we will be judged based on how we care–or don’t–for others. It isn’t enough to have faith since ”Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19).

St James is unstinting in his condemnation of what the philosopher Etienne Gilson calls “piety without technique.” The Apostle’s clarity is brutal the kind of faith that says to the poor, hungry and naked, “‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’” but doesn’t “give them the things which are needed for the body is the faith of demons. And so he says faith that “does not have works, is dead”  (James 2:16, 17).

We must be cautious here.

St Paul tells us our faith is not about what we eat or drink but about what we freely do out of love for Christ and our neighbor. A few chapters after today’s epistle, he reminds the Corinthians that while miracles have their place, what matters most is the wisdom that reveals the secrets of the human heart and moves the unbelievers to fall down on their faces to “worship God.” Our works must not only be practical but be inspired by the divine wisdom that transforms unbelievers into disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ who go on to “report that God is truly among you” (see 1 Corinthians 14:25).

All that we do–the sacraments, the services of the Church, our personal prayer, our asceticism and yes, our good deeds–have only one goal. We do all these things to strip away the lies and the shame that would kill love.

As these things fall away, we grow in wisdom and become a bit more who we will be revealed to be at the Last Judgment.

And on that Day?

On that Day, we will be clothed in Divine Glory as were Adam and Eve before the Fall.

On that Day, our beauty will be there for all creation to see.

On that day, we will thank God not only for the gift of our own lives but the lives of all humanity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast, let us not lose sight of the fact that we are getting ready not simply to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ but moving toward the Last Judgment, for that Great Day when “God will wipe away every tear” and when “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things” the lies and the shame of sin, will “have passed away.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Entering Into Freedom

Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.

Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.

But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.

This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.

So what does?

Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.

…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.

Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.

And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.

And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.

We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.

Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.

You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).

Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.

And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.

When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Human Violemce

Sunday, January 13 (OS., December 31, 2018) 2019: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast and Leavetaking (33rd Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord.

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

Christ is Born!

St Matthew’s account of our Savior’s birth is drenched in violence. For example, in his attempt to end the life of the newborn Messiah, Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two.

Horrific as this is, there is something even more horrible that we hear in the silence of the Apostle’s account.

While Matthew quotes the Prophet Jeremiah about the depth and breadth of the parents’ sorrow, he gives no indication that they defended their children. If the mothers–and especially the fathers–of Jerusalem didn’t open the doors children’s’ killers, they certainly didn’t bar the door either.

Matthew gives us no indication that the parents resisted the slaughter of their own children. Instead, it appears as if the parents of Jerusalem, even if unwillingly, stood by and allowed their sons to be slaughtered.

Why would they do this?

Herod’s murderous order and the cooperation of soldiers makes a certain rough sense. They had positions in society that they wanted to protect. Herod especially was a man of great wealth and power because he cooperated with the hated Romans.

But why did the parents and the whole of Jerusalem not rise up in rebellion? Why did they stand aside an allow this great evil?

In the verse immediately prior to those in today’s Gospel we are told that when Herod heard about the birth of the Messiah “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3, NJKV).

As he so often does, St John Chrysostom goes to the heart of the matter. “Since Herod was king, he was naturally afraid both for himself and for his children. But why was Jerusalem troubled?”

After all the coming of the “the Savor, Benefactor and Deliverer” would be to the advantage not only of Jerusalem and the Jewish People but all humanity.

And, after all, it would be a great honor for the Savior to be born of Jewish woman; not only Mary but the whole of the Jewish People would be vindicated for their fidelity to God.

So why was Jerusalem afraid? Why did they passive cooperate with what Holy Tradition says was the murder of some 14,000 infants?

Chrysostom says they behaved as they did because they were gripped by the same “idolatrous affections” that caused the Hebrew Children to turn away in the hearts from God after their liberation from Egypt many centuries ago.

As horrible as was the killing, as oppressive as was Rome in ways great and small, submission to the Empire offered wealth to some and at least the illusion of security to all.

It is tempting to look back at Matthew’s account of betrayal and violence and think that we have somehow grown beyond such things. While I can’t speak for others, I know this isn’t the case for me.

No, I’m not violent but how easily have I become attached to my position as a priest in the Church. I wouldn’t raise my hand against others but how easily come cutting words to my lips or rise malicious thoughts in my heart.

The difference between Herod, the citizens of Jerusalem and me is one of degree. Like Herod “and all Jerusalem with him,” my heart is often troubled when God makes even the smallest request of me.

Like the Galatians, I “bite and devour” my neighbor by my lack of charity (Galatians 5:15).

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).

Like Saul, I do all this because I am more attached to the gifts than the Giver. I  love the things of God more than God Himself.

Or maybe U imagine that what I have, what I have accomplished, I have done simply on my own. Even divine grace I twist into something that I deserve, as something that is mine by right rather than from God’s love for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has blessed each of us with spiritual, intellectual, social and yes, material, gifts. When we forget that what we have we have as God’s gift to us, when we imagine that what we have, we have by right rather than grace, then, at that moment, we too become capable of great violence.

In His Incarnation, Jesus Christ has saved us not simply from condemnation in the life to come but freed us from the violence we see not only in the Scriptures but all around us. The fact that this violence is usually social and emotional rather than physically should not lull us into imagining that violence doesn’t mar our lives and doesn’t dwell in our hearts.

But having acknowledged this, we need not despair. Rather, we turn to Christ with repentance for our sins and gratitude for His many gifts.

If we do this, then when in response to the festal greeting “Christ is Born!” our response “Glorify Him!” will be more than words. Our glorification of Christ will have the power to transform our lives and the lives of all we meet.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Remembering God

SDecember 2 (O.S., November 19) 2018: 27th Sunday after Pentecost; Prophet Obadiah (9th c. B.C.). Martyr Barlaam (304). Martyr Heliodorus (273). Martyr Azes, and with him 150 soldiers (284). Ven. Barlaam and Monk loasaph, prince of India, and St. Abenner the King, father of St. loasaph (4thc.). Ven. Hilarion of Georgia, wonderworker of Thessalonica (875). Ven. Barlaam, abbot of the Kyiv Caves (1065).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Sometimes what Jesus doesn’t say can be as important as what He does say. The parable we hear this morning is a case in point.

The Rich Fool is not condemned for his care and skill as a farmer; he is a good workman “and the worker is worth his wages” (see Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18). And anticipating a great harvest, he carefully assesses the cost and not only lays a foundation but successfully builds his barns (see Luke 14:28-29).

All of this is to say that, in a different context, the farmer’s actions are not only prudent but commendable. In his actions at least, the farmer is the model of the “wise and prudent steward” who being trustworthy in small things, is judge able to be faithful in great things as well (see Luke 16:1-13).

Nor is there any indication that the farmer failed in his obligation to pay tithes or care for the poor. Jesus doesn’t say of the farmer what He says to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocrites who “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (see, Matthew 23:23).

Nor is the farmer condemned for the mere fact that he is wealthy.

No by all outward appearances, the rich farmer is a good man and an observant Jew. But God doesn’t judge by appearances (see 1 Samuel 16:7), God knows not only what we do but what is in our hearts (see Jeremiah 17:10, Proverbs 21:2, 1 Corinthians 2:11).

And in his heart, the farmer is a fool. In his heart, this otherwise good man and obedient son of the Law says “there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, Psalm 53:1). Tragically, the Rich Fool loses his salvation, he suffers condemnation, not for what he does but for his forgetfulness of God.

Like the Rich Fool, we are all of us tempted to live as if there was no God. We are all of us inclined to a life of “practical atheism.”

We sometimes imagine that our evangelical task is to correct theological errors. While the teachings of the Church are important, they are in a sense secondary. What is primary is that people remember God.

I know from my own life, it is easy enough to go through my day forgetful of God, to live the life of practical atheism that I mentioned a moment ago.

Living in Madison, we encounter everyday men and women who are generous of heart and who work tirelessly for the betterment of others. Whatever else might be said of the Madison in general and the University in particular, the practical love of neighbor is at the very center of both.

And yet, how many of our neighbors live not such much indifferent to God as unaware of His presence in their lives? As a consequence, they never know that they are loved by the Creator of the Universe?

St John Chrysostom says that when Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” (see, Matthew 5:13) He means this: While He has redeemed the world by His death and resurrection, it belongs to us keep the world falling back into corruption. We are not the redeemers of the world, we are not called to save anyone.

What we are called to do, is to remind people of the presence of God in their lives. By our words and especially are deeds (see, James 2:14-22), we are witnesses to not simply the presence of God in human affairs but His great love for each and every single human being.

To be faithful to our calling we need to remember not only that everyone we meet is loved by God but that, turning now to the epistle, the opponent in our evangelical work is not other people but the enemy of souls. We “do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” St Paul reminds us, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

When we remind people of God’s presence and love in their lives, we oppose no one but the devil who with his fallen angels seeks to distract humanity from experiencing God’s love. In his envy of us, the enemy of souls makes himself the opponent of patience, kindness, and courtesy in our hearts, our families, and society.

In opposing the distractions of the devil, we become not only leaven for a more just and humane society (see, Luke 13:20–21) but coworkers with God for the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have one task and one task alone: To remind people of the loving presence of God not simply in the life of all we meet. We are called to remind people that God dwells in each human heart.

By our witness, we invite people to enter into their own hearts and there find there the God Who from before the beginning of the world loves them and called them, even as He has called us, to live lives that are”holy and without blame” (see, Ephesians 1:4).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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