Sunday, April 15 (O.S., April 2), 2018: Antipascha; Second Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of St. Thomas; Ven. Titus the Wonderworker (9th c.). Martyrs Amphianus and Edesius of Lycia (306). Martyr Polycarp of Alexandria (4th c.).
From the beginning, doubt has traveled alongside the proclamation of the Gospel. Take the response of the disciples in the final moments before Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
We read in today’s Matin’s Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) that when the disciples saw, for what would be the last time, their once-dead Friend now clearly very much alive again “they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (v. 17). Even though they had spent 40 days with the Risen Lord Jesus and even though they worshipped Him as “Lord and God” (see John 20:28), some still struggled with doubt.
While the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead is often met with great joy by those closest to Him, some will respond with disbelief.
Look at Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus “had cast seven demons.” Though initially overcome with amazement and fear on that first Pascha morning, she quickly gets control of herself and goes to the other disciples “as they mourned and wept” and tells them that Jesus is alive. But, as St Mark says the apostles “did not believe” her (Mark 16:9-11). Or, as St Luke bluntly states, the Good News of the Resurrection seems to St Peter and the other apostles seems “an idle tale.” Mary and the other women are simply not believed (Luke 24:11).
Seen in the light of these events today’s Gospel is neither a surprise nor a scandal. We shouldn’t imagine that the apostles and disciples had an easier time of believing because they were witnesses to the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was not simply a new thing, it was unheard of. Yes, the disciples eventually became witnesses–even to the point of death–but for all of them, faith in the resurrection only came over time. Even when standing before the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, faith can be a struggle.
In the tradition of the Church, doubt isn’t fundamentally a matter of intellectual uncertainty. If it were, then proclaiming the Gospel would be simply a matter of presenting solid evidence in a logically and compelling fashion.
We think of doubt as intellectual uncertainty because we have confused the Church with the school room or the law court. This though makes faith in Jesus Christ not a gift of divine grace to be received with a humble and thankful heart but the work of human reason; not the work of God but of the skilled debaters of this age (see 1 Corinthians 1:20).
To say that faith is not the work of human reason doesn’t make faith in Jesus Christ unreasonable. Look at St Thomas in today’s Gospel. When his fellow disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord,” he demands a very particular kind of proof. He will not believe, he says “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side.”
Thomas demands not biblical citations or philosophical arguments but empirical validation. He will only believe when the evidence of his senses confirms the Resurrection. In this, the Apostle Thomas is one of the first Christian scientists.
It’s worth noting that when Jesus again appears to the disciples–this time with Thomas among them–He doesn’t dismiss Thomas’s call for empirical evidence. Instead, Jesus freely offers it. This is why the icon for today’s feast is called in Greek, “The Touching of Thomas” and in The Slavonic “The Belief of Thomas.”
Thomas asks for and receives from Jesus the evidence he needs to believe.
The first lesson here for us is clear. Contrary to what we often hear, science and the Gospel are not opposed. Far from being the enemy of faith, science can support the Gospel and even lead us to faith. Yes, as St Thomas and the other disciples find out, the glory of the Resurrection transcends what empirical science can know; Jesus walks through locked doors; St Peter’s shadow, as we read in Acts, restores the sick to health.
To say that science supports and can even lead to faith in Jesus Christ is very different from saying that faith is dependent on human reason. While Jesus is willing to provide the evidence Thomas needs, our Lord immediately follows this with a caution: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
The Apostle Thomas asks for a particular kind of evidence–in this case empirical–because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. In fairness, as we’ve seen and will see again next week, Thomas is not unique in this. Again, on that first Pascha morning, the apostles doubted the Myrrhbearing Women even as the women doubted the testimony of the angel.
Why didn’t Thomas trust his fellow apostles?
The answer is easy enough. He didn’t believe them because he knew them! St Peter denied Jesus three times. Except for John, all the apostles abandoned Jesus.
But even John’s witness was lacking. In the days leading up to Holy Week, he and his brother James try to promote themselves over the other disciples asking Jesus to allow them to sit at His right and left hands when He comes in glory (see Mark 10:35-37).
The very presence of the apostles in the upper room reflects their lack of faith. They were there, behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19).
So what does this all mean for us as Orthodox Christians as we gather together to pray in a small room on the campus of a sometimes aggressively secular university campus?
First, we must keep in mind that human reason and science are not the enemies of the Christian faith. This is so even when, as often happens, they are misused. As St Paul reminds us whatever is true, just as whatever is noble, … just, … pure, … lovely, … of good report,” virtuous or “praiseworthy” all these can and often do strengthen us in our faith even as they can lead those outside the Church to faith in Jesus Christ (see Philippians 4:8).
Second, I must attend to the moral integrity of my witness. By my actions, I can be a bridge to Christ or a wall that obscures Him. Am I a credible witness to divine love, mercy, and forgiveness or do my actions bear witness to some other god, a god of my own creation?
Third and for now last, what of the quality of our life as a community? Tertullian in his defense of the Gospel writes “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead” the pagans to recognize Christians as followers of Jesus. “See how they love one another,” he says the pagans say. For while the pagans “are animated by mutual hatred” Christians are “are ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39).
My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our love for each other and for those outside the walls of the church this morning that leads others to faith in Jesus Christ. This mutual love also sustains and strengths our faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ!
If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.
About St. John Chrysostom:
St. John Chrysostom (“The Golden Tongue”) was born at Antioch in about the year 347 into the family of a military-commander, spent his early years studying under the finest philosophers and rhetoricians and was ordained a deacon in the year 381 by the bishop of Antioch Saint Meletios. In 386 St. John was ordained a priest by the bishop of Antioch, Flavian.
Over time, his fame as a holy preacher grew, and in the year 397 with the demise of Archbishop Nektarios of Constantinople—successor to Sainted Gregory the Theologian—Saint John Chrysostom was summoned from Antioch for to be the new Archbishop of Constantinople.
Exiled in 404 and after a long illness because of the exile, he was transferred to Pitius in Abkhazia where he received the Holy Eucharist, and said, “Glory to God for everything!”, falling asleep in the Lord on 14 September 407.
April 1 (O.S., March 19), 2018: Sixth Sunday of the Great Lent: Palm Sunday, the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem; Martyrs Chrysanthus and Daria, and those with them at Rome: Claudius, Hilaria, Jason, Maurus, Diodorus presbyter, and Marianus deacon (283). Martyr Pancharius at Nicomedia (ca. 302).
The epistle doesn’t mention at all our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. Instead, St Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” And, lest we miss what he means, he repeats himself and says again we are to rejoice.
He then goes on to explain to us what it means to rejoice.
We are to be gentle, to lay aside anxiety in favor of prayer, and with a thankful and peaceful heart ask God for what we need.
He concludes by encouraging us to reflect on all things that are true, noble, just, pure, and lovely. We are to concern ourselves not with human failure but with what is virtuous and praiseworthy.
Importantly, the Apostle doesn’t tell us to limit our mediation to those things which are specifically or explicitly Christian. No, whatever form it takes, if it is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely we are to reflect on it and allow it to shape our lives.
But, in all this, there is not one word about Jesus.
As for the Gospel, the events we are celebrating this morning are almost an afterthought. Unlike the Gospel at Matins (Matthew 21:1-11;15-17), most of the text is devoted to the events surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.
As is so often the case, those around Jesus–even those closest to Him–misunderstand. The Apostle John says that the disciples–and he–“did not understand” what was happening.
Judas misunderstood because he was consumed by greed.
The chief priests misunderstood because they were consumed by jealousy.
Even the crowds came “not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.”
The only one who seems to have any sense of what is happening is Mary the sister of Lazarus. Mary knows that Jesus is going to die. And so she “took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”
Like the disciples, I often misunderstand the will of God because, to return to today’s epistle, I give myself over to grumbling. Frankly, I have an almost unending list of complaints and disappointments. In my more lucid and honest moments, I realize how easy it is for me to find fault with others and myself. I hold on to injuries and resist forgiving those who have wronged me.
This is why I am forever misunderstanding what God asks of me.
Since St Paul sees fit to say what he did to the Church at Philippi, it seems likely that–for all my shortcomings–I’m really no different from any other Christian. We all need to be reminded to attend to the myriad signs of God’s grace and love for us. We all of us need to cultivate a sense not simply of gratitude but celebration.
And if we take St Paul’s counsel to heart, we must cast as wide a net as possible. We must thank God for whatever is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely.
Only in this way, to work backward through the text, we acquire a spirit of gentleness.
Only in this way, will we find the boldness to ask God for what we need.
Only in this way, will we fulfill the command to rejoice in the Lord always.
The crowds, the high priests, Judas and the disciples all of them had the opportunity to sit and eat and drink and talk with God. And all of them allowed that opportunity to slip through their fingers because they “did not understand.”
Instead, they preferred signs and wonders or power and wealth. All good things in themselves to be sure but not the point.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Each day, each moment, Christ comes ready to enter into our lives. He stands at the door to our hearts knocking. If we open our heart to Him, He will come in and dine with us (see Revelation 3:20).
What God wants from us is not palms or hymns. What He wants from us is simply this: He wants us.
March 25 (O.S., March 12), 2018: Fifth Sunday of the Great Lent; Venerable Mary of Egypt.
St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.). St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome (604). St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).
Today the Church commemorates our mother among the saints, Mary of Egypt.
Thinking this week about St Mary’s life, I found myself wondering what I would have said to her if after her baptism she came to me asking for advice. What, I wondered, would I say to a newly illumined Christian who said to me that as penance for her sins, she was going and to live by herself in the desert for the next 50 years or so?
To be honest, I would in likelihood have discouraged Mary. I would have told her that in baptism her sins had been forgiven and there was no need for her to do penance.
If she persisted, I might have suggested she involve herself in the parish for a few years to become settled in the faith. I might say that if in a few years she still wants to leave the world, she should consider entering a monastery.
And hopefully, after giving me a respectful hearing, Mary would dismiss everything I said and walk right out into the desert. Yes, the right thing for the newly illumined Mary to do would be to ignore me.
She should ignore me not because what I told her was wrong theologically but because my advice was imprudent. Prudence is a virtue we often ignore because we mistakenly identify it with caution or timidity.
Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth!
Prudence is another word of “wisdom” or “discernment.” It is the virtue that looks at all the options in front of me and helps me discern what God is asking of me. Then, having determined my destination, prudence is the virtue that helps me discern the steps along the way to fulfilling God will for my life.
My advice to the newly illumine Mary of Egypt would be wrong because it wasn’t discerning. I didn’t ask the most important question: What is God calling to this woman to do? What is her vocation?
Instead, my words reflect what is an all too often occurrence in parishes. We don’t ask the vocational question–what is God calling this person to do. Instead, we ask the very narrow administrative question: How does this person fit into my plans for the parish?
This isn’t to denigrate administration which St Paul lists among the various gifts God gives us for building up the Church (see, 1 Corinthians 12:28). But the first question we must ask is what does God want from us, personally? What, in other words, is our personal and unique vocation?
Many Orthodox Christians reject the idea that we have personal vocations as “Protestant.” And yet, our Lord is clear: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16, NKJV).
Many people are spiritually adrift because they have no sense of their vocation, of what it is God has chosen and appointed them to do in this life. So without a sense of their own calling, the life of the Church becomes a series of distractions.
They might become focused on attending services, evangelizing, or debating the fine points of theology. Or, just as likely, they might be swept away by fundraising, ecclesiastical gossip, or the moral failings of others.
Without a sense of my own vocation, of what God has called me to do, the richness of Holy Tradition overwhelms me even as the behavior of others becomes for me a constant source of distraction.
What I don’t have is what we see in the life of St Mary of Egypt: Peace.
Read Mary’s vitaand it becomes clear that for all the deprivations and hardships she suffers in the desert, she is at peace. Think, for example, of the lion that anoints the saint’s feet after her death.
At peace with God, Mary is at peace with the creation. Not only that she is a source of peace for others. The lion who guards her body doesn’t attack Abba Zosimas but helps him dig the saint’s grave. And when they are done? “Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.”
St Mary is at peace with God, at peace with creation, at peace with others and, by the end of her life, at peace with herself.
God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks.
So what does this mean for us?
Simply this, the first task of the spiritual life is to discern God’s will for us. What, in a concrete sense, has God called me to do? What life has He called me to live?
Holy Tradition–the Scriptures, the fathers, the teachings and services of the Church, the life of personal prayer–all of this helps guide us as we discern our vocation.
Here I think it is worth saying a brief word about the place of the parish priest. Basically, what’s my job?
The priest isn’t called to tell us what God wants from us but to help us discern for ourselves our vocation. In my own experience as a priest, this has largely turned out to be a “negative” task. What I mean by this, is that it usually means reminding people of the limits of the Christian life.
As a practical matter, this means telling people what we can’t do if we wish to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel. As for what they should, I’ve found it best to remain silent.
The reason for my silence is straightforward. In any given situations, there are myriad good things a person can do. While we have very clear guidance about what we shouldn’t do, we have great liberty in deciding which of the many good possible deeds we will do.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given each of us a great freedom to create from our lives something beautiful for Him! What this will look like is different for each person. Indeed, it will look different for each person as he or she moves through life.
But as long as we remain faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we can be certain that God will reveal Himself to us and the life to which He has called us.
May God through the prayers of St Mary of Egypt reveal our vocations to each of us and grant us the grace to be, like our holy mather, faithful to the work He gives each of us to do!
Sunday, March 18 (O.S., March 5), 2018: Fourth Sunday of the Great Lent; St John Climacus. Martyrs Conon, Onisius of Isauria (2nd c.). Martyr Conon the Gardener of Pamphylia (251). Virgin-martyr Irais of Antinoe in Egypt (3rd c.). Martyr Eulampius. St. Mark (5th c.). St. Hesychius (790).
Today we commemorate our father among the saints John Climacus or St John of the Ladder. The saint’s title is a nod to his work on the spiritual life The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Read in monasteries during Great Lent, the Ladder sketches out the 30 steps or “rungs” by which the soul ascends from repentance to the intimate communion with God in which we come to share in the divine life (see 2 Peter 1:4).
Though written for monastics, there is also a great deal of wisdom in the Ladder for those of us who don’t live in a monastery. For example, St John tells his reader “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously.”
At first, this might seem less than encouraging. But this is only if we listen to the first half of what the saint says and ignoring the last half.
Yes, I will sin and I will sin daily. In fact, I’ll sin throughout the day in ways great and small. But this isn’t–or at least needn’t–be the whole story of my life. By God’s grace, we all have the ability to repent, to stand our ground “courageously” when tempted to surrender to sin.
As does the whole of the Church’s tradition, Climacus places great importance on human freedom. Actually, after grace, human freedom is the only thing that matters for the saint (and Holy Tradition).
…no matter how much I’ve messed up,
…no matter how badly I’ve failed,
…no matter how serious the sins I’ve committed,
by God’s grace, I have the ability–the freedom–to begin again. And not just me. All of us can begin again.
When in the Divine Liturgy we ask God to grant us a life of “peace and repentance” what we are asking for is precisely this ability to begin again. To start over.
For many Christians, even those who are sincere in their love of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, the idea of a “life of repentance” sounds dreary.
Such a life sounds wholly negative.
Such a life sounds as if it were focused solely on their shortcomings.
Such a life sounds like life with a nagging wife or an abusive husband.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy) says that the because children are filled with an unbounded enthusiasm for life, they never tire of repetition. What was just done, they want to be done again. And “the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”
God, however, Chesterton says is strong enough to bear repetition. Every morning God says to the sun “Do it again,” and again the sun rises.The “sun rises regularly” because God “never gets tired” of watching the sunrise.
Chesterton goes on to say that it isn’t from any necessity that compels God to make “all daisies alike.” And yet God, Who makes “every daisy separately” never tires “of making them” alike. “It may be,” Chesterton says, that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
To live a life of repentance is to live a life in which we grow younger. It means to live a life in which we grow in innocence and the joy that only innocence can know.
To live a life of repentance means to remove from my life everything that compromises my freedom, that obscures from my eyes the beauty that God sees all creation and in each of us. Repentance frees me to love.
Though the world, and let’s be frank not a few Christians, see repentance as negative, St John Climacus and the Church’s tradition with him sees it as wholly positive.
You see, as I grow in my knowledge of God, as I grow in my obedience to Him, I begin to see creation as He sees it. This, after all, is what love does. To fall in love doesn’t just me I’m attracted to someone. To fall in love, to be in love means that I love what my beloved loves.
And to love God? To lay aside everything in us that would make it impossible for us to love Him? What does this mean?
If we love God, we don’t simply love what He loves. No, if we love God, we love as He loves, without qualification or limit.
Repentance changes us so that when we at creation, we the goodness and beauty that God sees.
Repentance, in other words, is how we grow in our ability to love God and so to love as God loves all that He has created.
And repentance means to see in ourselves the goodness and beauty that God sees in us. It is this experience that gives us, to return to St John’s advice, the courage to remain faithful in the face of our shortcomings and inevitable practical and moral failures.
No matter how successful I might be, no matter what accolades I receive, no matter how many people praise me, if I don’t know that I am loved by God I will feel myself to be a fraud and live a life of anxious striving.
If we truly love God, we won’t neglect the abilities God has given us but instead see them as they are. They are concrete means God has given us to grow in our love of Him and of each other.
A life of repentance is anything but a dreary. It is a wholly positive way of life in which we grow in our love for God, our neighbor and, yes, even ourselves as men and women who have first been loved by God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We have been given a better way–the way of repentance. So let us from this moment on and by God’s grace and our own efforts remove from our lives all of love’s obstacles. Let us repent!
From the Cross, in this terrible moment, when humanity says “No!” to God, God says His final and definitive “Yes!” to us.
From the Cross, He forgives us our sin.
From the Cross, He looks at the Apostle who betrays Him, the faces of the disciples who abandon and deny Him, the Jewish officials who prosecute Him, and the Roman who mock, beat, condemn and crucify Him and without reservation forgives.
From the Cross, He accepts the repentance of the thief and opens Paradise not only to him but to us as well.
From the Cross, and despite all of our sins, He doesn’t turn away from us, who turn away from Him. He doesn’t betray us who daily betray Him. He doesn’t abandon us, who abandon Him.
From the Cross, He stretches out His arms and embraces us with love.
This is why when we look at the Cross, we see not our shame but His Glory.
This is why when we look at the Cross, we don’t see Hell’s victory but Jesus’ victory over Hell.
This is why when we look at the Cross, we see not the death of God but His Resurrection.
This is why when we look at the Cross, we break into a song of praise:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
On the Cross, in this terrible moment, when we say “No!” to God, God says “Yes!” to us.
On the Cross, when it seems that everything has come to an end, Jesus says “It is finished!” and now through His mercy, we are freed from fear and shame.
On the Cross, God overcomes the power of sin and death.
On the Cross, God’s mercy and love, make forgiveness a reality and restores hope to our lives.
On the Cross, God says that sin and death never have the last word in our lives. It isn’t our “No!” to Him that matters but His “Yes!” to us.
On the Cross, God says “Yes!” to us.
Let us now take up our cross and say “Yes!” to Him Who takes up His Cross and says “Yes!” to us.
Let us now take up our cross and follow Him as His disciples and witnesses.
Let us now take up our cross and announce to the world the mercy and love of God.
Let us now take up our cross and say “Yes!” to Him Who has from all eternity and through the Cross says “Yes!” to us.
March 4 (O.S., February 19) 2018: Second Sunday of the Great Lent: St. Gregory Palamas the Archbishop of Thessalonica; Synaxis of all Venerable Fathers of the Kyiv Caves; Apostles Archippus and Philemon of the Seventy, and Martyr Apphia (1st c.); Martyrs Maximus, Theodotus, Hesychius, and Asclepiodotus of Adrianopolis (305-311); Sts. Eugene and Macarius, presbyters, confessors at Antioch (363); St. Dositheus of Palestine (6th c.), disciple of St. Abba Dorotheus. St. Rabulas (530).
Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, Gregory Palamas the 13th-century Archbishop of Thessalonica.
Reading the saint’s vita, indeed reading the life of many of saints and fathers of the Church, it’s hard to avoid the realization that it has never been easy to follow Christ. St Gregory, for example, spent the three years immediately before he was consecrated bishop in prison because of his unwavering commitment to the Gospel.
After he became the archbishop of Thessalonica, popular opposition prevented from taking his diocese. In fact, he spent most of his episcopate not in Thessalonica but an exile in Constantinople.
So what is it about the saint that stirred up such opposition?
St Gregory is primarily known for his defense of those monks on Mount Athos who taught that it was possible to see the divine light with, as they said, our bodily eyes. This teaching has a solid biblical foundation. On Mount Tabor, the disciples Peter, James and John, the monks argued, were able to see the divine light when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes (see Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36).
The important point for our salvation is this. If, as Palamas’ opponents argued, what the monks saw was not the uncreated divine light but merely an internal psychological phenomenon (a “created reality” as they said), then if fact we don’t know God. All we know is our idea about God.
It also means that my body hasn’t been redeemed. Instead, my body becomes an obstacle to communion with God.
And if all this is true then God never REALLY became Man and took on our nature. All we have, for Palamas’s opponents, are ideas. Beautiful ideas, inspiring ideas but just ideas.
This is the error that St Gregory fought. While the details of his argument are interesting, they are too complex for a homily. What matters for us is his conclusion that we can have a tangible experience of God. Even in this life, we are not limited merely to ideas about God.
In the troparion for Transfiguration we sing that Jesus revealed as much of His glory as the disciples “as they could bear.” The idea here is clear. On Mount Tabor Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the divine light that always surrounded Jesus. They, and we, see as much of God’s glory as we are able to bear.
My openness to see and willingness to receive His glory is what matters.
For many Orthodox Christians, hearing that the experience of God is an ordinary part of life in Christ is something they’ve never heard. It such a strange thing to hear that it sounds wrong.
But one of the central reasons why my spiritual life often feels rote, like I’m only going through the motions is because I confuse the means of the Christian life with its goal. The sacraments and the services of the Church, the ascetical life and the works of mercy, reading the Scriptures and the fathers, all of these are the means of the Christian life. They are things we do.
But the goal of the Christian life is, as St Gregory tells us, to experience God’s love for us. And to experience not just theoretically but tangibly. Bodily even.
Often when I tell people this they nod their heads in understanding but then they’ll pause. Their expression makes clear that they are wondering why they haven’t experienced God’s love for them. Across their face is written the thought, “What’s wrong with me? Does God not love me?”
In fact many of us do experience God’s love for us. We just don’t recognize the experience for what it is. Often a deep sense of peace will settle on a person. It is these moments of inner quiet that the monks of Mount Athos understood to be an experience of God’s love.
I overlook the importance of these moments because I so rarely take the time to be still. I get so busy that those moments of inner quiet that the monks saw as the fruit of the Jesus Prayer–”Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on me a sinner”–can seem to us more like checking out of life. Worse, we might even wonder if there isn’t something physically or psychologically wrong with us.
The opposite is the case.
The busyness that consumes my life, the frenetic pursuit of material goods or social status, are the real pathologies of human life. It is inner quiet–heyschia in Greek–that’s normal and healthy not only spiritually but physically and psychologically.
None of this is to say it is wrong to work hard or to be successful, Far from it!
God has given us not only spiritual gifts but material and intellectual gifts as well. All the gifts that God gives us should be received with thanksgiving. And, like the good steward in the Gospel (Matthew 25:14-30), we should develop the gifts God has given us so that we are profitable servants.
The problem is that I’ve flipped the script. I value worldly success as an end in itself. My love of worldly success is so deeply rooted, I even think of my spiritual life in worldly terms. How long I pray and how strictly I fast; how many good deeds have I done or how well do I know Scripture or the fathers.
Again, like material and social success, are good gifts given in the service of growing in God’s love. All the good things in our lives find their fulfillment in the experience of inner quiet. In the tangible experience of God’s love for us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we go through the rest of the Great Fast, we should try to carve out for ourselves times of quiet. It is in these moments when, like the disciples on Mount Tabor and the monks of Mount Athos, that we can become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and His great love not only for us but for all we meet.
Sunday, February 25 (OS February 12): First Sunday of Great Lent: Triumph of Orthodoxy; Venerable Mary of Egypt; St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.); St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome (604); St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).
The troparion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy reminds us that Christ willingly ascended the Cross for our salvation. Jesus dies, the hymn says, to free us from “bondage to the enemy” and, in so doing has “filled all things with joy.”
We should be careful here.
We often hear in the popular American religious culture, that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s anger. Or we might hear that on the Cross Jesus balance the scales between the offense of sin and requirement of divine justice.
Assumed here is the idea that the Incarnation is motivated by human sinfulness. God becomes Incarnate, suffer and dies, because of our failings.
For the Orthodox Church, however, the Incarnation isn’t motivated by human sinfulness. For fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor, the Incarnation isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some kind of moral course correction.
No for the fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the point of Creation. God creates in order to Himself become Man. God creates us, in other words, to become as we and so that, in turn, we can become by grace what He is.
“This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became Son of Man:” St Irenaeus writes, “so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God” ( Against Heresies, III.19.1).
St Maximus, likewise, sees the Incarnation as the purpose of creation. He says that out of His great love for us, the Word of God for us “hides himself mysteriously” in the essence of His creature. It is as if every single thing that God creates is a letter of the alphabet which, when they are all taken together, reveal God in “His fullness” (Ambigua, PG 9 1, 1 28 5-8).
All of this is simply to repeat what we will hear in the Gospel on Pascha:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3, NKJV).
And what then of the Cross? Why does Jesus suffer and die?
We get a partial answer in the Lamentation Services that we sing on Holy Friday evening when Jesus asks us for which of His miracles have we Crucified Him?
The sobering fact is that Jesus dies on the Cross not to calm God’s anger. No, he dies because in our sinfulness we kill Him. He dies because we–I really–reject Him. I lay the burden on my sin on His shoulders.
Our Lord isn’t betrayed by Peter or abandoned by the disciples. He isn’t crucified by the Jews or the Romans. All these things I do with each and every sin I commit.
And yet, this isn’t the whole of the story. In the Tradition of the Church, while human sinfulness is taken seriously, it is never the explanation.
St. John Chrysostom says “I call him king because I see him crucified: it belongs to the king to die for his subjects.” Jesus goes to the Cross willingly because He refuses to impose Himself on us. In His great love for us, Jesus willingly accepts an unjust death.
And how could He not? To do otherwise would violate the freedom of His creature. THis respect for human freedom matters because the love that isn’t free offered isn’t really love.
All that God does, He does freely–that is to say, in love. This is the life He wishes to share with us, this is the life to which He calls us. And it is this life, and this life alone, that is the source of joy.
For God to avoid the Cross would be to undermine human freedom and so make our love a fraud and to rob us of joy. It is with all this in mind that we turn to the Gospel.
The Gospel reading today from St John is an interesting one. It isn’t a “theological” Gospel in the sense that the Prologue is. There is no lofty theology in the scant few verses the Church puts before us.
Today’s Gospel is an evangelical Gospel.
Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” and he does. And what happens next? Philip goes and finds Nathaniel and tells his friend “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Philip offers no argument in response to Nathaniel’s disbelief. He doesn’t try to change Nathaniel’s mind with clever arguments. He makes no appeals to philosophy or the Scripture. All he says is “Come and see.”
Much as some would have us think, the hallmark of our lives as Orthodox Christians isn’t our theological sophistication. It isn’t our sublime liturgy or beautiful music.
It rather that we are disciples and evangelists. We follow Jesus Christ and shape our lives around His teaching and–above all–His Person.
And having experienced the great love God Who accepts the Cross rather than violate the freedom of the creature we say to others “Come and see.”
“Come and see” the fulfillment your heart’s desires!
“Come and see” Divine Love in human form!
“Come and see” what it means to be love without limit by Him Who knows all about you!
And how could we do otherwise? What more does love desire expect to share its joy with others?
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today as we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Restoration of the Holy Icons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole of the Tradition of the Church has only one goal: To introduce men and women to the God Who loves them without compromise.
If are faithful in this, we will transform the world around us beginning first and foremost with ourselves.
Sunday, February 18 (O.S., February 5), 2017:Cheesefare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss; Apodosis of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy Martyr Agatha (251). Martyr Theodoula, and Martyrs Helladius, Macarius, Boethos, and Evagrius (304). St. Theodosius, Archbishop of Chernihiv (1696).
Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI
Forgiveness is the Christian tradition’s response to not only the petty annoyances of everyday life and the conflicts that corrode our relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. It is also our response to systemic social injustice and the naked manifestations of evil.
In the Gospel, our Lord calls us to forgive all from to the most innocuous to the most horrific of harms. If I don’t understand this, if I don’t understand that I must always be ready to forgive and to counsel forgiveness, I’ve missed the point not simply of today’s Gospel reading but of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The world will often scoff at the Christian’s call to forgive. This happens not because forgiveness is seen as hard–though it is often so hard as to require heroic virtue from us–but because forgiveness undercuts the sinful heart’s desire to “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25, NKJV).
This temptation to exercise power isn’t limited to “the rulers of the Gentiles.” It is a common human failing. This why in His response to the bickering of the Apostles over who is the greatest among them, Jesus says “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).
And yet we need to be careful. We need to understand what forgiveness is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.
When I forgive someone, I lay aside, I give up, my desire to punish them for an offense. To the unforgiving heart, it doesn’t matter if the offense was great or small, real or imagined, intentional or inadvertent. What matters to the unforgiving heart is that someone–indeed, anyone–suffers. To the unforgiving heart, someone must be punished.
Not punishing those who harm us isn’t the same as saying the offense didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter. Nor does forgiveness rule out restitution.
No, what forgiveness does is create a space, it creates the opportunity, for the offender to repent, for restitution to be made and for the reconciliation of those who are estranged.
Sadly, we have all of us had the experience someone who is always willing to remind us of our shortcomings and failures. There are those who see in the failures of their neighbor an opportunity to shame the person, to use their neighbor’s weakness as a way “lording it over” the person.
When this happens, I’ll speak simply for myself here, I resist acknowledging my fault. The more the other person tries to shame me, the less willing I am to examine myself and so to repentant.
This isn’t simply because I am a sinner, though I am, but because shame cripples us.
To forgive then means more than not punishing someone; it also means refusing to shame the person who has harmed me. I do this so that he or she is free to undertake the hard and necessary work of self-examination.
As I said a moment ago, forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. These are, however, very different actions. While I am always free to forgive, reconciliation requires the cooperation of the other person.
Even assuming a mutual willingness to reconcile, circumstances may prevent this from happening. Once lost, trust in an intimate relationship can be hard to re-establish. Or maybe the harm caused is not simply personal but social–I wound not only my neighbor’s heart and so our relationship but his reputation. This is why gossip is so deadly. It can destroy a person’s place in the community.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and our journey to greet the Risen Lord Jesus, we are commanded by that same Lord to forgive. While last week we told to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, sick and imprisoned, today we are told to do only one thing. To forgive.
Let us repent the desire to “lord it over” others.
Let us repent of our fantasies of revenge.
Let us repent of our desire to punish or humiliate those who have harmed or offended us.
Sunday, February 11, 2018 (O.S., January 29): Meatfare Sunday; Sunday of the Last Judgment; God-bearer(107). Martyrs Romanus, James, Philotheus, Hyperechius, Abibus, Julian and Paregorius (297) Martyrs Silvanus, bishop of Emesa, Luke the Deacon, and Mocius (Mucius) the Reader (312). St. Laurence, recluse of the Kyiv Caves and bishop of Turov (1194).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison WI
Reflecting on his love of tragedies and of the grief he feels when a character in a play suffers, St Augustine says he did this not because he loved sorrow but because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of man who feels pity at the sufferings of others. He wanted to think of himself in other words as merciful.
After all,he asks himself, “what kind of mercy is it that arises from” fiction? The audience isn’t asked “to relieve” the suffering they see on the stage “but merely … to grieve.” The more we sorrow, the more we applaud. In fact, he says the “insanity” is so perverse that if we don’t go away feeling bad, we feel cheated. Perversely, if we grieve at the fictitious suffering we shed “tears of joy” (Confessions, III:2).
Writing some 15 centuries later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to the insanity Augustine saw in himself as “cheap grace” describing it as “the grace we bestow on ourselves.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 44,45).
Whether we call it “insanity” or “cheap grace,” St Paul in his epistle condemns it. Because of sin, there is in me a tendency to selfishness, to deal sharply with God as I seek to minimize what He asks of me. Like Augustine, I want to feel mercy but not act mercifully. Or, to return to Bonhoeffer, I want to be forgiven but not asked to repent.
As we look forward to the beginning of the Great Fast, the Church asks us to reflect once again on St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” This isn’t a rejection of fasting but a sober reminder of its limits. Indeed of the limits of all of our efforts.
Many of us, whether we Christian or not, fall into the same trap as Augustine. We imagine that it is enough if we feel bad for others. We think it is enough to have the right feelings or to hold to the right opinions. If our heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do.
I desperately want to be judged not by what I do but by what I feel. In the grip of this madness, I think my words and actions don’t matter as long as they “come from a good place.” I want, in other words, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
This was the spiritual illness that afflicted the Corinthians. They thought their liberty meant they could do as they please without any thought to the consequences of their actions for other people.
As important as fasting is for the fathers of the Church, it is only a means to an end. I fast in order to overcome my selfishness so that, in turn, I am able to love.
And just as “cheap grace” isn’t really grace but a counterfeit, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. True love isn’t just sacrificial, it longs to sacrifice. If I love you, I want what is best for you. And if what is best for you is costly for me? I am glad to pay that cost and more.
St Maria of Paris reminds us that “The way to God lies through love of people.” Reflecting on the Gospel we just heard Mother Maria goes on to say that
At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.
The reason that I will be asked this, and nothing else, is because
About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe (The Pearl of Great Price, 29-30).
Not all of us are called, as Mother Maria was, to open a hostel for the poor. But, as the Gospel makes clear, whatever our state in life, all of us are called to care for those in need as best we can. St John Chrysostom says even the poor are called to care for rich by speaking a kind word or offering a prayer.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do in the Church is done for one reason, and one reason only. To heal the human heart of the selfishness that is the defining quality of sin.
As selfishness recedes so too will fear.
As fear recedes, your desire to love will grow.
As the desire to love grows, your willingness to love sacrificially will also grow.
And as your willingness to love grows, you will begin to discover more and more opportunities to love!