Sunday, February 26, 2017: Forgiveness Sunday; Porphyrius, Bishop of Gaza, The Holy Great Martyr Photine, the Samaritan Women, Holy Martyr Theocletus, John Claphas the new Martyr
Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21
Through the Apostle Paul, the Church reminds us that today, this morning, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” There is, or should be, a sense of urgency in how I approach the Great Fast. It’s beginning signals the growing nearest of our victory in Christ.
On first hearing, the Apostle Paul’s words might seem negative—“ cast off the works of darkness.” But this “no” to the “the flesh” is in the service of a greater, “yes.” We cast off the darkness of sin so we can “put on the armor of light.” We have the strength to throw away “reveling and drunkenness, … debauchery and licentiousness, … quarreling and jealousy,” because we have experienced the mercy of God in our own lives and so long to live in charity with our neighbor, especially for the one “who is weak in faith.”
Just before today’s Gospel reading, the disciples ask Jesus how to prayer and so He teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. Reflecting on the prayers, St John Chrysostom says that “everywhere” Jesus “is teaching us to use this plural word that we might not retain so much as a vestige of resentment against our neighbor.”
Our willingness to forgive—to lay aside our resentment for the harm others have caused us—“makes us like God” Chrysostom says. To be like God means to be like Him “Who has made ‘the sun to shine on the evil and on the good.’” This is why,
…Christ is seeking in every possible way to hinder our conflicts with one another. For since love is the root of all that is good, by removing from all quarters whatever mars it He brings us together and cements us to each other (“The Gospel of Matthew, Homily, 19.7,” in ACCS: NT vol Ia Matthew 1-13, p. 139).
Rooted in the grace of the sacraments—above all Holy Communion and Confession—we can summarize the of the acetical life and the life of virtue as nothing more or less than removing all that disfigures or impedes our love for one another.
We often hear people say so long as they don’t hurt anyone, they can do as they want. According to this standard, while quarreling and jealousy are wrong, reveling and drunkenness, and as long as they are consensual, debauchery and licentiousness are merely private choices, no better or worse than any other. Sadly, even Christians, who ought to know better, are liable to hold to this view of the moral life.
This, however, is to get Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel exactly backwards.
In the verses after those we’ve just heard Jesus tell us
The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23, NKJV)
A jealous and argumentative attitude toward my neighbor is the corrupted fruit of exactly those sins that St Paul tells us to lay aside. The more I give myself over to “the flesh,” the more I will come to “despise” my neighbor and to “pass judgment on him.”
This happens because just “as when the eyes are blinded, some of the ability of the other members is diminished, their light be quenched, so also when the mind is depraved, your life will be filled with countless evils” (St John Chrysostom, “The Gospel of Matthew, Homily, 20.3,” in ACCS: NT vol Ia Matthew 1-13, p. 142). To root out the petty jealousy and arguments that ripe apart families and parishes and society I need to root out my own selfish tendencies. I need to fight against those very sins in my that I’m likely to overlook or indulge because they (seemingly) don’t hurt anyone else. But they do because they harm my ability to love my neighbor and so impede our shared restoration and journey to the life God created us to have.
To root out from my heart the petty jealousy and arguments that rip humanity apart, I need to root out my own selfish tendencies. I need to fight against those very sins in me that I’m likely to overlook or indulge because they (seemingly) don’t hurt anyone else.
But they do harm you because they harm my ability to love you and so impede our shared journey to the life God created us to have.
Think with me for a moment about the Apostle Paul command that we welcome “the man who is weak in faith.”
For the Apostle, “the person in question is not healthy” and in need of the love and care of the whole Church. It isn’t just the priest who heals through the sacraments; all of us by virtue of our baptism and willingness to embrace the stranger as our friend also have a role to play in his salvation.
But some of us are “disconcerted by” their neighbor’s weakness. And even though “they do not share it,” their neighbor’s weakness makes them “liable to fall into uncertainty themselves” (St John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” 25, in ACCS: NT vol VI Romans, p. pp. 337-338).
My neighbor’s weakness reminds me of my own. My willingness to look away from him because there are sins that I have not yet laid aside. In his weakness, my neighbor reveals to me that I am an enemy of charity.
This is why Paul goes on to say that I am not to pass judgment on my neighbor in his weakness. It is in that moment when your weakness reminds me of my own, that I am most tempted to turn you away in the vain hope of finding some relief from my own failings.
I judge my neighbor, I engage in “quarreling and jealousy,” because he reminds me of what I would not see in myself, my own lack of repentance. And the “reveling and drunkenness” the “debauchery and licentiousness,” the petty arguments and jealousy? What are these but feckless attempts to dull the pain, to justify myself by denying my failings?
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of the Great Fast. At Vespers and Matins, we recalled the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. And on this day as well, we formally ask one another for forgiveness. We ask forgiveness even from those we don’t know and so couldn’t have offended. We ask forgiveness even from those we have never met because we know, I know, that my sin harms them.
Whether the harm is great or small, my sin has harmed you, it has exploited your weakness and impeded your reconciliation with the Father, with our Father. Because my sin harms you, the first step in casting “off the works of darkness,” and putting “on the armor of light,” is simply to acknowledge my failure to love you.
So, my brothers and sisters, forgive me a sinner!
May God grant us a blessed fast and a glorious celebration of His Son Holy and Life-giving Resurrection!
What Forgiveness Is And Isn’t
Sunday, Feb 12, 2017: Sunday of the Prodigal Son; Meletius, Archbishop of Antioch, Antonius, Archbishop of Constantinople, Christos the New Martyr, Meletios of Ypseni
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
We often associate forgiveness with a certain kind of response to injury. If I hurt your feelings, I am expected to apologize; to seek your forgiveness. You, for your part, are likewise expected to accept my apology; to forgive me.
Assumed in all of this is that forgiveness brings about the restoration of our relationship to what it was before the offense was give. Forgiveness means the bad thing between us never happened.
When we think like this we end up tying ourselves in knots.
Yes, I want to forgive those who harmed me. This is different from saying that the harm that was done doesn’t matter. I can’t ignore the past; it is unwise—and foolish—for me to try and create a new past out of whole cloth. I can’t create a past where we weren’t estranged, the past where I didn’t hurt you or you didn’t hurt me.
To go down this path isn’t to forgive but to lie. Or maybe more gently, to confuse forgiveness with wishful thinking.
What does the Gospel say about forgiveness?
The father joyfully welcomes his prodigal son back into the family. “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”!
The father isn’t simply willing to forgive his son, he is eager to do so. Jesus paints a picture of a father going out, day after day, hoping that, today, will be the day that his son returns.
And when his son comes home? Seeing while “he was yet at a distance” the father runs to meet him. The father is moved by “compassion” for his son and he embraces and kisses his formerly wayward child.
At no time, however, does the father minimize or ignore the past. He tells his servants “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
Some time after this, the father is confronted by his elder son. The older brother is angry and refuses to celebrate the return of his younger brother. He is indignant and says to his father, that though
…these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; 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!’
What the brother can’t at that moment understand is how his father can welcome back his younger brother. He can’t even bring himself to call him brother, referring to him instead as “this son of yours”!
Implicit within the elder son’s words is the notion that forgiveness undoes the past. In effect, he says to his father, “Bad enough that you’ve never rewarded my loyalty, now you ignore my brother’s disloyalty! How can the past not matter to you?”
When I think that forgiveness means ignoring the past, it becomes hard—and depending on circumstances, impossible—for me to forgive.
Think about what we often say to others, or ourselves. “You just need to let go of the past.” Or we might ask ourselves, “Why can’t I just let things go?”
But ignoring the past—letting it go—isn’t what the father does. Nor is it what Jesus calls us to do in the parable.
Listen again to the father’s words.
Twice he says “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” The son’s past, indeed the past of both sons, is very much alive for the father. But the past doesn’t obliterate hope.
And so he says to his eldest boy: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” At the same time, “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
Forgiveness isn’t a psychological trick for ignoring the past; much less is it a way to pretend that we don’t hurt each other.
Forgiveness isn’t about having warm feelings for those who hurt you. Nor is it is a decision to ignore the past. It is rather to imitate the God Who, as St John Chrysostom tells us, never acts out of a desire for vengeance but “with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him” (“Theodore After His Fall,” Letter 1:4).
Despite the harm they cause me, to forgive someone means—again, like God for me—to will what is best for the other person so that his situation isn’t made worse.
Do you understand this?
Forgiveness means two things. First, to do no harm to the one who has harmed me. Second, to do what I can to prevent him from falling into even worse sin.
This is why the father welcomes back his prodigal son in the way he does.
Imagine the boy’s future if, instead of a warm welcome, he was received coldly, formally, and with the clear message that he had lost his father’s love forever? And imagine if, instead of being restored as his son, the father made him a hired hand?
How long would it be before the younger son’s repentance turned to bitterness?
And what of the older son? How long before his resentment of his younger brother turned to open contempt and even violence?
Instead and wisely, the father does what is needed to encourage the repentance of both his sons to prevent them from falling into even greater sin.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! This is what forgiveness means! To do what we can, little though it may be, to keep those who have harmed us from falling into even greater sin.
Forgiveness doesn’t forget past injuries, it wisely discerns how we can help those who harmed us from falling into the same, or worse, sin again.
Forgiveness is how we come to share in God’s merciful redemption of those who have harmed us.
And we do this because this is what God in Jesus Christ has done for each of us. He has freed us from our sin and gives us the grace to avoid even greater sin.
Homily: From Guilty Sorrow to Cheerful Fidelity
Sunday, Feb 5, 2017: Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee; Triodion Begins Today; Agatha the Martyr, Polyeuktos, Partriarch Of Constantinople, Antonios the New Martyr of Athens, Theodosios, Archbishop of Chernigov, Afterfeast of the Presentation of Our Lord and Savior in the Temple, Theodosios of Antioch
Epistle: 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14
We misunderstand the relationship between the Church and the world if we assume that it is simply one of contention and conflict. Yes, the world frequently sets itself against the Gospel—this, in fact, is what the Scriptures mean by the phrase “the world.” More specifically, “the world” refers to the creation, under the guidance of human beings, in rebellion against God.
We shouldn’t make any mistake here.
Creation’s rebellion against the Creator is led not the air or water, by seed-bearing plants or animals, but by us. This is why St Paul’s says that “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19, NKJV). Sin has not only corrupted the human heart but, working through our hearts, corrupted creation as well.
This corruption, this state of rebellion, isn’t the whole story, however.
Sin’s power over creation isn’t absolute because it’s reign over the human heart isn’t absolute. Sin corrupts but it doesn’t destroy; it obscures but it doesn’t obliterate the image of God in us.
No matter how powerful the grip of sin, divine grace, mercy, and love still attracts us. If this weren’t the case then, then Paul couldn’t say that “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3; see also Genesis 15:6).
And, as we will celebrate on Pascha, whatever hold sin and death had over the heart is now broken. Simply put, Christ’s Resurrection has destroyed the power of sin and death.
Because sin’s reign is not absolute, there are moments when the world makes common cause with the Church. The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is one of these moments. Or at least, part of the parable is.
The one sin that our culture seems willing to name and condemn is hypocrisy. That this sin would be the worst sin make sense in a culture that has largely dispensed with objective moral standards. What offends us so about the hypocrite, is that he pretends to hold to moral standards the rest of the culture rejects.
In other words, the hypocrite pretends to be better than me.
I know he’s pretending because, if I’m following along with the culture’s thinking, morality is subjective. There is no right or wrong. The hypocrite is a liar; he pretends to hold to standards he, and I, know don’t really exist.
Basically, he’s lying to me.
Our cultural condemnation of hypocrisy is why at least part of this morning parable resonates with many. We recoil when the Pharisee and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”
Hearing this, many see the Pharisee as stuck up. We condemn him because he thinks he’s better than everyone else. He is, in a word, “judgey.”
And all this is said without a hint of irony or self-knowledge.
So hated is this one sin that pointing it out in others exempts me from any self-reflection. In the face of hypocrisy, I’m exempt from self-examination. The sin must be condemned and its condemnation overrides any other considerations.
And yet, what actually happens in the Gospel? Jesus doesn’t condemn the Pharisee. If anyone does, it’s me. And that’s my sin.
What Jesus does instead is commend the publican for his humility.
For the fathers of the Church, the sin of pride—which is the sin that parable condemns—is only cured by humility. The “tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”
Yes, the sinful human heart is drawn by grace and the world’s rebellion is always only partial. But for all this, sin still holds us, holds me, in its grip. Reflecting on the parable, St Gregory the Great warns us that pride takes many forms. And whatever its form, humility is the only cure.
We need to be careful here that we don’t mistake the publican’s repentance for the virtue of humility. St Basil the Great says that when the “soul is lifted up towards virtue” we experience “cheerfulness” even in the midst of sorrow. Repentance is the door to humility.
St Basil says humility allows us to remain faithful to Christ and our vocation even when we are troubled by events or the opposition of others. Humility fosters in us a “loftiness of mind” that differs from “the elevation” which comes from pride. The latter, he says, is like “the swelling flesh which proceeds from dropsy.” But humility of soul is like the “well-regulated” and healthy body of an athlete.
Pride casts us down “even from heaven,” St John Chrysostom says, but “humility can raise a man up from the lowest depth of guilt.” This is precisely what we see in the parable. Jesus shows us the opening moments of the publican’s transformation, of his journey from guilty sorrow to cheerful fidelity to Christ. Having laid aside his sin, he is now on the path to spiritual health.
If I condemn the Pharisee, I remain enslaved to sin. If I am unrepentant, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are of no more value to me that they were to Pharisee. Instead, these works—good as they are in themselves—will stand in witness against me in the life to come because they were done without repentance, without humility.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We shouldn’t be quick to condemn anyone’s sin but our own. We must make our own the words of today’s Kontakion:
Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.
To acquire humility, as we hear throughout at Matins through Great Lent, we must pass through the “door to repentance.” It is when we pass through this door that we learn to walk in cheerfulness, live in fidelity to our vocation, and to love one and other.
Homily: Called to Heal Others
Sunday, January 29, 2017: Sunday of the Canaanite Woman; Removal of the Relics of Ignatius the God-bearer, Laurence the Recluse of the Kiev Caves, Ignatius and Nicandrus of Sinai
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 7:1
Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28
The word for church in Greek is ecclesia. It means the gathered. From before the last words of the New Testament were written, this idea of the Church as those called out from the world and gathered together into Christ, had a Eucharistic meaning. We read, for example, in the Didache, “…as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom” (¶ 9; compare, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Ephesians 4:4-6).
Thank about this for a moment. How do we get bread?
Wheat is planted and cultivated, it harvested and threshed, it made into flour, then mixed with water and yeast and finally baked. From the scattering of the seed to the breaking of the bread, there is a multi-step process. And of course, before all this, the ground needs to be prepared.
The point is that wheat doesn’t just become bread any more than grapes just become wine. Both require that human labor and ingenuity be mixed with divine grace. It only then that bread and wine can become through prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit the Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. While there are differences to be sure, the bread and wine on our tables and the Body and Blood of Christ on the Altar, are both the fruit of human labor and divine grace.
And the Church is like this as well.
The Church is the fruit of divine grace mixed with human labor and ingenuity. This is why the fathers call the Church a theandric community. Like our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church is both divine and human. Divorce one from the other and whatever you have, it isn’t the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Seeing the evidence of human labor and ingenuity in the Church is easy. Walk into almost any Orthodox church and you are overwhelmed by its beauty. Icons, vestments, incense and singing all combine to glorify God.
If we take a step back, we realize that the church we are standing in was designed and built by human hands even as it was financed and paid for by human labor.
All of this testifies not only to the potential of human labor but also to the heights of human dignity. We are created in God’s image and called to glorify Him in our lives. The latter is done as much in the myriad actions that make up our everyday lives as in the liturgical worship of the Church. Both are needed.
But why, if what we do every day is so important, are we called out of the world? Shouldn’t we be called to the world? No. We are called out because the world is fallen, marred by human sin. It has become, in Paul’s phrase “unclean.”
The uncleanness of the world is this: through human sinfulness, through my sinfulness, creation is deformed and is an instrument of human rebellion. King David says in the Psalms of our tendency to sin: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands (115:4, NKJV). The Prophet Isaiah makes the same diagnosis. Reflecting on Israel when it abandoned God he says that “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made” (2:8, NKJV).
Christ calls us out from the world—and to purified—because we have fallen horribly in love with our own abilities.
Tragically, we hear the echo of this even among Orthodox Christians. How easily we fall in love with “our church,” or our position in the parish, or even the pew in which we sit or the place where we stand. This why St Paul tells that, having received the promise of salvation through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”
We can find no better example of what this means than the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel.
One of the fathers said that in coming to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus left the unbelief of the Jews in search of faith among the Gentiles. In like fashion, the Canaanite woman “left behind idolatry and an impious life” in search of Jesus (Epiphanius the Latin, “Interpretation of the Gospel,” 58 in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 27). St Augustine says this woman is “a figure of the Church” and an icon of humility. “The more humble a person,” he says, the more “receptive and full he becomes” of divine grace, mercy and love (“Sermon,” 77.11-12, in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 31).
St John Chrysostom goes right to the heart of the matter. So deep is her humility and faith that when Jesus calls the Jews “children,” she calls them “master.” Such is her wisdom, the saint says, that she doesn’t say “a word against anyone else. She was not stung to see others praised, nor was she indignant to be reproached.” All she wants is for her daughter to be “made whole.”
It is because of her faith, humility and wisdom that the woman “contributed not a little to the healing of her daughter” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily 52.3 in ACCS, NT vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 30).
All that we do in the Church, the whole of our labor and creativity, has the same goal as the Canaanite woman. We are called aside by God and purified by His grace, in order that—with Him—we can “contribute not a little” to the healing of others.
Our task is first and foremost to stand before the Altar of God and intercede on behalf of not only the Church but the whole world. This is why, in the Great Litany and again in the Anaphora, we pray for bishops, priests, deacons, monastic and indeed to all the faithful in all the Churches of God. In these prayers, we also pray for the President of the United States, all civil authorities and the armed forces.
And our prayer isn’t a vague, humanistic sentiment; we don’t just wish people well or have good thoughts for them or send them good energy. No, we prayer that all the members of the Church grow in their faith and come to love Jesus Christ and their neighbor more fully.
And to this prayer, we add our fervent request that the whole world—including the civil authorities—come to that same great faith in Jesus Christ that we saw in the Canaanite woman.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We have been called by God to imitate the example of the Canaanite woman. Everything we do in the service of the Gospel begins here, in our fidelity to the example this unnamed woman. We are called, like her, to contribute “not a little” to the healing of others.
Let us begin!
Being Christ’s Witness
Sunday, Jan 22, 2017: 15th Sunday of Luke; Timothy the Apostle of the 70, The Righteous Martyr Anastasius of Persia, Joseph the Sanctified
Epistle: 1 Timothy 4:9-15
Gospel: Luke 19:1-10
St Paul in his epistle, tells St Timothy to “not neglect the gift” he was given “by prophetic utterance” and the laying on of hands. Timothy wasn’t consecrated as a bishop because of he was talented; he wasn’t made a bishop because of any personal quality that he had. No, he becomes a bishop for the same reason St. Mathias replaces Judas. God chose both men. He makes clear His will to the Church that it is these men who have He has called to lead His People.
The gift that Timothy must not neglect is much more his ordination as a bishop; it is his membership and role in the great prophetic community which is the Church. Like all bishops, Timothy’s unique task is to lead that band of prophets called the Church. He is to be for them “an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” He is to listen daily to the Scriptures and to share the fruit of his mediation in preaching and teaching “so that all may see your progress.”
Again, St Paul’s words to St Timothy, are applicable to all bishops.
The bishop in an exemplar—as “canon” or “standard”—of the Gospel in the life of the Church. The bishop reminds us that there is an objective content to our prophetic witness that endures throughout the history of the Church. As Paul writes, “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33. NKJV). It belongs to the bishop in his diocese, and the all the bishops assembled in local and ecumenical councils, to guard and protect the peace that God grants to His Church.
This peace is maintained in the Church not by suppressing different viewpoints. Much less is peace protected by punishing honest disagreement. No, peace in the Church, in the family and in the human heart, comes when we are faithful to that “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The bishop is the canon of faith because he is himself a disciple of Jesus Christ and a witness to the resurrection. He guards the faith by boldly preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ without apology or compromise.
To paraphrase St Augustine, the bishop is all this for us, because he is first with us a Christian.
But to say that the bishop is the canon of faith is to say not only something about him but about ourselves.
As the bishop is for the members of his diocese, so the Christian must be for the world. The bishop leads a band of prophets, of witnesses to the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. For this reason, it is not enough for us merely to affirm the Creed. It is not enough for us to learn theology or sing the hymns of the Church. No, it is not enough for us to be anything less than witnesses to the Resurrection!
And so all too briefly, let us turn to the Gospel and example of that “man named Zacchaeus” a chief tax collector.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to be a witness of His Resurrection, means to be like Zacchaeus. St Cyril of Alexandria says that the story of Zacchaeus “contains a puzzle.” There is no way, the saint says, a person can “see Christ and believe in Him except by climbing up the sycamore, by making foolish” all that the world values and so become a fool in the eyes of the world (“Commentary of Luke,” Homily 127 in ACCS, vol III: Luke, 290).
St Augustine makes the same point.
The wise and powerful “of this world laugh at us about the Cross of Christ.” They taunt us saying “What sort of minds do you people have, who worship a crucified God?” Caustically, Augustine answers back:
What kind of minds do we have? They are certainly not your kind of mind. “The wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). No, we don’t have your kind of mind. You call our minds foolish, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus.
To be a disciple of Christ means not only to rise above the foolishness of this world, but to be a fool in the eyes of the world. Just as “Zacchaeus grasp[ed] the sycamore tree,” we grasp the Cross of Christ “fix[ing] it on our foreheads, where the seat of shame is” (Sermon 17.3 in ACCS, vol III: Luke, 290, 291).
And when we lay aside the concern for the world’s opinion of us, what do we discover but a deep, and abiding concern for the life of the world? This is what Zacchaeus discovered and this why he said, “if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Alright, maybe I haven’t defrauded anyone.
Maybe I’m not guilty of any, truly heinous sin.
But can I really say that I haven’t at least is small ways, by my many little acts of indifference robbed others of that peace that comes from faith in Jesus Christ?
Aren’t there times in my life, however fleeting I think they are, that I failed to bear witness to the Resurrection? How little it costs me to smile, to say a kind word, to offer a short pray silently in my heart. And yet, how frequently am I unwilling to make even this sacrifice.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! We shouldn’t make complex the simplicity of the Gospel.
… as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Colossians 3:12-17, NKJV).
Let us at each moment, do what good we can, commending ourselves, and one and other, to Christ our Lord, to Whom be glory and honor forever, Amen!
For the Life of the World
January 6, 2017: The Holy Theophany of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
The ascetical character of Orthodox spirituality is hard to miss. Talk to an Orthodox Christian about his or her spiritual life and you’ll hear about fasting and long services.
Sometimes, though, it does seem as if we miss the point of the ascetical life. For many of us, it does seem as if the ascetical struggle is the point of the Christian life and not, as we hear in the epistle, a means to an end.
We are the Apostle Paul tells us called to turn away from “ungodliness and worldly lust” so that we can, in turn, live “soberly, righteously, and godly” lives. The fruit of ascetical struggle isn’t simply moral improvement but faith in our “great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” and “blessed hope” in divine “kindness and love.” Asceticism, in other words, is meant to transform us into disciples and apostles of Christ.
Important as ascetical struggle is, it is not the source of our life in Christ. No, the source, the beginning of our transformation is found in Holy Baptism. St Paul means when he says that we who have been baptized in Christ share in His burial resurrection (see Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27). Or, as he says in today’s epistle, we are saved “by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” in Holy Baptism. And it is through this great gift of baptism that we are “justified by his grace” and made “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Without prejudice to the other sacraments—above all the Eucharist—our life in Christ begins in baptism.
And how could it not? Look what happens in the Gospel when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, “the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'” What the Father says to the Son, in the Son he says of each of us at our baptism. And the same Spirit that the Father sends to anoint His Son, He sends to us as well in our chrismation.
And because like Jesus, we are now beloved of the Father and because, again like Jesus, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit, how can we—how can I—fail to do the works that He did?
How easily, we—I—forget that all the Father gave the Son He has given me, given you, as well. All that the Father gives to the Son on the banks of Jordan, He gives to us as well at our baptism and chrismation. This is why we can be called “Christian.” We are, each of us, “other Christs” and His ministry is ours as well.
This is why we need to keep the ascetical life to the best of our abilities. We have been set aside, ordained if you will, by God for the same great work of His Son. Ascetical struggle is nothing more or less than the habit of receiving in gratitude the grace God has given us in Holy Baptism.
Ascetical struggle also helps, as Paul suggests in today’s reading, to cultivate the habits of sober, righteous and godly living. sobriety, righteousness, and godliness are the fruits of Christian discipleship; of lives shaped around the Person and teaching of Christ. And the fruit of discipleship is the good work of a daily, hourly, witness to Christ and the Gospel.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
Having been baptized in Christ, we have been clothed with divine glory! Let us commit ourselves to ascetical struggle not as an end in itself but as the means by which we remove from our lives anything that obscures the beauty of our calling. And let us do this not simply for our own sake but for the life of the world!
Christ is Among Us!
Sunday, January 1, 2017: Feasts of Circumcision of Christ & Basil the Great; New-martyr Peter of the Peloponnesos
Epistle: Colossians 2:8-12
Gospel: Luke 2:20-21, 40-52
The Apostle Paul is never shy in his willingness to draw an unfavorable comparison between the wisdom of this world and wisdom of God. He does this in any number of places including his epistle to the Colossians in which warns them, and us, not to become a prey of the “empty deceit” of “human tradition.” These merely human philosophies are inspired by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Instead of these, we are to hold fast to Holy Tradition. Or, as he says in another place, we, are to hold fast to “the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NJKV).
Criticizing the empty deceit of human philosophy is not the same as arguing that Christians should be uneducated. There is a studied ignorance that sometimes infects the Christian community. Among Orthodox Christians, this often takes the form of a knee-jerk rejection of anything “Western.”
What Paul is condemning is human knowledge detached from Christ. Worse still, is that knowledge which is used to pull the human heart away from Christ.
I remember as a college student complaining to my confessor about having to read Freud. I told him that there was nothing godly in Freud. He looked at me for a moment and asked, “Is there NOTHING true in Freud?” When I said there was some truth in what he wrote, he nodded his head and said, “The problem isn’t Freud. If he says things that are true then, even if obscure, Christ is present in his work.” And he paused again and said, “The problem isn’t Freud but you. You shouldn’t be reading Freud because your heart isn’t open to the hidden presence of Christ in his work.”
This idea of the “hidden presence of Christ” brings us to the Gospel reading. Jesus is as much the Savior of the world when He is in the manager on Christmas morning as He is at His circumcision. And the 12-year-old Boy Who listens and questions the teachers of the Law this morning is as much the Lawgiver as the He Who says “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34, NKJV).
The reality is that most of Christ’s life was hidden. But for all that it was hidden, His life was no less salvific.
We need to be careful that we don’t reduce the ministry of Christ to just the last few years of His life. Worse still, is the tendency among some Christians to reduced our Lord’s ministry to the last few days or hours or even minutes of His life. The death of Christ on the Cross is salvific because His preaching and teaching and miracles are salvific. And all these things matter because the whole of Christ’s life saves us.
The importance of the Incarnation isn’t instrumental; God doesn’t become man so he can talk to us or suffer and die for us. Thinking about the mystery of the Incarnation in this way compartmentalizes our Lord’s life. Or, to put it another way, to think of the Incarnation in instrumental terms is, ultimately, to deny that God actually became Man.
Or, to borrow to return to the Apostle Paul, it is to confuse the Gospel with the empty deceit of human philosophy.
As I said a moment ago, human knowledge disconnected from Christ is an empty deceit. Let me now make this stronger. A life lived apart from Christ is an empty deceit.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Christ is always there. In every book we read, in every person we meet, in every piece of music or art. And we can say this because, in the Incarnation, Christ has joined Himself to each and every single human being. Christ dwells, even if only in a hidden fashion, in each human heart.
The deceit, the lie, is two-fold.
One the one hand, I deny His presence in my life and, on the other hand, I deny His presence in yours. To take either path is to live a life of practical atheism.
Before the Creed, the bishop and the priests exchange a greeting: “Christ is among us! He is and ever shall be!” We can say this not simply because Christ is here, in the Liturgy but because He is my heart and your heart and each and every single human heart.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if I can’t find Christ where ever I go, or in whatever I read, or in whomever I met, the problem isn’t that Christ is absent in that place. It is rather that I am closed to His presence in me, in my heart.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, can there be anything worse than a Christian who is closed, or ignorant, or indifferent to the presence of Christ in his heart? Is there anything as empty as a heart that refuses to acknowledge the presence of Christ within it? Is there a greater lie that to say that Christ is not in my life?
Christ is the “head of all” because in His Incarnation He has come to dwell in all.
Christ is among us!
Say “Yes!” to the God Who Says “Yes!” to Us
December 25: The Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Epistle: Galatians 4:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Christ is Born!
Like at Pascha, the early Church would baptize catechumens at Christmas. And as with Great Lent, the ascetical discipline before Christmas reflects the final preparations of candidates for Holy Baptism.
At our baptism, we are adopted by God; we are joined to the Father in Jesus Christ through the power and operation of the Holy Spirit. It is at baptism that God says “Yes!” to us.
This divine affirmation of the human person isn’t limited to baptism. God said “Yes!” to me, to you, to each of us, at the moment when He created us in our mother’s womb. We can think of the whole of our lives—from conception, to natural death, through the Last Judgment—as God saying “Yes!” to us.
This divine affirmation, however, isn’t the same as saying God approves of everything I do. I sin—I say in ways great and small—”No!” to God. And yet at no point does God withdrew His love and grace from me. The great, really unbearable, tragedy and irony of sin is that God loves me even as I turn my back on Him.
The “Yes!” that God says to each of us is a terrible honor. What I mean by this is that God will not redeem me against my will. God respects my freedom even in those moments when I use it to enslave myself to the powers of sin and death (see 1 Corinthians 15:56 and Romans 8:2).
This is why to the myriad acts of divine affirmation of human freedom we must add the Last and Great Judgment which is to come. In the Last Judgment, God says “Yes!” to the person I have made myself to be; He respects my freedom to turn away from Him. This isn’t to say that God withdraws His love from me—He doesn’t—but rather that I can, and sadly do, choose not to return that love. What else is sin but saying “No!” to the God Who says “Yes!” to us?
And what an act of divine affirmation we celebrate today!
God’s affirmation of humanity extends beyond creation, even beyond judgment, to include His taking on our life as His own. He became as we are, so that we may become as He is to paraphrase St Athanasius the Great. The Incarnation of the Son and the deification of the human person are two sides of one mystery, of God’s “Yes!” to us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we have prepared for this day, we returned again and again to the need for each of us to say “Yes!” to God. Now, let me say this one more time but with more precision.
The whole of our Christian life can be summed up in this: Saying “Yes!” to the God Who first said “Yes!” to us.
The whole of the sacramental life is God saying “Yes!” to us.
The whole of our ascetical life is removing anything in our lives that keeps us from saying “Yes!” to the God Who first said “Yes!” to us.
The whole of the evangelistic life of the Church is telling people of the God Who says “Yes!” to them.
The whole of the philanthropic life of the Church is saying “Yes!” with God to those who are in material, social or spiritual need.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, on this day in which we celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God and His birth in a cave for us and our salvation, let us reaffirm and deepen our commitment as disciples, apostles and evangelists of Christ! Let us on this day say “Yes!” to the God Who first said “Yes!” to us!
Christ is Born!
Say Yes! to God and Become Who You Are
Sunday, December 18, 2016: Sunday before the Nativity of Christ (The Genealogy); Martyrs Sebastian and Zoe of Rome, and those with them
Epistle: Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25
The saints of the Old Testament are often, as they are this morning, portrayed as conquerors in ways that might make us uncomfortable. While we are called to be peacemakers, the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church doesn’t command pacifism. The saints of old covenant “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight.”
Yes, the saints of the Old Testament also suffered. And yes, like them, there are times when Christians will suffer injustice. At other times though we will war against injustice. If at times we “killed with the sword,” there are other times when God calls us to take up the sword in defense of others. Which path we will take depends not only on our personalities but circumstances.
My point here is not to involve us in a discussion of when war is or is not justifiable. It is rather to point out that there are objective moral limits that we can’t transgress and which we must at times defend. The sign that I love God is that I keep his commandments rather than simply follow my own will (see John 14:15-31). And at times to say to God “thy will be done” means to will my own undoing as St Isaac the Syrian says.
Today’s Epistle reminds us that the Christian’s pursuit of holiness is more complex than we imagine. More importantly still, the call to holiness—to saying, “Yes!” to God—is universal. No matter who we are, no matter what our condition in life, Jesus Christ calls us to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect (see Matthew 5:48).
Christ enthroned on the lap of the Virgin Mary is the fulfillment of salvation history.
Listen carefully to the Gospel and you can’t miss the universality of the call to holiness. Look at the three women that St Matthew includes in his genealogy of Christ: Tamar, Ruth, and Mary. Not only are these women different individuals with different personalities, they are different in life situations when they are called by God to help “prepare the way of the Lord” (see Isaiah 40:3).
Tamar is a prostitute, Ruth a widow, and Mary a virgin. It seems scandalous to put the Theotokos in a list that includes a prostitute and yet the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew does just that. He tells us that among the ancestors of Christ is a prostitute—and a pagan prostitute at that. Nevertheless, for all their differences, all three were called by God and all three said “Yes!” to that call.
Looking at the list of ancestors we also see adulators and murders, men who are weak in faith and even apostates. Yet all played their part in preparing humanity to receive the Son of God.
This isn’t to say that all said “Yes!” to God.
Some, like the Theotokos, said yes immediately. Others, like David and Solomon, at some point, said “No!” to God but in time came to say “Yes!” And still others, too numerous to name, never repented, never allowed the grace of God to transform their “No!” into a “Yes!”
And yet, whether they said yes or no, God used them to bring about the salvation of the human race. We lost nothing because of them, in saying “No!” they lost everything. For us who are in Christ, “all things work together for the good” (Romans 8:28) even the unrepentance of others.
This isn’t to suggest we live in a moral free zone where we can do what we wish; there is such a thing as sin and there are even, as the Apostle John says, gradations of sin. “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:17, NKJV).
No the diversity of starting points and the seeming diversity of paths Christ’s disciples have taken so they were “not only … called Christians” but were Christians as St Ignatius of Antioch says, reflects the sheer abundance of God’s holiness. We are called to live the life of God, a life that—as Uncreated—is One but when manifest in our lives must of necessity be pluriform.
There is always a temptation to sanitize the spiritual life, to think I need only live a life of conformity to moral or social norms as long as they are “Christian.” To live this way is to be blind to the great variety of spiritual gifts, and so ways of life, that are pleasing to God. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us:
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness (Romans 12:3-8, NKJV).
To be holy means to share in the fullness of God’s life. And this means living a life that goes beyond whatever we can imagine for ourselves or each other.
This life of holiness not only requires that I say “Yes!” to God but, as both the Epistle and Gospel this morning make clear, that I prepare to say “Yes!” This is why we fast in the 40 days before Christmas, to prepare ourselves to say “Yes!” to God.
And when we say “Yes!” to God, what happens? We are transformed; we become not simply more than we are but who we are created to be. And for all the diversity of gifts and personalities we see in the Church, underneath that this there a common identity. We are disciples of Christ, called by Him to be His Apostles, witnesses to the Good News of His great love for mankind, a love that leads Him not only to become as we are so that we can become as He is but to suffer and die for us.
And in His dying, He conquers death and in His Rising bring us with Him to life everlasting!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us say “Yes!” to God and become who we are! Apostles and Evangelists of the New Born Christ Who will suffer and die for us and the whole human family so that we who are scattered and divided and broken and shattered may become one in Him Who is One with the Father!
Christ is Born!
Yes! To God and to Joy
Sunday, December 11, 2016: Sunday of Forefathers (Ancestors) of Christ
Venerable Daniel the Stylite; Luke the New Stylite of Chalcedon; Nikon “the dry” of the Kiev Caves; Venerable Leontios of Achaia; Martyr Barsabbas of Persia
Epistle: Colossians 3:4-11
Gospel: Luke 14:16-24
We can always find a reason to say “No!” to God. In the parable Jesus tells this morning, we hear two such excuses. For those who decline the king’s invitation, they do so because of the demands of work and family life.
But in the beginning—before the Fall—work and family life were essential aspects of our communion with God.
…God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28, NKJV).
And, in the beginning, work and family life are the arena within which we exercise our creativity and royal dignity. Taken together, work and family life are the practical ways in which human beings express the image of God within us and so grow in our personal likeness to the Holy Trinity.
Sin doesn’t change any of this. But as it does with everything else that God has given us, sin tempts us to value the gift more than the Giver, the invitation more than the Host, the means more than He Who is the End of all human desire and striving, Christ our True God!
This is why, in the epistle, St Paul counsels us to kill everything is that that is “earthly.” As he makes clear in the next breath, “earthly” doesn’t bodily or material but all the myriad ways in which we refuse to accept with gratitude the gift of our life. “Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness … anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk,” and lying to our each other, these are the practices of sin. These, corrode our likeness to God, destroy love and rob us of our dignity.
And these things distort work and family life into something mean and ugly. They make work drudgery and sow discord in the family.
This is why, in our popular culture, our preparation for Christmas are frequently so often seem burdensome. Even if I haven’t fallen into any of the serious sins St Paul lists, the “old nature” and its effects still have a hold on me. No matter how far I think I’ve come in the spiritual life, I still need to be “renewed,” I need to conform myself more closely to the image of the Creator that is my identity.
Instead of looking outside myself for happiness, I need to turn inward. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to work or that I can turn my back on human society. But it does mean that, part from Christ, work and social status aren’t of any lasting value. While it too is as prone to becoming an end in itself, the ascetical life of the Church is means to help purify me of the myriad distractions that cause me to turn away from God. When rooted in the sacraments, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor return me to myself and to the God Who dwells in my heart.
And what the ascetical life can do for me, it can do for each of us. Through asceticism, we can become who we are, who God has created us to be, and find the peace that even our secular culture celebrates at this time of year.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that unfortunately for many Orthodox Christians, ascetical struggle is not a fruitful experience. For some, the ascetical life remains untried. If they think of it at all, they think of it as something for monks but not for those who live in the world.
For others, asceticism is a purely formal demand of being an Orthodox Christian. I’ve heard more than one Orthodox Christian say with pride that Orthodoxy is demanding because of our ascetical practices.
Both of these views about the ascetical life are misguided.
Asceticism is not simply for monastics. Look at your own life. What do you have of lasting value that isn’t the fruit of struggle and self-denial?
As for Orthodoxy being demanding, what is demanding is not asceticism but the reason we engage in asceticism: to grow in our personal likeness to God. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor can be demanding but the effort they require pales in comparison to love.
To be faithful to our primordial vocation to work and family life, doesn’t mean that we will necessarily work for pay or marry and have children. Our vocation to work and family life means that God has called each of us to shape His creation and to do so for the glory of God and to create a fit home not simply for our own families but all of humanity.
Too frequently, we minimize—or even actively reject—the role of human ingenuity and creativity in the Christian life. When we do so, we obscure that which reflects the image of God in the human person. It is precisely our ability to understand and shape creation in ways which our unique to each of us personally, that most reflects God’s image. And it is the exercise of these faculties that makes it possible of each of us to grow in our likeness to Him.
And all of this the men in the parable rejected. In failing to follow Jesus as His disciples, they ratified their own enslavement to sin and blinded themselves to the very life they preferred to Jesus.
That’s the great irony of sin. It pursuing a life apart from Christ, I don’t just lose salvation in the world to come, I also lose the joy I could have in this life. While there are many ways to understand the ascetical life that is at the heart of our lives as Orthodox Christians, one of the best is that asceticism is a preparation for joy.
Joy in my work.
Joy in my relationships.
Joy in all facets of my life even when suffering and disappointment seem to dominate.
All this, and Eternal Life, the men in the parable lost because they preferred the gift to the Giver.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We can’t lose sight of the life to which we have been called by Christ. Nor can we afford to forget that not only has He called each of us, personally, to follow Him as His disciples but He has charged us as well to sustain each other in that journey! We aren’t simply disciples but sources of strengthen and consolation for each other.
As we prepare to welcome the New Born Christ Child, let us re-commit ourselves not simply to be His disciples but to support and encourage each other to live as disciples and witness to the Gospel!
Christ is Born!