Culivate Silence, Find Love

s Sunday, July 26 (OS July 13), 2020: 7th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Councils; Synaxis of the Holy Archangel Gabriel; St. Stephen of St. Sabbas’ Monastery (794); St. Julian, bishop of Cenomanis (1st c.); Martyr Serapion, under Severus (193); Martyr Marcian of Iconium (258).

Epistle: Romans 15:1-7/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35/John 17:1-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul tells us that we “who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification.”

The standard here is demanding.

I’m not simply to tolerate those with whom I disagree but, as he says in other places (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2) bear within them “in love.” His use of the word “scruples” reminds me that I am to work for the salvation (“his good” and “edification”) of those who I will likely find annoying consumed as they are by irrational concerns and fears.

All this I am to do for you because God in Jesus Christ has done this for me.

Today the Church commemorates the fathers of the first six ecumenical councils. Taken together, these concerned articulating and defending the mysteries of both the Incarnation and the Holy Trinty.

And this was done not out of an abstract concern for the truth but to proclaim the Good News that not only did God takes on our life in Jesus Christ. He also in Jesus Christ lifts us up and make us “partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

It isn’t, in other words, that God shares our life as one of us. It is also that by grace we have come to share in His life. Jesus has drawn us into the life He shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We see this not only in the faith the council proclaims but how they do this.

Unlike what we see around us, the Church gathered together both sides of the disagreements that threatened to tear the Church apart. Arius sits down with Athanasius not only to discuss and debate but to stand together in prayer and seek the Face of God.

To bear with one another means to exhaust every possibility of reconciliation. Again we see this in the Councils. The great tragedy of the councils is that the heretics’ last act as members of the Church is to remove themselves from communion with the Body of Christ. They excommunicate themselves.

We see something similar to this in this morning’s first Gospel.

Seeing the power Jesus has over demons, the Pharisees refuse to believe or even consider, that what He does, He does by the power of God. Instead, they condemn themselves by condemning Jesus and say “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

To avoid the fate of the Pharisees and the heretics of the first centuries we must, as St Paul tells us, glorify God. The other feast we celebrate today, the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel, gives us a hint as to how we do this,

Like all the angels, the Archangel Gabriel continually praises God. Gabriel does this not to flatter God or to win some advantage from Him over the other angels. This is something that happens in the world where praise is calculating and in the service of acquiring authority over others (see Matthew 20:24-26).

For the angels, to praise God means to contemplate continually not just the beauty or power of God but God Himself. This what St Gregory Palamas means when he tells us what we experience are not qualities or characteristics of God but God Himself.

Like the angels, we are called not to contemplate abstracts about God but to encounter God Himself. It is in only this encounter that I can come to bear with others in their weakness; I can only do for you, what Jesus has done for me by becoming myself another Christ (alter Christus).

This requires that I be transformed, transfigured, and made new by grace.

Building on the grace of the sacraments, that is to say, God’s actions in my life, I must first cultivate silence. Not only physical, external silence but inner silence. I also need to still my incessant, inner monologue that deafens me to the voice of God in the depth of my heart.

It is only in this way that I can know what it means, concretely and in the moment, to bear with my neighbor in his weakness.

It is only in this way that I can know what it means, concretely and in the moment, that I can know what it means to love my enemy and change him into my neighbor.

It is only in this way that I can know what it means, concretely and in the moment, that I can experience the joy that Jesus promises us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are surrounded by many who are fearful and even angry. The temptation we face is to turn our backs on them, to withdraw from society, to close our hearts to others in their weakness.

But this isn’t the life to which Jesus has called us. We are to bear with others in their weakness as Jesus bears with us in our own.

And we do this because Jesus has called us to work for not only our salvation but the salvation of others whether they are friends or enemies; neighbors or antagonists.

None of this, however, can be done unless we draw near to Christ in prayer and inner silence.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Silence, All Things Are Corrupted

Sunday, July 19 (OS July 6): 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Sisoes the Great of Egypt (429); Martyrs Marinus and Martha, their children Audifax and Abbacum (Habakkuk), and those with them at Rome: Cyrinus, Valentine the Presbyter, and Asterius (269); Ven. Sisoes of the Kyiv Caves (13th c.); Uncovering of the relics of Holy Princess Juliana Vilshanska (1540).

Epistle: Romans 12:6-14
Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The mid-century Southern author Flanner O’Connor wrote to a friend that, “In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

But it isn’t just tenderness or charity that is corrupted when it is cut off from faith in Jesus Christ.

The pursuit of justice without faith is what causes a police officer to brutalize citizens they are sworn to protect. At the same time, just without faith, causes protesters to become rioters who harm the very community they would defend.

Likewise divorced from faith, concern for public health quickly becomes antagonistic to civil and economic liberty. At the same time, apart from faith, the defense of liberty is deformed and becomes indifferent and even hostile to the common good and the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Apart from faith in Jesus Christ my vision of the world of persons, events, and things is cramped and deformed.

Turning for a moment to the Gospel, we realize that virtue detached from faith is not simply a contemporary problem. It is part of our fallen condition.

This is the case for with the scribes who object when Jesus tells the paralyzed man his sins are forgiven. They go so far as to accuse Jesus of blasphemy. But what is more central to the revelation of God than His mercy, His readiness to forgive? As God says through the Prophet Isaiah (43:25): “I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake. And I will not remember your sins.”

We should pause here and ask ourselves what do we mean by faith?

In the tradition of the Church, faith is more than a personal or ecclesiastical relationship with Jesus Christ. Likewise, faith is more than simply an affirmation of the teaching of the Church and adherence to the Church’s moral, sacramental, and ascetical practice. While it includes all of this, faith is more than either any one of these or even all of them taken as a whole.

To have faith in Jesus Christ, to have the kind of faith that preserves tenderness, charity, justice and the other virtues from the corrupting effect of sin, is to lay aside the cramped deformed and deforming vision of sin and see persons, events, and things as God sees them.

It is this, expansive, catholic vision of reality that inspires us not only to be charitable but to work for justice and the common good. St Paul in his epistle that each of us has received “gifts … according to the grace that is given to us” and we are to “us use them” according to “the needs of the saints” and for the building up of the Body of Christ which is the Church (see Ephesians 4:12).

Put slightly differently, the grace given us in baptism is not an abstract power. It takes the form of concrete gifts (charismata). It is these gifts that tell us the work to which we have been personally and uniquely called. The spiritual gifts we have received are the means by which we draw others to Christ.

It is through introducing them to Christ that we help keep our neighbor’s concerns for charity, for justice or for the common from being corrupted by sin. In addition to this, it is through their faith in Jesus Christ that these and the other good things in their lives are elevated and made perfect in Jesus Christ (see Matthew 5:48).

So how do we have this faith that preserves and perfects? How do we come to see things not in the divine light? How do we come to see this light itself?

When as Orthodox Christians we talk about spiritual gifts or grace or even the divine light, we aren’t talking about theological abstractions or mere psychological experiences. If we were then we would be no different from those whose tenderness is divorced from Christ and the Gospel.

What we mean by grace, by spiritual gifts, by the divine light is the unmediated, revelation of God Himself in the human heart and the life of the Church.

We come to know Jesus Christ and experience His presence in our lives first of all through the sacraments. Above all baptism, chrismation, the Eucharist and confession. To this we must add the reading of Scripture, the Church’s worship and moral, ascetical and dogmatic teaching and practice.

But this is just the beginning.

To all this, I must add my own, personal life of prayer. Again, we need to pause for a moment and be clear about what this means.

For many Orthodox Christians, the life of personal prayer is often reduced to keep a rule of prayer. We stand, make the sign of the Cross, and read prayers from a book. And usually, we read these prayers as quickly as possible.

While prayers from books have their place, what we are striving for is a sense of inner quiet (hesychia).

I can only come to see creation in the divine light if I first quiet myself. As important as the other elements of the Christian faith are, they are perfected in silence. First outer silence and then slowly over time inner silence.

Looking around not only in Madison but also Wisconsin, not just in the United States but the whole world, it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that God has imposed a certain kind of external silence on humanity. He has done this through Covid-19.

And this is why I believe we see the surge of dissension and violence around us. The Enemy of souls hates even external silence. Why? Because it is in silence that we met God and are liberated from his grasp.

This is why God has given us silence. And this is why unless we embrace it, the disagreements, the divisions, and yes even the violence, will only increase. This might not happen around us but it certainly will within us; violence finds its home in a noisy heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! St Paul asks “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” We are those called to preach!

We have each of us been given spiritual gifts that make this possible. Having now been given the necessary grace, let us accept it by embracing silence and in silence not only see all things as they illumined by the divine light but see that light itself!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

From Obedience Comes Friendship

Sunday, July 5 (OS June 22), 2020: 4th Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Eusebius, Bp. of Samosata (380). Martyrs Zeno and his servant Zenas of Philadelphia (304). Martyrs Galacteon, Juliana, and Saturninus of Constantinople. {St. Alban, protomartyr of Britain (c. 305)}

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Seen from the outside, the Gospel appears as an unbearable imposition on my freedom. An unending list of do’s and don’ts. To use St Paul’s phrase, humanly speaking, that is in my spiritual or emotional immaturity, the Gospel feels to me likes “slavery.”

And yet with time and experience, I begin to realize that far from limiting my freedom it is the Gospel–and specifically my obedience to the Gospel–that makes my freedom not just possible but a treasure to be jealously guarded.

Humanly speaking, St Paul says, the options before me are stark. I can live as a slave “of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” or as a slave to “righteousness for holiness.” It is the latter, the way of holiness, that is the way of true and lasting freedom. To see this we need only reflect for a moment of what it means to follow the way of uncleanness.

We should first of all admit that there is something undeniably attractive to following this path because it is the way of my own will. Choosing what I want to do based on my desire at the moment seems not just desirable but intoxicating.

But my desires are constantly shifting, pulling me this way and that as different options present themselves to me. And so soon I discover that this is a life of increasing fragmentation.

Think about the sin of vainglory, of pursuing the praise and good opinion of others.

Yes, at first, this might result in my trying to be a better person. Soon though I discover that winning–much less keeping–the good opinion of others is a trap. Even my closest friends will at times disagree with me; even the most generous friend will now and then have no time for me or as much time for me as I want.

As the opinion of others becomes more important to me, I’ll begin to seek out anyone who can affirm me, spend time with me. I do this because I am trying to find the sense of self-worth that can only come from within as the fruit of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

And so the Apostle says the fruit of this way of life is a life of “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” as I surrender control of my life not to others but to my own desire for their approval.

Living like this doesn’t make any of us happy. How can it? What is more insubstantial, what is more flicked than desire?

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This last right, the right to pursue happiness, is not (as we are sometimes told) the right to follow every passing whim. It is rather a life that fosters human flourishing, of becoming evermore the persons God has created us to be.

For Jefferson, for St Paul and the Christian tradition as a whole, happiness is found not in doing what I want but doing as I ought. It is in this sense that we can talk about the United States as a Christian nation. Not Christian as the Church is Christian but rather Christian in the sense that in our founding we drew inspiration from the Christian ideal of living not as we want but as we should.

Hearing this needn’t upset us.

This is neither a diminishment of the Gospel nor an unwarranted glorification of America. Rather it is simply seeing for a nation what Jesus sees in the centurion: An epiphany of the Church’s faith outside the Church.

The centurion’s faith was praiseworthy because it freed him from the vain pursuit of the good opinions of others. Because he was free in this way he was able to love his servant.

It was for his servant’s sake that the centurion was willing and able to humble himself before Jesus. Through faith, through obedience to God, master and servant became much more. They became friends.

We are now as a nation suffering all manner of dissension. We are internally divided and are fast becoming not neighbors or even fellow citizens, but enemies. We are suffering this because–on both the Left and the Right–we have abandoned “the pursuit of happiness,” in favor of the pursuit of fickle desire and, above all, power over others as a way to bolster our own frail sense of self-worth.

In a fallen world, we are not friends unless we choose to be so. This choice is not a matter of simply agreeing with each other. Much less is it the fruit of superficial attraction.

It is faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the will of God that makes yesterday’s enemies into today’s friends. And this happens not because you have changed but I have.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! “From this day forth from this very hour and this very minute,” as St Herman of Alaska said, “let us love love God above all and seek to accomplish His Holy Will.” Let us from this moment commit ourselves more fully to Christ and so make friends of our enemies and show the world how the divisions that afflict us can be healed.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgiveness Sunday

Sunday March 1 (O.S., February 17), 2020: Cheese-fare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness; Commemoration of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise; Great Martyr Theodore of Tyro (306); Ven. Theodore the silent of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII); St. Mariamne, sister of the Apostle Philip (I); St. Nicholas Planas, priest in Athens (1932).

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

St Paul reminds us this morning that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” It is tempting to think that it is nearer because, well, we are older. Understood in this way, his observation that “the night is far gone, the day is at hand” might evoke in us a certain anxiety. Hurry, we might say, time is running out.

While understandable, salvation is nearer not because we are older but because God is ever drawing closer to us. It isn’t that we are moving toward God but that God is always moving toward us. In each moment, God draws nearer, revealing a bit more of Himself to us and of His great love for us.

Our repentance and our asceticism have no other goal than–to borrow from St Dionysius the Areopagite–to make our hearts more expansive, to make of ourselves ever larger vessels but always filled to overflowing with divine love.

The problem of sin is that it makes my life small. It narrows my vision, constricts my life, making me less able to receive God’s love for me and so making me less than who God has called me to be. Sin, if I make speak this way, makes me boring and stupid.

This is why the Apostle tells us to welcome those “weak in faith” but not to argue with them. This isn’t because we aren’t to preach the Gospel but we do so through hospitality not polemics. We must first demonstrate by our lives what it means to love God and to be loved by Him. Only then can we correct errors and explain the faith to those who have themselves accepted this love.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel that we do this primarily through our willingness to forgive others “their trespasses” against us. When we do this, we imitate God the Father Who is always eager to forgive us.

After saying this though, the next thing Jesus says might seem like a tangent.

When I fast, I shouldn’t draw attention to myself. My fasting, like whatever good I do in this life, must be done “in secret.” But while fasting in secret is easy enough, how can I forgive in secret? The next verses, I think, explain what Jesus means.

What we are called to do, we are called to do freely, out of love for God and neighbor.

Too often I find myself instead tempted to engage in good deeds in the hope of winning the favor of God or my neighbor. My charity, my asceticism, even my prayer, can too easily become transactional–I do in order to get.

And so Jesus reminds us, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If I fix my heart on earning your good opinion of me or on winning God’s favor, it’s not God or you I care about but my own ego. When I try to earn love–when I make being loved an item on my to do list–I reveal that I have radically, possibly fatally, misunderstood love.

Love is a gift that God gives to us and we to each other. While it can be received or lost, it can never be earned. Love that is not freely offered and freely received is simply not love.

When we look into our own hearts, when I look into my own heart, I realize how little I understand love. And so the Church asks us at the beginning of our preparation to receive our Risen Lord on Pascha to ask for forgiveness and to offer forgiveness to each other.

We do this not because we have done bad things or hurt each other–though in a fallen world this is unavoidable even if not frequently unintentional–but for the simple reason that we misunderstand love.

But we are made for love!

When we misunderstand love, we misunderstand ourselves, our neighbor and God.

When we misunderstand love, we fail to be who God has created us to be.

When we misunderstand love, we fail each other and become instead impediments to salvation.

When we misunderstand love, we fail to witness to the Gospel and instead forge chains out of its life-giving words

When we misunderstand love, we fail to know God and worship instead an idol of our own creation.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! For all this, and more, forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hidden in Christ

Sunday, February 23 (OS February 10), 2020: Meat-fare Sunday, Commemoration of the Awesome Judgement; Hieromartyr Charalampos, Bishop of Magnesia and Martyrs Porphyrius and Baptus, (202); St. Anna, wife of Yaroslav I (1050); Ven. Prochorus of the Near Kyivan Caves (1107); Martyrs Ennatha, Valentina and Paula of Palestine (308); St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict (543).

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

This past week the daily Epistle and Gospel readings have focused on two themes.

The epistles have emphasized the primacy of charity–of love–in the Christian life. As for the Gospel readings, these have recounted the events of Holy Week. Taken together, the epistles remind us of Jesus Christ’s great love for each of us. They remind us as well that it is the same sacrificial love to which we are called.

Let me make this stronger.

Love that is not sacrificial is not really love. However if we stop here we risk misunderstanding the life to which we are called. To know what it means to love sacrificially we need to turn to today’s readings.

St Paul reminds those troublesome Corinthians, that while fasting and the ascetical life are important, they are not the point of the Christian. The goal, as we’ve heard all week in the readings, is to love others. And, by love, Paul means to do that which is best for our neighbor.

Often in my own spiritual life I get undone because I assume–wrongly as Jesus tells me in the parable–that to love others means I must do great things. After all, if my love for you must be sacrificial, don’t I need to do something big? This isn’t what Jesus asks of us today.

Rather our Lord asks us to do small acts of kindness that St John Chrysostom says are within the reach of all of us. Indeed, one needn’t even be Christian to know that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, clothe the naked or visit those who are sick or imprisoned. All of these are the actions of any morally decent human being.

So where is sacrifice? It is this: rather than doing great things to win the praise of others, or even to bolster our own sense of self-worth, we are called to live a life “hidden in Christ” as St Paul tells the Colossians (3:3). The humility of our love should be such that it is easily overlooked not only by the world but, as the response of both the sheep and goats suggest, by us as well.

Put slightly differently, we are called to engage in quiet acts of simple charity for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. This means that need to be indifferent, detached, from not only your opinion of my actions but of my own as well.

And doing the morally good thing because it is good changes me. Too frequently get things backwards. I don’t do good things because I am a good person. I become a good person by doing good. It is the habit of small acts of charity that purifies my heart. If I wait for my heart to be pure, my intentions to be right, then I’ll never act.

The sheep in the parable simply loved others without any thought of reward. The goats, however, did good but did so to earn a reward; their good deeds, their charity, was transaction. They did something to get something.

Sheep love others, goats love only themselves.

While the good we do is easily overlooked, we shouldn’t underestimate its effects in the aggregate. It was through small, easily overlooked acts of charity, that the early Church overcame the Roman Empire. The Church conquered the Empire not by force of arms by making it the Church.

Everything the Church has accomplished, it has accomplished by the habit of daily acts of personal charity. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, all of these persecuted Christ and the Gospel. And all of these fell not through military might but by Christians who lived faithful lives hidden in Christ. It is the Cross, not the sword, which overcomes the world.

The Church has triumphed in this life when Christians have embraced a life hidden in Christ. We will triumph as a parish, to say nothing of finding our own, personal salvation, by likewise living a life hidden in Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To do this we need only take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus Christ. Look to Jesus and allow Him to direct you in the ways you should go.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God Searches for You!

Sunday February 16 (O.S., 3), 2020: Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Afterfeast of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy and Righteous Symeon the God-receiver and Anna the Prophetess. Prophet Azarias (X B.C.). Martyrs Papius, Diodorus, Claudianus (250). Martyrs Adrian and Eubulus (308-309). Martyr Blaise of Caesaria (III).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is not simply the number of people who don’t know that they are loved by God but those who will argue that God can’t possibly love them.

For some, God’s love is something to be earned. Seeing themselves as failures, they think God’s love is reserved for successful people. God loves, their thinking goes, the sleek and the strong, the competent and well liked. Being none of these (at least in their own minds), they conclude that God doesn’t, and can’t, love them.

Others see themselves as unlovable because of their moral failures or even minor shortcomings. It is their sin that closes the door to God’s love for them. And that door, now closed, can never be reopened.

To those who have never experienced God’s love for them, life is lonely and plagued with anxiety and the fear that, eventually, others will come to see them as they see themselves. As fundamentally unloved and, what is worse, unlovable.

In response to this we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The context of the parable is important. Immediately before He tells the story of this rather sad and broken family, the Pharisees and scribes had been criticizing Jesus for “receiv[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” It is in response to these complaints that Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son (see, Luke 15:2, 3).

Rabbi Abraham Herschel in God in Search of Man says that we perish not “for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”

The source of wonder is this. God loves us, each and ever single one of us.

And, following from this, it isn’t me who goes looking for God but God Who in Jesus Christ comes looking for me. And not just me. God comes looking for you and everyone.

This is what the son discovers “when he came to himself” and returned to his father.

When he does, the son is surprised to find that his father is there waiting for him. The father has left his house and gone in search of his son. The father went in search of his son, before the son goes in search of his father.

And not only does father just go in search of his son. He goes eager to find him and ready to restore him. The father wants nothing more than to return the son to his place in the household.

In this the father reflects what God has done for each of us in Jesus Christ.

In Christ and through the sacraments, God goes out to meet us. Unlike the father in the parable, however, God doesn’t simply restore us to our former place. Instead He calls us, He calls each of us, His children in this life and promises us a greater intimacy and dignity in the life to come.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Let me pause here for a moment and return to the first verses of the parable.

At least in the beginning, the family that Jesus holds up as a type of the Kingdom of God is anything but admirable.

The youngest son is so greedy, he wishes his father dead. Failing that, he lays claim on his inheritance as if his father were already dead.

And what can we say about the father? At best, he is overly indulgent. It would, however, be more accurate to call him weak. He knows his son and so knows that in giving in to the boy’s demands he is colluding with his riotous living.

Then there is the eldest son. What can we say about him except he is so committed to duty, so willing to be obedient, that he has no charity for his younger brother or ability to share in his father’s joy.

What changes the family is this: the father’s willingness to go in search of his son.

As with parable, so to with us and with the Church. What transforms us is not primarily our repentance but God the Father going in search of us. We are changed because, wonder of wonders, God desires to draw us to Himself even while we, even while I, flee from Him.

No matter how I seek to justify it, no matter how resigned I am to it, when I deny that God loves me, I’m fleeing from God. Like Adam after the Fall, I hide from God.

But try as I might, I can’t hide from God! And neither can you!

God always comes for you!

God is always eager to love you!

God is always drawing you closer to Himself!

It is this–God searching for us–that transforms us personally and as a community.

It is this–God searching for us–that makes it possible for us to be who He has created us to be rather than who the world, our own sin or neurosis, tells us we are.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God comes in search of you! Go and meet the God Who out of His great love, comes to find you!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Atheist In All But Name

Sunday, January 26 (O.S., January 13), 2020: 32nd Sunday after Pentecost Sunday after the Theophany; Martyrs Hermylus and Stratonicus (315); Martyr Peter of Anium (309-310; St. James bp. of Nisibis (336); St. Hilary, bp. of Poitiers (368)

Epistle: Ephesians 4:7-13
Gospel: Matthew 4:12-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul reminds us that God has not simply blessed us but done so in abundance, “to the measure of Christ’s gift” as he says. St John Chrysostom says that to the gift of salvation given in Baptism, “having God as our Father, our all partaking of the same Spirit–these are common to all,” says we each of us also given the gifts needed “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” as we await the coming our Lord Jesus Christ in glory.

Everyone here today, in other words, has not only been called but equipped, for the work of building up the Kingdom of God on earth in anticipation of the coming of that same Kingdom in glory. We have each of us been called and made able to work not just for our own personal salvation but for the salvation of the world. This means that we have each of us been called, set aside and been given grace to live sacrificially so that others can come to know Christ and to know themselves in Christ.

Unfortunately, too frequently we adopt the secularism that Fr Alexander Schmemann identified as the besetting failure of Orthodox Christians in America. We are often quite sincere in our affirmation, Schmemann says, of “the need for religion.” We even “give it a place of honor and cover it with many privileges.” But while we look to religion (including the Gospel) to “supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort, we often fail to expect the Gospel to “transform life” to radically change us, our lives and those we love.

As a practical matter, this means that as an Orthodox Christian I can believe “in God and in the immortality of the soul” even pray daily “and find great help in prayer.” But between my morning and evening prayers everything that I do, is done without any awareness of “the fundamental” truths of the Gospel, “of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.”

Taking Fr Schmemman’s criticism to heart means that whether I am an Orthodox Christian or not, whether I am a priest or layperson, whether I pray daily or not, I live as if I were an atheist.

This is why Chrysostom tells us to “pay attention” to what St Paul says. We have not been given spiritual gifts “according to our own merit.” And, if we had, “then no one would have received” what at all God has given in abundance.

St Paul goes on to list some (though by no means all) the gifts that have been given. “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” but again, all for the purpose of “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

When I live as if I were an atheist, I make a mockery of the Gospel and show myself to be a fool.

Actually, I reveal that I am worse than a fool. I leave unclaimed the reward that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. In refusing to love sacrificially, I don’t only love a little, I refuse to love at all.

And when I refuse to love? What then? Simply put, I enslave myself to my own desires.

Either I worship God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or I worship the idol of my own plans and projects. The latter means living always dependent on constantly shifting circumstances and the whims of others. And it is precisely from this state that, as we hear in the Gospel, Jesus comes to free us.

We are “the people who sat in darkness” who have been invited to see “a great light.”

We are those “who sat in the region and shadow of death” upon whom Christ the divine “light has dawned.”

“To repent,” says Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), “ is not to look not downward at my own shortcomings but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.” The fruit of repentance is to see myself, to see you and all creation as God sees us.

It is from this vision that we get the desire, the strength and the ability to no longer live “as if” God didn’t exist. It is from this vision that we become able to sacrifice not just fearlessly but also prudently.

The latter is often sadly lacking. Practical atheism is not simply living as if there was no God. It is also living as if, the moral and material limits God places on creation were optional for us.

Swept away by the romance of the Gospel, I fail to ask what God wants from me. And so I fail to ask what is the next step along the way. It is the absence of the vision of God, of seeing as God sees, that causes me to worship my own plans and projects.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God invites us, invites me and you, to lay aside the life of practical atheism, of living as if God did not exist. And, its place, He offers us a share in His life and His vision.

He offers us the gift of Himself and the ability to live and love as He does. It is this that is true freedom, it is this what love means and what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Doubt: It Ain’t What I Think

Sunday, January 19 (OS January 6), 2020: The Holy Theophany. The Baptism of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Something interesting happens in the conversation between John and his younger cousin. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Can you not hear an older cousin or sibling say just these words to his junior?

But rather than arguing with him, Jesus responds gently. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

By His answer to John, Jesus transforms a moment of doubt into an occasion of faith. And not only this. John’s willingness, weak as it is, to do what Jesus asks becomes a revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As we hear in the troparion for today, “When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed.”

Through the gentle touch of grace, doubt becomes faith and an experience of the overwhelming and all-encompassing love of God.

Living as we do in an age when we confuse faith in God with what we believe about God, it is easy to also confuse doubt with a lack of intellectual understanding or certitude. And yet, doubt is different.

In the Reform Orthodox Jewish prayer book, there is a lovely prayer. “I thank You O Lord for doubt, for by doubt You reveal to me the limits of my faith.” To doubt is not only an experience of the limits of my faith but, as we see in the Gospel, an invitation to grow in faith.

I think it is more helpful to think doubt not as the lack of certitude (intellectual or emotional) but as a distraction. I doubt not because I don’t understand God or because I don’t love God but because at the moment I take my eyes off of God.

The fact is, God is always more than my understanding of Him. And however much I love Him, because He is Infinite there is always more of Him to love if I can speak that way. Doubt is symptomatic of my shifting my attention from God but on the things of this world.

For St John the Baptist, the cause of his distraction was his fixation on his own limited understanding of righteousness and his own role in the coming of the Messiah. St Paul warns St Titus of doing something similar telling him that “ the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy.”

Paul goes on to say that we are saved through Holy Baptism–that is, “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”–and for this reason, have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

What we have received, we have received from above, from the Hand of God. And what we are to become, is beyond our ability to conceive because it too comes to us from above.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that at times I lose my way because I have lost my focus on Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. As I struggle to be faithful, to live in hope, and to accept in thanksgiving the gift that I and you and all of us who are in Christ have been given, it is little wonder that now and then we fall short and are distracted.

We are distracted precisely because the gift is more than we can imagine. The gift is beyond what we can receive. And so, inevitably, I run up against the limits of my faith, hope and love of the God Who, as St Gregory Palamas says, “is not only beyond our knowing but our unknowing as well.”

Whether in ourselves or others, we should judge doubt gently.

The reason why is that one of the great tricks of the Enemy is to confuse us. He whispers in our ear that questions and struggles are signs of our sinfulness. They might be. And at times, to speak only for myself, they are.

But even when they are, God uses our doubts as occasions for repentance, for growth in holiness and for a deepening of our love for Him and an awareness of His love for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When we doubt, when we encounter the doubts of others, let us at that moment fix our eyes every more firmly on Jesus Christ.

Let us, by all means, confess with John that we do not understand. And if we do, we will hear that same gentle word of encouragement that John hears today from Jesus. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

It is in saying this, that God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit transforms our doubt into a deeper faith by revealing not things about Himself but revealing more fully Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Persecution of Christian in America

Sunday January 12 (OS: December 30) 2020: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast (30th Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord. Sunday after Nativity

Epistle: Galatians 1.11-19

Gospel: Matthew 2.13-23

Christ is born!

As both today’s readings make clear, the Church has been subject to persecution from the beginning. While there have been times of relative peace, there has never been a time–even in a formally “Christian” culture or nation–where the Church, the City of God, was free from the hostile intentions of the World, of the City of Man.

This makes a certain rough sense.

As Herod and his son Archelaus knew, the Church is a fatal threat to “the rulers of the Gentiles,” to those who desire nothing more than “lord it over” others. The powerful of this World are all too eager to “exercise authority over” those who they should instead serve (Matthew 20:25, NKJV). It was precisely this contrast between the two cities that led to the growth of the Church.

Christians, for example, preached a new and unique doctrine of chastity. Powerful men in the ancient world were free to take sexual pleasure where, how, and from whom they wished among those of lesser status. Adultery was a crime for women but acceptable for men. Masters could abuse their male as well as female slaves and teachers their students.

In contrast, the Christian doctrine of chastity not only highlighted the dignity of women, slaves, and children, it offered them a life free from acts of intimate abuse. Those men who embraced the Gospel understood that following Christ required that they refrain from the casual violation of others that their peers readily and habitually practiced.

By the integrity of his life, the Christian man was an unbearable reproach to the selfishness of those around him. He and he alone refused to degrade others as he himself had once been degraded. With the Christian, the cycle ended.

In addition to this, the Church offered Roman society another, equally radical, different standard for the exercise of political authority. While it is sometimes said that the first Christians were pacifists or practiced non-violence, this is inaccurate. At best it is an anachronism. While Christians were willing to suffer violence, they were not pacifists.

Beginning with Cornelius the Roman centurion who, along with his family, is baptized St Peter baptize there is a long history of Christians who served with distinction in the Roman military (see Acts 10). What was unique about these Christian warriors was their refusal–often at the cost of their own lives–to harm the innocent.

Yes, they served the Empire but not at the expense of the Gospel. In this, as with the Christian doctrine of chastity, they stood in stark contrast to their comrades-in-arms. Christian soldiers were eager to defend the innocent but refused to lift their sword against them.

And there are more examples.

Christians adopted unwanted infants left to die in the wilderness. They did this even when food was scarce and each new mouth increased the likelihood of hunger or even death for themselves or their children.

And when the plague struck, the wealthy together with all those who could afford to do so, fled the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Christians however not only stayed but cared for the sick. Willingly Christians risked their own lives to ease the suffering of those who in normal circumstances despised them.

In all of these ways and others too numerous to mention, Christians were a threat to the willingness of the powerful to abuse and neglect others when circumstances allowed or fancy desired.

Today and especially in America, Christians imagine ourselves persecuted. While there are times when we are met with prejudice, it is frequently the case that we have brought this on ourselves. Rarely, are we the object of derision because of our fidelity to the Gospel or the witness of the early Church.

More often than not, we find ourselves complaining not because of persecution or prejudice but because we want to be exempt from the natural consequences of the political process of give and take, of public disagreement and debate, and the many tradeoffs that come with making policy and enforcing law.

Whether we are on the left or the right, American Christians often seem eager to off-load our obligations to the government. This is why we are so quick to criticize as immoral those who disagree with us politically. We are asking the State to do for us, what we should instead be doing for Christ. This being so, how can a believer help but think a person sinful for disagreeing?

While the State has a role to play, it belongs to those of us who are in Christ to lead by example in areas such as philanthropy and morality. But when we look around, outside of a handful of seminaries, there are precious few Orthodox schools and no Orthodox hospitals–to take only two examples. We have, I’m afraid, failed to lead.

I said a moment ago that many Christians in America–and including Orthodox Christians–complain that we are persecuted. Looking at the history of the early Church it’s hard for me to agree with this. As I said, it seems more a matter that we are simply experiencing the natural costs and consequences of participating in American political life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians in America are not persecuted; if only we were. If only we were accounted worthy to suffer because we lived as the first Christians did.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be of Good Cheer Little Flock

Sunday, January 5 (OS December 22) 2020: 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, of the Holy Fathers; Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ; Holy Ten Martyrs of Crete (III): Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompeius, Agathopus, Basilides, and Evaristus (250); St. Niphon, bp. of Cyprus (IV); St. Paul, Bishop of Neo-Caesaria (IV); St. Nahum of Ochrid, enlightener of the Bulgarians (910); Nativity fast, wine and oil allowed

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Geneology of Christ according to St. LukeSometimes we think of Christmas as the end of the story. This is, in a certain sense, reasonable. The last almost 40 days have after all been a preparation to celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ.

In another sense though, Christmas is only the beginning. It is the opening movement in a series of events that will see the Child grow into a Man, preach the Gospel, “heal the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, … set at liberty those who are oppressed” and “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4 18, 19, NKJV).

And as the fathers are keenly aware and quick to point out, Christmas Day announces the eventual death of Christ on the Cross, His three days in the tomb, and His resurrection from the dead.

In a similar way, the events of Christmas Day lead to all the good things that today we take, if not for granted, then as natural. Think of all the great accomplishments of Western culture; not only art, philosophy, and literature, but science, politics and economic development. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in spite of all our failures and enduring sinfulness, these are all the fruit of Christmas.

One can see this not simply in the great Christian cathedrals or lives and writings of the fathers and the saints. We can see this not only in art or liturgy but around us today here in Madison.

A great university, a vibrant (if frequently contentious) tradition of political involvement and philanthropic concern. All of these are at the fruit of the Christmas, the result of generations of men and women who united themselves to Christ in baptism, nourished themselves in Holy Communion and followed Him as His disciples and evangelists.

There is nothing good around us today, that doesn’t owe its existence in large part to the Gospel.

To be sure, this debt is often overlooked or when it isn’t actively denied. But for all that, the roots of not just Western culture or America but Madison are firmly planted in the Gospel.

As I mentioned a week or so ago, we live in politically and culturally contentious times. Whether this is more or less than at other times is an interesting question but rather beside the point. Whatever times we live are always marked by conflict, by the knee jerk willingness of partisans on each side to think the other side is if not actively evil, then benighted or simply foolish.

In this, our time is no different than the time into which Jesus was born. That time, like our time,  was disfigured by violence and contempt for others.

It is into that world, which is our world still today, that Jesus comes and preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of humanity with God and so with itself.

And like those times, our own times can seem overwhelming. Like the disciples in the early hours of Pascha, we are tempted to hide if not from “fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19) then, well, pick the person or group you fear most and so love least.

But now, as then, Jesus comes to stand in our midst, granting us His peace, breathing upon us the Holy Spirit and sending us out to proclaim the Gospel (John 20:21-23). Because you see, whether it is Christmas or Pascha, the Annunciation or Pentecost, the Gift, and the Call, are the same.

We are given not a word about Christ or even a share in His life. We are given at Christmas and every day, Christ Himself. And having received Him, He tells us what He told the disciples. “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Look around you.

Everything you see is the fruit of not just of Christmas but of that “little flock.” All around us we see the fruit of those in the Old Testament who lived in hope for His coming and those in the New Testament and throughout the history of the Church down to this day and in this place who in faith followed Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are that little flock not because we are few but because the Church always seems small in the face of human sinfulness. To us today, Jesus says as He did to Israel, never despair, never give up hope.

And He says to us today, as He did His disciples, do not be afraid, rather be “of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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