Tag Archives: Faith

Faith & Reason, Charity & Prudence

Sunday, April 7 (OS March 25), 2019: 4th Sunday of Lent; Sunday of St John of the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the Feast of the Holy Annunciation of the Theotokos; Martyr Victoria

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18/6:1-20
Gospel: Luke 1:24-34/Mark 9:17-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The hymnography for the Feast of the Annunciation includes a conversation between the Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel.

In response to Gabriel’s announcement that she is to give birth to the Son of God, the Virgin Mary asks the angel as to how this is even possible: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

Though she doesn’t understand how God’s will for her is to be accomplished, in humility she accepts the divine will calling herself “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

The humility of her response, however, is not passive. Nor does it reflect a simplification of the complexity of God’s will for her life. Though she responds in a common-sense manner to the angel’s message—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?—the hymnography makes it clear that she is not naïve.

Immediately after raising the biological question, the hymnography tells us Mary turns to philosophy: “How shall I become the Mother of my Maker?’” How, in other words, will the creature conceive and contain in her womb the Creator?

Mary’s questions however are not merely speculative. She is motivated by a concern for the whole human family. She is aware that the last time an angel appeared to a virgin–the Serpent to Eve in the Garden–things ended badly for us.

As we reflect on the Virgin’s hesitancy we come to see that it reflects not a lack of faith on her part. Rather, she is moved by an abundance of charity. No matter how great the honor offered her, she doesn’t want to act impulsively; the reward is great but is great as well.

We can apply to Mary the Solomon’s description of the wise man:

The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident (Proverbs 14:15-16, NKJV).

Mary is no fool! She is wise and carefully thinks through the implications of her actions.

She reflects on the Angel’s greeting not only in light of Scripture but also science and philosophy. The Handmaiden of the Lord is obedient and charitable but also respectful of reason and what reason knows.

So what does all this mean for us?

In the Mother of God we see the harmony–the synergy–of faith and reason, of charity and prudence.

Faith without reason is mere fantasy even as reason without faith is idle speculation.

Likewise, charity needs prudence since without the ability to give practical expression to our concern for others we are left with mere sentimentality. As for prudence, without love it is cowardice.

When I violate the partnership between faith and reason or charity and prudence and I set the stage for violence. Violence not only in society but in the Church, the family and in our personal lives.

Sentimentality gives rise to violence because it demands recognition. For the one gripped by the passion of sentimentality, it isn’t enough that he feels happy or sad; others must join him in his feelings. And, if they don’t or won’t, they must be made to comply.

All this is so because once we break the inherent connection between faith and reason, between charity and prudence, we set ourselves adrift. We strip ourselves of everything except our current emotion or most recent thought or most pressing desire. We become slaves to our own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In other words, faith without reason, charity without prudence, is precisely that from which God comes to save us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We see in the Mother of God an icon of the faithful, loving and rational disciple of Christ. In her faith and reason, charity and prudence are not only in harmony with each other but also at the service of the Gospel.

She is as well the icon of the Christian professional, the Christian scholar, the Christian scientist.

We see in her what it means to give ourselves wholly to Christ not only for our own sake but for the salvation of the world. And so we see in her both our vocation as disciples and apostles of Christ but also as citizens of a Republic.

May God through the prayers of the Holy Theotokos grant us a life faithful reason, rational faith, charitable prudence and prudent charity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grateful Faith

September 30 (O.S., September 17): 8th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday after the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Martyrs Sophia and her three daughters: Faith (Vira), Hope (Nadia), and Love (Lyubov), at Rome (137). Martyr Theodota at Nicaea (230) and Agathoklea. 156 Martyrs of Palestine, including bishops Peleus and Nilus, the presbyter Zeno and others (310).

Epistle: Galatians 2:16-20
Gospel: Mark 8:34-9:1

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We are, the Apostle Paul tells us, not saved “by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” To be more accurate, we are saved by the personal faith of Jesus Christ, by His faithful obedience to His Father. Or as Paul says in another place: “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” Philippians 3:9, KJV).

Our faith then is in Him Who is always faithful, Our faith, my faith and yours, derives from the faith of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that our faith need not be personal. Too often, Orthodox Christians imagine that conformity to the Tradition of the Church is sufficient for salvation. But it simply isn’t enough to be carried along by Holy Tradition like a stick in a stream.

Faith to be faith must be personal or it isn’t faith. Think about the words we say before receiving Holy Communion. “I believe O Lord and confess, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.”

More importantly, for faith to be personal it can’t be limited to only one aspect of the work of Christ. Think about it for a moment. A meaningful relationship, a relationship that is truly personal, is one in which we embrace and accept the whole of the other person.

Who has ever, to take only one example, built a happy marriage by focusing on one aspect of their spouse’s personality to the exclusion of the rest? We love the whole person or we don’t love at all.

This means that to have faith in Jesus Christ means to love Him not only as Redeemer but also Creator. St Irenaeus the Great says that when God the Father created the heavens and the earth, He did so with His right and left hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

To have faith in Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Creator means to see creation as coming from the hand of a loving God. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Creation, both as a whole and in all its parts, is a revelation of His love. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20, NKJV).

Not only does God reveal Himself to us in Creation, in creating us He endows our lives with meaning. While it is still incumbent on me to live a life worth living, I create such a life from the natural talents and spiritual gifts God gives me.

My talents were given me at the moment of my creation in my mother’s womb; my spiritual gifts are given to me in Holy Baptism and are sustained and deepened through the other sacraments and the life of prayer.

To have faith in Jesus Christ, then, means to have confidence that my own life is meaningful and that God has called me to mix my freedom with His grace to live a life that is profitable. Such a life is, as we have seen, one that serves your salvation and so that my own as well.

More broadly, and this is harder, to have faith in Jesus Christ not only as Redeemer but Creator, means to accept the circumstances of my life as His gift given to me for His glory, my salvation, and the salvation of the world. To have faith in Jesus as Redeemer and Creator means to accept each moment of life as a sacrament of His grace to be received with the same thanksgiving with which I receive Him in Holy Communion.

I should pause here and make an important distinction. To receive each moment in thankfulness as a sacrament of God’s grace, doesn’t mean to remain passive in the face of evil.

It means rather that I must understand that when I see evil around me or in me, God is calling me to fight–or at least resist–sin and the harm it does. it is only when we are confident that each moment of life is filled to overflowing with God’s grace, mercy, and love, that we are able to stand against the myriad manifestation of sin in human affairs.

Make no mistake. Only the grateful and faithful Christian heart can hope to resist successfully the blandishments of sin.

This is what it means, to turn to today’s Gospel, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples.

And again, make no mistake, to carry the cross in faith and gratitude requires from us a real death to self.

How much easier it is to think of life as something wholly of my own creation.

How much easier it is to think the meaning of my life, the terms of success or failure, of virtue or vice, are wholly my own to determine, keep or ignore.

How much easier it is to think that my life is simply mine.

But my brothers and sisters in Christ! Like Jesus, our lives are not our own! He lived to do the Father’s will and so save humanity from the powers of sin and death.

And you? Your life, like Jesus’ life, like mine life, is God’s gifts to you to be received with thanksgiving and lived in faith. We do this not only for our own sake but in fidelity to the example of Christ, for the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Merciful!

Sunday, February 21, 2016: Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican; Venerable Timothy of Symbola; Eustathios, archbishop of Antioch; Zachariah, patriarch of Jerusalem; George, bishop of Amastris

St George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Epistle: 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14

The Apostle Paul sets an intimidating standard for me as a priest. He tells Timothy, to quote what Paul says not once but twice in another place, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1). This is an intimidating standard because the Apostle is saying that it’s not only does his “teaching” proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No, the whole of Paul’s life is nothing more or less than a testament to “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). His behavior and his goals, his patience and love, his steadfastness in persecution and suffering are all part of his witness to Christ and the sign of Paul’s apostleship.

After saying this about himself, Paul turns to the young bishop Timothy and says do as I have done; “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy, like Paul, is called to make of his life “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.” This is Timothy’s “reasonable service”: that he refuse to “be conformed to this world” and instead “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that not only in the life to come but also in the ebb and flow of this life he testify to the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV).

A lofty standard for the priest to be sure but not simply for the priest. It is also the standard for all Christian. Like Paul, like Timothy, by virtue of our baptism God has called each of us to be His disciples and so also set each of us aside to be His witness, His apostles, for a world that desires a love they don’t know and without us can only glimpse. We are like Paul and Timothy called to be disciples of Christ and apostles, that is witnesses, to God’s love for the world poured out in Christ and Him crucified.

Turning to this morning’s Gospel, it is an unbearable tragedy that all too often the Gospel is used not to liberate people from the powers of sin and death but to shame and degrade them. Yes, when this happens it is an abuse of the Gospel and a betrayal of Christ and a sin against that love that God has shown us. And yet, it happens again and again.

All too easily I fall into the role of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. Too often by my attitude and actions I say “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Self-satisfaction fills the space in my life that God would have filled by those three things that last, faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV).

Tragic as all this is, if I stop here in my self-evaluation I fail not only my neighbor but also myself. You see the Pharisee condemns the tax collector because his own repentance is incomplete. Reading the text quickly we might think that the Pharisee knows his virtue but not his sinfulness. This is true, but only to a point. Origen says “the Pharisee … boasted with a certain wicked self-conceit” (Against Celsus, III:64). As important as it is for me to know my sinfulness, it is more important still to know “the greatness of God” and, like the publican, to continually ask Him for His mercy. As an observant Jew, the Pharisee knew his obligations under the Law. This is why he fasts twice a week and pays tithes. And it is likewise why he thanks God that he isn’t “like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

We mustn’t think that the Pharisee’s gratitude and piety aren’t real, they are, it is rather a matter that they are deficient because he lacks mercy.

Mercy is often misunderstood. It isn’t a matter of saying that sin doesn’t matter or isn’t important. Mercy isn’t getting a free pass on my sinfulness; it isn’t as if God says that my moral failures don’t matter. No, God by His great mercy (to return to Origen) makes up for “our deficiencies” and supplies “what is wanting” in us (Against Celsus, III:64). To ask for divine mercy, is to confess my weakness, my deficiency, before God.

And having experienced God’s mercy for me, I want to offer that mercy to others.

While the Pharisee is, no doubt sincerely, grateful for what he has received from God, he fails to see the true depth and expanse of his own need. His self-conceit is that he believes that the process of repentance is over for him. He sees in himself no need, and in the tax collector no possibility, to go “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Pharisee is far from St Gregory of Nyssa‘s observation that to become like the God Who is perfect and Who never changes, we must change “and change frequently.”

For all that he is grateful, the Pharisee is nevertheless in the grip of despair. His life, his view of himself and of his neighbor, is wholly static and so inescapably self-satisfied. There is in the Pharisee no awareness of his own deficiencies, his own need for the mercy of God “which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking” (Ordination of a Presbyter). And not seeing this in himself he can’t see this in others. So though he is grateful, his gratitude is insufficient because it lacks hope and charity. In his own way, the Pharisee is the embodiment of what the Apostle James warns against: “faith without works is dead” (see, James 2:14-26).

Turning from the Pharisee and the Apostle Timothy, what do the readings say to me about my own spiritual life on this, the first Sunday of the Triodion, the beginning of our preparation for the Great Fast?

Of all the things that could be said, I think the most important is this. God has called me, called each of us, to bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of His Son and our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This witness isn’t just a matter of having the correct faith but being always aware of God’s mercy in our lives and the lives of those around us. This awareness is the wellspring of our charity for others.

Love requires that I must not succumb to either moral indifference or theological triumphalism. The latter assumes that, having received the Gospel in its fullness, the demands of charity are fulfilled by offering a summary of the Creed or a lecture in Church history. Cruel as this is, the former is worse since it fails to see deficits, and so the suffering they cause, as real.

To be a witness of God’s love and mercy I must be prayerfully open and obedient to the deficiency that God would complete in the moment. What I mean is that to give food to the thirsty, to give a drink to the hungry, isn’t mercy and so isn’t charity. At best it is well-meaning but incompetent; at worse it is the same self-conceit that blinded the Pharisee to his own need for repentance and that killed his love for the Publican before it born.

One person needs from me the kerygma, another a glass of water. This person needs a kind word, this one a stern word. But to respond in mercy to all of them, I need the repentant hope of the Publican but also to the faith of the Pharisee (see, Matthew 5:20). It is only in this way that I can bear an effective witness to the love of God poured out for all mankind in Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Both Humility & Boldness Are Needed

December 4, 2015: Barbara the Great Martyr, John the Righteous of Damascus, New Hieromartyr Seraphim, bishop of the Phanar in Greece, Juliana the Martyr of Heliopolis, Alexander Hotovitzky, New Hieromartyr of Russia, Missionary to America

Epistle: Galatians 3:23-29; 4:1-5
Gospel: Mark 5:24-34

Jesus uses a curious phrase in this morning’s Gospel. St Mark says that Jesus “knowing that power had gone out of Him” asks “‘Who touched My clothes?'” (5:30, NKJV)

In a sermon attributed to St John Chrysostom we read that divine grace is Christ’s alone to impart those “who touch Him by faith.” The sermon goes on to say that grace doesn’t “go out of Him locally or corporeally, nor in any respect pass away from Him.” Rather Jesus says what He does “to show that with His knowledge, and not without His being aware of it, the woman was healed.” In other words, what Jesus is aware of is not a change in Himself, much less a loss, but a change in the woman with the flow of blood. It is a change in her, not Himself that He comments upon. And so Jesus asks “who touches Him so “that He might bring to light the woman… and proclaim her faith.” And what of the crowds? While the throng about Him, they “cannot be said to touch” Christ because ” they do not come near [Him] in faith” (Pseudo-Chrysostom in St Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea “Mark 5:21-34).

The Venerable Bede makes much the same point. Jesus asks what He does to invite the woman to “confess [her] faith … [and] her sudden belief and healing.” Above all though Christ speaks to confirm her in her faith, making her “an example to others” of the necessity of faith (Catena Aurea “Mark 5:21-34).

St Paul in today’s epistle that the Law isn’t there to reveal my goodness but as a tutor. If anything, the Law (and so my obedience to it) reveals not just my immaturity but my bondage to what he calls “the elements of the world” (4:3, NKJV). Whether we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, whatever our social status, we are all of us apart from faith in Jesus Christ my “pernicious freedom” is just “the matrix of sin” (Ambrosiaster, Epistle to the Galatians, 4.3 quoted in vol VIII of ACCS NT: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, p. 53).

Like the woman in the Gospel, I pursue “useless remedies” when instead what I need to do is realize “time is short” and “healing is not given to the silent, nor to the one who hides her pain” from Christ. And like her, in the silence of my heart I must take what I dare “not ask for … knowing that healing and forgiveness may be bestowed in this stratagem” and that in “an instant, faith cures where human skill has failed” (Peter Chrysologus, “On the Daughter of the Ruler of the Synagogue, and On the Woman Suffering From An Issue of Blood,” quoted in vol II of ACCS NT: Mark, p. 74).

Faith in Jesus Christ requires from us both humility and boldness. Awareness of my sin makes me humble; confidence in God love makes me bold. One without the other is of no use; both together sets us brings healing, forgiveness and a share in divine glory in this life and the life to come.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Good Works Matter

Zephaniah addressing people (French bible, 16th century).

December 3, 2015: The Holy Prophet Sophonias (Zephaniah), Our Righteous Father John, Bishop and Hesychast, Holy Martyrs Agapius and Seleucius, Theodore, Archbishop of Alexandria, Angelis the New Martyr, Karpos the Hieromartyr

Epistle: 1 Timothy 6:17-20

Gospel: Luke 20: 9-18

St Paul’s words to Timothy are startling in their clarity. After reminding the rich of the limits of their wealth he goes on to tell them to “be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (v. 18, NKJV) And they are to do these things not simply because they are the right things to do but because by doing so the rich are “storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (v. 19, NKJV).

Today almost 500 years after the Luther and in a popular religious culture formed by Evangelical Christianity, even Orthodox Christians are likely to find Paul’s language unsettling. He just sounds so commercial. I am to do good works—and especially to give to the poor—so that I can obtain eternal life. It’s almost like Paul is saying to us that we are to use the transitory wealth that “moth and rust destroy” and that “thieves break in and steal” to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” that are everlasting (see Matthew 6: 19-21, NKJV).

And you’d be right. This is exactly what are called to do.

In the Liturgy of St Basil, for example, after recalling just some of the myriad good works that ask God from us, the priest asks to grant “for earthly things, heavenly [Cf. John 3:12]; for temporary ones, eternal [Cf. 2 Cor. 4:18], for corruptible, incorruptible” [Cf. 1 Cor.9:25]. Again, while this is scandalous to those formed according to the values of our popular religious culture, faith alone is not sufficient for salvation. We must have good works; “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17, NKJV). This is the very point Jesus makes in the Gospel.

Our Lord tells the parable of the vineyard owner who expects from his tenants “that they might give him some of the fruit” (v. 10, NKJV). It’s worth noting that while the owner doesn’t expect his tenants to give everything—after all if they did how would could they survive much less care for the vineyard in the coming year—he does expect them to give something. The owner is not a greedy man but “indulgent” and even generous toward his tenants which make “more inexcusable their stubbornness (St Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition on the Gospel of Luke,” 9.23-24 in vol III of ACCS NT: Luke, p. 305).

Likewise, God in Jesus Christ is generous with me. I stumble and fall into sin, usually the same sin, again and again. And each time He is ready, eager really, to forgive me. Never once has God left me in my sin. Rather again and again He reaches down from heaven and lifts me up granting me an ever greater share of His life (see 2 Peter 1: 1-11). In return what He asks is that I do some good work for my neighbor.

Whatever we do, it will only be a small portion relative to what God has done for each of us. Though we are always the junior partner in the great mystery of salvation, we are still God’s partners, His co-workers in our own salvation and the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:19, 2 Corinthians 6:1). This is why God asks us only “for some fruit.”

But make no mistake. No matter how small the good deed there is no salvation without works worthy of our faith.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory