Tag Archives: gratitude

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

Being Responsible

April 29 (O.S., April 16), 2018: Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralyzed Man. Righteous Tabitha (1st c.); Translation of the relics of Martyr Abramius of Bulgaria (1230). Virgin-martyrs Agape, Irene, and Chionia in Illyria (304). Martyrs Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista (Calisa), Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth (258).

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Before Jesus heals the paralytic He asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?”

On one level, this would seem to be an unnecessary question. The man is at the pool of Bethesda in the hope of being made whole. There is, however, a deeper meaning to Jesus’ question.

God respects our freedom; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. While “God created us without us,” says St Augustine, “He did not will to save us without us.”

This means Hell isn’t so much a punishment for sin but a sign of God’s great respect for our freedom. Out of His great love for me, God allows me to turn my back on Him even if this results in my condemnation.

Divine love is as different as can be from mere human sentimentality that seeks to alleviate suffering by violating the freedom of the person. For God, the human person is not an object of His love but a subject.

This means that God waits patiently for our free response to Him. He Who is our Friend desires that we should freely choose to be His friend (see John 15:15). And so Jesus asks the paralytic: “Do you want to be made well?”

Just as the question reveals to us something about God–that He respects our freedom–the man’s answer reveals something about our predicament as fallen human beings. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Hearing the same Gospel readings year after year can cause us to miss important points in the text. In this case, we might overlook the fact that the man’s paralysis is not absolute. He can move, if slowly and no doubt painfully.

Rather than taking his limitations into account–say by staying closer to the pool or asking for assistance–the man blames others for his inability to get to the pool. However understandable, the man doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his life.

When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made whole, He is asking the man if he wants to be responsible for his own life. And his willingness to be responsible for himself is in important.

A paralytic, after all, can live by begging. But an able-bodied man? He must work for a living. Being made whole means that he will now have to take care of himself. No more blaming others for what his situation.

The hymnography of the Church draws a parallel between our spiritual state and the man’s paralysis. Like the paralytic, I have reasons for not accepting responsibility for my decisions. And, just like the paralytic, my reasons are, to me at least, reasonable.

They are however only excuses.

In ways subtle and not so subtle, I want to want to hold other people responsible for my situation. Like Adam, I want to blame someone else for my sins. First, I’ll blame you; ultimately, I’ll blame God (see Genesis 3:12).

At some point, becoming an adult–to say nothing of becoming a saint–requires that I stop blaming others for my decision and accept responsibility for my own life. This, psychologically, is the essence of repentance.

Spiritually, repentance means more than just accepting responsibility for my life. The repentant heart is one that sees the whole of life as a gift to be received with gratitude from the hand of an All-loving God.

In the first flush of grace, this is easy.

But as we see toward the end of today’s Gospel, obedience to God will eventually put me in conflict with others. Obedience to God means conflict with those who prefer their own will to the will of God. “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, said to him who was cured, It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”

Even if I (mostly) avoid such conflict, being responsible for my own life means accepting the fact that my life unfolds in unexpected ways. Accepting with gratitude this life with all its successes and failures, its joys and disappointments, is the beginning of wisdom.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be wise!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Magic, Liturgy & the Priest

When Ronald Grimes refers to magic, he’s not making “a pejorative” judgment but discussing “rites that aim to effect.” Magic is functional and so refers to any ritual, or “any element of ritual,” that we undertake “as means to an end.” Insofar as a rite not only has meaning but also works, it is magical. Insofar as it is a deed having transcendent reference and accomplishing some desired empirical result, a rite is magical” (Beginnings in Ritual Studies, pp. 42-43).

This kind of analysis is likely to make Christians in liturgical traditions nervous. “After all,” so their thinking might go, “isn’t something accomplished in the Liturgy and the sacraments of the Church?”

Grimes seems to anticipate this objection. He writes:

Liturgy speaks in an interrogative voice, then a declarative one: “Can this be?” then “This is the case.” By contrast, magic depends on the declarative to reach the imperative: “This is how things work; therefore, let this be the case!” Magic has in common with ceremony a propensity for performative utterances, but the frame of reference of the former is political, while that of the latter is transcendent. Magic uses a transcendent frame of reference to effect change in the ordinary reality of social and ecological interaction (p. 43).

The distinction he draws here is subtle.

It might help us if we think of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition as the anthropological fruit of awe. I have in mind here the response of St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, to the Virgin Mary. “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) The questioning inherent in liturgy isn’t skepticism but wonder. Seen in this way, there is a developmental continuity (both psychologically and spiritually) between our appreciation of the beauty of creation, the mystery of the Eucharist and our own dignity as Christians.

The middle step here—the Eucharist—is critical. Without it, our wonder is rooted simply in ourselves and our own finitude in the response to a largely but ultimately equally finite creation. Yes, there is a grandeur to a sunset, a mountain, the birth of a child. But apart from the Eucharist (and the rest of the sacramental economy), these experiences remain locked into the finite and ever-shifting character of creation and of our own experience of creation. Without the Eucharist, I remain a prisoner of my own, internal, psychological processes.

It is the Eucharist, the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, that liberates the normal, universal, human experience awe in response to transitory beauty into a foretaste of the Eternal. “Grant them in return for earthly things, heavenly gifts; for temporal, eternal; for corruptible, incorruptible.”

Magic doesn’t begin in the experience of wonder but in an act of the will; not awe but assertion. Yes, magic seeks to change things but change them according to my own desires, my own ideas of what is fitting. “The force of magic,” Grimes writes, “lies in its use of desire as a major contributing factor in causing hoped-for results” (p. 43, emphasis added).

Rooted as they are in awe and wonder, the dominate mood of liturgy is thanksgiving. Yes, liturgy is a transcendent and transforming, event. But the liturgically mediated change is predicated not only on divine grace but my ability to accept with gratitude the fact of my absolute dependence on God and my relative dependence on others. Implicit within the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the rest of the Church’s sacramental economy, is my grateful acceptance of my own finitude.

The affective mood of magic is quite different. Typically, magic reflects human anxiety and a desire to control reality. Again Grimes: “magic restores, or takes, control by employing symbols more for their consequence than for their meaning. Thus magical anxiety is likely to be coupled with its opposite: confidence. Magic frequently conjures confidence as a step toward producing the desired results” (p. 43).

But the confidence of magic, is not the fruit of trust but fear and so reflects a lack of appreciation for my status as a creature. Yes, as Grimes points out, magic can lead to “awe or thankfulness.” When it does, we are “one step closer to liturgy or celebration.” Usually, though, magic is a way of explaining reality; it “is how we account for causes and consequences.” This search for an explanation often involves “trickery” and again, while this can grow into something else—the “playfulness of celebration” (p. 44)—it doesn’t necessarily do so. For magic to become liturgy requires gratitude; for it to become celebration, it requires that “surrender idiosyncrasies and independence” (p. 41).

In both cases, for magic to become something more requires that I surrender control and the pursuit of my own desires as mine.

Contrary to what we tell ourselves, magic isn’t absent from contemporary societies “although it is probably adumbrated in them.” Specifically, as Grimes says, “modern therapy and sexuality are as laden with magical thinking as healing and fertility rites ever were.” Likewise, “advertising is full of it. People deny that they believe in magic but ingest this pill and use that shampoo, expecting ‘somehow’ (the cue for magical transcendence) to become what they desire” (p. 44).

And the priest? What has this to do with him?

People often come to the Church, come to the worship of the Church, anxious and weary. Jesus tells us as much. “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).

In those moments when we come to liturgy anxious, weary and weak, there is a temptation to see the Liturgy and the sacraments as magical and the priest as a magician. The priest needs to be on guard for this attitude among his parishioners. It is important that he be viglant in this matter not only for their sake but his own as well.

The temptation for me as priest is that to see me—and not Christ—as the source of healing and transformation.

Responding to this temptation, and guarding against it, is the subject of our next conversation about Liturgy and the spirituality of the priest.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Like Paul! Living in Joy, Without Fear!

Sunday, February 7, 2016: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Sixteenth Sunday of Matthew

After-feast of the Presentation (Meeting) of Christ; Parthenios, bishop of Lampsakos; Venerable Luke of Hellas; New-martyr George of Crete

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Reflecting on his own ministry, the Apostle Paul says that he “put no obstacle” in the way of anyone who—having sensed that “now is the day of salvation”—wished to become like him a “servants of God.” Paul then goes on to enumerate the cost he’s paid for fidelity to the evangelical work of the Church. He has had to bear “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger.” All this and more he endured so that others could come to experience in their lives “the power of God.”

Not only does Paul suffer at the hands of the Gentiles, he is persecuted by the Jews. Nevertheless, he has freely and enthusiastically preaches the Gospel, “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute” at the hands of unbelievers.

But at the ends of his recollections, his focus shifts; he hints that he suffers at the hands of those who have accepted the Gospel. Paul even suffers at the hands of other Christians. It is his fellow apostles and evangelists, not the Gentile and Jewish authorities, that treat Paul as an imposter, as someone unknown to Christ.

And yet, in spite of all this, he remains faithful to Christ and committed to “making many rich” even though he himself is “poor.” Because of his heroic fidelity to Christ and the work to which he is called, Paul who has “nothing” in the eyes of men, “possess[es] everything” in Christ.

Turning from the epistle to the Gospel, we see the example unfaithful servant who is the anti-type or moral opposite of Paul. This man allowed fear of his master to overwhelm him. Ironically, this results in his fears being realized. He is punished by his master, cast “into the outer darkness” there to weep and gnash his teeth.

On closer examination, though, we see that the unworthy servant was motivated not simply by fear of “a hard man.” No, the servant was gripped by despair; he had no confidence, no trust, no hope in the future. And all this because he simply had no confidence in his master and the gift his master gave him. He also he had no trust in himself because he had no faith in his master.

Yes, the master was “a hard man” who reaped where he didn’t sew and who gathered where he didn’t winnow. But this hard man had confidence in his servants. To be sure varying degrees of confidence signified by the greater or lesser amount of money entrusted to them. Nevertheless, the master was confident in his servants and their abilities to be profitable for him. The servant’s self-doubt and despair are the bitter fruit of his lack of faith in his own master.

On this difference hinges the difference between my being like Paul or being like the wicked and slothful servant. We usually think of sloth as laziness. While there is some overlap between them, sloth is less a matter of not doing what’s right and more of not taking joy in doing it. The slothful person is indifferent or even opposed to the joy that comes from being faithful and obedient to God.

At its foundation sloth is a refusal to accept with gratitude and joy my life as it has come to me from the hands of a loving God. Small and few though they seem to me, the gifts God has given me are able to bear fruit if only I am faithful to God. Joy, to say nothing of progress in the spiritual life, are the fruit of fidelity to our personal vocations.

This is why St Paul takes pains to say again and again that he puts “no obstacle” in the way anyone coming to Christ. Having experienced the joy of discipleship in his own life, he can’t but desire that for others. Having experienced the love of God for him, Paul wants others to come to know God’s love for them. This is why even though he was persecuted by the civil and religious of his time, even though he was criticized and rejected by some in the Church, Paul preached Christ and Him crucified (see 1 Corinthians 2:2), in season and out (see 2 Timothy 4:2). His life was rooted in faithful, hopeful ad loving obedience to Jesus Christ and not the passing approval of men.

When I look at my own spiritual life, do I see a life characterized by gratitude and joy? Reflecting on this morning’s epistle and Gospel makes me ask why do I lack the confidence of St Paul? Might I be more like the unfaithful steward and fear of my master, the Lord Jesus Christ?

Paul’s life reflects the healthy and wholesome self-confidence that is the fruit of fidelity to God. Such fidelity can’t be abstract or merely theoretical; it isn’t a matter of words, ideas or feelings. Fidelity to Christ is the fruit of the careful discernment of our own, personal vocation and our subsequent obedience to the contours and content of the life and work to which we have been called.

How do I know if I am faithful? How do I know if my self-confidence is healthy and wholesome?

We find our answer again in the person of the Apostle Paul. The sign of vocational fidelity and Christ-like self-confidence is joy. Specifically, our ability, like Paul, to rejoice in gifts God has given others and to work to foster their fidelity to what God asks of them. We do this because we know that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (2 Corinthians 12:26. NKJV). Joy in the honor God bestows on others is the sign of our own fidelity to the will of God. To live otherwise is to fall into the divisions that plagued the Church in Corinth. Such joy is balm for a world battered and broken by sin and death and is certain and trustworthy evidence “for the hope that lies within” us (see 1 Peter 3:15).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory