Tag Archives: Great Lent 2018

What is Freedom For?

Wednesday, April 04 (O.S., March 22), 2018: Great Wednesday; Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra († 363); Martyr Drosis the Daughter of the Emperor Trajan (104-117); Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople († 383); Martyrs Callinica and Basilissa of Rome; Venerable Martyr Euthymius of Constantinople; Hieromartyr Euthymius of Prodromou on Mt Athos († 1814).

Matins: John 12.17-50
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 2.3-3.3
Vespers: Exodus 2.11-22
Vespers: Job 2.1-10
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26.6-16

The choice before me is laid out in stark terms.

Like the Harlot, I can come “in tears” and cry out to God “In Your compassion and love for mankind, deliver me from the filth of my evil deeds!”

Alternatively, I can imitate “deceitful Judas” and allow my greed to draw me away “from intimate companionship with Christ.”

When, as Orthodox Christians, we emphasize the importance of human freedom (and all the rights and privileges that we have come to expect as Americans) our concern is in defending is the ability of the soul to imitate either the Harlot or Judas. Human freedom is not for us an end in itself. It is rather for something.

Immediately, freedom is for repentance. I must be free to examine myself, to know myself not simply in terms set by the culture but by Holy Tradition. Our freedom in the first instance is in the service of accurate self-knowledge.

As I grow to know myself, I am confronted with a choice.

Recognizing my vices as well as my virtues, what will I do? Will I struggle against my sins through the cultivation of virtue? Or will I, again like Judas, give myself over to despair?

A despairing soul will only infrequently commit suicide like Judas (Matthew 27:5). More often despair hides under the guise of another sin. Again, Judas is instructive.

The fallen apostle is mentioned nine times in today’s Matin service. In order, he is called “deceitful” and “burning with love of money” He is a man who “drunkenly runs” to betray his Friend (Kathisma 15).

He is called “envious,” “ignorant and evil.” A “miserable man,” a “traitor” blinded by “greedy avarice” into becoming a “traitor.” (Ode 9).

Judas is “scheming” and “enslaved to the Enemy” by his “terrible … slothfulness.” Twice we hear of “the wretchedness of Judas” (Praises).

Despair cloaks itself in all these seemingly lesser sins.

This, however, raises a question. If freedom is for repentance, what is repentance for? Again Judas is instructive.

Judas stands in bold contrast to the Harlot. While she spreads “out her hair” to dry the feet of Jesus that she has washed with her tears (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), Judas spreads “out his hands to lawless men.” What the Harlot does, she does “in order to receive forgiveness,” she is repentant. And Judas? He only puts out his hand “to receive some silver” (Matthew 26:14-16, Luke 22:1-6).

As freedom is for repentance, repentance is for forgiveness. And not just forgiveness in a formal, juridical sense. But, as we hear in the service, the forgiveness that “raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days” (Aposticha).

All of this is expressed in the Hymn of Kassiane that we sing toward the end of Matins:

..accept the fountain of my tears,
O You, Who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds!
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
O You, Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension!
Once Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy!”

God stands ready to accept our repentance. He stands ready to receive us who run to Him and extend to us His “immeasurable mercy.”

So, then, what is freedom for? It is so that we can receive the mercy of God and then offer that mercy to others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Respecting Human Freedom

Tuesday, April 03, (O.S., March 21), 2018: Great Tuesday;  Venerable James the Confessor and Bishop of Catania (8th-9th C); Venerable Seraphim Vyritsky († 1949); New Hieromartyr Priest Vladimir († 1931); Holy Hierarch Cyrill, Bishop of Catania (1st-2nd C); Holy Hierarch Thomas, Patriarch of Constantinople († 610); Venerable Serapion, Bishop of Tmuissa; Venerable Serapion of Neitria

Matins: Matthew 22:15-23:39
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1:21-2:1
Vespers: Exodus 2:5-10
Vespers: Job 1:13-22
Presanctified Liturgy: Matthew 24:36-26:2

Once again, the Church’s hymnography reminds me that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26):

Realizing the hour of reckoning, O my soul, and fear the cutting down of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), work diligently with the talent that has been given you O wretched one (Matthew 25:14-30). Watch and pray that we may not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ Matthew 25:1-13).

It isn’t enough to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, “for the demons do as such and tremble” (James 2:19). Salvation requires that I be a “profitable” servant, that I “hear the word of God and keep it,” and that I “do the works” God has given me to do.

This emphasis on tangible works is the necessary corrective to the tendency to confuse my thoughts and feelings about God and neighbor with the love “that seeks not its own reward” (1 Corinthians 13:5) and the “faith that moves mountains” (Matthew 21:21).

As we’ve seen throughout the Great Fast, so much of what Jesus says about salvation presupposes that we understand what it means to make a profit. For the fathers of the Church, while the meaning of Scripture is never limited to the literal (i.e., historical) meaning, this meaning can’t be ignored or violated.  We must understand the ordinary meaning of profit if we wish to understand Jesus’ word to us that we be “profitable servants.”

Profit is not, as in Marxism, the surplus value created by labor and stolen by owners. Besides being wrong economically, this view of profit would paint Jesus as an unjust business owner who exploits His workers. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, profit is only earned by the free collaboration of multiple parties. Yes, the worker invests his labor. But his investment is only possible because of the initial and ongoing investment of capital and expertise by the business owner.

These investments, however, are not profitable unless the worker and business owner together create a product or service of value to the consumer. Only then will the consumer exchange her money for what capital and labor together have created.

To be a “profitable” servant for Jesus presuppose the investment and ongoing presence of His grace in me (and indeed, everyone) and my willing collaboration with Him. Or, as St Paul says, we must be “co-labors” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9).

My obedience to divine grace, however, is not sufficient.

A “profitable” servant must also be of service to others. I must create value in the lives of neighbors. Just as in the marketplace, this means respecting their freedom. A profitable servant can’t compel others to accept his or her service. What is freely given, must be freely received (see, Matthew 10:5-8). This, in turn, requires that I offer my service to you freely (that is without coercion) that you freely received (or not) the offered service I would do for you.

The cooperation of divine and human freedom is at the heart of Holy Week. How these work together is the great mystery of salvation (Ephesians 5:32). But God respects and waits on human freedom. God waits for our response to His invitation  (Revelation 3:20).

The moral message of this week is similar. Just as God respects my freedom, I must likewise respect yours. Anything less is unworthy of divine grace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Our Two Freedoms

Monday, April 02 (O.S., March 20), 2018: Great Monday; Venerable Fathers slain at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas: John, Sergius, Patrick and others († 796); New Hieromartyr Deacon Basil († 1938); Martyr Photina (Svetlana), the Samaritan Woman, her sons, and those with her († c. 66); Holy Virgin Martyrs Alexandra, Claudia, Euphrasia, Matrona, Juliania, Euthymia and Theodosia († 310); St. Nicetas the Confessor the Archbishop of Apollonias in Bithynia (9th C); Hieromartyr Euphrosynus of Blue Jay Lake, Novgorod († 1612); New Martyr Miron of Crete; St. Cuthbert, Wonderworker of Britain († 687).

Matins: Matthew 21:18-43
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1.1-20
Vespers: Exodus 1.1-20;
Vespers: Job 1.1-12
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24.3-35

At Matins for today we hear the following hymn:

Today let us add lamentation to lamentation!
Let our tears flow with those of Jacob, who weeps for
his celebrated and sober-minded son;
for though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave,
he preserved the freedom of his soul and was lord over
all Egypt.

Hearing this I might be tempted to think any number of things that are, at best, morally confused. At worse, I might end up of saying something that is truly evil.

The confusion is this: Because inner freedom–what the text refers to as the ‘freedom of soul’–is what matters, I might wrongly think that political or soul freedom is unimportant. “After all,” I might think (or worse, say), “even though Joseph was a slave, he ‘preserved the freedom of his soul’ and even became ‘lord over all Egypt.’”

As St Paul points out to the Church of Rome, I can’t do evil that “good may come” (3:8). The fact that, as the Apostle says a bit later, that God is able to bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28), doesn’t mean evil isn’t evil.

At the very least, evil is something I should avoid. If I can–or better, as much as I can–I should oppose evil. I should oppose evil not only in my own heart but in the world around me.

I must be faithful to the example of Jesus. When after suffering temptation in the desert, how does He begin His own ministry? Going to the synagogue he reads from the prophecy of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1, 2)

Jesus begins His own ministry by opposing–and so ending–the hold that moral evil and physical suffering have on us (Luke 4:16-21).

While moral freedom is more important than political freedom, the two freedoms are not opposed. While I can have the moral freedom without political freedom, I can’t have the latter without the former.

Ideally, though, a society should have both. And, in any case, Christians are called to work for both moral and political freedom. What we can never do, is sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: What God Wants From Us

April 1 (O.S., March 19), 2018: Sixth Sunday of the Great Lent: Palm Sunday, the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem; Martyrs Chrysanthus and Daria, and those with them at Rome: Claudius, Hilaria, Jason, Maurus, Diodorus presbyter, and Marianus deacon (283). Martyr Pancharius at Nicomedia (ca. 302).

Epistle: Philippians 4:4-9
Gospel: John 12:1-18

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today’s readings are odd.

The epistle doesn’t mention at all our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. Instead, St Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” And, lest we miss what he means, he repeats himself and says again we are to rejoice.

He then goes on to explain to us what it means to rejoice.

We are to be gentle, to lay aside anxiety in favor of prayer, and with a thankful and peaceful heart ask God for what we need.

He concludes by encouraging us to reflect on all things that are true, noble, just, pure, and lovely. We are to concern ourselves not with human failure but with what is virtuous and praiseworthy.

Importantly, the Apostle doesn’t tell us to limit our mediation to those things which are specifically or explicitly Christian. No, whatever form it takes, if it is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely we are to reflect on it and allow it to shape our lives.

But, in all this, there is not one word about Jesus.

As for the Gospel, the events we are celebrating this morning are almost an afterthought. Unlike the Gospel at Matins (Matthew 21:1-11;15-17), most of the text is devoted to the events surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

As is so often the case, those around Jesus–even those closest to Him–misunderstand. The Apostle John says that the disciples–and he–“did not understand” what was happening.

Judas misunderstood because he was consumed by greed.

The chief priests misunderstood because they were consumed by jealousy.

Even the crowds came “not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.”

The only one who seems to have any sense of what is happening is Mary the sister of Lazarus. Mary knows that Jesus is going to die. And so she “took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

Like the disciples, I often misunderstand the will of God because, to return to today’s epistle, I give myself over to grumbling. Frankly, I have an almost unending list of complaints and disappointments. In my more lucid and honest moments, I realize how easy it is for me to find fault with others and myself. I hold on to injuries and resist forgiving those who have wronged me.

This is why I am forever misunderstanding what God asks of me.

Since St Paul sees fit to say what he did to the Church at Philippi, it seems likely that–for all my shortcomings–I’m really no different from any other Christian. We all need to be reminded to attend to the myriad signs of God’s grace and love for us. We all of us need to cultivate a sense not simply of gratitude but celebration.

And if we take St Paul’s counsel to heart, we must cast as wide a net as possible. We must thank God for whatever is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely.

Only in this way, to work backward through the text, we acquire a spirit of gentleness.

Only in this way, will we find the boldness to ask God for what we need.

Only in this way, will we fulfill the command to rejoice in the Lord always.

The crowds, the high priests, Judas and the disciples all of them had the opportunity to sit and eat and drink and talk with God. And all of them allowed that opportunity to slip through their fingers because they “did not understand.”

Instead, they preferred signs and wonders or power and wealth. All good things in themselves to be sure but not the point.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Each day, each moment, Christ comes ready to enter into our lives. He stands at the door to our hearts knocking. If we open our heart to Him, He will come in and dine with us (see Revelation 3:20).

What God wants from us is not palms or hymns. What He wants from us is simply this: He wants us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be A Good Wife

Friday, March 30 (O.S., March 17), 2018: Friday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Venerable Alexis the Man of God († 411); Venerable Macarius, Abbot of Kaliazin, wonderworker († 1483); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexander († 1919); New Hieromartyr Priest Victor († 1942); Martyr Marinus; Venerable Paul of Cyprus; St. Patrick, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland († 461).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 66:10-24
Vespers: Genesis 49:33-50:26
Vespers: Proverbs 31:8-31

Tomorrow is Lazarus Saturday and the beginning of Holy Week. So today is the last day of the Great Fast. Given where we are liturgically, today’s Old Testament readings the Church are odd.

Well, actually, not all the readings.

The selections from Isaiah and Genesis make sense. Once again, Isaiah reminds us of the impending judgment in which, to borrow from Jesus’ words in Matthew, God will separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32).

The reading for Genesis is likewise a sensible choice.

With the death of Jacob and Joseph, the patriarchal age comes to an end. There will soon arise “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, NKJV). His rule will bring a dark and tragic change. Sin’s hold over humanity will become institutionalized as the Hebrew children find themselves enslaved. It is from this, sin’s “anti-church,” that Jesus comes to save us.

But what are we to make the third reading? Why do we hear about “a good wife” who is “far more precious than jewels”?

Solomon’s description of the good wife isn’t limited to her moral virtues important though they are. No for the King whose “wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:30, NKJV), the good wife isn’t simply a morally good woman, she is a successful entrepreneur. She not only excels in managing the household but in business. Far from being a passive participant in her own life, “she girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong” through her domestic and commercial industry.

The Fathers see in the good wife a type of the Church. St Gregory Nazianzen alludes to this in his funeral oration for his sister Gorgonia.

Solomon … praises the woman who looks to her household and loves her husband, contrasting her with one who roams abroad, and is uncontrolled and dishonourable, and hunts for precious souls with wanton words and ways, while she manages well at home and bravely sets about her woman’s duties.

For marriage to be, as St Paul says, a revelation of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32) requires not simply virtuous and entrepreneurial women but men who are worthy husbands of such wives. Men who are worthy of women like those Solomon describes.

With His death on the Cross, the reign of sin and death comes to an end. Though composed of sinners, the Church is also “a city on a hill” and a “light to the nations” (Matthew 5:4). The Church is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and a “sign contradiction” (see Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22) to the kingdom of sin and death (Mark 1:14-15).

For the Church to fulfill her vocation requires that, like the good wife, Christians learn to be not only virtuous but practical. As we’ve seen throughout our mediations, wealth and power are blessings given to us by God for His glory and the salvation of the world. If we take seriously the “good wife” as a revelation of the Church, we must all–men and women–imitate both her virtue and her industry.

Having been freed from sin by Christ’s death and resurrection, fortified by the sacraments, and trained by the ascetical life, what Solomon presents as an ideal for some, is now a possibility for all.

Let us all of us then become a “good wife” by being a “good and faithful servant” who by our fidelity “over a few things” in the practical order, prove ourselves to be able to rule “over many things” and able to enter “into the joy of [our] Lord” (Matthew 25:23) in the Kingdom to come.

Kalo Pascha!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Lifelong Task

Thursday, March 29 (O.S., March 16), 2018: Thursday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Martyr Sabinus of Egypt († 287); ✺ Martyr Papas of Lyconia († 305-311); Apostle Aristobulus of the Seventy, Bishop of Britain (1st C); Hieromartyr Alexander, Pope of Rome († 119); Martyr Julian of Anazarbus (4th C); St. Serapion the Archbishop of Novgorod († 1516); Hieromartyrs Trophimus and Thallus, Priests of Laodicea († c. 300); Venerable Christodoulus the Wonderworker.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 65:8-16
Vespers: Genesis 46:1-7
Vespers: Proverbs 23:15-24:5

Sometimes I’m tempted to confuse the Gospel with a fairy tale in which “they all lived happily ever after.” Like the blessings of wealth and power, judgment and condemnation are part of God’s economy. To be sure, these are not the central elements of the Christian life. But neither can they be ignored much less dismissed.

Taking Isaiah at his word, some will be saved but not all.

Thus says the LORD: “As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains; my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there.

Compounding my embarrassment about the Gospel–and let’s be clear, that’s what it is, I am at time tempted to be ashamed of the Christ and His Word (see, Mark 8:38 and Luke 9:26),–there is the unabashed materiality with which God describes salvation and condemnation.

…thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, my servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; behold, my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; behold, my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart,…

Throughout the Great Fast, God reveals Himself to us as a God Who saves not just the soul but the body as well.  And how could He do otherwise?

To be human means to have a body and to be a member of a community. When God saves Joseph, He also saves “his father Isaac.” And not only Isaac but his whole family. their households and all their worldly goods.

…Jacob set out from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They also took their cattle and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters; all his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.

God saves not simply the individual but the community. This means He also saves the material and social goods that communities need to thrive.

Likewise, God doesn’t just reward our good deeds, He also punishes our wicked ones. He calls us to Heaven but He allows us to choose Hell. And none of this is reserved for the life to come. It begins in this life.

Sin, as Solomon reminds us, is anything that cuts us off from the larger community. In today’s reading from Proverbs, two sins are singled out: Drunkenness and sexual immorality. Both these sins offer the illusion of salvation. Drunkenness offers a counterfeit joy; sexual immorality, a false communion.

And both these sins are their own punishment.

For a harlot is a deep pit; an adventuress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the faithless among men. … Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder.

The challenge we all face in our Christian life is this: How do we balance the different elements of the Gospel?

There is divine mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, on one side, divine justice, judgment, and condemnation on the other.

On the one hand, the blessings of wealth and power, on the other the need to living simply and in humility.

The exact balance will is different for each of us. It will even be different at different times in your life as your circumstances change. Finding the balance is a lifelong task.

When we come to understand this, the Christian life becomes daunting. Living this out is what makes the Christian life exhilarating.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Preparation For Love

Wednesday, March 28 (O.S., March 15), 2018: Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Holy Martyrs Agapius, Publius, Timolaus, Romulus, Alexander, Alexander, Dionysius and Dionysius of Palestine († 303); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexis († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Michael († 1940); Hieromartyr Alexander of Side, in Pamphylia († 270-275); Martyr Nicander of Egypt († c. 302); New Martyr Manuel of Crete; Venerable Nicander of Gorodnoezersk.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 58:1-11
Vespers: Genesis 43:26-31; 45:1-16
Vespers: Proverbs 21:23-22:4

As we come to the end of the Great Fast, God’s words in Isaiah can feel like a slap in the face. God doesn’t care about how strictly I fast. What matters to God is that whether I “loose the bonds of wickedness” that grip my heart and oppress my neighbor.

Have I undone the “thongs of the yoke … to let the oppressed go free”? Have I shared my “bread with the hungry,” brought the homeless into my home, clothed the naked and all while also caring for my family? Have I, in other words, fulfilled the commandments Jesus gave me at the beginning of Great Fast on the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)?

Mother Maria of Paris writes that Christians are “called to organize a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for the children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness.” Whether we do this “on an individual or social level” what we do must “be based on love” for our neighbor. Such love, the saint concludes, is demanding and requires from us an “ascetic ministry to his material needs, attentive and responsible work, a sober and unsentimental awareness of our strength” and an accurate and truthful evaluation of the “true usefulness” of our efforts on behalf of others.

Fasting, and indeed all our asceticism, is but a preparation for love.

Our ascetical efforts throughout the Great Fast have been at the service of removing from our own hearts anything the would limit our willingness to love sacrificially. This why, after Isaiah’s stern words on fasting, the Church puts before us the example of the Patriarch Joseph.

Betrayed by his brothers, he is sold into slavery, and is falsely accused of attempted rape. Still he eventually rises to be the second most powerful man in the most powerful kingdom of earth: Egypt. By the time of today’s reading, whatever resentment and bitterness he may have had as a young man, has been washed away.

Joseph was healed by prayer, fasting, and work.

Throughout his time in Egypt, he never forgot his God. To keep the Law, he abstained from the rich food and drink enjoyed by the Egyptians. And he worked to make himself a profitable servant even to those who mistreated him. In this way, to return momentarily to Isaiah, he anticipates the God’s promise to Israel that will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ:

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”

Joseph stands in stark contrast to the wicked man in Proverbs. He also represents for each of us a choice as we now being to shift our focus from the Great Fast to the events of Great and Holy Week.

In the days leading up to the Resurrection, will I be revealed as a “scoffer,” a “haughty man who acts with arrogant pride”? Or will I, like Joseph, forgive my enemies? Will I “do good to those who hate” me, “bless those who curse” me, “and pray for those who spitefully use” me (Luke 6:27-28, NKJV)?

The sign that I have taken the role of the scoffer is this: My asceticism has become an end in itself. When this happens, Mother Maria writes, “All the ugliness of this world, its sores and its pain, are pushed to one side and obscured so that they will not disturb” me. To the scoffer “even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, acquires an aura of beauty, inviting admiration and delight” but is emptied of any power to transform me into one who loves as God loves.

What about love?  It “is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever.”

Our asceticism, our wealth, our power these are all just for this one thing: That we become willing and able to receive and to give God’s love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Neither With Fear Nor Contempt

Tuesday, March 27 (O.S., March 14), 2018: Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Venerable Benedict of Nursia († 543); New Hieromartyr Priest Basil († 1943); Holy Hierarch Theognostus, Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia († 1353); Right-believing Great Prince Rostislav-Michael of Kiev († 1167); St. Euschemon the Confessor and Bishop of Lampsacus (9th C); Theodore – Kostroma Icon of the Mother of God (1613).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 49:6-10
Vespers: Genesis 31:3-16
Vespers: Proverbs 21:3-21

We have throughout our reflections on the Lenten readings seen that the Old Testament values wealth and power as morally good. This makes some Christians uncomfortable. They see the acquisition of wealth as tantamount to avarice and the pursuit of power as exploiting the weak.

These and other temptations are real and should be guarded against. At the same time, we can’t be indifferent to the harm by those who don’t understand the uses and limitations of wealth and power and so think Christians should have nothing to do with either.

Isaiah reminds us the blessings God has given the Jewish people are so that they can fulfill their vocation to be “a light to the nations.” God’s material blessings as much as His spiritual blessings are bestowed on Israel so that “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

We can’t pursue wealth and power for their own sake. When we do, they become idols. The Old Testament is clear on this point. When we situate the Old Testament’s teaching on wealth and power within this context, we see that the right use of wealth and power preparations for the Gospel.

We can’t simply dismiss wealth and power as if they had no positive role to play in salvation. How much harm has been done, how much good has been left undone, by well-meaning Christians who simply didn’t understand how to use money or to exercise authority?

Look at the example of Jacob. God teaches him how to deal with his dishonest father-in-law.

Laban is frankly a cheat. He is willing to harm Jacob and so his own daughters in pursuit of wealth. Rather than having Jacob deliver a sermon, or stand passively and be cheated, God engages in a little sharp dealing.

Every time Laban changes which goats Jacob will receive as his wages, God changes the outcome. When Laban tells Jacob, “’The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me.”

God impoverishes Laban as punishment for trying to cheat Jacob.

Solomon is clear. The wise man knows how to use wealth and exercise authority not simply for his own sake but for the sake of others. “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. … He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard. … He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor” both in the eyes of God and neighbor.

Christians can’t be either afraid or contemptuous of wealth and power. We must rather learn to acquire and use them in ways that are pleasing to God and to advance the Gospel.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Destroyers of Grace

Monday, March 26 (O.S., March 13), 2018: Monday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Translation of the relics of St Nicephorus the Patriarch of Constantinople (846); New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1919); New Hieromartyr Priest Gregory († 1921); New Hieromartyr Priest Michael († 1938); Martyr Sabinus (Abibus) of Egypt († 287); Martyrs Africanus, Publius and Terence at Carthage (3rd C); Martyr Alexander of Macedonia (305-311); Martyr Christina of Persia (4th C); Venerable Aninas, hieromonk of the Euphrates; Hieromartyr Puplius, Bishop of Athens.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 48:17-49:4
Vespers: Genesis 27:1-41
Vespers: Proverbs 19:16-25

The Old Testament is unapologetic in praising the moral goodness of wealth in all its forms. As God says through the Prophet Isaiah

I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. O that you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.

Wealth, peace, children and a good reputation that last through the ages. These are the tangible blessings of keeping the commandments of God and living a life of moral righteousness. Taking Isaiah as our guide, we do well by doing good.

For those who fail to keep the commandments, “for the wicked,” there “is no peace.” In every generation, God raises up prophets to condemn the unrighteous. He calls them to repentance not with a gentleness but with a word spoken from a “mouth like a sharp sword.”

This call to reform always takes the wicked by surprise. Though God calls His prophets “from the womb,” He conceals them “in the shadow” of His hand. They are like a “polished arrow in His quiver,” hidden away until the moment when they are to strike.

God does this because when the wicked hear a prophet has arisen, they respond with violence. Look at Herod. To avoid being called to account for his sins by the Christ, he orders the murder of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under” (see Matthew 2:16-18).

Divine condemnation doesn’t keep people from profiting from wickedness. This is one of King David’s great complaints. “I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men nor are they plagued like other men (Psalm 73:-5, NKJV).

Through cunning and a bold lie, Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing for Esau. When the older brother discovers the younger crime he responds “with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’” But his father has nothing for him. “Your brother came with guile, and he has taken away your blessing.”

The real sin of the wicked isn’t greed or pride. It is rather their willingness to rob others of grace. The wicked “steal” a blessing by “guile” as Jacob does from Esau.

Grace is stolen not by injuring God but by spreading mistrust, hatred, and violence. Grace is stolen by wounding the heart of the innocent and plunging the guileless into despair. This is the sin of those who Solomon calls a “man of great wrath” who repay forgiveness by once again falling into the sin from which they were only recently delivered.

God raises up prophets in every generation to save us from these individuals, from these destroyers of grace. When individuals such as are allowed free rein in civil society or the Church–or worse, are allowed to rule–they rob others of God’s blessing.

Solomon compares these people to the “sluggard” who keeps others by eating by burying “his hand in the dish” and “not even bring it back to his mouth.” The wicked neither partake of grace nor step aside to allow others to do so.

Or, as Jesus says of them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: It’s About Our Vocation

March 25 (O.S., March 12), 2018: Fifth Sunday of the Great Lent; Venerable Mary of Egypt.
St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.). St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome (604). St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Church commemorates our mother among the saints, Mary of Egypt.

Thinking this week about St Mary’s life, I found myself wondering what I would have said to her if after her baptism she came to me asking for advice. What, I wondered, would I say to a newly illumined Christian who said to me that as penance for her sins, she was going and to live by herself in the desert for the next 50 years or so?

To be honest, I would in likelihood have discouraged Mary. I would have told her that in baptism her sins had been forgiven and there was no need for her to do penance.

If she persisted, I might have suggested she involve herself in the parish for a few years to become settled in the faith. I might say that if in a few years she still wants to leave the world, she should consider entering a monastery.

And hopefully, after giving me a respectful hearing, Mary would dismiss everything I said and walk right out into the desert. Yes, the right thing for the newly illumined Mary to do would be to ignore me.

She should ignore me not because what I told her was wrong theologically but because my advice was imprudent. Prudence is a virtue we often ignore because we mistakenly identify it with caution or timidity.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth!

Prudence is another word of “wisdom” or “discernment.” It is the virtue that looks at all the options in front of me and helps me discern what God is asking of me. Then, having determined my destination, prudence is the virtue that helps me discern the steps along the way to fulfilling God will for my life.

My advice to the newly illumine Mary of Egypt would be wrong because it wasn’t discerning. I didn’t ask the most important question: What is God calling to this woman to do? What is her vocation?

Instead, my words reflect what is an all too often occurrence in parishes. We don’t ask the vocational question–what is God calling this person to do. Instead, we ask the very narrow administrative question: How does this person fit into my plans for the parish?

This isn’t to denigrate administration which St Paul lists among the various gifts God gives us for building up the Church (see, 1 Corinthians 12:28). But the first question we must ask is what does God want from us, personally? What, in other words, is our personal and unique vocation?

Many Orthodox Christians reject the idea that we have personal vocations as “Protestant.” And yet, our Lord is clear: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16, NKJV).

Many people are spiritually adrift because they have no sense of their vocation, of what it is God has chosen and appointed them to do in this life. So without a sense of their own calling, the life of the Church becomes a series of distractions.

They might become focused on attending services, evangelizing, or debating the fine points of theology. Or, just as likely, they might be swept away by fundraising, ecclesiastical gossip, or the moral failings of others.

Without a sense of my own vocation, of what God has called me to do, the richness of Holy Tradition overwhelms me even as the behavior of others becomes for me a constant source of distraction.

What I don’t have is what we see in the life of St Mary of Egypt: Peace.

Read Mary’s vita and it becomes clear that for all the deprivations and hardships she suffers in the desert, she is at peace. Think, for example, of the lion that anoints the saint’s feet after her death.

At peace with God, Mary is at peace with the creation. Not only that she is a source of peace for others. The lion who guards her body doesn’t attack Abba Zosimas but helps him dig the saint’s grave. And when they are done? “Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.”

St Mary is at peace with God, at peace with creation, at peace with others and, by the end of her life, at peace with herself.

God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me I have imperishable food for hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks.

So what does this mean for us?

Simply this, the first task of the spiritual life is to discern God’s will for us. What, in a concrete sense, has God called me to do? What life has He called me to live?

Holy Tradition–the Scriptures, the fathers, the teachings and services of the Church, the life of personal prayer–all of this helps guide us as we discern our vocation.

Here I think it is worth saying a brief word about the place of the parish priest. Basically, what’s my job?

The priest isn’t called to tell us what God wants from us but to help us discern for ourselves our vocation. In my own experience as a priest, this has largely turned out to be a “negative” task. What I mean by this, is that it usually means reminding people of the limits of the Christian life.

As a practical matter, this means telling people what we can’t do if we wish to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel. As for what they should, I’ve found it best to remain silent.

The reason for my silence is straightforward. In any given situations, there are myriad good things a person can do. While we have very clear guidance about what we shouldn’t do, we have great liberty in deciding which of the many good possible deeds we will do.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given each of us a great freedom to create from our lives something beautiful for Him! What this will look like is different for each person. Indeed, it will look different for each person as he or she moves through life.

But as long as we remain faithful to Christ and the Gospel, we can be certain that God will reveal Himself to us and the life to which He has called us.

May God through the prayers of St Mary of Egypt reveal our vocations to each of us and grant us the grace to be, like our holy mather, faithful to the work He gives each of us to do!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory