Tag Archives: Hope

Hope is Written into Reality

Friday, March 02 (O.S., February 17), 2018: Friday of the Second Week of Lent; Great Martyr Theodore the Recruit († c. 306); Finding of the relics of Martyr Menas Callicelados (“the beautiful-sounding”) of Alexandria († 867-889); Saint Mariamne, sister of the Apostle Philip (1st C); Holy Hierarch Auxibius, Bishop of Soli in Cyprus († 102); Hieromartyr Hermogenes, Patriarch of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia († 1612); Venerable Theodore the Silent of the Kiev Caves (13th C); Venerable Theodosius and Romanus of Bulgaria New Martyr Theodore (18th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 7:1-14
Vespers: Genesis 5:32-6:8
Vespers: Proverbs 6:20-7:1

Reflecting on human fecundity, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that each birth is a tangible sign of hope. In each infant, humanity has the opportunity to start again. This renewed hope, he says, reminds us that the essence of time is forgiveness.

Hope and forgiveness are written into the very nature of reality. This means is why in each moment of our life we have the chance to begin again through repentance.

We can’t, however, lose sight of the fact that hope and forgiveness are necessary because we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. Often the great promise with which we begin isn’t realized.

In the reading from Isaiah, we meet Ahaz, the grandson of Uzziah. The renewal of the Jewish promised by a new king is threatened early on by war. “Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it.”

Though their enemies fail the people of Jerusalem are still paralyzed with fear. The heart of the people “shook as the trees … shake before the wind.” In the face of the enemy, they have lost hope!

And so God sends Isaiah and, not insignificantly his son Shearjashub, to encourage Ahaz and all Jerusalem. The prophet preaches hope, the prophet’s son is a reminder of hope.

After telling the king that his enemies will fail the Lord does something extraordinary. He tells Ahaz to ask for yet another sign of hope. “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

Ahaz refuses to do so not wanting to put “the Lord to the test.” Repenting of his fear, and calling Jerusalem to do so as well, Ahaz instead utters a prophecy of hope: “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Like Jerusalem midst of war, in the midst of our ascetical struggles, we are reminded that hope and forgiveness aren’t merely human phenomenon and are more than metaphysical principles. They are embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ!

It is Jesus Who fulfills our hope through the forgiveness of our sins. He heals the corruption that by the time of Noah had begun to reach the heavens themselves. Seduced by a fallen angel, by the time of Noah humanity seems intent on seducing the angels in return.

The paralyzing fear of sin stands in stark contrast to the freedom that comes from obedience to God. Solomon reminds me that true freedom is found not in my willfulness but in my willingness to keep my “father’s commandments” and fidelity to my “mother’s teaching.”

Far from being an external standard to which I must conform, the will of God “is a lamp” that illumines my life and reveals to me the goodness and beauty of life. Paradoxical though it seems, obedience to God gives me the freedom to respond all of life with hope. Yes, I fail and fall into sin. But sin never has the last word, hope remains; through repentance, forgiveness is always possible.

Sin can’t undo what God has done; He has written hope into the very fabric of reality.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Apostle of Hope

(Pemptousia) Hope in God redeems those who have fallen into sin, restores the wounded to health and looses the bonds of the prisoners.  Hope rises like the rosy dawn in the moral firmament and illumines those darkened by the grime of the sorrowful soul. It pours the balm of comfort onto the wounds of the heart which is in mourning.

Saint Nectarios of Pentapolis

I have always had an affinity for St Nectarios of Pentapolis (1846-1920). What primarily attracts me to him is that he during his life he was both loved and misunderstood. To be sure, some people neither loved him nor understood him. This is why he was chased not only out of the Patriarchate of Alexandria but often scorned when he returned to Greece.

And yet for all that he was rejected by many in the Church, he remained faithful to Christ and to his own monastic and episcopal vocations. He spent the last years of his life the Holy Trinity Convent on Aegina, writing, preaching and hearing preached and hearing the confessions of “those who came from near and far to seek out his spiritual guidance.”

Though he engaged in intellectual and spiritual work, he didn’t neglect manual labor and philanthropy. “While at the monastery, he also tended the gardens, carried stones, and helped with the construction of the monastery buildings that were built with his own funds” (Nectarios of Pentapolis). In spite of all he suffered, and he suffered much, St Nectarios never lost hope.

It is this last quality, his enduring hopefulness, that I think makes Nectarios an especially fitting saint for contemporary Orthodox Christians living as we do in an era characterized more by optimism than hope.

The Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel argued that the difference between optimism and hope is this; optimism is self-centered, hope, however, looks outside the self to God. The former says that everything will be alright because I’m special; the latter says that “all will be well, and all will be well” (to borrow from Juliana of Norwich) because God is loving, man befriending and easy to be entreated.

This is why, to turn to the epigram, hope redeems and loosens the bonds of sin. Sin, like optimism, is ultimately static. Neither can face the complexity, the great and joyful mystery, of love. Optimism, like sin, may offer a surface cheerfulness but ultimately both reduce life to a dreary sameness. Both sin and optimism can only function by savagely excluding anything that doesn’t fit their narrow vision of existence.

But hope? Hope is faith in the future tense, it opens us to a joyful future and helps us see the great pluriformity of God’s grace pour out in Creation and especially in the many gifts given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. Is it any wonder that after praising God for the many gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), he immediately offers his great hymn to love as the greatest of all God’s many gifts?

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, NKJV).

St Nectarios as the apostle of hope is also the apostle for love. And so he is an antidote for the mere optimism that has come infect not only American culture but, too frequently, American Christianity.

St Nectarios, pray for us!

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