Tag Archives: human dignity

Entering Into Freedom

Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.

Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.

But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.

This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.

So what does?

Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.

…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.

Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.

And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.

And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.

We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.

Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.

You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).

Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.

And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.

When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Obscured But Not Destroyed

June 25, 2017: Third Sunday of Matthew, The Holy Venerable Martyr Febronia

Epistle: Romans 5:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 6:22-33

St Paul’s command that we rejoice in our suffering has always been a hard sell.

Yes, we can see how “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” But until we have experienced “God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” the positive potential of suffering is lost to us.

Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter those who encourage us to endure suffering but fail to tell us about God’s love for us. But, again, apart from the experience of God’s love for us, suffering–whether physical or emotional, social or spiritual–has no positive value. It is the experience of God’s love that transforms suffering into something of value.

Jesus tells us to not be “anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” There are two conclusions we can draw from our Lord’s words.

In other words, deprivation–like suffering–can’t separate us from the love of God. We are always tempted to imagine that when life isn’t what we want it to be that we’ve been abandoned by God. But listen to what Jesus tells us:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

St John Chrysostom telsl us, Jesus’ words here remind us of “the dignity of the human race.”

Our dignity, the saint tells us, is precisely this: that God has given us not simply a soul but a body. And not just these. God has also sent us “Prophet and gave His Only-Begotten Son (Homily on St Matthew, xxii). This brings us to our second point.

Just as faith transforms suffering, it transforms how we view ourselves and our neighbor. Seen in the light of the Gospel, human life is more than food and drink, more than clothes and material possessions. Our true and lasting dignity is found in God’s love and care for us. To understand who we truly are, to be the men and women God has created us to be, we must “seek first” the Kingdom of God “and his righteousness.”

Commenting on this passage, St Augustine tells us that we ought not “to preach the Gospel” so “that we may eat” but rather “eat… that we may preach.” To do otherwise he says is to “reckon the Gospel of less value than food.” It is here that we find the cause human suffering, of the myriad crimes and offenses, great and small, committed against human dignity.

Again, listen to what Jesus tells us in the Gospel:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

The pursuit of wealth instead of a life of obedience to God, the fathers say, turns us into robbers and slaves. Robbers because we will take from others even the little they need to survive; slaves because we become increasingly ruled not by reason illumined by faith but by the ever-changing cascade of our own desire.

When we fail to seek first the Kingdom of God, Chrysostom says, we make ourselves vulnerable to “strifes and toils.” Most “more grievous of all,” we become unfit for “God’s service” which is “the highest blessing.”

So how do we avoid this? How do we transform suffering into something positive and the necessity of body life into service to God? The answer is found in the opening lines of this morning’s Gospel:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

St Gregory the Wonderworker says that by “eye” is meant “love unfeigned.” Such love is nothing less than a glimpse of God’s glory and our sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

For the fathers of the Church, we grow in virtue by first laying aside vice. In this case, to transform suffering and to grasp our true dignity, we must first lay aside what Gregory calls “the pretended love which is also called hypocrisy.” Yes, we can, he says, “produce words that seem to be of light” but these are “in reality wolves… covered in sheep’s clothing” but when we do, we alienate ourselves from God and enslave ourselves to our own will.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

God has poured out His grace into our lives through the mysteries. It belongs to us to accept what we have been given and then to act on it.

We do this not only through our participation the sacraments and the worship of the Church but also a life of personal prayer and ascetical struggle. Taken together, all these work to first uproot hypocrisy and then to teach us what it means to love as Christ loves.

As we grow in love, we come to find meaning not only in suffering but even the most ordinary aspects of human life. In turn, this allows us to see the depth and breadth of human dignity.

To borrow from C.S. Lewis, after the Eucharist “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” While suffering may obscure this holiness from our sight, it can’t destroy the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. And this why that, with St Paul, we can rejoice in our suffering. Simply put, suffering and sin can’t destroy the image of God that is our true and lasting identity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory