Tag Archives: Repentance

Not Good Enough But Really Good

Sunday, December 15 (O.S., December 2), 2019: 26th Sunday after Pentecost. Prophet Habakkuk (VI c. B.C.). Martyr Myrope of Chios (251). Sts. John, Heraclemon, Andrew, and Theophilus of Egypt (IV). St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsilkani in Georgia (VI). St. Athanasius, “the Resurrected”, of the Near Kyivan Caves (1176). Ven. Athanasius, recluse, of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII). St. Stephen-Urosh IV, king (1371).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:9-19

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he doesn’t use the word, in the opening verses of today’s Epistle the Apostle Paul calls us to be discerning. We are, he says, to seek out “the fruit of the Spirit,” Specifically, “goodness, righteousness, and truth” not only because these are good in themselves but because they help us know and so do what “is acceptable to the Lord.”

Doing the will of God requires first that we hold ourselves apart from sin, from “the unfruitful works of darkness.” If we do, we will become in St John Chrysostom’s phrase “a lamp” that naturally “exposes what takes place in darkness.”

We need, I think, to pause here and consider carefully the larger context within which the Apostle is making his argument.

Paul’s primary concern is to encourage us to engage in the evangelical work of the Church. Like the Apostle Andrew, whose feast was Friday, we are called to call others to Christ. Contrary to what we frequently see both outside the Church and (what is worse) within the Church, this can’t be done in a mechanical fashion.

What I mean is I can’t simply memorize a script or a series of bullet points to be repeated when the opportunity presents itself. When I do this, the other person becomes merely an excuse for me to exercise my own ego.

What then should we do instead?

St Jerome tells us “No one is prepared to admonish sinners except one who does not deserve to be called a hypocrite.” In saying this, he is simply repeating what Paul has just told us. To succeed in calling others to Christ, I must first cultivate in my own life the fruits of the Spirit by repenting from sin.

But here’s the thing about the evangelical work of the Church. Whatever the response of the other person, calling others to Christ will naturally bring to light my own shortcomings, my own sinfulness.

This is why after admonishing the Ephesians to be the light that exposes the darkness of sin, St Paul says to them

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.”

He says this not to those outside the Church but to those within. The hardest part of fulfilling the evangelical work of the Church, is this: Whatever else may or may not happen, telling others about Jesus Christ will always expose my sinfulness.

Very quickly the evangelist learns that he is the one who must awaken from the sleep of sin.

This is why the work can’t be mechanical. I can’t hide behind the Gospel. If I do, my witness will ring hollow. Or, and this much is worse, the other person will imitate my hypocrisy, my own lack of repentance, confusing this with life in Christ.

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the ruler to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him. This is not a condemnation of wealth or the wealthy. It is instead a warning to all of us.

We all have our idols. We all have things in our life that stand in the place of God.

For the rich man, it was obedience to the commandments. Knowing himself to be a good man, he gave himself permission to not be a better man. He didn’t want to be really good but only good enough. There was nothing sacrificial in his good deeds. His wealth afforded him the luxury of looking good so that he didn’t have actually to be good.

St Ignatius of Antioch warns us to avoid just this state when tells the Romans he doesn’t “want merely to be called a Christian, but actually to be one.” The ruler wanted to be called good without actually becoming good because true and lasting goodness requires sacrifice.

This is why when Jesus tells him to sell all he has, to give to the poor, and because His disciple the man is distressed. He doesn’t want to make the sacrifice that goodness requires. His adherence to the moral law, much like some adhere to the teachings of the Church, is merely mechanical.

Watching all this and hearing Jesus say “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the crowds and above all the disciples are themselves distressed.

St Cyril of Alexandria observes that the disciples “possessed nothing except what was trifling and of slight value.” But whether we have much or little, he says, “the pain of abandoning is the same.”

Whether Christ calls us to give up wealth or prestige, whether we are called to give up family or friends, we are ALL called to sacrifice. Whatever we had before Christ, indeed whatever we had even a moment ago, we are all called to a sacrificial life of “obedience and good will.” Though we come from “different circumstances,” St Cyril say, we are to practice “equal readiness and willingly” to follow Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Though our sacrifices our different, our calling is the same; To witness to Christ. And just as we have a shared vocation, we have a shared joy.

That joy is this: That in becoming light, in illumining the darkness, we become able to see the true beauty of creation and, what is more important, the real and lasting dignity in Christ to which all humanity is called.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Repentance the Gift Condemns Me

Monday, March 19 (O.S., March 6), 2018: Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent; 42 Martyrs of Ammoria in Phrygia († c. 845): Theodore, Constantine, Aetius, Theophilus, Basoes, Callistus, and others; ; Hieromartyr Conon and his son Conon of Iconium († 270-275); Venerable Arcadius of Cyprus (4th C); Venerable Abraham of Bulgaria; Holy Hierarchs Evagrius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople; Holy Hierarch Taranius, Bishop of Antioch; Venerable Fridolinus, Abbot of Sakingena; Martyr Gregorisus; Venerable Job, in Schema Joshua, of Anzer († 1720); Finding of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Holy Empress Helen in Jerusalem (326); Icons of the Mother of God: “Chenstokhov” (1st C), “Blessed Heaven” (14th C) and “Shestokovskoy” (18th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 37:33-38:6
Vespers: Genesis 13:12-18
Vespers: Proverbs 14:27-15:4

Reading the passage from Isaiah quickly, we might overlook the fact that–in both cases–God is merciful. Both kings suffer. The King of Assyria is defeated in battle, Hezekiah suffers a debilitating and–but for God’s intervention–fatal disease. The difference in outcomes between the two rulers is straightforward. Hezekiah repents, the Assyrian king doesn’t.

Repentance requires more than I’m sorry for my sins. This, after all, can be motivated as much by being disappointed with myself as easily as it can an awareness that I’ve strayed from God’s will. Often the sorrow I feel is more the former than the latter.

While sorrow is the opening moment of repentance, in the full sense I need to move past my distress. Repentance requires not bad feelings but a change of heart (metanoia). Not grief for my failure, but obedience to the will of God.

We have an example of obedience in Abraham.

God promises the patriarch that He will give him “the land of Canaan.” Abram (as Abraham is still called), we receive from God all the land he can see from where he stands. “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever.”

To this promise, God adds that Abram’s descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.”

At God’s command, Abram walks “the length and breadth of the land.” Eventually, he comes to “the oaks of Mamre” pitches his tent and worships God.

The metanoia God seeks from me isn’t simply sorrow for my sin, it isn’t even obedience. What God seeks from me is my willingness to still myself and, like Abram, worship Him.

Material wealth, political power and military prowess, these are celebrated by the Old Testament as God’s blessings. The coming of Christ doesn’t undo any of this or any of the other blessings God bestows on His Israel.

What Christ does, is make available to us the wisdom without which material and social blessings become traps. As Solomon says

The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing, but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity. Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding, but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.

It isn’t that the King of Assyria was a sinner and Hezekiah wasn’t. It isn’t that one man regretted and the other didn’t. It is rather that, like Abram, one man worshipped God and made God’s will his own.

Without the wisdom that comes from the “fear of the LORD” the blessings God give us remain fallow. Separated from a living awareness of God’s gifts as exactly that, His gifts to me, I begin to think of God’s blessings as my own achievements.

As gratitude withers, prides grows until “passion makes the bones rot.” and I become the man who “oppresses the poor” and “insults God.”

But Christians who reject or minimize material and social blessings are equally misguided. These are given to us so that we can share in God’s redemptive work. Like the man who uses them for his own selfish ends, the Christian who turns his back of these blessings–or condemns those to whom God has given them–and becomes one “who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Repentance Frees Me to Love

Sunday, March 18 (O.S., March 5), 2018: Fourth Sunday of the Great Lent; St John Climacus. Martyrs Conon, Onisius of Isauria (2nd c.). Martyr Conon the Gardener of Pamphylia (251). Virgin-martyr Irais of Antinoe in Egypt (3rd c.). Martyr Eulampius. St. Mark (5th c.). St. Hesychius (790).

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20/Ephesians 5:9-19
Gospel: Mark. 9:17-31/Matthew 4:25 – 5:12

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today we commemorate our father among the saints John Climacus or St John of the Ladder. The saint’s title is a nod to his work on the spiritual life The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Read in monasteries during Great Lent, the Ladder sketches out the 30 steps or “rungs” by which the soul ascends from repentance to the intimate communion with God in which we come to share in the divine life (see 2 Peter 1:4).

Though written for monastics, there is also a great deal of wisdom in the Ladder for those of us who don’t live in a monastery. For example, St John tells his reader “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously.”

At first, this might seem less than encouraging. But this is only if we listen to the first half of what the saint says and ignoring the last half.

Yes, I will sin and I will sin daily. In fact, I’ll sin throughout the day in ways great and small. But this isn’t–or at least needn’t–be the whole story of my life. By God’s grace, we all have the ability to repent, to stand our ground “courageously”  when tempted to surrender to sin.

As does the whole of the Church’s tradition, Climacus places great importance on human freedom. Actually, after grace, human freedom is the only thing that matters for the saint (and Holy Tradition).

Simply put,

…no matter how much I’ve messed up,

…no matter how badly I’ve failed,

…no matter how serious the sins I’ve committed,

by God’s grace, I have the ability–the freedom–to begin again. And not just me. All of us can begin again.

When in the Divine Liturgy we ask God to grant us a life of “peace and repentance” what we are asking for is precisely this ability to begin again. To start over.

For many Christians, even those who are sincere in their love of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, the idea of a “life of repentance” sounds dreary.

Such a life sounds wholly negative.

Such a life sounds as if it were focused solely on their shortcomings.

Such a life sounds like life with a nagging wife or an abusive husband.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy) says that the because children are filled with an unbounded enthusiasm for life, they never tire of repetition. What was just done, they want to be done again. And “the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”

God, however, Chesterton says is strong enough to bear repetition. Every morning God says to the sun “Do it again,” and again the sun rises.The “sun rises regularly” because God “never gets tired” of watching the sunrise.

Chesterton goes on to say that it isn’t from any necessity that compels God to make “all daisies alike.” And yet God, Who makes “every daisy separately” never tires “of making them” alike. “It may be,” Chesterton says, that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

To live a life of repentance is to live a life in which we grow younger. It means to live a life in which we grow in innocence and the joy that only innocence can know.

To live a life of repentance means to remove from my life everything that compromises my freedom, that obscures from my eyes the beauty that God sees all creation and in each of us. Repentance frees me to love.

Though the world, and let’s be frank not a few Christians, see repentance as negative, St John Climacus and the Church’s tradition with him sees it as wholly positive.

You see, as I grow in my knowledge of God, as I grow in my obedience to Him, I begin to see creation as He sees it. This, after all, is what love does. To fall in love doesn’t just me I’m attracted to someone. To fall in love, to be in love means that I love what my beloved loves.

And to love God? To lay aside everything in us that would make it impossible for us to love Him? What does this mean?

If we love God, we don’t simply love what He loves. No, if we love God, we love as He loves, without qualification or limit.

Repentance changes us so that when we at creation, we the goodness and beauty that God sees.

Repentance, in other words, is how we grow in our ability to love God and so to love as God loves all that He has created.

And repentance means to see in ourselves the goodness and beauty that God sees in us. It is this experience that gives us, to return to St John’s advice, the courage to remain faithful in the face of our shortcomings and inevitable practical and moral failures.

No matter how successful I might be, no matter what accolades I receive, no matter how many people praise me, if I don’t know that I am loved by God I will feel myself to be a fraud and live a life of anxious striving.

If we truly love God, we won’t neglect the abilities God has given us but instead see them as they are. They are concrete means God has given us to grow in our love of Him and of each other.

A life of repentance is anything but a dreary. It is a wholly positive way of life in which we grow in our love for God, our neighbor and, yes, even ourselves as men and women who have first been loved by God.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

We have been given a better way–the way of repentance. So let us from this moment on and by God’s grace and our own efforts remove from our lives all of love’s obstacles. Let us repent!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

When God Makes War

Wednesday, March 14 (O.S., March 1), 2018: Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent; Venerable Martyr Eudokia of Heliopolis († 160-170); Venerable Martyr Olga († 1937); New Hieromartyrs Priests Basil, Peter, John, Benjamin, and Michael, Venerable Martyrs Anthony, Anna, Daria, Eudokia, Alexandra, Matrona, Martyrs Basil and Hope († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexander († 1942); Martyrs Marcellus and Anthony; Martyrs Nestor and Tribimius (3rd C); Martyr Antonina of Nicæa, in Bithynia († c.284-305); Venerable Martyrius of Zelents († 1603); Venerable Domnina of Syria († c. 450-460); Venerable Agapius of Vatopedi.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 26:21-27:9
Vespers: Genesis 9:18-10:1
Vespers: Proverbs 12:23-13:9

God is always ready to come to our defense. “Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would set out against them, I would burn them up together.”

Eager to help us though He is, God will not help us against our will. God will not impose His grace on us. Immediately after these verses God says “let them lay hold of my protection, let them make peace with me, let them make peace with me.”

Before God exercises His power on my behalf He exercises it, if I can speak this way, against Himself. God restrains Himself. Or, in St Paul’s phrase, He empties Himself “and takes the form of a slave” (see Philippians 2:7, NRSV).

Even when God does exercise His authority, He does so with restraint. This can be hard to realize because often the Scriptures use images drawn from human warfare when it talks about God defending His people.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is a good illustration of how the image of warfare is used to discuss God liberating us from sin. But such language isn’t used without qualification. To do so would suggest that God was simply one warlord among others when He isn’t.

Referring to God’s response to the sins of Jacob and Israel the reader is asked to consider God has “smitten them as he smote those who smote them? Or have they been slain as their slayers were slain?” The answer is “No!”

Human rulers make war against their enemies to destroy them; God makes war against His enemies to heal them. “Measure by measure, by exile thou didst, contend with them; he removed them with his fierce blast in the day of the east wind. Therefore by this, the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin.”

The false altars are pulled down and, in Christ, a new altar is erected so that we can “worship God in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24, NKJV).

But if God doesn’t impose Himself on us, if He respects our freedom and waits on our response to His invitation why do the Scriptures so often talk about God making war on His people, punishing them with sickness, poverty, harsh weather, exile and even death?

It often feels like God goes to war against me because I’m at war with myself. In my life, I am the enemy God must overcome.

Look at Ham. In exposing the shame of his father Noah, Ham is both his father’s enemy of and his own. I’m Ham. My willingness to harm you harms me. Making you my enemy makes me an enemy to myself.

Solomon condemns the wicked man who “acts shamefully and disgracefully.” While the particulars differ, at one time or another, we are all this wicked man just as we are all Ham.

God doesn’t go to war against me. I have gone to war against myself in my refusal to love my neighbor. Like good deeds to “the slothful,” grace often feels to me like “forced labor.”

Like “the scoffer” I don’t “listen to rebuke,” I refuse to take God’s correction of me to heart. I do not repent of my sins. I war against God and neighbor and so war against myself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Is God My Sanctuary or My Stumbling Block?

Monday, March 5 (O.S., February 20) 2018: Monday of the Third Week of Lent; Venerable Leo, Bishop of Catania in Sicily († c. 780); 34 Venerable Martyrs of Valaam, who suffered at the hands of the Swedes († 1578): Titus, Tychon, Gelasius, Sergius, Barlaam, Sabbas, Conon, Silvester, Cyprian, Pœmen, John, Samonas, Jonah, David, Cornelius, Nephon, Athanasius, Serapion, Barlaam, Athanasius, Anthony, Luke, Leontius, Thomas, Dionysius, Philip, Ignatius, Basil, Pakhomius, Basil, Theophilus, John, Theodore, and John; New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1938); Hieromartyr Sadoc, Bishop of Persia, and the 128 Martyrs with him († 342-344); Venerable Agatho, Pope of Rome († 682); Venerable Martyr Cornelius, Abbot of the Pskov Caves and his disciple, Venerable Bassian of Murom († 1570); Venerable Agatho, Wonderworker of the Kiev Caves (13th-14th C); Holy Right-believing Great Prince Yaroslav.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 8:13-9:7
Vespers: Genesis 6:9-22
Vespers: Proverbs 8:1-21

If I’m careful in my choice of companions, I can almost forget that ours is a fallen world.

When I limit my circle of acquaintances, I limit as well the different habits and ideas to which I’m exposed. I work hard to exclude anything that challenge my preconceived notions about the world of persons, events and things.

Ultimately if I narrow down the people I know, and the places I go my self-image will be fixed and secure. And also, false.

Ours is a fallen world. Especially during Great Lent the Church in her wisdom reminds us of this in the readings given for our consideration. Again and again in the readings from the Old and New Testaments, I am reminded that not only do I live in a sinful world, I am myself a sinner.

Isaiah reminds me that to the sinner God is both “a sanctuary and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Which He is for me is wholly within my power to decide. If I am repentant, or even if as St Isaac of Nineveh says I at least want to repent, God is for me a sanctuary, a place of safety and retreat in which I can work out my salvation “in fear and trembling” (see Philippians 2:12).

While wrestling with God to understand His will is life-giving, wrestling to overcome His will is death-dealing. My lack of repentance doesn’t harden God’s heart against me but my heart against Him. This is death.

Isaiah lists the different ways in which I harm myself by resisting the will of God. I fall into superstitions.  I give ourselves over to rage. I have contempt for those I see as a threat to my agenda and plans.

It is from this that God would save us and keep us safe through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the “great light” that shines on us in the darkness of sin. But we, I, must be willing to see the darkness in me–and around me–that the Light illumines.

During the time of Noah, we refused to see our sinfulness. Though the evidence was all around us that society was “filled with violence,” we turned away, we refused to see.

Solomon puts it this way:

O simple ones, learn prudence; O foolish men, pay attention. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to him who understands and right to those who find knowledge.

So I must ask myself this question: Am I willing to hear God? Am I willing to allow myself to be challenged? Am I willing to see the darkness around me and in me?

Or will I instead strive to control and manipulate life to keep the realization of my sinfulness at bay?

Is God, in other words, for me a sanctuary or a stumbling block (Leviticus 19:14, Psalms 140:9 (LXX), Matthew 13:41)?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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

Homily: In Christ is All

Sunday, December 24, 2017 (December, 11 OS): 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 4; The Sunday of the Holy Forefathers; Ven. Daniel the Stylite of Constantinople (490). Martyr Mirax of Egypt (640). Martyr Acepsius and Aeithalas at Arbela in Assyria (VII). Ven. Luke the New Stylite of Chalcedon (979). Ven. Nicon the Dry of Kyiv Caves (1101).

Epistle: Colossians 3:4-11

Gospel: Luke 14:16-24

The violence and compulsion that always seem to travel along with the Kingdom of God are wholly of my own making. Let me explain.

1211to1217sundayofforefathersSt John Chrysostom tells us that when we hear about God’s anger, we shouldn’t think that God’s anger is like our own. I get angry because I am offended or afraid. Even when my anger is righteous, there is something sinful mixed in. My anger always reflects my over-attachment to my own will, to my own plans and projects.

For God, however, “even if He punishes even if He takes vengeance, He does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving kindness.” This why Chrysostom concludes that when we sin we should be courageous and “trust in the power of repentance.” Why? Because God doesn’t react out a sense of His own wounded dignity but rather “with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him.” While it may feel like an affront or even a punishment, what God does, He does not to “[avenge] Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder” (An exhortation to Theodore after his fall,” 1, 4).

The more I have rebelled against God the more His will feel to me like an act of violence. The more I give my heart over to created reality rather than to God, the more it feels like, in the words of today’s parable, that God is “compel[ling]” me to “come into [His] house.

The more I love the creature more than the Creator, the more it will always feel as if God is compelling me, forcing me to do His will. The violence, however, is not committed by God.

Rather, I am the one who commits violence against myself. It isn’t God who violates my freedom or wounds my dignity. I do these things to myself when I resist His grace. When I refuse to, as St Paul says, “put to death” all that is earthly in me, I make Adam’s transgression my own and become my own worst enemy.

This is why it is important at times simply to stop. To take the time to keep silent, to pray and reflect on my life. I need to remind myself of all the ways in which I prefer the creature to the Creator and my own will to the will of God. To avoid harming myself I must, in the words from the Liturgy, live a “life of repentance.”

We need to pause at this point to avoid making the mistake of thinking that to prefer the Creator to the creature or the will of God to my own will, means to ignore the personal and work demands of everyday life. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, what we need to do is learn to see the demands made on us in light of the Gospel. The obligations that make up life are an intrinsic part of the everyday asceticism that God asks of us. Our daily obligations, the myriad little and great tasks of my life, must be seen within the wider context of the “Grace, mercy, and peace” that comes “from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 John 1:3, NKJV).

Here’s the great blessing that I often overlook in my short-sighted pursuit of my own will.

Apart from God, even the very best thing in my life will, even those things and people that bring me the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, will eventually become sources of bitter disappointment and division.

In Christ, the people and tasks in my life, my successes as well as my failures, all these become sources of healing, reconciliation, and communion.

In Christ, that is undertaken with a spirit gratitude to God, everything in my life becomes a moment of divine grace.

And as if this wasn’t enough…

In Christ, all that we do not only glorifies God but also is a step along the way to becoming more fully the man or woman God has created us to be.

Reflecting on the Magnificat, St Ambrose of Milan points out that “the human voice can[not] add anything to God.” Even the best of my accomplishments or the purest expression of my love, adds nothing to God. But, Ambrose reminds us, still we can say that God is “is magnified within us” because when “the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies… God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted” (Commentary on Luke, II, 19.26-27).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we “put off the old man with his deeds, and … put on the new man,” the myriad tasks and relationships of our lives take on a lasting and eternal character.

Likewise, as we set aside our own sinfulness–that, is through repentance–we are “renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created” me, we become more fully the men and women who God has created us to be.  And it is in this that we find the justice and peace and the mercy and love that is always escaping even the best of our merely human intentions.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration: The Freedom of Repentance

But it is not just communists who oppose Columbus. Here, in the United States, the anti-Columbus movement was sparked by white supremacists nearly 100 years ago. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan promoted negative characterizations of Columbus in order to vilify Catholics and immigrants, many of whom celebrated Columbus not only as a source of ethnic and religious pride but also as a symbol of the free and diverse society that resulted from the European presence here. The Klan tried to prevent the erection of monuments to the Great Navigator, burned crosses in opposition to efforts to honor him, and argued that commemorations of his voyage were part of a papal plot. Rather than honor a Catholic explorer from the Mediterranean, Klansmen proposed honoring the Norseman Leif Eriksson as discoverer of the New World and a symbol of white pride (Christopher Columbus Day: War against It Has Roots in Marxism & KKK).

The enemy, of my enemy, is my friend, is morally bad basis for our politics. History is filled with morally imperfect individuals doing morally good things. Bad as thisis politically, it is worse morally.

The Gospel not only frees us from the tyranny of sin and death but illusion that we are either morally good or morally wicked. We are, I am, both and personal liberation and my ability to live in peace with my neighbors is found in accepting my own blinding ability to go from Sai to to sinner and back again I the blink of an eye.

Repentance is the Key

April 12, 2017: Holy Wednesday

The Hymn of Kassiani that we just heard summarizes the not only the theme of the service but of Holy Week and the whole of our lives as Orthodox Christian disciples of Jesus Christ. That theme is, in a word, repentance.

Though the Son is incarnate in creation, without repentance I’m aware of His presence. Blind to His presence, the world is for me a lonely and hostile place. It is through repentance, that “nature, red in tooth and claw” becomes a sacrament of God’s love and care for us.

And though at baptism God has blessed me, as He has all of us, with gifts for His glory and my salvation, without repentance, the grace He has given me lays fallow. It is through repentance that we come to know the grace we’ve been given and the vocation to which we have been called by God.

The question we must ask now is what do we mean by repentance? Let’s beginning with what repentance isn’t.

It isn’t feeling bad myself. To look at my reflection in the mirror and say “You’re a bad person!” or words to that effect isn’t repentance. It just means that I have a negative self-imagine.

But even more balanced view of my failures and shortcomings isn’t really repentance. Not to minimize it in anyway but to know what I can–and can’t–do, is simply a matter of accurate self-knowledge.

It’s important to make these distinctions because without them I’m likely to misunderstand what the hymns we’ve sung tonight in Matins. In the kontakion, for example, I heard that my soul is more corrupt than the adulterous woman. I have “transgressed, O Good Master, more than the harlot” because her sins were the fruit of ignorance. She fell yes, but she doesn’t come to know Christ and His mercy until later in life.

But what excuse do I have? I have know the Gospel from my youth. And even if my sins are relatively minor compared to hers, nevertheless “I come to You without the shower of tears.” I am worse than the harlot not because I have sinned more but have failed to repent and remained caught in “the mire of my deeds.”

So what is this thing called repentance?

In the Hymn of Kassiani, we see that while the adulterous woman is aware of her sinfulness, she is even more aware of the love and mercy of God. And it is from this experience of God’s love and mercy that she finds the strength and courage to not just acknowledge her sinfulness but to ask God for His forgiveness.

This then is repentance: To know first the love of God and then, second, to know one’s self as loved and forgiven by Him. It is only through knowing the love of God and forgiveness of God that any of us can hope to bear the burden of our own sinfulness.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God has forgiven all of us! God has forgiven you because He loves you! Secure in the knowledge of His love for us, let us now lay aside the burden of our sin and race to greet the Risen Christ on Pascha!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: From Guilty Sorrow to Cheerful Fidelity

Sunday, Feb 5, 2017: Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee; Triodion Begins Today; Agatha the Martyr, Polyeuktos, Partriarch Of Constantinople, Antonios the New Martyr of Athens, Theodosios, Archbishop of Chernigov, Afterfeast of the Presentation of Our Lord and Savior in the Temple, Theodosios of Antioch

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

We misunderstand the relationship between the Church and the world if we assume that it is simply one of contention and conflict. Yes, the world frequently sets itself against the Gospel—this, in fact, is what the Scriptures mean by the phrase “the world.” More specifically, “the world” refers to the creation, under the guidance of human beings, in rebellion against God.

We shouldn’t make any mistake here.

Creation’s rebellion against the Creator is led not the air or water, by seed-bearing plants or animals, but by us. This is why St Paul’s says that “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19, NKJV). Sin has not only corrupted the human heart but, working through our hearts, corrupted creation as well.

This corruption, this state of rebellion, isn’t the whole story, however.

Sin’s power over creation isn’t absolute because it’s reign over the human heart isn’t absolute. Sin corrupts but it doesn’t destroy; it obscures but it doesn’t obliterate the image of God in us.

No matter how powerful the grip of sin, divine grace, mercy, and love still attracts us. If this weren’t the case then, then Paul couldn’t say that “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3; see also Genesis 15:6).

And, as we will celebrate on Pascha, whatever hold sin and death had over the heart is now broken. Simply put, Christ’s Resurrection has destroyed the power of sin and death.

Because sin’s reign is not absolute, there are moments when the world makes common cause with the Church. The parable of the publican and the Pharisee is one of these moments. Or at least, part of the parable is.

The one sin that our culture seems willing to name and condemn is hypocrisy. That this sin would be the worst sin make sense in a culture that has largely dispensed with objective moral standards. What offends us so about the hypocrite, is that he pretends to hold to moral standards the rest of the culture rejects.

In other words, the hypocrite pretends to be better than me.

I know he’s pretending because, if I’m following along with the culture’s thinking, morality is subjective. There is no right or wrong. The hypocrite is a liar; he pretends to hold to standards he, and I, know don’t really exist.

Basically, he’s lying to me.

Our cultural condemnation of hypocrisy is why at least part of this morning parable resonates with many. We recoil when the Pharisee and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”

Hearing this, many see the Pharisee as stuck up. We condemn him because he thinks he’s better than everyone else. He is, in a word, “judgey.”

And all this is said without a hint of irony or self-knowledge.

So hated is this one sin that pointing it out in others exempts me from any self-reflection. In the face of hypocrisy, I’m exempt from self-examination. The sin must be condemned and its condemnation overrides any other considerations.

And yet, what actually happens in the Gospel? Jesus doesn’t condemn the Pharisee. If anyone does, it’s me. And that’s my sin.

What Jesus does instead is commend the publican for his humility.

For the fathers of the Church, the sin of pride—which is the sin that parable condemns—is only cured by humility. The “tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”

Yes, the sinful human heart is drawn by grace and the world’s rebellion is always only partial. But for all this, sin still holds us, holds me, in its grip. Reflecting on the parable, St Gregory the Great warns us that pride takes many forms. And whatever its form, humility is the only cure.

We need to be careful here that we don’t mistake the publican’s repentance for the virtue of humility. St Basil the Great says that when the “soul is lifted up towards virtue” we experience “cheerfulness” even in the midst of sorrow. Repentance is the door to humility.

St Basil says humility allows us to remain faithful to Christ and our vocation even when we are troubled by events or the opposition of others. Humility fosters in us a “loftiness of mind” that differs from “the elevation” which comes from pride. The latter, he says, is like “the swelling flesh which proceeds from dropsy.” But humility of soul is like the “well-regulated” and healthy body of an athlete.

Pride casts us down “even from heaven,” St John Chrysostom says, but “humility can raise a man up from the lowest depth of guilt.” This is precisely what we see in the parable. Jesus shows us the opening moments of the publican’s transformation, of his journey from guilty sorrow to cheerful fidelity to Christ. Having laid aside his sin, he is now on the path to spiritual health.

If I condemn the Pharisee, I remain enslaved to sin. If I am unrepentant, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are of no more value to me that they were to Pharisee. Instead, these works—good as they are in themselves—will stand in witness against me in the life to come because they were done without repentance, without humility.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

We shouldn’t be quick to condemn anyone’s sin but our own. We must make our own the words of today’s Kontakion:

Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.

To acquire humility, as we hear throughout at Matins through Great Lent, we must pass through the “door to repentance.” It is when we pass through this door that we learn to walk in cheerfulness, live in fidelity to our vocation, and to love one and other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory