Tag Archives: St John Chrysostom

In Wisdom We Find Life

Tuesday, March 6 (OS February 21) 2018: Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent; Venerable Timothy of Symbola in Bithynia († 795); ✺ Holy Hierarch Eustathius, Archbishop of Antioch († 337); Holy New Hieromartyrs Priests Alexander, Daniel, and Gregory († 1930); New Hieromartyrs Priest Constantine and Deacon Paul († 1938); New Martyr Olga († 1939); Holy Hierarch George, Bishop of Amastris on the Black Sea († 802-811); Holy Hierarch John the Scholastic, Patriarch of Constantinople († 577); Holy Hierarch Zacharias, Patriarch of Jerusalem († 633); Holy Hieromartyr Severian, Bishop of Scythopolis († 452); “Kozel’shchina” Icon of the Mother of God (1881).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 9:9-10:4
Vespers: Genesis 7:1-5
Vespers: Proverbs 8:32-9:11

If God is not my sanctuary, than anything I build will fail.

This is the lesson of today’s reading from Isaiah. Though Ephraim and Samaria build with “bricks” and “dressed stones” all their works crumble. As we’ve seen before, without wisdom, wealth–in all its forms–can’t and won’t last.

The devastation that Isaiah says God will visit on the unwise is horrifying. He will take no delight in the strength and promise of the young and “no compassion on their fatherless and widows.” But who are these “godless … evildoer[s]” whose mouths speak nothing but the “folly” that “there is no God” (see Psalm 14:1)?

They aren’t simply unbelievers; Isaiah isn’t castigating atheists. His complaint is against those who use their wealth and power to harm others.

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!

It is those who are indifferent to their neighbor’s suffering as well as the predatory that God condemns. Against them “his anger is not turned away and his hand is stretched out still.”

St John Chrysostom reminds us that when I read passages like these, I shouldn’t think God’s anger is like mine. My anger is often the fruit of wounded pride or maybe fear. Even when it is justified, my anger is a mix of pure and impure motives.

God’s angry, Chrysostom says, is motivated by His “tender care” and His “loving-kindness” for us. The punishment He inflicts is not done to avenge wounded honor but, like the physician’s painful remedies, meant to heal us from sin.

I need to understand that while wealth in all its forms is a blessing, it has limits. And, in a fallen world, I am prone to misuse wealth even as I am all the other good things God gives me.

My misuse of wealth stands in stark contrast to Noah’s right use.

Reading about Noah building the ark and gathering the animals, it’s easy to get so taken up by the story that we overlook the immense investment of material and intellectual capital the ark requires. It must be large enough not only for Noah’s whole family but for all the animals and birds it will shelter for months. The ark must also withstand the “forty days and forty nights” of high winds and the driving rains that “will blot out from the face of the ground” all life.

Noah isn’t simply wealthy, he is wise. His wisdom extends not only to the things of God. It also embraces the myriad practical details of planning and executing a massive building project.

This is why Solomon says that if we seek wisdom we’ll find not only salvation in the next life but happiness in this life. Our happiness will come because divine wisdom isn’t limited to the things of God. There is an unapologetically practical dimension to wisdom.

Wisdom builds “her house,” mixes “her wine, … set[s] her table.” Wisdom teaches us how to take pleasure in the things of this life, to accomplish practical tasks and to be hospitable. And all this Wisdom does in such a way that we not only remember the life to come but are prepared for this life through the myriad practical details of daily life.

“Give instruction to a wise man,” Solomon says “and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning.” Yes, “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” But as Solomon makes clear and Noah illustrates, insight is both spiritual and practical each in its proper measure.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday of Orthodoxy: Witnesses to God’s Love

Sunday, February 25 (OS February 12): First Sunday of Great Lent: Triumph of Orthodoxy; 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 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The troparion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy reminds us that Christ willingly ascended the Cross for our salvation. Jesus dies, the hymn says, to free us from “bondage to the enemy” and, in so doing has “filled all things with joy.”

We should be careful here.

We often hear in the popular American religious culture, that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s anger. Or we might hear that on the Cross Jesus balance the scales between the offense of sin and requirement of divine justice.

Assumed here is the idea that the Incarnation is motivated by human sinfulness. God becomes Incarnate, suffer and dies, because of our failings.

For the Orthodox Church, however, the Incarnation isn’t motivated by human sinfulness. For fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor, the Incarnation isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some kind of moral course correction.

No for the fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the point of Creation. God creates in order to Himself become Man. God creates us, in other words, to become as we and so that, in turn, we can become by grace what He is.

“This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became Son of Man:” St Irenaeus writes, “so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God” ( Against Heresies, III.19.1).

St Maximus, likewise, sees the Incarnation as the purpose of creation. He says that out of His great love for us, the Word of God for us “hides himself mysteriously” in the essence of His creature. It is as if every single thing that God creates is a letter of the alphabet which, when they are all taken together, reveal God in “His fullness” (Ambigua, PG 9 1, 1 28 5-8).

All of this is simply to repeat what we will hear in the Gospel on Pascha:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3, NKJV).

And what then of the Cross? Why does Jesus suffer and die?

We get a partial answer in the Lamentation Services that we sing on Holy Friday evening when Jesus asks us for which of His miracles have we Crucified Him?

The sobering fact is that Jesus dies on the Cross not to calm God’s anger. No, he dies because in our sinfulness we kill Him. He dies because we–I really–reject Him. I lay the burden on my sin on His shoulders.

Our Lord isn’t betrayed by Peter or abandoned by the disciples. He isn’t crucified by the Jews or the Romans. All these things I do with each and every sin I commit.

And yet, this isn’t the whole of the story. In the Tradition of the Church, while human sinfulness is taken seriously, it is never the explanation.

St. John Chrysostom says “I call him king because I see him crucified: it belongs to the king to die for his subjects.” Jesus goes to the Cross willingly because He refuses to impose Himself on us. In His great love for us, Jesus willingly accepts an unjust death.

And how could He not? To do otherwise would violate the freedom of His creature. THis respect for human freedom matters because the love that isn’t free offered isn’t really love.

All that God does, He does freely–that is to say, in love. This is the life He wishes to share with us, this is the life to which He calls us. And it is this life, and this life alone, that is the source of joy.

For God to avoid the Cross would be to undermine human freedom and so make our love a fraud and to rob us of joy.  It is with all this in mind that we turn to the Gospel.

The Gospel reading today from St John is an interesting one. It isn’t a “theological” Gospel in the sense that the Prologue is. There is no lofty theology in the scant few verses the Church puts before us.

Today’s Gospel is an evangelical Gospel.

Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” and he does. And what happens next? Philip goes and finds Nathaniel and tells his friend “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Philip offers no argument in response to Nathaniel’s disbelief. He doesn’t try to change Nathaniel’s mind with clever arguments. He makes no appeals to philosophy or the Scripture. All he says is “Come and see.”

Much as some would have us think, the hallmark of our lives as Orthodox Christians isn’t our theological sophistication. It isn’t our sublime liturgy or beautiful music.

It rather that we are disciples and evangelists. We follow Jesus Christ and shape our lives around His teaching and–above all–His Person.

And having experienced the great love God Who accepts the Cross rather than violate the freedom of the creature we say to others “Come and see.”

“Come and see” the fulfillment your heart’s desires!

“Come and see” Divine Love in human form!

“Come and see” what it means to be love without limit by Him Who knows all about you!

And how could we do otherwise? What more does love desire expect to share its joy with others?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today as we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Restoration of the Holy Icons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole of the Tradition of the Church has only one goal: To introduce men and women to the God Who loves them without compromise.

If are faithful in this, we will transform the world around us beginning first and foremost with ourselves.

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

Come Forth!

Saturday, April 8, 2017: Lazarus Saturday; The Holy Apostles of the Seventy Herodion, Agabus, Rufus, Asyncritus, Phlegon, and Hermes, Rufus the Obedient of the Kiev Caves, Celestine, Pope of Rome, The Holy New Martyr John the Ship-Builder who was martyred in Kos.

Epistle: Hebrews 12:28-29; 13:1-8
Gospel: John 11:1-45

There are two masters of the psychology of the spiritual life, one Latin, the other Greek. I mean of course St Augustine of Hippo–a saint often and uncharitably criticized and even dismissed because of the opinions of his poorer students–and St John Chrysostom–a saint we tend to honor more in the gap than in fact. Both these men come to mind as I listen to today’s Gospel and reflect on the events recounted for us.

The Apostle and Evangelist John is, rightly, called the Theologian because of the lofty nature of his teaching about the divinity of Christ. His Gospel stresses one, central insight: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NKJV).

Though the Apostle John focuses our attention on the divinity of Christ, that He is the Word of God,  the Son of God and Himself God, this morning he reminds us that Jesus is God become Man. John does this by simply.

Standing at the tomb of His friend, “Jesus wept.”

Yes, He will in a moment–as God–restore His friend to life, But in this one moment, it is His humanity, not His divinity that shines through.

St Augustine says that while we “pray to him as God, He prays for us as a servant.” The One Who hears our prayer, “is the Creator,” but the One Who prayers for us is “a creature.” Though in all this He remains unchanged” by taking on “our created nature” He changes us making us “one man with himself, head and body.”

But there is a temptation here that we must resist. 

We can become so enamored, so in awe, of “the divinity of the Son of God” of His “supremely great and surpassing … greatness” that when, as this morning, we hear His “sighing, praying, giving praise and thanks,” we “hesitate” as Augustine says.

We pause is because “our minds are slow to come down to his humble level when we have just been contemplating him in his divinity.” Not from pride or lack of faith but because of the awe we feel we imagine that we might be “doing him an injustice in acknowledging in a man the words of one with whom we spoke when we prayed to God.” And so, again not from a surfeit of pride or a poverty of faith, but from overwhelming joy when we hear that “Jesus wept” as any of us would weep for the loss of a loved one, we find ourselves “at a loss and try to change the meaning” of the Gospel that God became flesh and dwelt among us.”

And yet, that’s exactly what we see this morning in the Gospel. 

Not just God become flesh but the glory of God. We this the divine glory in the humility and humanity of Him Who for our sake became the son of Mary, a carpenter, a teacher of the apostles, a friend to Mary., Martha and their brother Lazarus. 

And, of course, to all the poor and to each of us.

And as “Jesus wept” for the death of His friend, He weeps for us, for our sin and for the many ways in which sin has disfigured our beauty. 

And though we rarely see this beauty in ourselves, Jesus always sees it in us and He weeps for the scars sin leaves on our hearts.

As for that other great psychologist of the spiritual life, St John Chrysostom, what does he tell us today?

Focusing our attention on the words of the enemies of Jesus–“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”–Chrysostom says that the miracles which are the evidence of Jesus’ divinity, His enemies “turn against Him as if He had not done them.” It is because of the hardness of the human heart rather than the death of Lazarus, that causes Jesus groan, to be “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

Like Augustine, Chrysostom reminds us that the Apostle John not only ascends higher than any of the other Evangelists in his contemplation of the Jesus’ divinity, he “also descends lower than any other in describing His bodily affections.”

The sorrow Jesus feels, Augustine says, is not simply because of His enemies’ hardness of heart. Even His intimate friends, among them Martha and Mary, don’t “fully believe” that Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead.

This why, Chrysostom says, Jesus commands the crowd to “Take away the stone.” Jesus wants “the miracle to take place in the sight of all” so that later people can’t say, as they did “in the case of the blind man, ‘This is not he.’”

Both Augustine and Chrysostom take pains to remind us of both Jesus’ divinity and humanity. They both likewise are concerned that our awe at His divinity does not overwhelm the intimacy we have with Jesus in His humanity. If we are to be saved, both of Christ’s natures are needed. Necessary as well are our two responses to God becoming flesh and dwelling among us–awe and friendship.

Yes, we must have awe at His Godhead. But this awe can’t be allowed to overwhelm the warmth and the affection that comes from an intimate friendship with our Brother Jesus.

Just as the division, separation, admixture or confusion, of the divine and human natures in Christ, is heresy, so too with awe and friendship.

Love Him, Augustine says, because “Our Lord came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” As both God and Man, as Lord and Friend, as Creator and Brother, Jesus in His great mercy and love for us says to us as He said to Lazarus: “Come forth!”

Augustine says Jesus calls us to come forth “to new life.”

Jesus says “Come forth!” to all of us who are “weighed down by any vicious habit.”

Jesus says “Come forth!” to all of us who, though “guilty under the Law,” long to be made “righteous.”

Jesus says “Come forth!” He weeps and groans so that we can live as His disciples and more than His disciples.

Today Jesus says to each of us, “Come forth!” and live as His true and intimate friend.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory