Tag Archives: St Maximus the Confessor

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

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

The Soul of the Eater is Not Satisfied

All, over which men labour in this world, is consumed in the mouth, and, munched by the teeth, it passes down to the stomach to be digested. For the little while that it delights the appetite, it seems to give pleasure while it is held in the mouth. When it has passed to the belly, there ceases to be any difference between sorts of food.

After all this, the soul of the eater is not satisfied; either because it again longs for what it has eaten, and both the wise man and fool cannot live without food, and the poor man seeks for nothing except how he can keep the organism of his pitiful body alive and not die of hunger, or because the soul gains no advantage from the refreshment of the body and food is the same to the wise man and the fool alike and the poor man goes where he can see wealth.

St Jerome “Commentary on Ecclesiastes

Jerome’s words are a commentary on a passage in the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes: “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied. For what more has the wise man than the fool? What does the poor man have, who knows how to walk before the living?” (6:7-8, NKJV)

Especially when I’ve presented ideas like this to Evangelical Christians, my listeners will say that I’m denying the goodness of creation. While I understand why they say this, St Jerome isn’t denying the goodness of creation. He (and I) is rather delineating the limits of creation. Good though it is, there is no life in food. Life comes to us not from what we eat or drink but from God.

Again, this doesn’t mean food (or any part of creation) is evil. It only means that we can’t ask from creation what creation itself can’t provide. This is what St Maximus the Confessor is getting at when he writes that “Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.”

We can summarize the whole of our Christian life as nothing more or less than the struggle to learn to use creation as God intended it to be used. When I misuse the creation then I don’t only dishonor God and the creation, I cause my life to be nothing but a series of frustrations as again and again I become disappointed.

As these disappointments add up I become increasingly prone to cynicism and hardness of heart. I lose, in other words, the ability to feel joy because having lost any sense of nature of creation, I have become incapable of gratitude.

This I think is the situation of all of us at one time or another. But for some, maybe even many, people today this sense of growing dissatisfaction is the norm.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory