Tag Archives: Sunday of Orthodoxy

Preparing for Joy

Sunday, March 17 (O.S., March 4), 2019: Triumph of Orthodoxy; St. Gerasimus of the Jordan (475). St. Julian, patriarch of Alexandria; (189); St. James the Faster of Phoenicia (Syria) (6th c.); Martyr Wenceslaus, prince of the Czechs (938); Blessed Basil (Basilko), prince of Rostov (1238).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

If our willingness to forgive others is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that God in Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and forgiven us our trespasses, then joy is the evidence of the sincerity of our forgiveness. To see this, we need to distinguish joy from its cousins pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is a bodily experience while happiness is a psychological one. For example, I get pleasure from eating ice cream and I am happy that I have eaten it.

Joy, however, is different. Joy is the conviction that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I suffer or how I fail, God will bring good out of this.

Joy says with the Apostle Paul, “we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). That is to say,

…to those who have united themselves to the God Who has united Himself to them,

…to those who love their neighbor because they love God,

…to those who forgive because they have been forgiven,

…God brings good out of all they experience.

And the good that God brings is not simply for those of us who are believers. The good that God brings for us is not for us alone but for those around us.

We see this in the saints of the Old Testament who endured suffering as they waited for the Messiah. They hoped for the gift we received.

We see this as well in the saints of the New Testament who, like Andrew, having personally encountered Jesus were eager to share their new found joy with others.

Without joy, without the conviction that as Julian of Norwich says that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”  life becomes unbearable.

And life becomes unbearbale whether we fail or succeed.

If I fail, the absence of joy drives me to despair. How can what I have done be undone? How can my failures be made right?

If I succeed, the absence of joy drives me to anxiety. Will I succeed tomorrow? Will the things I’ve done today be undone tomorrow?

Faced with a joyless life I flee to a life of pleasure; I pursue happiness. Only to realize that happiness like pleasure is fleeting. Like an addict, if I pursues pleasure I quickly discover that what felt good yesterday, flees less good today. The same with happiness.

And so when my life is joyless, I soon give up trying to feel good. Since pleasure and happiness are fleeting, I instead work to avoid pain. But this too proves to be an illusion:

The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.ut this too proves to be an illusion (Psalm 90:10).

Where then is joy to be found? How then do I foster a life of joy?

We need–I need–to first realize that joy is not pleasure or happiness; it is neither bodily or psychological but spiritual and as such it is a gift from God. St Paul tells us that together with love, peace ,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Of these, the only one that is at least partially within our power is self-control. To grow in joy, I must first master myself. This is the purpose of the ascetical of the Church.

Slowly, year after year, as I take on the Church’s proscribed ascetical disciplines, I grow in self-control. While never denying the fundamental goodness of pleasure and happiness, the Church’s ascetical tradition teaches me the limits of both.

But the Church’s offers more than simply a lesson of the limits of pleasure and happiness. From the moral tradition of the Church, I learn the virtuous ways to experience pleasure and happiness.

Ultimately though, I find–we find–the source of joy in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Personal prayer and ascetical effort good though they are are insufficient for the joyful life.

Likewise, as good as they are, the liturgical life of the Church–the daily cycle of service, the devotional services and even the Divine Liturgy itself–is insufficient.

We find joy in the sacraments; it is born in the waters of baptism, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion and restored by Holy Confession when we fall into sin.

The season of the Great Fast is nothing more or less than our preparation for joy!

Not simply the joy of Pascha, not simply the joy of the One Day, but of a life of joy!

During the Great Fast we intensify our prayer and ascetical efforts so that we can remove from our lives anything that quenches the Spirit. We abstain from evil, examine our lives carefully, attend closely to the Scriptures, so that we can recognize and “hold fast to that which is good” where ever we may find it (see, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us prepare ourselves for the joyful life that Christ stands ready to give us and, through us, to the world!

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

Friendship in Christ

Sunday, March 5, 2017: Sunday of Orthodoxy; Conon the Gardener, Mark the Ascetic, Righteous Father Mark of Athens, John the Bulgarian, Mark the Faster, Parthenios the New Martyr who contested in Didymoteichos, George the New-Martyr of Rapsani, Eulogios the Martyr, Eulabios the Martyr

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

What do the Scriptures say about the relationship between God and Moses? The “Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11, NKJV). And what was a singular blessing for Moses is something that Christ offers to all the Apostles. “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15, NKJV).

Immediately after this, Jesus tells the disciples that as He has befriended them, they are to befriend each other commanding them “to love one another” (v. 17). So powerful is this command that, as an old man at the end of his life, the Apostle John makes our mutual love the sign of our love for God. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20, NKJV).

In saying this, John adds nothing of his own to the Gospel. He is merely repeating what he heard from the lips of Jesus Himself. “By this, all will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NKJV).

Turning to the epistle we heard this morning, what else are the saints but, after Christ, our great and true friends?

Those who are “well attested by their faith” now stand before the Throne of the Lamb that was slain. They have welcomed us to their fellowship with Christ. And what do they do for all eternity? They glorify God and intercede on our behalf (see Hebrews 12 and Revelation 5). Thier love for God deepens their love for us.

As God befriends Moses and Jesus befriends the Apostles and the saints befriend us, we are to befriend each other. It is this, our bond of mutual friendship, that both only testifies to our faith and draws others to Christ.

To see this look at the Gospel we’ve just heard.

Immediately after hearing Jesus’ command “Follow me,” what does Philip do? He goes and finds Nathanael!

He goes to find his friend not out of disobedience but as the fruit of his new relationship with Jesus. Like the rest of the disciples, Philip won’t understand until much later what it means to be friends with Jesus. But even its first moments, his friendship with Jesus, or maybe more accurately, Jesus’ friendship with him, begins to change Philip. He wants to introduce Nathanael to the Messiah, to “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

We need to pause here for a moment and reflect on ourselves.

When people find out I work with college students they ask me, “How do I keep my child in the Church?” The sad fact is that not those raised in the Church and those who become Orthodox later in life, leave in distressingly high numbers.

Though I don’t have the numbers to say for sure, having spent several years looking at the demographic data, I suspect that in America the number of practicing and lapsed Orthodox Christians are—at best—about equal (and if anything, our numbers are better than they are in traditional Orthodox countries).

While there are many reasons why any individual will stay or go, I think one common factor is the quality of the person’s friendships with other Orthodox Christians.

The kind of friendship I mean is not the kind of casual friendship a person might have with a co-worker. While there’s nothing wrong with conversations at coffee hour about football or the weather or politics or television, these conversations aren’t significantly different from what people talk about at work.

No, the kind of conversations—and so the kind of friendships—that helps not just young people but all of us remain faithful Orthodox Christians is what we hear about in the Gospel.

Just as Philip does with Nathanael, we need to invite each other to enter a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. We do this by being willing to talk with each other about our own spiritual lives, our own struggles, and successes, as Orthodox Christian followers of Jesus Christ.

Does this mean we can’t talk about football or the weather or politics or television with each other? No, of course not! These kinds of conversations are a good and proper part of any friendship. If we never talk about our shared, everyday interests, our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ become stilted.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons we do such a poor job at keeping young people, is precisely because we get so concerned about instructing young people in the faith that we neglect befriending them. And let’s be honest here. None of us wants to stay around people who are always telling us what to think or how to behave. While we all of us understand some of that is necessary, a steady diet of it is off putting.

What is needed not only in our relationship with young people but also with each other is to strike a balance. To only talk about the spiritual life with each other is as unwholesome as never talking about our relationship with Jesus Christ.

And again, having spent a fair amount of time looking at the data about why people leave, I would ask you to consider the possibility that where we need to do better is learning how to talk to each other about our relationship, or lack of one, with Jesus Christ. We need to make the effort to speak with each other about what it means to us, personally, as Orthodox Christians to be followers of Jesus Christ.

So how do you do this?

Just begin. Start the conversation today.

Would you like to know what to say?

I can’t tell you because it isn’t for me to say. This is something that only you and your friends can decide for yourselves. And frankly, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the peace of the Church, it’s none of my business what you and your friends talk about.

All I can say is what Philip said to Nathanael. “Come and see.” Come and see what it can mean to speak to each other, face-to-face with each about your own struggles and joys, your hopes and fears, as Orthodox Christian followers of Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Tradition of Witness, the Witness of Desire

Sunday, March 20, 2016: Sunday of Orthodoxy; Righteous Fathers slain at the Monastery of St. Savas, Saint Cuthbert the Wonderworker, Bishop of Lindisfarne, Myron the New Martyr of Crete, Photini the Samaritan Woman

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

The Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear. As Orthodox Christians, we are the heirs of a long tradition of witness. This tradition embraces not only the whole of Church history beginning with the New Testament but includes the Old Testament as well. We need to be careful, though. There is a tendency, a temptation really, to think of Holy Tradition, this tradition of witness, in abstract terms. The evidence of our faith is not found in the history of ideas but in the testimony of those men and women who have gone before. Tradition doesn’t exist in a chemically pure form but is embodied in the lives and deaths of those who are “well attested by their faith.”

Writing in the second century, St Justin Martyr expands this tradition of witness to include what we might call a witness of desire. Specifically, Justin saw how in their pursuit of Truth and Virtue the pagans also participated in preparing humanity to receive the Christ. Or, to say the same thing in a slightly different fashion, God uses our desires to draw us out of ourselves and to Him.

Again, in both the tradition of witness and the witness of desire, what we encounter are not abstract ideas but concrete human beings. Together with Moses, we meet in the tradition of witness not only “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” of the Old Testament but also the “apostles, … prophets, … evangelists, and … pastors and teachers” of the New Testament who labored “for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4: 12, 13, NKJV).

To the public witness of revelation, there is the secret witness of the human heart and its desires. Here we meet not only Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle but Homer, Aesop, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and the myriad philosopher, playwrights, poets and ordinary men and women who throughout the ancient world who longed to see “what was promised.”

While different in form, one public, the other hidden, both the tradition of witness and the witness of desire remained unfulfilled until the coming of Christ and His Church. The whole human family before Christ, Jews as well as pagan, finds its perfection in Him and in His Body the Church and “apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

This last statement sounds as arrogant to modern ears as it did scandalous and foolish to those who lived at the time of Christ. And if what we profess is merely a philosophy—albeit a true philosophy—we are guilty at least of arrogance if not something quite worse. Even when true, any human philosophy is necessarily limited. No matter how true or noble, merely human ideas and ideals inevitably become an ideology. Charity becomes control; virtue is replaced by mere conformity; obedience by servility; and awe in the presence of God a pervasive and deadening sense of anxiety.

But what we profess is not a philosophy, even if (in the hands of some) it has become an ideology.

What we profess instead is human thought illumined by divine grace to become the Good News.

What we profess is the grace given to ordinary men and women so that they have the courage to bear witness to the Living God no matter what the cost.

What we profess is not mere history.

What we profess is human history transformed and transfigured to become Holy Tradition, the Voice of the Holy Spirit leading the Church from generation to generation.

What we profess is the power of God to fulfill the deepest desires of the human heart,

…to heal what is broken in us,

…to reform even the most hardened sinner and

…to raise the dead to life everlasting.

And the evidence for this? The lives of those who have gone before us. The evidence is also found in the lives of those who encountered Him Who Philip see today in the Gospel. And having encountered Jesus what does Philip do? He finds Nathanael and introduces him to Jesus.

For his part, Nathanael is skeptical; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t chastise him for his hesitation but commends Nathanael for his honesty; “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Philip’s acceptance as much as Nathanael’s reservation are both acceptable before God. The former because it is a word spoken from a believing heart; the latter because it is a word spoken from a heart that longs to believe. Nathanael desires the Savior Who Philip has found—or rather, Who has found both him and Philip.

The great challenge of the Gospel is not that it’s true—though it is—but that it isn’t ours. We are the stewards of the Gospel, of a way of life that has been entrusted to us and which can only be accepted in gratitude. This is why the summit of Christian worship is the Eucharist (from the Greek word εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), meaning “thanksgiving”).

It belongs to each of us to offer our heartfelt thanks and gratitude to God. Doing so, however, requires that we offer to God a sacrifice modeled after Christ’s. I must give my whole life to God the Father, in the Name of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I must do this even if the heart I give is, like Nathanael’s, skeptical and hesitant. I must do this even if, like many among the Jews, it is a heart bound by law and custom. I must do this even if, like the pagans, it is a heart in love with its own ideas. I must offer to God my whole heart in whatever condition I find it.

It is only when we give ourselves to God that He transform us and make us His apostles. We are each us called to be witnesses like Philip even if, like Nathanael, our faith is hesitant. No matter what the condition of our hearts, God tell us today that we too will “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”

The icons that we carry today are only one of the myriad tangible reminders of the life to which we have been called. They remind us of the truth of the Gospel and the power of Jesus Christ to transform our lives today as he did the lives of the saints who have gone before us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, to celebrate the Restoration of the Icons, to celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and to profess “the faith of the Apostles; … the faith of the Fathers; … the faith of the Orthodox; … makes fast the inhabited world” (Synodikon of Orthodoxy) is to commit ourselves personally, here and now, to follow Christ and to live as His witnesses secure in His love for us and the whole human family.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory