Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Needle is a Needle and a Camel is a Camel.

on Luke 18:18-27

I saw a comic strip recently. There's a preacher character standing in the pulpit before his congregation, rather like I am now standing before you, and he says, quoting Jesus, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – which is from the gospel we've just heard (Luke 18:25). And everyone in the congregation is looking aghast and worried. But then the preacher goes on to say, “And now I will tell you why that's not what he really meant.” And everyone in the congregation breathes a sigh of relief.

There's nothing new about this attempted dodge. Preachers have been trying to explain away this admittedly poetic image of Jesus since the early Church.

St. Cyril of Alexandria softens the blow a little bit by claiming that “by a ‘camel,’ [Jesus] doesn’t mean the animal of that name but rather a thick cable…. It is the custom,” claims St. Cyril, “of those well-versed in navigation to call the thicker cables ‘camels.’”[i] Okay, sure.

In modern times, it’s not uncommon to hear the claim that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a narrow gate into Jerusalem.

So, we’ve got some claiming that “camels” are thick cables and not animals and others claiming that the “eye of the needle” is a narrow gate and not the tiny hole on one end of a pin. It is difficult – but not impossible – to get a thick cable through the eye of a needle. And it is difficult – but not impossible – to get a camel through a narrow doorway. If we decide to agree with both of them, then getting the rich into heaven is no more difficult than passing a cable through a doorway! That’s downright easy!

Everybody’s trying to soften Jesus’ imagery here. Maybe we need not part with our riches after all – is the subtext.

from phatcatholic

But then there is, for example, St. John of Damascus, who writes,
“‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God!’ When all the saints heard this command, they thought they should withdraw from this hardness of riches. They parted with all their goods. By this distribution of their riches to the poor, they laid up for themselves eternal riches. They took up the cross and followed Christ. Some followed [and were] made perfect by martyrdom…, while others by the practice of self-denial did not fall short of them…. Know that this is a command of Christ our King and God that leads us from corruptible things and makes us partakers of everlasting things.”[ii]

I think St. John of Damascus is closer to the mark on this one. While it is true that at times Jesus was given to the use of hyperbole – extreme exaggeration – to make his point. For example, elsewhere he says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Now, we know that Jesus teaches us to love one another, even as he has loved us (John 13:34), and he’s not contradicting that here. He’s using hyperbole to demonstrate how great must be the devotion we have to him as compared what we have to others. But, I don't think that's what's going on with the camel and the eye of the needle. I believe that what Jesus is saying here is literally true even if poetically expressed. Which is to say, the salvation of the rich is literally impossible for them. Harsh words. Bear with me.

These sorts of warnings against wealth were nothing new, by the way, biblically speaking. There is the proverb, “He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf” (11:28). And our holy mother, Mary, the Theotokos, proclaims while pregnant with God, that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Luke 1:53).

It’s not that wealth is not a gift from the Lord. It is. But it is given to be used for his purposes. We like to pretend that our possessions are all our own accomplishment - as if we didn’t get every strength, talent, and opportunity we have from the Lord. We must learn gratitude and learn to recognize that every dollar we have is really the Lord’s. We are the stewards only and not the owners of our wealth. It is God’s wealth and meant to be used for his purposes, especially in this season of almsgiving. Let those who have give to those who have not. “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich,” says St. John Chrysostom. That is, the rich will be saved if they give to the poor. That is what their wealth is for.

Let’s not try to explain away Jesus’ admonition, but let’s take it to heart. When Jesus’ disciples hear what he has to say about the camel and the eye of a needle, they have the right instincts, which is not to question whether the Lord really means what he's saying but rather to see the full of implication and ask, “Who then can be saved?” When we hear Jesus say this hard word, we always want to say, “Oh sure the rich can to enter the Kingdom. You don’t really mean that, Jesus.” But his disciples at the time, rightly, took it the other way – “Then no one can be saved. What you’re saying, Jesus, is that this is impossible.” Yes, that’s right.

Notice that Jesus does not answer by saying, the poor only can be saved. Rather, he extends the dread impossibility of our salvation over all humanity saying, “For men it is impossible.” Not only for the rich is it impossible, but for all men and women it is impossible. See how he plainly says this now. A camel going through the eye of a sewing needle is impossible – not just difficult, but impossible – absurdly impossible. Period. And “impossible” is Jesus' own word to describe the situation. He means it. It is impossible. We cannot save ourselves. It’s as simple as that. It’s every bit as difficult as living forever.

“But for God all things are possible.” God alone could pass a camel through the eye of a needle. God alone can raise the dead. He can and he will. Because he loves us. Jesus, and not ourselves, is our savior. The archangel Gabriel says to Mary, “you shall call his name Jesus [which means ‘savior’], for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).




[i] Commentary on Luke, homily 123
[ii] Barlaam and Joseph 15.128-29

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Where the Body is

Jesus leaves us today with a discomforting and obscure image: “where the body is, there also the vultures will gather.”[1]

I think here of corpses in the desert, dead from dehydration and become carrion for scavengers.

And this is Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question, “Where, Lord?”[2]  … “where the body is, there will be vultures.”

Jesus had just been telling them about something called “the Day of the Son of Man”[3] or sometimes “the apocalypse.”[4] At this time, Jesus says, “Two will be in a bed[5] – one will be taken, the other left.[6] Two will be grinding grain[7] – one will be taken, the other left.”[8] So the disciples’ question might mean, “Where will the saved[9] be taken?” or, “Where will the condemned be left?” And Jesus strikes back with this difficult expression: “where the body is, there the vultures will also gather.”

Jesus often says things difficult for us to understand. Maybe the meaning of this expression is clear to you, but it was not to me. I can certainly relate to Jesus’ foolish and tedious disciples who so often exasperate him with their incomprehension.

So, I studied the question and soon discovered many ways of understanding these words of our Lord.

Many think this is an idiom, rather similar in meaning to our expression, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” -“Where there’s corpses, there’s vultures.” In other words, Jesus may be saying, “You’ll know the day has come when you see it.”… “Keep watch, for you know not the day nor the hour that that Son of Man is coming,” as he says in Matthew.[10] This stands as a caution to us not to follow after those who claim to have cracked the bible code or unlocked the date of doomsday.[11] When the Lord comes back, we’ll know – it will not be any secret knowledge.[12]

But in a most important way, Jesus is already with us. He is God with us – Emmanuel – right here and right now. He is coming, but he is already come. We particularly remember his becoming present among us during the current season of the Nativity fast. Yesterday, we read that the Kingdom of God is already among us and within us.[13]

In the Divine Liturgy – which is outside of time, which takes place at once in heaven and on earth – after the words of institution, we “remember… all that has come to pass in our behalf,” including “the second coming in glory.” The “second coming” has already “come to pass” for us from the eternal kairotic perspective of the Divine Liturgy.

In light of this reality, Ambrose offers a different understanding of this body surrounded by vultures.

First of all, “vultures” may or may not be the best translation. It works for the idiomatic understanding I mentioned before, but the Greek word here is usually translated “eagles.” This expression is the only instance in which it is rendered “vultures,” because many suppose that works better in the context.

In scripture, however, an eagle is a far nobler creature than a vulture. Eagles do not eat the dead. Because they live so long, eagles are associated with youthful and vigorous souls.[14] Isaiah prophesies, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”[15] Those like eagles, then, are those who believe and hope in the Lord.

With this understanding then, the Lord’s words could have another meaning. "Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together."[16]

Ambrose is quick to see this body as the body of Christ. The eagles, then, are first of all those of Christ’s disciples that stayed with him to the end – Mary, Mary, Mary, and John.[17] These are the eagles gathered together around the body of the Lord on the day of the Son of Man. … Christ’s death on the cross is the consummation[18] of his loving sacrifice for us and for our salvation. The day of that sacrifice is the day of Lord in which his victory over death is accomplished[19] once and for all.[20]

“Where Lord?” we ask. “On the cross, and nowhere else” he answers. That is the place where the saved are saved and the damned are damned. In his body. On the cross.

Secondly, Ambrose writes, “Jesus says this concerning this body [surrounded by eagles]: ‘For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.’”[21] The body is the one body of the Lord re-presented to you and me. If we approach him with the fear of God and with faith[22] – discerning this body[23] – it is the place of our salvation. Here, he shall forgive our iniquities, heal our diseases, redeem our lives from the Pit, crown us with love and mercy, and renew our youth like the eagles’.[24]

“Where, Lord?” we ask. “Here, in this holy place, from this holy table,” he answers us today.



[1] Luke 17:37 NAB
[2] Luke 17:37
[3] Luke 17:22, 24, 30
[4] cf. Luke 17:30
[5] the wealthy (Cyril of Alexandria)
[6] Luke 17:34
[7] the poor (Cyril of Alexandria)
[8] Luke 17:35
[9] the virtuous and good (Cyril of Alexandria) – the faithful (Ambrose)
[10] Matt 25:13
[11] cf. Luke 17:23
[12] gnosis
[13] Luke 17:21
[14] Ps. 102:5; Is 40:31
[15] Is 40:31
[16] Luke 17:37 RSV
[17] John 19:25-26
[18] consummatum est
[19] τετλεσται
[20] Rom 6:10
[21] John 6:55
[22] Liturgikon, 91
[23] 1 Cor 11:29
[24] Ps 103:3-5

Sunday, November 11, 2018

God has become our neighbor

The lawyer looks for justification in the letter of the law. I’ll spoil the surprise for you right at the beginning – he’s not gonna find it there.

He knows the law as well as Jesus, insofar as it is written and they have both read it.

We have all read it as well, I hope. The law we’re talking about here is the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible. If you have not yet read them all, read them! Somewhere along the line, it got out that we Catholics don't read the Bible – but our own saints would beg to differ.  St. Jerome, for example, admonishes us to exercise and feed our minds daily with Holy Scripture. “May your hands never set the Holy Book down,” he says. We should read on even into the night, he says. “Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page.” Well, anyway, read it!  We are not illiterate any longer, most of us. That was our only excuse for not reading scripture. If we can read, that is first of all so that we can read the scripture, which God has given us. When Jesus asks the lawyer, “What is written in the law?” the answer should be as ready on our lips as it is on the lawyers.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." That’s from Deuteronomy  (6:4-5). And “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s from Leviticus (19:18). It also says in Leviticus that those who keep the commandments of the Lord shall live (18:5).

What is necessary for life is love of God and neighbor. For everlasting life, what is necessary is love of God above all with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind and love of neighbor as of yourself. Love is what is needed. This is the true center and purpose of the law. Love – not attention to detail – Love – not cleverness – Love – not a great memory – Love.

We don’t enter into life even by fighting evil – but by love. St. Porphyrios says “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” Anyway, you can’t drive the darkness out of a room by arguing with it or by waving your fists around. The only way is to turn on the light. Only love – and not vain energy, effort, will, or struggle – can fill our hearts with light and give us life. Stop trying to fight and instead Love himself reign over your heart. Anyway, if it came down to fighting, he’s the only one who could win the fight anyway. Only grace will save us, not our effort. Only love.

So the lawyer knows these words about love. He’s read the sacred page, at least. It’s a start. But his approach to the words is all wrong. He tries to twist the ambiguity that words have to justify his own lack of love. “Who is my neighbor?” He asks.

Words are ambiguous, but being clever about words and attentive to detail will not give us life. That may be the way out of an earthly prison when we’ve committed a crime and come before a human judge – to find some loophole or ambiguity in the law that’s gonna get us off the hook.  But it is not so with God.

The lawyer seems to imagine that if he can just define "neighbor" in a way that excludes all those to whom he has not been neighborly, he’ll escape the judgment. Perhaps that is a way to escape the judgment of men, but the Lord sees our heart. His parable of the Good Samaritan cuts right through the confusion about words that the legalist tries to introduce. While legalism darkens truth, our Lord is the light and the life.


It turns out that the lawyer already knows the truth. We all already know, if we are honest and examine our hearts, that we have sometimes been unloving. When Jesus asks him at the end, "Who, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the man who fell in with the robbers?" The lawyer is able to answer, "The one who treated him with compassion." We already know the truth of it, and we're not going to hide it from the Lord. We do not love him as we should. We do not love one another as we should.

How often do I hear someone say in confession, "I have been unloving?" Not very often, I can tell you. Yet this is the only sin – the sin behind every sin. Failure to love. Lack of love. If we were just to confess being unloving, we will have confessed every possible sin we may have committed by that one word. Then, we can go into the particulars of how we have failed to love without any anxiety about forgetting something. Love – and not a particularly good memory – is what gives us life. If we were loving, we would not sin. It is the light that casts out the darkness.

The Good Samaritan is a model of love and compassion. This story pricks our consciences – and rightly so. We ask ourselves, are we the Priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan? Have I neglected my neighbors or shown them compassion?

What we need to realize is that, really, we are the man half dead on the road. We are half dead because we are unloving, or not as loving as we should be, and that is death and darkness in us. We are immortal spirits and mortal bodies – half dead and half alive. Alive as immortal creatures of God and doomed to die due to our sins. And who is the Good Samaritan really? Above all, he is Jesus. Jesus is the one who shows perfect mercy, love, and compassion.  He is our God and has become our neighbor. Let us love him who first loved us (1 John 4:19).


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Stop

Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come heal his twelve-year old daughter, who is dying (Luke 8:41-42). And so Jesus sets off to Jairus’s house to heal her and prevent her death.

As he is going, the crowds crush in on him on all sides (8:42). Nonetheless, Jesus presses on toward his vital task of healing. That is, until a woman touches the fringe of his garment (8:44). She had had a hemorrhage of blood for twelve years, but she knew Jesus to be a great and powerful healer, and so she believed that just by touching the fringe of his garment, she would be healed (8:43, 47). So with faith she touched him, and she was healed. 


The healing of a bleeding woman
Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter
4th century

But what does Jesus do? Remember Jairus and his daughter, who is dying not far away. Surely that should lend some urgency to the situation? Surely Jesus should press on through the crowd to get to her and save her? Shouldn't Jesus hurry past and get going? Shouldn't Jesus finish the one task he has set out to do before stopping to attend to another one? But Jesus stops. He stops and starts inquiring who has touched him (8:45). Peter is dumbfounded by his question because Jesus has been crushed on all sides by the crowd (8:45).


Having two parishes now, I can relate somewhat to this situation. That is, very often I will be attending to the needs of one person or group of people of one parish, and I will receive a call from another person or group of people from my other parish who have needs equally as pressing. Unfortunately, I am not enough like Jesus. And I don't know how to put things in their proper order and respond to all things in all charity and all justice. Nonetheless, I will pray and I will try.

I'm sure many can relate to this. Many have both jobs and families for example – or school and jobs and families and friends and so on. Many of us know what it is to have many groups competing for our attention – all people whom God has created in his own image, all people we are called to love and serve and respect. Well, how do we do this?

Jesus – he stops. This makes sense to no one. Not to his disciples. Not to Jairus. And not even to the woman he has healed. The disciples were dumbfounded by his question. Jairus is eager for his own daughter to be healed by the Lord. He is standing there in great need. Also, he is a leader – a ruler in the synagogue – and is probably used to more deference. The woman with the hemorrhage who had been healed tried to hide and thought that she could just touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment as he went by, that she would be healed, and that he would keep on going (8:47).  

But no, they all have to stop and wait for Jesus to question a crowd pressing in all around him, “Who touched me?” It would take a lot of faith not to get exasperated with Jesus at this moment. Jesus stops. And he engages the people in front of him. Maybe we should learn something from him.

Stop what you're doing. Behold the one before you. Not to deny the one you're rushing toward at all, but to love the one before you. When you're being interrupted by someone, it is tempting to become exasperated at them. Anyone with children knows the pain of constant interruption. It's natural to feel a momentary annoyance. Even Jesus may have felt this when he was touched and the power went out from him. But when you do, stop. 

Remember, before you snap back some sharp remark of irritation, like I sometimes do, that the one interrupting you is a child and an image of God. God is interrupting you. Trying to break in through your will to accomplish something. An interruption is an opportunity for patience, for grace, for self-sacrifice, for immolation of our self-will – not of our true selves, but of our stubborn and willful adherence to our own desires.

Jesus stops and engages the crowd, and meets the woman who touched him and was immediately healed. And he says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (8:48). He treats her with patience, with kindness, and in peace. All while a twelve-year-old girl, who he can save, is dying nearby. And, in fact, while he’s still speaking, a man from Jairus’s house comes and says, “Your daughter is dead” (8:49).

How crushed Jairus must have felt in this moment. The man who could have saved his daughter’s life is here dawdling with other people’s concerns and his daughter has died. “Do not trouble the teacher anymore,” says the man from Jairus’ house (8:49). What would be the point?

Well, we know that death is no reason to stop petitioning Jesus for life. Jesus has power even over death – and he tells them, “Do not fear; only believe and she shall be made well” (8:50). Just as the woman with the twelve-year-old hemorrhage had believed and was healed, so now, if they believe, the twelve-year-old girl, who has died, will live. And live she does. Jesus raises her up (8:54-55). He has power even over death, which he calls “sleeping” (8:52).

Faith in this, more than anything, can give us the gift of patience and peace. I often say, you only live once, but at least it’s forever. “I don’t have any time,” we often complain. “I am too busy to stop and attend to the needs of passersby or of my family. I’ve got work to do. I have no time to stop and pray or to go to church.” You have all the time in the world if you live in Christ. There is no reason for wasteful haste or anxiety in Christ. Sure, some things are a matter of life and death, but, in Christ, even death will not keep us from life.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Pray for the dead, and God will raise them up.

The Lord always chooses to heal us, to save us, to deliver us, and to raise us up from the dead through the prayers and intercession of one another. Silouan the Athonite observes, “When God wants to have mercy on someone, he inspires someone else to pray for him, and he helps in this prayer.” Why does God do this? Could he not act for our good directly and without this intercession? Of course he could! He's God! But this is not how he chooses to act. Maybe he wants to teach us something. Maybe he wants to teach us to love one another by giving our intercessory prayer, which is an expression of our love for one another, so much power.  

Never doubt the great power of your prayers for those you love – for your family, your neighbors, your friends, and your enemies. Pray for them – for everyone you can think of. Fervently. Those who are critical of prayer – saying, “We need your action, not your prayers” – have no faith in God. Do not be persuaded or intimidated by them. It's true that active service is also needed and that God calls us to it. It’s not to be neglected. In addition to prayer, we must also give drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry, clothes to the naked and shelter to the homeless. But this never negates the power of prayer.

Our prayer beseeches God, who is mighty. He can overcome obstacles we cannot even touch or fathom. For example: death. I can and should give a hungry person food, but can I raise the dead? Only if I pray for those who have died – because it is Christ, the life of all, who raises the dead. I can bury them with prayers for their resurrection and I can help them in no other way but by the power of prayer.  

Today, the Lord, who alone gives life to the dead, overcomes the death of the only son of the widow of Na’in. Let me call your attention to certain details of this story. The young man who had died is the only son of his mother. And Jesus is the only son of his mother. "The Virgin's son meets the widow's son," as St. Ephrem the Syrian says.[i]  So there is immediately a connection between our Lord and this dead young man.  

The death of the young man had crushed his mother. She was weeping. Jesus knew that he was also going to die and that his death would pierce his own mother's heart with sorrow. So when he saw this grieving mother, he had compassion on her. That is, I think he saw in her sorrow a foreshadowing of the sorrow his own mother would feel when he would die. To have compassion is to suffer with someone. Jesus is able to suffer with this woman perfectly and completely knowing that his own mother is headed for the same pain.

It was for this widowed mother and on her behalf that Jesus raises the young man from the dead. The Lord saw her, had compassion on her, and therefore told the young man to arise. For the sake of the tears of the mother, Jesus gives life to her dead son. For the sake of the tears of his mother, Jesus will give life to us who have been dead in our sins.

His mother is also our mother because we are in Christ. St. Ambrose writes, "We are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones. Let the pious mother grieve, let the crowd, too, help…" Our love and prayers for one another are truly helpful. Never believe they are not. They lead to resurrection. The Lord works his miracles through them and because of them. All you who are in Christ wield great power and authority over sin and death. They cannot defeat you in him who is the life. “Already at the funeral you will arise.  Already will you be released from the sepulcher. The attendants at your funeral will stand still. You will begin to speak words of life. All… will praise God, who has bestowed upon us such great help for the avoidance of death.”[ii] And all this because you were loved and prayed for by others. By your mother. If not your earthly mother, then certainly by your heavenly mother.

Mary prays for us. Let us also pray for one another, especially for those who have died. When we attend funerals, let us bring Christ with us in our hearts, because when Christ comes to a funeral, as we see today, he brings life to those who have died and he, who alone can, dries the tears of those who mourn.




[i] Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron 6.23.2
[ii] Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 5.92.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Prayerful Devotion to the Theotokos and her Son

On a Saturday evening on into a Sunday early morning long ago in Constantinople, Saint Andrew, the fool for Christ, and his disciple Epiphanius crowded into the back of the church at Blachernae. The church was crowded full of people praying an all-night vigil. And, in those days, an all-night vigil really took all night. Our abbreviated versions of the service usually last about 2 hours, and some people complain that that is too burdensome. Well, in those days - this was the middle of the 10th century - the service took all night, and the church was so crowded with people that Saint Andrew and Epiphanius had to stand in the back. This was not even a great feast day. It was October 1st. It was, however, Sunday - and Sunday is always the Lord's Day, the day of his resurrection - well worthy of our devotion.

Now, this church at Blachernae, a northwestern suburb of Constantinople, did possess a unique attraction for the people. Here were housed and venerated the only relics of the Theotokos - her veil and a part of her belt, having been moved here from the holy land. We know well why there are no relics of her body. Nowadays, her belt has long since been moved to a monastery on Mount Athos. And the pilgrims crowd in there as well.

Well, during this vigil, 'round about 4 o'clock in the morning, the holy Theotokos herself appears to St. Andrew. Perhaps we can understand why she chooses to appear in this place where so many were showing her and her son so much devotion. He sees her appear above all those people praying in the church at four in the morning, ineffably radiant. And lest we imagine that this is a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, he asks his disciple Epiphanius, "Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?" Epiphanius answered, "I do see, holy Father, and I am in awe."

He saw her protectively cover all the people with her veil, which shielded them from many visible and invisible enemies. If we will show the Lord and his mother similar prayerful devotion, she will protect us as well, with her prayers for us and for the whole world.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Listing Minimums and Missing the Point

The people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God (Luke 5:1). So much so, that he felt the need to get into a boat – Simon Peter's boat, as it so happens – and to put out a little from the land so that he could sit and teach the people from the boat (5:3). In their urgent desire to hear the word of God, which comes uniquely from Jesus Christ, who is himself the word of God, they were even making things a bit uncomfortable for him, such that he had to improvise from a boat a sort of makeshift ambo from which to preach. We can understand, maybe, their great insistence on hearing the word from him who is the word.
But are we so eager to hear the word of God? If Jesus were in town, would we press upon him to hear the word of God? As it so happens, Jesus is in town. He is in our churches every day. He is proclaimed in the gospel and present in the Eucharist. He is in our hearts and minds and bodies. He is alive in us and in this world. But are we even aware from moment to moment of his living presence among us? Or, do we live as if he is away in some far off place? Are we pressing upon him? When the gospel is proclaimed in the church, do we give it all of our attention? Or, do we let our minds wander off?



In Catholic churches, it is common to observe an overwhelming preference for the pews in the back. Often, we are far from pressing upon him to hear his word! It looks more like we’re trying to keep our distance. Zeal and eagerness to participate more fully are often in short supply. An attitude of minimum obligations prevails. That is, we ask not how much we can do to grow closer to God in his holy Church but rather what's the least we must to do in order to still call ourselves practicing Catholics.  They've even drawn up lists of these minimal obligations. For example, in order to be a practicing Catholic, they say we must at least keep these precepts of the Church[1]:
1.      We must attend Divine Liturgy (or at least some Divine service) every Sunday.[2]
2.      We must confess our sins at least once a year.
3.      We must receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Paschal season.
4.      We must also keep holy the so-called "holy days of obligation."
5.      We must observe the Fasts of our Church.
6.      We must provide for the material needs of the Church according to our ability.
Alright, fair enough, these are good things for us to do. I suppose you’ll get no argument from me about that. And I suppose I'll even go along with the observation that if a person isn't even interested in trying to do these things, it would really be a stretch to call them a practicing Catholic. However, the attitude that seeks the minimum so ardently that it needs to have all this spelled out has probably already missed the point.
Where is our fire and our love for the Lord and his word?
The Byzantine tradition offers a maximalist approach to the spiritual life rather than this minimalist approach. Our full tradition of liturgical prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline, and charitable work, which is constantly proposed to each of us by our tradition, is likely more than any one of us is even capable of, at least on our own. Of course, one of the reasons we are a Church and not a conglomeration of individuals with private pipelines to Jesus is that each member of the body of Christ has his or her own gifts. And together, we can do the work of Christ and live the Life of Christ more fully than we can alone.
And what is that work? Among other things, it is to preach to word of God both in words and, above all, by our love for our neighbors. Love of neighbor is our best and most effective tool of evangelism. It will bring people to the Lord and to the Church more effectively than persuasive arguments – not that there isn’t a time and a place for that as well. But we must always speak the truth in love. If we speak some truth, but not in love, it’s not really the word of God we’re proclaiming, for God is love.
This word of God we are to preach is like the nets, says St. Augustine, that Peter lowers into the deep for a catch.[3] It brings in so many fish that two boats are filled to the point of sinking (Luke 5:7).  Our evangelism should be so effective.
I want to see that in our churches. Let us go and cast our nets, which are the word of God, into the waters of our cities and our towns. What’s that you say? You tried that already and it didn’t work? You toiled all night and took nothing (Luke 5:5)?  Nevertheless, go out into the deep and cast again. It is the word of God you are casting and it can haul them in so that our churches are filled to bursting.  
First, of course, before we can become more effective evangelists, we must deepen our own love and obedience to the word by whatever means necessary. We won’t convince others if we’re not convinced ourselves – if we don’t take this seriously ourselves and strive with whatever strength we have toward God. It’s true that union with God can only be achieved by God’s own grace and not by our effort, but this is not meant to encourage laziness on our part. When it comes to the spiritual life and growing closer to Jesus Christ, instead of asking, “What's the least I need to do?” or, “What fulfills my minimum obligation?” let’s learn to start asking, “What more can I do? Am I doing everything I can to press upon Jesus to hear the word of God so that I can live it and preach it to the world?”





[1] CCC 2042
[2] CCEO, canon 881 §1
[3] Augustine, Sermon 248.2.

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