Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Sabbath is a Day of Freedom.

On a Sabbath day, Jesus sets free a woman who was crippled for eighteen years by Satan (Luke 13:10-11, 16). On a Sabbath day, Jesus says to her, "Woman, you are loosed" (Luke 13:12). You are free. You are enslaved to your infirmity no longer. Jesus unties the knots in her back so she again can stand up straight in his presence. He sets her free from bondage. And He sets us free from bondage.

This is what Jesus does. He sets his people free (John 8:36). The truth will set you free and Jesus is the truth – the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the word incarnate, truth himself. And the truth is, it is Jesus that sets us free. It is sin and death, passions and suffering, addictions and illnesses, powers and principalities that enslave us. It is Jesus that sets us free.  

He does not come into the world to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17). As we prepare for his coming into the world at Christmas, remember what Gabriel says to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” for he will save his people from their sins (Luke 1:31; Matt 1:21). The name Jesus means “the Lord saves” and it’s related to the Hebrew for “deliverance.”  

But some mischaracterize Jesus as the one who binds us – as an enslaver rather than a liberator. They say this because Christians try to follow moral laws and keep the commandments of him whom we love. And they say this because they do not know what freedom is.

Some think of freedom as the license to do what they want. They regard the very idea of sin as judgmentalism. But the truth is that we who are sinners are enslaved to sin. We quickly discover this when we try and fail by our own power to live sinlessly. It is possible only by the grace of God to live sinlessly. Of course, if we don't try at all, we might think we're free because we're doing just as we like. But we're really only free if we can make the choice to sin no more. And that is only possible in Jesus Christ.

This fasting that we’re doing until Christmas is meant to help free us from our enslavement to sin. Fasting is a good measure of our freedom from our enslaving passions. Firstly, it reveals to us how impassioned we really are. Once we start to practice self-control we quickly learn how out of control we are – how badly we need to rely on the Lord for strength. Do not fast without prayer. Whatever it is we have freely chosen to fast from will doubtlessly allure us at some point during our fast, unless we are fasting from something we don’t want anyway, (in which case, we should add to our fast something we do want, because fasting should train us to resist temptation).  “By training the Christian to abstain from sin, [fasting] leads to interior freedom and true joy.”[i] But how quickly and easily we often find ways to justify breaking our fast. How clear it is at times that we are enslaved to our desires. We seek freedom from this enslavement and we find it only in Christ.

There are different kinds of freedom. For example, there is bodily freedom and there is spiritual freedom. And there are two figures in today's gospel who illustrate these two kinds of freedom: the bent over woman and the ruler of the synagogue.

Behold the woman (Luke 13:11). She is enslaved in body until Christ frees her. But even though a spirit of infirmity afflicts her body, it does not afflict her spirit. Behold how she freely attends synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-11). How faithful she is, despite having suffered for so long – for eighteen long years. This has not crushed her spirit. Her body is bowed down, but even so she can bow down to the Lord. How frustrating she must be to Satan. He crushes the bones of her back thinking he can thereby crush her spirit. But no. She has a freedom he cannot touch, even as he afflicts her body. And her freedom to be faithful to God, to go anyway to synagogue, despite the pain it obviously causes her, results in her being in the presence of Jesus, which results in her healing, and her freedom even in body. Jesus takes away even the little power that Satan had over her. He frees her totally. He restores totally her true and free nature.

Because really we are made for freedom in both body and spirit. Our nature as God creates it is like God. He made us like himself: free and holy and immortal – unique, relational, and free, as Fr. Sid Sidor liked to point out – but by our sins we have clouded this likeness. When we sin, we surrender our freedom.

And what likeness to God we have lost through sin, suffering, and death, Christ comes to restore through his incarnation.  Just as Jesus restores the bent over woman to her true nature, so he is restoring us.

In the meantime, the bent over woman in the synagogue teaches us that suffering does not actually keep us from the freedom to which God calls us.

But then there is the ruler of the synagogue. He is free in body, free to speak to all those gathered there, and in a position to remonstrate with them loftily. But he is enslaved in spirit. His bondage is worse than hers. The crippling of her body did not shackle her mind or heart, but he, whose body is well, is unlovingly indignant about the Lord’s deliverance of the woman (Luke 13:14).[ii]  His passionate regard for the letter of the law only distracts him from the true spirit of the law, as he criticizes the people there for seeking healings on the Sabbath. He has forgotten what the Sabbath really is and what it is for. He has made it more like a rope around the neck than a hand untying that rope. The Sabbath rest is not meant to burden God’s people. The Sabbath is a day of freedom – freedom from the drudgery and toil to which we’ve been enslaved by sin since Adam. It was made to be a day of rest – “that is, a time of liberation.”[iii] Rest from extortion and from enslaving others. As Ambrose says, “The Sabbath is… a day of rest from evil deeds.”[iv] It’s not a day of rest from mercy or from love. Nor are we to rest from giving drink to the thirsty or from delivering the afflicted children of God. More than once, Jesus heals on the Sabbath for this reason. That is what the Sabbath is all about.

Remember the Jubilee year, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the year after seven sets of seven years when all debts were forgiven and all slaves were freed (Leviticus 25). This is what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. He is freeing slaves. Those enslaved to illnesses and infirmities of body he heals. Those enslaved to demons he delivers. He is our healer, our deliverer, our liberator.

And he is come to free us today – here and now. True freedom is really available to us in the present moment – in the here and the now. Though we often think it is only possible in the future, or even in the hereafter, we have it all wrong. The bent over woman was already free in the most important way, even though she and we have to wait for the coming of the Lord for our total liberation, there was a consoling measure of freedom available to her even in the midst of her enslavement – a freedom of mind and heart, that all of us can share.

The Lord grants access to this freedom if we will open ourselves to his presence in our lives as through repentance, prayer, fasting, and giving to all.

[i] Christ, Our Pascha: Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church (Kyiv: Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, 2016), 220.
[ii] Commentary by Warren Wiersbe
[iii] Sacra Pagina
[iv] Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 7.174-75

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Love the Stranger as Yourself

The Hospitality of Abraham,
Constantinople, late 14th century

A lawyer – that is, a scholar of Torah – asks Jesus what he has to do to live forever (Luke 10:25). Life forever is what Jesus offers, so how do we get it? It's a fair question. Well Jesus says to the man, you already know. Really he says, “What does it say in the law?” (Luke 10:26). You already know Torah and the Torah comes from the Father. The law is to be believed. The answer is already there. And, indeed, the lawyer does know. And he quotes to Jesus the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27; Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18).

I love this. In another place, another lawyer – to test Jesus – asks him, “What is the greatest commandment?” And Jesus gives him the answer (Matt 22:35-40). He was asking Jesus to test him – to see if he knew his Torah – to see if he was really up to snuff. Because if he was who he said he was, then this is something he should know. This is something that the Pharisees and scholars of the law knew, which is made clear today when the roles are reversed and it is Jesus asking the question and the lawyer answering. Of course, Jesus does know what the Pharisees and lawyers already know. But he also knows more than they do.

Then, desiring to justify himself, the lawyer says to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). This is something that Jesus knows but the lawyer doesn’t – and it’s something we also forget. He knows who our neighbors are. And he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the point – that our neighbors are not to only those of our own people, or our own country, or political party, or our own religion – that our neighbors include foreigners and heretics and heterodox and our enemies and – to me this is in a way even more startling – strangers. Strangers are our neighbors. 

Today, many in this country are looking at their neighbors, most of whom are strangers, as enemies because of how they voted. As Brother Isaac said recently, “Politics divide. Love in Christ unites!” He advises us, and I think we should listen:
Do something kind for a stranger today.
If you are happy about the results of the election, do something kind for a stranger today.
If you are sad or angry about the result of the election, do something kind for a stranger today.
If you are ambivalent about the result of the election, do something kind for a stranger today.
Our lens is always the Empty Tomb![1]

Love of strangers is a path to healing and even resurrection. The way to eternal life is love of God and neighbor. And Jesus reveals to us today that strangers are our neighbors. Love them.
“Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong.” Everything love is not sounds like a description of our political landscape, doesn’t it? “But love rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:4-8).
The Good Samaritan loved his neighbor and he was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers (Luke 10:36-37). Even though the man was probably a Jew coming from Jerusalem – and Samaritans and Jews were at enmity with one another for both religious and ethnic reasons (Luke 10:30). And furthermore, the man was a stranger to him. It seems they never spoke – before, during, or after. But the Samaritan had compassion on him (Luke 10:33). And he loved him.

It's clear how much he loved him by the extent of inconvenience to which he was willing to subject himself for him. The Samaritan was on his own journey, but he leaves behind his own priorities to seek the good of the other even at significant personal expense of both time and money, tending the man's wounds with oil and wine and bandages, carrying him on his own beast to an inn, and paying the innkeeper two day's wages to see to the man's care (Luke 10:33-35). All this for a stranger.
When we are busy and distracted with pressing concerns, it can be easy to justify ourselves, as the lawyer did, telling ourselves that “we gave at the office” or that we will help a stranger next time, but this time we’re too busy with “matters of consequence.”[2] Well, bear in mind whose voice is actually justifying our neglect. Metropolitan Kallistos teaches us a way to distinguish between the voice of the devil and the voice of the Lord: the devil always says, “yesterday” or “tomorrow,” but the Holy Spirit always says “today.”[3]
Pious Christians laudably expend much energy in avoiding sin and not giving into temptation. Unfortunately, the habit of not giving into impulses sometimes seems to get transferred to good desires too. If you’re tempted to give, go ahead and give into it. Never resist the urge to give. Don’t avoid the eyes of strangers for fear that you’ll be tempted to give them something. Be as reckless with your kindness as you are neptic with your anger. Love both those that make you angry and those that inspire you to give – both your enemies and strangers. 
An enemy is often someone we already have strong feelings about – so they’re often on our minds – while strangers are people we're often hardly aware of. Many of us often make small decisions to avoid being troubled by strangers. A decision to look the other way as we pass them on the street. Especially if it's apparent that they're going to ask us for something – probably money – probably for drugs.

I have never come across a person stripped and beaten on the road left for dead. It's an extreme example that Jesus gives us. He likes those. I have often come upon someone with a need that I recognize. If somebody's coming up to you asking for money, let me tell you, they are in need. There's a probability that they're not in need of that which they seek. But they are in need. And to turn away from that need is unloving of the stranger. And Jesus reveals to us today is that the stranger is our neighbor.

If you have ever turned away from a person in need because you were in a hurry to get to your job or to some other obligation or pleasure – and I confess that I have – ask yourself, how would you have responded to their need if they were a loved one? Would you have turned from them if it was your son or your daughter or your husband or your wife? Would you have turned away from them if you loved them?

Jesus reveals to us today that the stranger is our neighbor. And the greatest commandment tells us to love our neighbor.

Maybe you shouldn’t always give people what they are asking for. Many people argue that persuasively, though at the same time don’t forget that Jesus says to “give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30).

Give to everyone who begs from you. Maybe don’t give everyone money, but give to them what they do need. Give your shirt also to the one who takes your coat (Luke 6:29). Give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, coats to the freezing, kindness and patience to strangers. And give love to all your neighbors, whether or not they’re from your neighborhood.

Even if your church’s neighborhood is not your neighborhood, the strangers who live all around it are still your neighbors. Even if your job is far from home, all those around you at work are your neighbors, even if they voted the other way. If you go out to eat, your servers and the jerks in the parking lot are all your neighbors. Jesus has revealed to us that our neighbors are not only our own people, but everyone – not only нас, but all. 

Loving our neighbors is part of loving God. Our Holy Father John Chrysostom, whose feast is today, is often quoted as saying that if you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.

And that extends also to everyone you meet, I believe. The image of God is in every person and that image is wholly lovable, however obscured it may be. Everyone wants to be loved by all, no matter what they say defensively, because they have been hurt.

Wanting to be loved is not a weakness. Even God wants to be loved and God is not weak. God wants to be loved and he takes the guise of the stranger. As you love strangers, that is how you love God. Remember when three strangers came to Abraham and how he ran out to meet them and bowed before them, washed their feet, and fed them bread cakes and milk and curds, and killed for them the choice calf (Gen 18:2-7). Only after did he realize he was showing hospitality to angels and to God himself. These three – men or angels – are our image of the Trinity, famously painted by Rublev. And at first they were strangers.

God, the only true Lover of us all, alone fully deserves love. But we are made in His image, and as such we also desire to love and to be loved by all, even strangers. Do unto strangers as you would have them do unto you. Love strangers as you would have them love you. Love the stranger as yourself.

[1] Br. Isaac Hughey’s Facebook Page. Accessed November 9th, 2016. 
[2] Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince, chapters 7 and 13.
[3] Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia (Ware), Discovering the Inner Kingdom, (Oakwood Publications, 1997), 9. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sometimes there is only one who believes.

on Luke 8:26-39

The people of the Gerasene countryside loved their pigs too much. Perhaps they were overly fond of bacon – as are some of us. I like bacon, but the bacon-love of some seems to border on idolatry. I saw a Little Caesar’s pizza ad that said “in bacon we crust.” The Gerasenes preferred their bacon to Jesus. 

Seeing what Jesus had done – how he had healed the possessed man and driven the pigs over the cliff – all the people of the Gerasene countryside were afraid – and they asked Jesus to leave…. So he got into the boat and went away. Just like that. Jesus cast out the man's legion of demons and, in reaction, a legion of the man's countrymen cast out Jesus.

How sad. How tragic. When we ask Jesus to leave our country, when we send him away, it seems that sometimes he does go away.

He taught his disciples to behave in the same way – that if any house or town does not receive us or hear our words of peace and good news that we are to shake the dust of that place off our feet and go on our way (Matt 10:14). He taught us also neither to give to dogs what is holy nor to cast our pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). That is, when we encounter those who relentlessly scoff and deride our gospel of eternal life and union with God, we should not try to force them to listen. There’s no point. The worldly are not worthy of the godly (cf. Heb 11:38). The question is, am I among the worldly or the godly?

Jesus comes to the country of the Gerasenes. He heals the first person he meets. He casts out demons. He offers the Gerasenes healing and life and, best of all, his presence among them, but they ask him to leave. The good that he has to offer is clearly displayed for all to see. If, seeing his goodness, we reject him, we are lost.  

Likewise, the gospel we have to offer the world is nothing less than eternal life and union with God. If, hearing this good news, some part of the world rejects it, then that part of the world is lost.

But not all rejected him. One man alone among all the Gerasenes, seeing that Jesus was leaving, begs to go with him. The man Jesus healed and restored to his right mind could not bear to see Jesus leaving them so soon.

But Jesus sent him away. He had for him a higher purpose. He told him to return to his home and declare how much God had done for him. And he did. He went away proclaiming throughout the whole city just what Jesus had done for him.

Notice, by the way, his subtle realization of Christ's divinity here – Jesus told him to preach what God had done for him and he preaches what Jesus had done for him. He puts Jesus in the place of God, and rightly so for that is what he is.

Jesus makes this man he healed to be an evangelist to the people he is leaving. So while he gets in the boat and goes away, he leaves behind an emissary. He does not abandon these people utterly. And this is unusual. Usually, after healing someone, Jesus tells the person to keep it a secret. But this time he tells the man to declare the good news to his countrymen. There is still hope for them to see the truth.

Of all the Gerasenes, only this one believed in him. Only one saw that Jesus was God. And that was a demoniac that he healed. But if the Gerasene demoniac can be healed and can see the truth of God, then there is hope for the other Gerasenes as well, due to the sort of evangelism coming from this man.

Sometimes it gets down to one. Sometimes there is only one who believes. I think immediately of Noah. In all the world, only Noah and his family were faithful to God, and so God turns away from the rest of the world, flooding it all, sparing only Noah and his family in a boat.

Jesus also gets into a boat to leave the country of the Gerasenes. The only faithful one among the Gerasenes wanted to get into the boat too, just as Noah had been spared from his generation in a boat. But this time, even though Jesus leaves the Gerasenes behind, he does not flood them, true to his promise. And instead he leaves the faithful one among them to give testimony to God and to the good healing and deliverance that God has brought into his life.

In addition to Noah, I think also of our holy father Theodore Romzha, whose feast day is October 31st. He also must have felt pretty alone in his faith. As a young, new, and inexperienced bishop he had immediately to deal with the invasion of the Soviet Red Army – arresting his priests, confiscating his parishes and assigning them to the Russian Orthodox, taking even his car and leaving him with nothing but a horse and buggy to visit his parishes. They pressured him too, of course, to break his communion with Rome, but he steadfastly refused – preferring whatever persecution they would offer to betraying his church. Ultimately the Soviets resolved to simply do away with him. And they deliberately crashed a vehicle into his horse and buggy hoping this would kill him. When it didn't, they poisoned him in his hospital bed. And he died close to midnight on the 31st of October – November 1st, Moscow time. Nikita Khrushchev personally signed the order for him to be murdered.

Just as the Gerasenes cast Jesus out of their country, so too did the Soviets try to cast Jesus out of their country and all the lands they occupied. But as in the countryside of the Gerasenes, here again Jesus left behind some of the faithful to tell all that God has done for them. And the seeds of their testimony watered by the blood of their martyrdom has borne fruit in the re-blossoming of our church in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

We don't know whether the Gerasenes were persuaded by the testimony of the man but we do know that such a testimony can have that effect. We have seen it in our own time.

There are also some who would like to cast Jesus out of our country. But it doesn't matter even if they were to become the majority. Even if we were as few as the Byzantine Catholics were against the Soviets – or as few as Noah's one family against the world – or as few as one man formerly possessed by demons against all his pig-loving countrymen, it is our gospel, our true God, our true Church that will prevail in the end. Christ has already won over death and that is the last enemy. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Regarding the Dead in the Light of Resurrection

Jesus, his disciples, and a great crowd following them come to the city of Na’in, which exists to this day – a small village near Nazareth at the foot of Mount Tabor. As they approach the gates of the city, a funeral procession pours out through them. The only son of a widow had died.

These funeral processions could be a spectacle. When a loved one would die, a crowd would soon gather because the dead were usually buried immediately. There were people professionally dedicated to mourning those who died – sort of like funeral directors of the first century – accompanied by flute players, and people weeping and wailing loudly as they process and carry the departed one to the place of burial (cf. Matt 9:23; Mark 5:38; Luke 8:52).  

Jesus comes upon this scene in Na’in and he has compassion.

Notice how the Jews carry the body out of the city gates. They take the body away from us. They don't keep the body here with us where we live. This is of course a common approach toward dead bodies even now. And it was common in the ancient world also among both pagans and Jews.

Dead bodies were regarded as unclean by the Jews. For the Lord had said to Moses and Aaron that any who touch a dead body or even go into a tent where a person has died shall be unclean seven days (Num 19:11, 14). Therefore, priests, who had to remain ritually pure at all times so that they could serve in the temple, especially had to keep their distance from the dead (Lev 21).

It's important to bear that in mind when we see Jesus, our great High Priest, go near the body of the dead man and touch his funeral bier out of compassion. The bearers stood still (Luke 7:14). And no wonder, for such an act would have surprised them.

Among the Jews, the mitzvah to accompany the deceased to burial is more important than most other obligations, which is why they would willingly accept that period of uncleanness on behalf of their loved ones. Even a priest would do so if it was for his own son or other close relation (Lev 21:2). But for a stranger? That is unusual.

It would have been customary for Jesus and those with him to turn and escort the funeral procession a short distance to show respect for the man who had died and sympathy for his mother and the other mourners. But for Jesus, who was not of this man's family, to defile himself by reaching out and touching the bier and stopping the procession was far from customary. He does this out of compassion and in so doing teaches us a new attitude toward the dead.

Think about what Christians do with the dead. Do we also avoid them and keep them in a separate place? No. No, we go into to the catacombs to worship God there. We use the tombs of our martyrs as our altars. We commune with those who have died. We believe in the communion of the saints. We bring their bodies inside our churches and put them in our altars. We venerate relics. We kiss the bones of our saints. Our attitude toward the dead is different because we follow Jesus who raises the dead.

And the first person he ever raised from the dead was the only son of a widow in Na’in at the foot of Mount Tabor. Jesus touches the bier and says to the dead man, “I say to you, rise.” And the young man sits up. The one who gave him life gives him life again. The one who speaks life into being in the beginning speaks life into being again.

This is the first time that Jesus raises the dead, but it's not the last. Three times he raises the dead before he himself dies and rises from the dead.

He later raises the daughter of Jairus, practically at the moment of her death (Matt 9:18–26, Mark 5:21–43, Luke 8:40–56).

He raises this son of the widow from Na’in, who had died earlier that day.

And he raises Lazarus who was four days in the tomb and beginning to decay (John 11:39).

Sometimes doctors have to say they were too late to save someone, but it’s never too late for the Lord. When Lazarus is dying, Jesus waits four days before coming to him. Already he has risen the dead but still people don't understand and so they think it a pity he had not come sooner (John 11:37). Still, people are bound up so temporally in their thinking. It’s now or never, we think, but in Christ there is forever.

These resurrections prefigure our own coming resurrection. It makes no difference to the Lord who made Adam out of dust whether we have just died or have turned back to dust. He will raise up because he has compassion on us.

He is rightly called the Lover of Mankind. He alone can end our weeping.

Jesus has compassion on the widow and he tells her, “Do not weep.” Maybe everyone around her was telling her that – “Don't weep.” Sometimes people say that more for their own comfort than to comfort the afflicted one. It is not something I would recommend saying to a mother who has just lost her son. But Jesus alone has the authority to say “Do not weep.” For Christ alone, the Word of God, words bring into being. When he says to the widow, “Do not weep,” he knows what comfort he alone can give. He alone can give her back her son and so he alone can righteously say, “Do not weep.”

When he later comes to the house of Jairus and the crowd is beginning to mourn the little girl, Talitha, with wailing and weeping, and the flutes are beginning to sound, Jesus has compassion on them and he says “Do not weep.”

Later Jesus comes to Bethany and sees Mary weeping over her brother Lazarus, already four days in the tomb. And, deeply moved, Jesus weeps (John 11:35). Now, he who alone has the authority to say, “Do not weep,” weeps. So he is with us even in our weeping. And he raises Lazarus also from the dead.

Before his own death and resurrection, Jesus raises these three. Then, at the moment of his death, “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt 27:52).

All of this is to show that Jesus's resurrection is not exclusively a revelation of his own divinity and unique power over death. It is that. But his resurrection is more than that too. His resurrection is for us. In him, we rise from the dead.

If we really believe this, it changes things for us. It changes the consequence of everything for us if we remember that after we die we will rise again and live forever in Christ. We are infinite and everlasting. You only live once, they say, but in Christ you live again forever. I'm telling you, this erases our fear of death and changes our perspective about everything.

It might change what you want to put on your bucket list, for example.

It should change our attitude toward politics. You know someone rightly said that here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).  And the Letter to Diognetus says that, to Christians “every foreign land is a homeland, and every homeland is a foreign land.” Death and resurrection erase distinctions we think are so important.

The resurrection should change our attitude about wealth. What is the point of saving and accumulating great wealth, I wonder, except to increase our comfort on this earth? This earthly and temporal life becomes pretty inconsequential when held up against eternal life (cf. Matt 6:19-20).

The resurrection changes everything. So let us remember the resurrection and be changed by it. 

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Listening to Hear the Word of God in Our Lives

Let us press in upon Jesus to hear the word of God (Luke 5:1). When we do, maybe he’ll withdraw a little, as if getting into Simon’s boat and putting out a little from the land, but he won’t neglect to teach us (Luke 5:3).  We must each seek out and listen to the word of God in our lives. He is always speaking to us, I believe, in the language of our lives. But it can be difficult to make out what he’s saying over the crashing of the waves.

The word of God to us is often counterintuitive. 
What he’s telling us often isn’t what we want to hear. 
It’s often not easily recognized or understood, agreeable or believable to us. 
Hearing the word of God and keeping it requires a little faith.

Hearing the word of God is like toiling all night in a boat on the lake in the grueling and backbreaking work of fishing. Casting out your nets, pulling them in, catching nothing. Casting again, pulling in again, catching nothing again. All night long. Hour after hour. Then, exhausted and disheartened, giving up, coming near the shore to wash your fruitless nets and call it quits only to hear a man command you to put out again into the deep and to let down your nets again for a catch (Luke 5:4).

You know how good it feels to get home from work after a long day. But how would it feel if, when you just get home, your boss calls you and tells you to come back in and get back to work? My first thought probably wouldn’t be that this is the word of God to me. That wouldn’t be my first thought. To recognize such a seemingly mad suggestion as the word of God would take a little faith.

Simon, who Jesus will later call Peter, has a little faith. He says to Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! Nevertheless, at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). Notice that he doesn’t say, “for a catch.” Jesus tells him to let down the nets “for a catch,” but Peter just says that he’ll let down the nets. He’s holding on to a little skepticism, but he also has a little faith. As it happens, God is the master of more than just fish, and so the haul they take in by heeding his word was enough to nearly sink two boats.

We must listen carefully for the word of God in our lives and be open to it, because it can be counterintuitive. Our God is a God of surprises.

Papyrus 46
Hearing the word of God is also like long suffering from a thorn in the flesh – a weakness of body or spirit or condition of life – and asking the Lord to remove it, yet still suffering it and so asking the Lord again to remove it and yet still suffering it and so asking a third time for the Lord to remove it, and finally hearing the word of the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power reaches perfection in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

The word of the Lord isn’t always what we want to hear. Sometimes he has to tell us three times before we’ll accept it. Accepting it requires a little faith. Paul finally accepts his weakness and even boasts of it, saying, “for the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:10). 

The word of God can be hard to hear.

Hearing the word of God is also like trying to sleep at night but being woken by the voice of your teacher calling your name, getting up, going to see what he wants and hearing, “I didn’t call you. Go back to sleep.” Then, trying to sleep again, hearing him call you again, getting up and going to him only to hear again, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” And again a third time – but this time at last your teacher recognizes that the voice you’ve been hearing is the voice of the Lord (1 Sam 3:3-10).

Sometimes we mistake the voice of the Lord for the voice of our human teachers, just as sometimes we mistake the voice of our human teachers for the voice of the Lord. His voice in our lives can be hard to recognize, but our teachers, if they are wise and humble, can help us to recognize him when he calls us.

Elkanah and Hannah bring Samuel to Eli
detail from Walters manuscript W.106circa 1250, ink and pigment on parchment
The priest Eli is a good example of this kind of teacher, even though he had failings (1 Sam 2-3). It is Eli who finally recognizes the Lord calling the boy Samuel in the night, only to learn that the Lord will punish his house for the iniquity of his sons, to which news Eli says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam 3:18). This demonstrates a rare humility and openness to the word of God, necessary in teachers who would help us to hear the word of God in our own lives.

Hearing the word of God is also like suffering the oppression of another nation for seven years and them destroying all the produce of the land and taking all the livestock, instigating famine, making you so weak and so powerless against them that you just know that there’s nothing you can do about it , so you call out the Lord and ask him, “Why don’t you do something? Where are your wonderful deeds? Why don’t you deliver your people?” only to hear back from the Lord, “Why don’t you deliver your people?” (Judges 6:1, 4, 13-15). Sometimes we ask the Lord, “Why don’t you help us?” only to hear him say, “You are the help I have sent.”  Sometimes we see our own particular problems because God is telling us to deal with our own particular problems.

Icon of Gideon
17th c., North Russia
This is how it went with Gideon against the Midianites (Judges 6). What the Lord was asking him to do to was unbelievable to him. He was of the weakest clan in Manasseh and he was the least in his family and yet the Lord chose him, of all people, to deliver Israel from the Midianites (6:15). He took a lot of convincing.

The word of God can be like that. It confounds us. It calls us to do things we think are impossible. And they would be impossible without God, but they are not without God. When God calls us to seemingly insurmountable tasks he says to us, as he says to Gideon, “But I will be with you” (6:16), and that makes all the difference.

Sometimes people say that God will never let you suffer more than you can bear, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Rather, we may get crushed by our problems, but he will bear them in us. Be with us. Raise us up when we fall (Ps 145:14). It really was impossible for Gideon to drive out the Midianites, but God in Gideon can do anything.

Of myself, I can’t do anything.
God can do anything.
In God, I can do anything God wills.

So, with the guidance of wise and humble teachers, we must listen carefully for the word of God in our lives so that we can know his will for our lives and live in him who accomplishes great, surprising, new, impossible, confounding, and glorious works in and through us. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

God loves the world.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These must be the most recognized words of the gospel in the United States. We see John 3:16 everywhere: on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in the eye black under Tim Tebow’s eyes. At some point, everyone in America has probably looked up this verse.

I once heard a priest quip that maybe it’s time we start writing John 3:17 everywhere. Then, after a while, we could move on to John 3:18, and so on. That way, maybe, before they die, people would make it through at least one chapter of scripture.

We quote John 3:16 in our Divine Liturgy in the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom just after the “Holy, Holy, Holy….” These words have been popular among us Byzantines since before there were chapters and verses to cite.  

And they tell us that God loves the world. We hear these words so often that maybe they go in one ear and out the other. We might begin to lose a sense of their significance – even of their scandal.  

The word for world here in Greek is κόσμος. God so loved the cosmos. This word is potent and loaded in the Christian tradition, and particularly in John, who uses it more than anyone. Its meanings are complex and varied and seemingly contradictory. The lexicon gives it no less than eight definitions.

We hear from Jesus that God loves the world. But John tells us in another place “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is confusing. We’ve just heard that the Father loves the world, but now we hear if we love the world we do not love the Father? 

And anyway, how can God love this world? In this world, we let children starve to death. We slaughter them before they’re born. In this world, men crash airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands. In this world, we drop nuclear bombs. The ruler of this world is the devil (cf. John 12:31, 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4). We see this wickedness all around us and we don’t love it.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes that “The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world.” The passions, you know, are like greed and sloth, lust and vainglory, envy and resentment, and so on. So, when we say that God loves the world are we saying that he loves these things? That he loves the passions and the horrors that impassioned people carry out? God forbid the thought. The word “world” carries many senses. And we must carefully consider what is meant.  

Jesus is not of the world but is above the world (John 8:23). He creates the world and yet becomes of the world to save the world. We are taught both to love the world and to hate our lives in the world (John 12:25). The devil is the ruler of the world but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords. The world brings up these parallels and opposites. And only Jesus Christ and his cross can reconcile opposites. 

It’s like we have two worlds here. And I think that’s it really. We live in two worlds at the same time. There’s the world as God creates it and there is the fallen world, enslaved to sin. We must be aware of both worlds – both the cosmos and the chaos.

Cosmos means order – and in this order, there’s a union and not an opposition between spirit and matter. It is a disordered world, a fallen world, which rends the spiritual and the physical asunder. The cosmos as God creates it is both at the same time.

The Lord creates and loves the cosmos. The cosmos is all people and it is also all creation. It is the whole universe. Certainly we human beings have a primary place in the created universe but there’s more to it than just us. When we were created in the order of things, we were put in the garden as the gardeners. We were put in the cosmos as the stewards of that order.

But we have disordered this order. Not only do our sins cause personal harm but also cosmological harm. Our disordered acts hurt us, hurt each other and even hurt the cosmos. Our sins break our lives apart in ways that we can see and in ways that we can’t see.  I think entropy itself, like death itself, has its ultimate origin in sin.

Now, in the way that we experience things, death has become so much a part of the order of things that it seems necessary and even good.

A naturalist can well observe all the good that comes out of death. The dead bodies of animals fertilize the plants. Growth comes out of decay. Good comes out of evil. Things cannot live, in the order that we know, unless there is death. We ourselves live and feed on the death of other living things – plants and animals. How can I say that it is not a part of the created order – that death is unnatural?

Death is a part of the cosmos that we know and experience, but we know and experience the cosmos in fallenness. Yes, good comes out of death. The greatest good comes out of the greatest death – the death of Jesus. God enters into this cosmos, which he loves, which is fallen and wounded, and he becomes a part of it himself, and it wounds him.

We often repeat that God becomes man, which is the whole basis of our salvation. A corollary of this is that the creator becomes the creation. Here is a surprise and a paradox – two things being at once while seeming to contradict. Divinity by nature is uncreated, humanity created, and so Jesus, both divine and human, is both creator and creation.  

So not only is humanity saved, redeemed, glorified, brought into unity with God by this, but so is the cosmos. By his incarnation, Christ is cosmically present to the universe. And the whole universe stands in need of his salvific presence, because the whole universe is disordered and suffering from destruction and death of many kinds.

Death is what we’re being saved from. God gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Death is an evil. Some of us are accustomed to thinking about moral evil only and we forget about physical evil. We fail to understand physical evil as evil. We even call it good.

And it has been made good in Christ and in his cross. But we must not forget that this is a paradox, lest we forget all our Lord has done for us. In Christ, all things are new. In Christ, death becomes the means of life, because in him, life goes into the place of the dead, into Hades, so that there is nowhere God is not. God is even where God is not.

God is impassible, yet in his humanity he suffers the passion. God is immortal, yet in his humanity he dies. God creates the cosmos, yet in his humanity he is of the cosmos. God loves the world.

The world is the whole cosmos that God creates. Yet the world is also the passions, the sins, the suffering, and the death. So it gets convoluted sometimes when we’re talking about the world. We see the passions and the weakness, the suffering and the death, all of which is evil, and it gets hard to see what’s good about the world. 

All of this is reconciled only in the cross. We exalt the cross when we say that we love the world. When we say that God loves the world – that can only make any sense in the context of exalting the cross. God is making the sign of the cross over the whole world. He is blessing us with the cross.

The cross unifies opposites. There’s a vertical bar and there’s a horizontal bar. The divine and the human intersected and made one. Heaven is brought down to earth. The cross is the cosmos as it really is. All of it, unified. Life enters into death. Unified, death becomes the way to life through resurrection. Opposites are made one in the cross, this wonderful and holy sign.

by John Russell, 2007
acrylic and charcoal on canvas

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Celebrate or Die

Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14). But, for a wedding story, his parable has a lot of murder and violence. Some of the guests invited to the wedding feast simply make light of it and – excusing themselves by this or that trifle – do not come. Others, however, seize and kill the servants whom the king sent bearing the glad news and invitation. In response, the king sends in his troops and kills not only those insensate murderers, but also their entire city.

Having no guests left and finding his first-invited guests unworthy, the king invites a multitude in from the streets. This is where we come in, I expect. But the violence does not end here – for both the good and the bad now sit together at the feast – and the king makes sure the bad do not go unpunished.

He sees among the guests a man who has no wedding garment and asks him how he got in so inappropriately dressed. If the man were guiltless, surely he would defend himself – protesting that he was invited by the king’s servants or that he was too poor to afford such finery. But the man says nothing. It would seem, then, that he has no excuse. So the king has him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is the meaning of all this violence? What kind of party is this? What party comes with such stakes? This is rather like getting a wedding invitation – but in fine print at the bottom is written, “Celebrate or die.” It becomes rather clear that we are not talking here about the usual kind of wedding party. We might not want to be invited to a wedding like this – it sounds rather dangerous – but, like it or not, we are invited.

It is a free invitation to celebrate, but it’s an invitation we’d better accept. It’s an invitation with teeth. It is an occasion of great joy, but it is deadly serious. Those unwilling to partake joyfully will have hell to pay. Because this wedding feast, as Jesus says at the outset, is like the kingdom of heaven. The wedding clothes we are to wear to this feast are those we put on at baptism. That is, they are like Christ himself, for, at baptism, we are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27). To be thrown out of this wedding hall is to be thrown out the gates of heaven.  

But this party isn’t just exactly like heaven either. For one thing, it’s a party to which both the good and the bad have come. I’ve been to a few parties like that.

In fact, every Divine Liturgy is a party like that, if you think about it. Our Eucharistic celebration is like a party to which both the good and the bad alike are invited. The sinners and the saints sit together in the pews. For that matter, they’re usually sitting together in the same seat. If you’re wondering whether you’re a sinner or a saint, remember that you can be both. This struggle between the good and the bad happens mostly on the inside.

Jesus’ parable reminds me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters, which I highly recommend. It’s framed as a series of letters from a senior demon – Screwtape – to a junior demon – his nephew Wormwood – with advice on the best way to tempt a soul to keep him out of heaven and secure his place in hell. The demons sardonically call their victims “patients.”

Well, Wormwood gets in trouble one day when his “patient” converts to Christianity. Screwtape is mightily displeased. But, he assures his nephew, their hope of damning the poor soul to hell is not lost. “One of our great allies at present,” says Screwtape, “is the Church itself.”

You see, Screwtape is well aware of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel: both good and bad guests fill the wedding hall – and the devils can use the bad ones to help corrupt the good. The Church in this world is a mixed bag.

Screwtape points out that the new Christian will get to his pew, look around him and see just those neighbors “whom he has hitherto avoided.” You’ll want to “lean pretty heavily on those neighbors,” he advises Wormwood “It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains,” writes Screwtape. “Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.… Never let him ask what he expected them to look like….”

It may be, of course, that “the people in the next pew” are actually good and holy people. Of course if they’re not, writes Screwtape “– if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge player or the man with squeaky boots is a miser and an extortioner – then your task is so much the easier.”

You see, the demons will use our sins not only to drag us down but also to drag others down with us, if they can. Our neighbors see our sins and our hypocrisy and it sometimes convinces them that the church itself is hypocritical and ridiculous. Of course, I’m reminded of that old retort to the common complaint that there are too many hypocrites in church: “Don’t worry, there’s always room for one more.”

So, do not judge others. Look to your own sins.

That’s the point. All are invited and welcome to the feast, regardless of their sinfulness. But those who accept the invitation have a serious duty. This love feast is not a free-for-all, come-one, come-all, do-as-you-please, orgiastic bacchanalia. This is a wedding feast – a celebration of commitment, fidelity, fruitfulness, life, and love. A wedding is where two become one, and at this wedding, we the Church become one with Christ our Lord. Those unprepared to celebrate these things – those without a wedding garment – cannot remain in the kingdom of heaven. We are now before the gates of the kingdom of heaven and our king is inviting us in. His invitation is this: Repent, and know the joy only Christ can bring.

Holy Gate (Royal Doors), 16th century, 
Arkhangelsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts

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