Sunday, February 2, 2020

Prayer in the Temple

The recent confluence of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Great Feast of the Meeting of our Lord Jesus Christ with Simeon and Anna is rare. (I think it’s even cooler than the fact that it fell on the date of 02/02/2020, which is a palindrome to boot!) In any case, it struck me as an unusual and difficult challenge to try to say something about both of these very different themes. That is, until I read the gospels (Luke 18:10-14 & Luke 2:22-40). The gospels have a way of bringing everything together.
File:050 Presentation of Jesus at the Temple Icon from Saint Paraskevi Church in Langadas.jpg
Jesus begins his parable saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray” (Luke 18:10).
And Simeon, “inspired by the Spirit…, came into the temple” and there, when he met Jesus, he “blessed God” and prayed to the Lord (Luke 2:27-29).
And the prophetess Anna, “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37).
You see the theme here? Here are four examples of prayer in the temple – three with something to teach us of how to pray in the temple and one with something to teach us of how not to.
But first of all, a question: What does praying in the temple have to do with us? Do we pray in the temple? Remember, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23). Now, the temple is in Jerusalem, so to say that we’re no longer to worship the Father in Jerusalem but in the Spirit is to move our prayer away from the Jerusalem temple, isn’t it? So what does praying in the temple have to do with us?
It’s true that we no longer limit our spiritual sacrifice either to the place of the mountain, as the Samaritans do, or to the temple in Jerusalem, as the Jews did. But still we do go up to the temple to pray in the Spirit. Because the Word became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, our bodies have become the temples of the Holy Spirit and the place that we worship God (John 1; 1 Cor 6:19). So, yes, we still go up to the temple to pray and, yes, we have much to learn about it from the gospels.
Now, the embodied temple is always with us, making possible the unceasing prayer to which we are called and which is modeled also for us especially by the prophetess Anna (1 Thess 5:17).  She “did not depart from the temple” (Luke 2:37). Now, all who are in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit never depart from the temple of our bodies. We are like Anna in this. Let us also be like her “with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37). Let us also imitate her devotion in coming to the place of prayer. She was always in the temple, let us come constantly to church.
The church, understand, is the gathering of God’s people together in worship of him. Gone is the place of the Jerusalem temple as the exclusive or preeminent place for that worship and prayer, but not gone is the gathering of the people of God. Where two or three of us gather in Jesus’ name, there he is in our midst! Contrariwise, if we do not gather in his name, he will not be in our midst. If we do not come often to the church, like Simeon and Anna went often to the temple, we will not be here to meet Jesus.
It was probably not a Sabbath when Simeon and Anna came to the temple that day. Simeon came to the temple that day not because it was his habitual time to come, but because he was inspired to do so by the Spirit (Luke 2:27). Let us like Simeon listen to the Spirit’s inspiration to come and gather and pray to the Lord here with our fellow believers, even if it’s not a Sunday or a holy day of so-called “obligation.” Come because the Spirit moves you to - which is not the same thing as coming when you feel like, but it’s also not the same things as coming because you think you have to. Come in the freedom of the Spirit. When you come in the Spirit, like Simeon, you will meet the Lord Jesus here and bless God his Father.
Come constantly like Anna. Because she was constantly in the temple, she was there to meet the Lord when he came. Let’s take advantage of any free time we have and offer that time to the Lord in prayer – more time to Lord and less to the endless distractions our culture has on offer. I’m preaching here also to myself. When you retire, or if you have already retired from a full-time schedule of work, consider whether some greater offering of your time belongs to the Lord. The truth is, it all belongs to the Lord. Anna understands this and so went constantly to the temple, not only on the Sabbath and Holy Days.
The Spirit descends upon us in our parish churches even on weekdays, you know. And that Spirit makes present to us the very Lord God Jesus Christ there even when it’s an ordinary day. Even when there really are only two or three of us. Even when all we do is gather in his name to pray. We don’t need to limit our participation to those days highlighted on our calendars. Are we more motivated to go to church by the colorful shading of the calendar date on our wall calendars from the Byzantine Seminary Press than we are by the presence there of Jesus Christ our God? Jesus is there waiting for us every day. Don’t you yearn to be there with him? Doesn’t your heart ache to return when you must stay away? Let’s stir up the fervor in our hearts by prayer and fasting night and day, like Anna.
Whenever we do go up to the temple to pray, spiritually speaking, whether it is in the church or alone in our prayer corners, let us do so with humility like the publican, and without judging others in any way. The publican can teach us how to pray: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Notice something else about the publican’s prayer: he does not mention the Pharisee at all. The Pharisee mentions the publican – saying, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this publican.” But the publican makes no comparison at all – not even in an inverse way. He does not say, “O Lord, this Pharisee is so much holier that I am,” or any such thing. Even that is a judgment we are not fit to make. The publican does not compare himself at all. Comparison to others may not be the best way, when it is time to pray. The publican says only and simply, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Humbling yourself is not the same thing as tearing yourself down or beating yourself up or demeaning yourself. Those things are an insult to the God who made you and made you his good image. Humility, rather, is truth. A recognition in the presence of the Lord of what we really are – his children made in his image – and what we have done. We are sinners, it is true – all of us – and if we acknowledge this in our prayer, crying out to God for mercy, he will justify us, as a father who longs to reunite with his child.
When we go up to pray in the temple, therefore, let our prayer be humble like the publican’s, constant like Anna’s, and filled with the Spirit like Simeon’s. In this way, we will encounter the Lord Jesus in our prayer and give thanks and praise to God his Father.

Sunday, January 26, 2020


It appears to Zacchaeus and to us that he is searching strenuously to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way so he runs on ahead and climbs up a tree so that he will be able to see him. He’s doing some real work to accomplish this goal. But, in the end, Jesus tells us that it is he who is searching for Zacchaeus. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” he says. Zacchaeus seeks to see Jesus, but at the time and more importantly Jesus seeks to save Zacchaeus.
Orthodox icon showing Zacchaeus in the sycamore,
behind, the tree is believed to be the ancient sycamore of Zacchaeus.
Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Prophet Elisha,
Jericho, Palestine.
While we are looking for the Lord in our lives, it is good to remember that he is the one looking for us. He has been looking for us ever since we hid from him in the garden because of our shame over our sin. Then he went looking for Adam and called out to him, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). He is calling out to us still today – searching for us among the trees.
Some of us, like Zacchaeus, are looking for the Lord, but some of us, like Adam, are hiding from him. Some of us are climbing our trees to get a better look while some of us are hiding among the trees (Gen 3:8).
The Venerable Bede connects the tree Zacchaeus climbs to that of the Cross. Some of us embrace that cross while some of us shun it.
But notice that whether we make ourselves conspicuous like Zacchaeus or hide like Adam, one thing remains the same: The Lord finds us. He finds Adam who is hiding as easily as he finds Zacchaeus in the tree. The Lord is seeking for us and the Lord is the one who finds what he’s looking for. He comes to seek and save the lost and we can count on him to accomplish his purposes. Still, it will be better for us if, when he finds us, he finds us also searching for him. Things went better for Zacchaeus that day than they did for Adam, as you might recall.
While we’re working to find the Lord in our lives, it can seem to us that we’re all alone – that he isn’t with us, or searching for us, but that we’ve been abandoned. Even Jesus, who is God, knows what it is to feel forsaken by God as he hangs upon a tree seeking the will of his Father. So, if we, like Zacchaeus, are looking for the Lord, have embraced our cross, and climbed our tree and now we feel forsaken and that it was all for naught (there is no darker or more painful feeling) we may rely on the hope that the Lord has gone even into that desolation and is there with us in it. He is with us even when it doesn’t feel like it – and not only passively, but is actively seeking us with an infinitely greater fervor than that with which we seek him. The truth of it is not how it appears to us, but is how the Lord knows it to be.
It appears to the crowd and us that Zacchaeus is a great sinner. And maybe he is. The tax collectors of that time and place grew rich by taking more than was owed. By dishonesty. Zacchaeus was both a chief tax collector and rich. So you do the math I guess.
Still, who is the judge of other men’s sins? The crowd murmurs about the sins of Zacchaeus when the Lord goes to stay with him. Did they forget their own sins while the Lord was walking among them? Were they not in awe that he would stoop to associate with them in their sins? Do we forget our own sins when other’s sins come to light? “Lord, help me to remember my own sins, and not judge my brother and sister.”
In any case, our judgments are worthless. We do not see things as they really are. We see only appearances. It appears to us that we and Zacchaeus are searching for the Lord, when really it is the Lord who is searching for us. It appears to us that Zacchaeus and others are great sinners, while our own sins are paltry. But the truth is that Zacchaeus is penitent while the crowd (and maybe some of us) are oblivious to our own need to repent. Meanwhile impenitence, as long as it lasts, it is the unforgivable sin. If our impenitence were to last forever, so would our estrangement from the God we claim to seek.
Listen to Zacchaeus: “Behold, Lord, half my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” He repents and makes restitution. One of the fathers calculates that after Zacchaeus gives away half his goods and then restores any dishonestly acquired wealth fourfold, he’ll be left with nothing. He’ll have given everything to the poor.
Contrast him to another rich man – the rich ruler who kept all the commandments, but was unwilling to give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-25). That man seemed to all to be a godly man, but he was unwilling to grow any further toward the perfect and eternal life Jesus is calling us to.
We do not see things as they really are. Jesus does. Jesus proclaims salvation to Zacchaeus, whom the crowd thought a sinner. And Jesus laments how difficult it will be for the other rich man to enter the kingdom, though the crowd thought him a saint. Remember, when Jesus observes how hard it would be for him to be saved, those who hear it ask, “Then who can be saved?” (18:26). In their judgement, if the rich man who kept the commandments cannot be saved, then no one can.
Our judgments are worthless. It is the Lord who sees things as they really are. So let us not trust in appearances, but trust rather in the Lord. Let us repent of our own sins rather than judging others. Let us trust the Lord to find us, even when we are lost.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The True Desire of our Hearts

A blind man sat by the road near Jericho begging (Luke 18:35). What do you think he was begging for? Money, right? Or food. Or clothing. Or perhaps a place to stay. He was not begging for his sight, surely. That would be a strange sight, no? A blind beggar by the road begging for sight? Whereas most of us have encountered beggars begging for money and food, I expect. People tend to ask for something they think they can get. And who could expect to get sight or healing of any real and lasting kind from random passersby. The gospel doesn’t tell us what the blind beggar is begging for before he hears that Jesus is passing by, but I think we can infer.
Begging is rather like prayer. In fact, the Latin word meaning “to pray” – orare – also means “to beg.” In archaic English also, you might hear someone say, for example, “Please, I pray you, give me something to eat.” We don’t really talk that way anymore, but it shows the relationship between these ideas.
So, this gospel passage is about prayer, from the very beginning. And the prayer of the beggar at the beginning – his begging – has a lot in common with the prayers that we sometimes pray. We ask God for what we want, and for what we think we need, and for what we think we can get.
The prayers of our liturgy are not so timid. For example, at every Divine Liturgy, and also at Vespers and Matins, we pray for peace in the whole world. When has there ever been peace in the whole world? And yet we go on boldly praying for it every day. And we’re right to do so. It is the earnest desire of our hearts, which we are to express to the Lord in prayer.
Sometimes, we don’t get the thing we explicitly pray for. Whether it is peace on Earth or winning the lottery or a Hail Mary for a football pass. Sometimes, we don’t even get the healing we ask for. My father asked God to heal my mother of cancer, and yet, she died anyway at the age of 52. And believe you me, he was explicit in what he God asked for in prayer. And this is good. I maintain, this is good to express the earnest desires of our hearts to the Lord in prayer. To beg him for healing.
The blind beggar raised his begging to a higher caliber when he heard that Jesus was passing by. He began to beg, not for mere money or food, but for mercy, crying out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Crying this out ceaselessly, even when those around him tried to make him stop. Do we go on with our prayer, even when those around us discourage it? How long is it been now since we began to tuck our tails and cease our prayers in schools and public places? Have we internalized the heresy that religion is a private affair? The gospel and the faith are to be proclaimed in every nation, even this one, believe it or not. So let us cry out all the more when we are asked to be silent, “Jesus, have mercy on us.” Let us move, from the stage of timid begging, which represents a less mature prayer, to boldly crying out for mercy with faith.
In response to his bold crying out, Jesus then asks the beggar, what do you want me to do for you? And the beggar asks for sight. “Lord, let me receive my sight.” Now this is a prayer offered in faith. We continue to beg for what we think we can get, so a prayer for something as great as sight indicates faith that Jesus is a giver of good things that not just anyone can give. Surely the beggar didn’t ask the random passersby for his sight, but he knows he’s now speaking to someone who can make him see.
That takes faith, which is the ability to see things as they really are. By faith, the beggar could see who he was talking to, even while he could not yet see with the eyes of his body. When we come to appreciate something of the majesty the power and the glory of the one to whom we pray, we can get a little bolder in the things we pray for. There’s nothing wrong with that asking God for little things, but let’s remember who we’re talking to, to the one who gives us life, who can deliver us from oppression, who can heal our diseases and drive out demons, who can give us everlasting life. Let’s ask him for the healing we seek and all the true desires of our hearts. Just as this blind beggar did outside of Jericho. And also just as my father did for my mother. And also, just as Jesus did himself in Gethsemane, when he prayed to his Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”
To our eyes, the outcome for the beggar looks different than the outcome my father got. The beggar received his sight but my mother died of cancer. But also remember that first petition of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The outcome of that prayer looks more like the one my father got.
Here’s the thing: we pray for what we want, for the healing our heart desires, and our Lord God is listening to the true desires of our true hearts, which he knows better than we do ourselves. He’s the one that made your heart. He knows what it really is – unclouded by the passions. And he made it to desire one thing.
All our pure desires are reflections of the one true desire of our hearts. They are like rays of light bursting through the clouds of our passions. And they are to be venerated as glimpses of that one true desire, which burns as bright and hot as the sun behind the clouds. And that one true desire of our hearts is God himself.
You want healing – he is healing. You want life – he is life. Even the small things, the seemingly petty things we want, he is the true fulfillment of all that represents. You want wealth – the wealth of this world is garbage next to the mansion he has prepared for you in his house. You want food – he is your food. He becomes your food and drink today.
He is the true desire of your heart. And he will answer your prayer the same as he did for the blind man in Jericho – the same as he did for his own son Jesus in Gethsemane. If we see the outcome for Jesus and for the blind beggar as different, it’s because we are blind and do not yet see with the eyes of faith.
When we look at our suffering, our poverty, or our illnesses from which we desire to be healed – when we look at the cross, we see death. And we rightly abhor death, which is our enemy. That is a glimpse of our true desire. Our true desire is life, which is Christ. So when we pray for a way around the cross, as Jesus did, that is like a shadow of our hope for life. And God is going to give you life. He is giving you life right now. And he is giving you life unto the ages of Ages. And he is giving it to you – through the cross.  Through your cross and his. Not around it but through it, the true desire of your heart will be fulfilled.
May the Lord give us sight to see it, the faith to know it, and thanking him for it as already received, let us glorify God and give him praise. 

Sunday, December 15, 2019

I want my house to be full.

“I want my house to be full,” says the host of the banquet (Luke 14:23). I hear that. I want our house to be full.
Most people these days call the buildings in which we gather to worship God “churches.” Many people of our particular Church, particularly in the old countries, actually call them “temples,” not “churches.” The Church is the people of God gathered together to worship God. The temple is the place of sacrifice to the Lord. But in the ancient church, it’s interesting to note, the building in which we gather would have been called neither a church nor a temple.
The church, as I say, is the people of God gathered together to worship God, and not the building in which we worship him. As for the temple, there was only ever one building that was a temple – the temple that the Lord commanded be built in Jerusalem. That temple has not been replaced by these buildings in which we worship God, it has been fulfilled by our bodies. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). We now worship God in spirit and in truth. Our bodies are for worshipping God. The Lord dwells in our bodies through the holy mysteries of the Church. Through the Eucharist especially, he comes to dwell inside of us – in our hearts. When we receive communion, our heart becomes the tabernacle of the Lord in the temple of the Lord.
So, if these buildings would have been called neither church nor temple, what would they have been called? –  houses (οἶκοι). Christians first gathered in houses. This term is retained in our liturgy. Every time you hear the deacon praying “for this holy church and for all who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God,” the original Greek word translated as “church” actually is οἶκος – house. The house of the Church. The house of the people of God gathered together to worship the Lord. And, I want the house to be full. The Lord talks about a house today and he says he wants it to be full.
By way of filling it, are we doing what Jesus tells us to do? Are we bringing in the poor and needy to share in our banquet? Or, do we think it’s for us but not for them? As we go about our lives, are we cajoling all we meet to join us and fill the house?
I want the house to be full. Don’t you? And I don’t care about it being full of money or full of people with money. I want it to be full of God’s people. All people. People in need. Also, the blind, the crippled, the lame, and the poor, says Jesus Christ himself (Luke 14:21). Are we doing everything we can to invite them? And to make our houses accessible to them – to the Church, which is the people, so that they can join us in the worship of almighty God? Are we offering to give them a ride? Are there people who want to come but can’t?
What could be more important than filling the house of the Lord with many to share in in his banquet? It doesn’t matter how much that costs. Let’s do all we’re able to toward that end.
The banquet in Jesus parable to us today is, of course, the heavenly banquet. But if it’s less clear, it’s also the banquet we celebrate at every Divine Liturgy. The Eucharistic banquet in which we participate is the heavenly banquet. There is no difference. It is the same banquet. The one that goes on in our houses is the same one going on in heaven. There’s a reason we call the liturgy Divine. It is an act of God. God is present there.
If you listen to the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, you’ll see that God himself has broken into our ordinary time and our ordinary life. He abolishes our earthly anxieties, if we let him. In the house of the Church, we occupy the time when the Lord has already come. The second coming is an accomplished act. It’s not only something we’re waiting for the future. The future is now. The past is now. We are present in Bethlehem at the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in a stable in a cave in Bethlehem. We’re present also at his baptism in the River Jordan. And we’re present at the foot of his cross. And by his tomb. We’re present as he rises up out of the tomb. We’re present as he ascends again to the right hand of his Father in heaven. We’re present as the Holy Spirit descends upon us with his apostles. Here. Now. Today. We’re present as he comes again in glory. The Divine Liturgy is the heavenly banquet. It is not a rehearsal. It is not a drill. It is the one and only heavenly banquet.
So, do you ever make excuses as to why you cannot come? Let’s listen to Jesus’ parable about such excuses (Luke 14:16-21). He’s not buying it.
The ideal for us for Sundays and Great Feasts is to come and pray Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy. “Evening, morning, and at noon, I will pray,” says the Psalmist (55:17). But we understand that circumstances make this difficult for most of us and impossible for some of us. So, if you can’t come to one, come to another. If you can’t come Sunday morning, come to Vespers Saturday evening. Participate to the extent you’re able. God sees the heart. He knows how legitimate your excuses are. Unlike us, he is a host who really knows those he has invited.
He knows also whether we doing what we can to bring others to the Lord. This is his command to us, remember. According to some research,[1] 82% of the unchurched say they would consider attending church if they were invited. At the same time, only 2% of people who go to church have invited a friend in the last year. As a result, seven out of ten unchurched people have lived their entire lives without ever having been invited to church by a friend.
The host in today’s parable instructs that we not only invite people to this banquet, but that we compel them to come in (Luke 14:23).  Let’s invite and go beyond inviting. Let’s offer somebody a ride. Or, let’s offer to meet them at the church and show them around or walk in with them and sit with them. Make them comfortable. Answer their questions.
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I also learned that not very many people come to church because they saw or heard an advertisement. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advertise. Even if only one person comes as a result, it’s worth spending quite a lot of money on advertising for the sake of that one person. We should advertise. But still it remains the case, that not a lot of people come to church because they saw an advertisement.
Also, perhaps more surprisingly to some, not a lot of people come to church because the pastor of that church invites them. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t invite people. I should, I can, and I do. And it’s worth it. If only one person comes out of a thousand I invite, it’s worth inviting the thousand for the sake of the one. But still it’s the case that not a lot of people come to church because they’re invited by the pastor.
You know why most people actually come and join the church? It’s because they’re invited by a friend. This makes sense. Even Peter only came and saw Jesus because his brother invited him. Nathanael only came and saw Jesus because his friend Philip invited him (John 1:40-51).
What works is inviting our family and our friends again and again – people who know that we love them. That’s the key that makes all the difference in evangelization – love. If our house isn’t built out of love, then what is it built out of? If it’s built of something other than love, then we should certainly stop calling it a church.

[1] Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Eternal Life is Eternal Growth

The rich ruler becomes “sad” after Jesus shows him the way to “inherit eternal life” (Luke 18: 23, 18). Why should that make him sad? That’s what he asked for, isn’t it (18:18)? Yes, but the way Jesus shows him is uncomfortable. It’s not the answer he wanted. Perhaps he wanted a pat on the back for what he was already doing – a “well done, good and faithful servant” – and why not? He’d been keeping the commandments!

God knows that many of us fail to keep the commandments. This rich ruler did not commit adultery, did not kill, did not steal, did not lie. He honored his mother and his father. When Jesus began to list these commandments, the ruler must have been pleased. He had observed all these commandments from his youth (18:21), so hearing Jesus describe these as the way to eternal life must have felt reassuring at first, I would think.

The ruler had done so much already, in his own estimation. Surely following all these commandments should be enough? My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no such thing as enough.

Upon hearing that the ruler has taken the step following the commandments, Jesus has for him another step: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor… and come follow me.” If the ruler had not yet been following the commandments, I wonder if Jesus would have revealed to him this next step. I think not. He feeds us first with milk, not solid food, and gives us solid food only when we are ready (cf. 1 Cor 3:2). And, on the other hand, if the ruler had readily distributed all his wealth to the poor and followed Jesus, as many saints have done, he would then have been given another step to climb. This is what those saints have discovered.

There are those who have followed the way of Jesus and have given away all their wealth to the poor to follow after him. We celebrate one of these great saints of this coming week, Saint Nicholas. Also Saint Anthony the Great. Also Saint Francis of Assisi. Many have followed Jesus in this way of poverty. What they have discovered, is that this, too, is not the end of their growth.

Eternal life is still not a done deal, even if we’ve grown to such a degree of radical trust in God. Rather, out there in the desert with no possessions and following Jesus, Saint Anthony was beset by countless demons and passions. He had to do battle out there still. The work was not done. There is always more growing to do.

We find growth uncomfortable. But Jesus is teaching us to embrace growth, which feels rather like embracing the cross. For as long as we do not embrace it, growth remains painful. We suffer growing pains. If we were to never embrace growth, the pain would become everlasting. The rich ruler did not embrace growth – and he went away sad.

I am convinced that growth is life and life is growth – and that eternal life is eternal growth. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Grow eternally. When we stop growing, it means we’re dead.

St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us this in his book about the Life of Moses. Life is about becoming one with God, and God is boundless and perfect. "How can reach the boundary when there is no boundary?" asks Gregory (paraphrased). "The one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit." The race to virtue never ends (I, 5-6; cf. II, 242).

It’s important to remember that God commands us to be perfect. But perfection is unlimited, so how can we ever reach it? Only God is good, as Jesus reminds us today (Luke 18:19). St. Gregory observes, "The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness" (I, 10).

Growth is the perfection we’re called to. Growth is life. "No limit… interrupt[s] growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the good brought to an end because it is satisfied" (II, 239). There is "always… a step higher than the one [we have] attained" (II, 227). If we live virtuously, our capacity for more virtue will increase. Our capacity to love increases the more we love. It’s not a limited commodity. It doesn’t work like that. Our potential for growth is limitless, because the God calling us to himself is limitless.

In imitation of Christ, our Byzantine tradition constantly calls us to grow. It is not a minimalist tradition. You may have noticed. It does not propose to us the least we must do to in order to find a place in the back pew of heaven. This is not what Jesus does either. When we have grown to a certain point, he shows us that it is now time to grow to a still higher point. Our Byzantine tradition is a maximalist tradition. It proposes to us more than we can possibly do so that, no matter how much we have done, there is always more to do. There’s always another step. There’s always more growing to do.

In this season of the Philip’s fast, our tradition challenges us to grow, to give a bit more of ourselves, more of our time to prayer in the church and at home, more of our wealth to the poor. Let’s listen with some fear of God to Jesus’ admonishment about wealth today and his invitation to remember the poor (Luke 18:24-25, 22). Let’s make an effort to come to church once or twice more than we usually do during the week. Let’s go to a service we’ve never been to before. If we don't sing the Divine Liturgy, let's start singing – even if we only sing quietly at first. Let’s accept the challenges our tradition offers us to grow.

Since this Byzantine tradition of our is so challenging, some might be asking, why should I bother? It’ll be more convenient – won’t it? – and more comfortable to find a Roman Catholic parish nearby where I can get in and out of Mass in 45 minutes and then be about my business. Maybe business, after all, is what we really care about. Probably, most of us could find a parish closer to home, too. Being Byzantine these days takes so much extra effort and, really, what’s the point? It’s all the same thing, isn’t it?

I’m telling you, our tradition has something to offer you very much like what Jesus is offering the rich ruler today: opportunity for growth, which is life itself. We must stop looking at the inconveniences of our tradition and our situation as a problem to be avoided, and begin to embrace them as opportunities to grow in union with God. We must stop regarding our liturgical services as some drudgery to get through in order to fulfill some imagined obligation. Check the box and move on, as if that would help us grow in union with God. If we really pray our services, rather than waiting for them to be over, we wouldn’t care if they went on all day. Getting to the end isn’t the point, we’d realize. The Divine Liturgy has no end. If we don’t like praying together, we’re not going to be able stand it in heaven, because that's what we do there. And not being able to stand it in heaven is a condition of being known as hell.

When we embrace our tradition, we will see how much it helps us grow and eventually we will realize is that it is possible to take joy in our growth. Because we are growing closer to the Lord, who is our true joy. If things other than the Lord are our joy, we find it drudgery to grow. Because growing in the Lord, after all, is growing apart from the things of this world, inasmuch as they are fallen, broken, and disordered by our sinfulness. As long as we resist this growth, it will cause us pain and life will be pain for us. As soon as we begin to take joy in growth, we begin to delight, even now, in the eternal garden of paradise.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Prepare to stand in the glory of the Lord.

Now we are fasting. Now we are simplifying our lives. Now we give to those in need what we save by fasting and simplifying our lives.
Now we examine our consciences in peace. Now we confess and repent of our own sins. Now we are reconciled with God and with the Church. Now we do penance.
Now we remove distractions and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Now we strip away what does not matter and give ourselves over to the one thing that does.
Now is the time.
Now we pray.  Now we try to learn what it means to pray unceasingly. Now we spend less time watching television and more time reading scripture. Now we come more often to the church to pray and worship God.
Because now our lives are demanded of us.
Image result for icon of the rich fool
God will say to those unprepared to stand in his glory, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.” (Luke 12:20). It does not do to make preparations for this passing life while neglecting to prepare for the everlasting life that is to come. Pope Benedict XVI observes, “This life is not everything. There is an eternity. Today it is very unmodern to say this, even in theology.” But it remains true, and the weight of the eternal is infinitely greater than the weight of all the years of our earthly life.
How can we prepare for that limitless life and the unfathomable glory of God? He has made the way simple for us. He is the way.
The Philip’s Fast, which we have now begun in preparation for the Nativity of Jesus Christ, is a season of preparation for the coming of the Lord into the world. The Lord is coming into the world.
One morning, we will wake up and it will feel like Christmas morning when we were children, because the Lord will have come into the world. Anyway, that’s how it will feel if we have prepared for him. Either way, that day is coming.
This Philip’s Fast is another chance to prepare. I had the opportunity this week to meet up online with several of my old seminary chums. It was a group video chat, so I could see all of them as well as talk to them, even though we were all over the country. Such technological marvels we live among these days. Real life is like an episode of Star Trek. Anyway, unlike the rest of them, I didn’t have a camera, so they couldn’t see me like I could see them. All they could see of me was a photo taken a few years ago. So, I pointed out that I’d gained about 20 lbs. since that photo had been taken. Fr. Lewis chided me, “That doesn’t sound very ascetical, John.” And so I affably retorted, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re starting the Philip’s Fast now. Thank God there’s always another chance to repent.”
“Yeah,” said Fr. Dcn. Tom, “until there’s not.”
There won’t, in fact, always be more time. “The great day of the Lord is near – near and hastening fast” (Zeph 1:14). This Philip’s Fast is another opportunity to prepare and repent. Let’s not squander this chance. How many more will there be? What we do as a Church in these fasting seasons teaches us how to live our lives in preparation for the last things and the everlasting things.
Here’s the thing: the day is coming when we will stand in the glory of the Lord. This is true whether or not we prepare for that glorious day. If we do not prepare (by living the life of God and cooperating with his grace) our experience of that glory will be painful – like staring straight into the sun. But, if we first allow ourselves to be transfigured, little by little, by God’s own energies, then we will truly live this life he is giving us, and, on that day, we will be the glory of God.
“The glory of God is man truly alive,” as St. Irenaeus says. Jesus says to his Father, “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22). You see, this glory of God makes us one with one another just as God, who is three Persons, is one.
What unifies us is the same as what unifies God: love. God is love (1 John 4:8). So, the way to prepare to stand in the glory of God, the way to become the glory of God, to become one as the Persons of God are one, is to love one another. This is the simple way.
We all want to be loved, and that’s as it should be, I believe. Even God wants to be loved. And he made all of us lovable. All of us. You are lovable and God loves you. Love one another as he loves you (John 13:34). Then you will be prepared to stand in his glory and receive his love not as a searing fire but as a transfiguring light.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Balance of Fasts and Feasts

I like to feast. That’s probably becoming more apparent as my girth expands. That’s because I feast too much. My Sicilian rector once observed that I am “a good fork.” God be merciful to me, the sinner.
But it’s not a bad thing to feast and to celebrate on occasion. Feasting itself is a good thing.
Recall the parable of the prodigal son. What does the father do when his son finally returns home to him? He kills the fatted calf and feasts and celebrates with his beloved child.
Jesus himself attends and contributes to a wedding feast in Cana.
The Church gets in on this too. We feast. We celebrate. On every icon screen are twelve icons of events we call ‘feasts.” We call them feasts because they celebrate events that call for a feast. Above all, this refers to the eucharistic feast of the divine liturgy – but it also carries the sense of celebrating and sharing a good meal with friends and family. There’s a time to fast and a time to relax our fasting, to cut loose and party. This is part of what’s good about being human and being children of God.
The first Franciscans were no Friar Tucks. They fasted severely and practiced strict asceticism. So much so that one day Brother Morico came to St. Francis and asked him if they should fast even on Christmas Day, because it fell on a Friday.  St. Francis was flabbergasted. Fast?! “On the day on which the Child was born to us? It is my wish,” he said, “that even the walls should eat meat on such a day, and if they cannot, we should smear the walls with meat!”[i] Francis, it would seem, recognized that here is a time for feasting – and even for rather extravagant feasting.
But today’s gospel begins with feasting of another kind. Jesus says, “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). He not only feasted, but feasted sumptuously, and he not only feasted sumptuously at times in celebration of great occasions, but feasted “every day!”
And furthermore, he acted in this way while the poor man Lazarus lay starving and full of sores just outside his gate (Luke 16:20). He did not ask this man in. He did not invite him to join his feast or send any portion to him at the gate. This is grotesque.
The prophet Amos saw grotesque imbalance like this in his day. He was a simple shepherd called by God to speak against corruption and injustice at a time of great material wealth and decadence. He says,
Woe to those who… eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall… who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile, and [their] revelry… shall pass away (Amos 6:4-7).
And we continue to see imbalance like this in our own day. Being as well sated as many of us are – as I am – can render us insensible to the sufferings of others. Too much comfort can blind us to the discomfort of the poor and needy. Perhaps we hate to be reminded of that because it disturbs our precious comfort.
The tradition of the Church gives us a remedy we ignore at our peril – a remedy that may well have saved the rich man from his torment in the flames had he observed it faithfully: a balanced cycle of feasting and fasting.
We celebrate occasional feasts as expressions of our joy in the Lord. Note that this feasting is occasional. We are not to feast every day, like the rich man. Cookies aren’t for every day, as Pani Katie tells the children and me, but only for special occasions. I should probably listen to her. And when we feast, let’s also remember that the less fortunate are always invited and welcome to join us.
And to balance this feasting, the Church invites us also to many days and seasons of fasting. Count them all up and about half the days of the year are fast days. Half and half. This is a balance.
Fasting is for many reasons, but sometimes we forget the reason of justice. We fast to humble ourselves before the Lord. We fast to train ourselves in virtue and to cleanse our hearts of vanity. We fast also so that we will have more to give. Fasting is to enable giving. Proper fasting consists in consuming less, which means spending less money. These savings are not meant to pad our investment accounts. They’re meant to be given to the poor.
The Shepherd of Hermas tells us,
You must taste nothing except bread and water on the day on which you fast. Then, you must estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day…, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need. In this way you will become humble-minded (Herm 56: 6-8).
This is good and practical advice for us if we are to avoid the tormented condition of the rich man in today’s parable. We might consider drawing up a more austere grocery budget during the fasting seasons and giving the savings to Food for the Poor or to another charitable organization. Or, better yet, giving it directly to those in need in our communities.
Our next fasting season, which will be in preparation for the feast of the birth of our Lord, begins in less than a month, so give this some thought.
Each fasting season ends with a feast. And a life lived simply in the Lord, without flaunting extravagance in the face of the poor, but rather sharing all that we have with those in need, will end at the heavenly banquet table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 8:11).

Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome. 2nd – 4th century.

[i] Saint Francis of Assisi, Celano, Second Life, Chapter CLI

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