Sunday, June 4, 2017

Oil Lamps

The Penitent Magdalene, detail
by Georges de La Tour, circa 1640-1645
At my church, we burn oil lamps in front of the icons on the icon screen. We used to burn votive candles, but some time ago – more than a year ago – we replaced these with oil lamps, which is more traditional for us. I had not had very much experience working with oil lamps of this kind. They tried to introduce them at the seminary while I was there, but they kept smoldering and going out. We couldn't figure out the problem, so they were soon abandoned in favor of more user-friendly, enclosed, disposable oil lamps. Then we got the oil lamps at Saint Athanasius and, at the beginning, I kept having the same problem with them. But, eventually, through a process of trial and error, I figured out what was necessary to keep them burning.

At first, I mistakenly assumed that all that was necessary was that they have oil in them, that the wick be submerged in the oil, and that the wick be extended far enough to burn brightly. Eventually I learned, however, that this is not enough. In fact, it is necessary not only that there be oil in the lamps, but that the oil be sufficiently deep – because the oil does not want to travel very far up the wick before it reaches the flame. If it has to travel too far it goes out much more quickly.

Secondly, it is much more important that the wick has been recently trimmed than that it is extended very far. If you have the wick extended like a half an inch, but you haven't trimmed it and the oil is not very deep it will still smolder rather than properly burning. Also, if it's extended that far but the oil is deep enough, the flame will flicker and produce black smoke causing a lot of soot to a build up at the top of the lamp. It's better for the wick to be extended just a little – like a quarter inch is enough or even less – be recently trimmed, and have sufficiently deep oil. If the lamp is prepared this way, it will burn long and brightly.

But what does all of this have to do with this great feast of Pentecost? The fiftieth and final day of Pascha, the feast of weeks (Ex 34:22), the seven times seven plus one day, the last and greatest day of the feast (John 7:37), the day of the first fruits (Num 28:26), the day Torah is given to Moses on Sinai, the day the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the apostles (Acts 2:1-4)? On this day, why am I wasting time with a tutorial about oil lamps?

Well, remember that when the Lord descended upon the holy mountain to give the Law to Moses, he descended upon it in fire (Ex 19:18). And when the Holy Spirit filled the holy apostles, "there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributed and resting on each one of them" (Acts 2:3). And remember when our Lord Jesus said, "I have come to cast fire on the earth and would that it was already burning" (Luke 12:49). And do not forget that "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:24). The image of fire is worthy of our meditation, especially on this day of Pentecost.

It is not without reason that we burn the oil lamps in front of the holy images of Jesus Christ, his mother, and his saints. His mother, the Theotokos, herself is like the burning bush in the desert, always burning but never consumed, through which Moses encounters to the Lord. Through her, God becomes man, so through her, all people can encounter God. She and all the deified saints are themselves become all fire – a consuming fire, like God – one with God. The lamps burning before them remind us of the tongues of fire that rest upon all those filled with the Holy Spirit – and of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire they have all received, has prophesied by John the Baptist.

So I think these lamps are a good symbol and a good image of the Spirit-filled life we are to live. And I even think that the mundane task of tending these lamps can teach us something about the spiritual life. 

I am reminded of one of the sayings of Amma Syncletica. She says,
In the beginning, there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek, as it is said: 'Our God is a consuming fire' (Heb.12:24): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.[i]

When we begin to move toward God – to live the life of the Spirit – we are at first very often frustrated. At the beginning, there is struggle and suffering. When I first tried to tend the oil lamps, I couldn't keep them lit. Amma Syncletica says that when we first try to light a fire we end up choked by the smoke. The smoke gets in our eyes causing them to tear up – causing us to cry. This is how the life of the spirit must begin – with tears.

Well, it's interesting the way that this works with these oil lamps. You get that black smoke pouring out of the lamp when your wick is too high. Now, the wick is the external part of the lamp. It's the part that burns – that gives light. Without it, you've got nothing. But with too much of it, you've got black smoke. The smoke which brings tears. The black smoke is our folly and our sin, over which we should weep. One way to raise a stink and lots of smoke is with too much focus on the externals – with too much wick and not enough oil.

The oil is the internal part of the lamp. And it's like our spiritual center. Remember we are chrismated with oil – with chrism that is the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It's more important for the oil to be deep than for the wick to be long. If all we do is make a show of our faith and our religion and we have in our hearts no real loving relationship with God and our neighbor, it is like we have long wicks and shallow oil. We may burn brightly, but – if so – briefly and soon we smolder and go out.

If we really are filled with zeal for the house of the Lord but we often misdirect that zeal and turn people away from God's house and scare them off with our judgmentalism or our excessive pharisaical concern for external details, then perhaps we are like a lamp with deep oil and a long wick. We burn long and brightly but at the same time make more smoke and heat than light.

Now if we’re like those who get scared off or for whatever reason reject the Church and true religion and avoid the liturgical services and the holy mysteries. Or, if we claim to be spiritual but not religious, then it is like we have no wick at all. Our oil may be deep or it may be shallow, but it cannot burn.

The way to stop the flicker and the smoke is not to get rid of the wick, but to trim the wick. Weep and confess our sins. Cast off our own excesses. And after this do the hard work of tending the lamp – of constantly checking and refilling the oil – of constantly trimming the wick and extending it neither too much nor too little.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I  purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?' Then the old man stood up and stretched  his hands towards  heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'[ii]
Our vocation is nothing less than this: By the power of the Holy Spirit to become all flame – like a consuming fire – like God




[i] as quoted by Laura Swan in The Forgotten Desert Mothers (Paulist Press, 2001).
[ii] from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Confounding the World

The Lord our God defies our assumptions. Jesus Christ and his saints just don't act right. What I mean is, they don't respond to things the way the world thinks they will – or should. 

What happens in Philippi is a good example (Acts 16:16-34).

If you and I were unjustly locked in prison and, by a miraculously timed earthquake, our bonds were broken, would we continue to hang out in prison? Or would we take the opportunity to go free? Naturally, most of us would run. That would be natural and even just.

Certainly, the jailer expected Paul and Silas to have run when they were freed. "He drew his sword and was about to kill himself supposing the prisoners had escaped" (Acts 16:27) Perhaps death would have been his punishment anyway had he failed to keep his prisoners imprisoned. I don't know. But, in any case, Paul demonstrates more love and solicitude for his jailer than for himself, crying out with a loud voice to the one who imprisons him, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here" (Acts 16:28).

This is simply not how a worldly man behaves. A worldly man looks out for himself – looks out for number one, as it were. But Paul – and we like Paul – have our life in Jesus Christ. We're already taken care of. Our selves are already provided for and infinitely loved. We are already free and should fear neither prison nor death. It takes a profound faith to see the truth that we are actually free even while yet in prison in this world. And this faith frees us to care for those who are still enslaved to death, even while it seems they walk free in this world.

The jailer was enslaved to death – about to kill himself for failing at his job because of something he had no control over – an earthquake. He was the jailer, not the one inside the jail, and yet it was him that was actually imprisoned. Meanwhile, Paul and Silas, though being kept in prison, were actually free – free to act contrary to the expectations of this world – free to love and care for even those who seem to be their enemies.

Paul and Silas made these enemies in the first place by disturbing those who would seem to be their friends. When you really follow Christ you always end up sticking out like a sore thumb – caring for those the world expects you to hate and opposing those the world imagines to be on your side.

Before they were locked up, Paul and Silas and some other disciples were followed around by a girl for many days. She kept crying out to all who would listen, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation" (Acts 16:17). So, it would seem she was their friend, right?

The words this girl proclaims are true. Paul and Silas and Luke were and are indeed servants of the Most High God – the same God of Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (Gen 14:18), and of Jesus, Son of the Most High God (Luke 1:32). And they do indeed proclaim the way of salvation. At this time, Christianity is called "the way" (Mark 1:2, John 14:6, Acts 9:2; 19:23).  

But Paul doesn’t allow her to keep speaking this truth. Why? That seems against his own interests – from a worldly point of view. It's kind of funny, but he turns to her and charges the spirit out of her in the name of Jesus Christ because she was annoying him. Why was he annoyed? What was she doing that was so annoying? She was, as I say, proclaiming true words to the people. What's wrong with that?

You might think that Paul would appreciate the publicity that the word of God would get from her endorsement. After all, this was a girl people listened to. She had such a good reputation for speaking the truth that her owners were able to make a lot of money from what she would say. She spoke with such veracity that the people in Philippi believed her word. You have a burning question, you take it to this soothsaying slave-girl, pay her owners a sum of money of course, and you get an answer that you can trust.

And here she is speaking the truth about Paul, about God, and about salvation. And Paul is annoyed and does what he has to do to shut her up. She's giving them good press. But somehow Paul doesn't want it. I thought he was trying to get the word out! What's he doing stifling the message? As I said in the beginning, Jesus and his saints defy assumptions and often act contrary to worldly expectations.

For one thing, Paul is considering the source. “Jesus our Lord does not accept witness from demons” and neither does Paul.[1] Even when demons speak the truth, it's better to shut them up. Remember, the demons often recognize Jesus for who he really is long before the crowds do. And Jesus shuts them up (e.g. Mark 1:25). When a demon is speaking truth you can bet he's getting ready to slip in a lie.

The right words are one thing and the right understanding is another. Some among those who refer to the Most High God, especially in antiquity, fail to also recognize that God is the one true God – that is that there is truly but one and only one God. Some who speak of the Most High God are not monotheists at all but are rather what they call henotheists. These are those believe there are many gods but who regard one God as superior to all the other gods. The devil loves a half-truth better than an outright lie. Because a half-truth can go further toward deceiving those who have only a passing acquaintance with the truth. As the poet Arator says, “[Though] she who was a servant of falsehood prophesies what is true, let us not be corrupted by the bitter honey of deceit.”[2]

When the demon is talking about the Most High – and this isn't the only time in the New Testament that a demon refers to the Most High God (e.g. Mark 5:7) – you can bet that demon has a twisted understanding of the name. Remember, Lucifer says he will make himself “like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). The term Most High can be twisted by a blasphemous spirit to suggest there is not one but many – and that the others are just less high. Twisting further, it might question which of the many is really most high. And down and down, twisting and twisting we go with demonic reasoning. So, it's better to shut up the demon while it’s still speaking truth before it gets to half-truths and before it gets to believable lies.

Marble statue of Pythian Apollo
leaning on the Delphic tripod
encoiled with a serpent
and holding Apollo's tortoise shell lyre,
Apollonia, Albania
This girl proclaiming that Paul and his companions are servants of the Most High God had a spirit of divination – that is a spirit of Πύθων or Python – the Pythian serpent or dragon (Acts 16:16). By the help of this demon, she was able to soothsay with believable accuracy.

By the way, demons are able to predict the future so well not because they know the future but just because they are so extremely intelligent and experienced. Human events have a pretty predictable pattern. History repeats a lot. And if you could remember all the detail of all the millennia back to the dawn of creation with perfect recall, you'd be pretty good at predicting the future too. Sometimes they get it wrong though – like when God becomes man. They didn't see that coming. That had never happened before. They weren't prepared for the ramifications of that. That one was coming from before the dawn of creation. They may be old, but there's someone who's older – truly Ancient of Days (Dan 7:9).

Regardless, this girl’s owners were able to use her and this spirit to gain a great deal of money from her soothsaying. Now I don't know if you've noticed, but the Spirit of God and the spiritual beings that love and serve God – that is, the angels – and those who live and act in the Holy Spirit are not in it for the profit. This is a remarkably reliable way of discerning whether a prophet is a true prophet or false prophet. Are they in it for the money? Are they prophets for profit? I recommend you give those who are in it for the money a wide berth rather than a fat check.

This girl was enslaved in more than one way by more than one force. She was enslaved in body to her owners and she was enslaved in spirit to a spirit of Πύθων. Paul delivers her from her enslavement to the demon. He does not oppose her but undoes the work of her owners and of the demon in her.  Which is why her owners press for Paul’s and Silas’ imprisonment.

If we follow the way of the Lord and live in his Holy Spirit, our way of life will confound all those around us. But like the slave girl, they will be delivered. And like the jailer, they will be converted and set free. “Acquire a peaceful spirit and then thousands of others around you will be saved.”[3]




[1] Origen, Homilies on Numbers 16.7.10
[2] De Actibus Apostolorum 2 (CSEL 72:102)
[3] St. Seraphim of Sarov, as quoted by Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom (2000), p. 133.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rise

Christ is risen! And now Jesus is telling us to rise. The Risen Lord raises us.

To the paralytic, Jesus says "Rise – take up your pallet, and walk” (John 5:8). Jesus says "Rise" to a paralytic in each of the four gospels.

To Aeneas, Peter says, "Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed” (Acts 9:34).

And to the disciple Tabitha, Peter says, “Tabitha, rise” (Acts 9:40).

Rise. Rise. Rise.

Saint Augustine says that this is the word of healing - "the conferring of the cure."[i] To rise is to be healed, made whole, restored to the fullness of life. This makes a lot of sense if we are illuminated. And by that I mean baptized, chrismated, and communed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s not happenstance that the healing of the paralytic in John takes place next to a pool, which, when stirred by an unseen spirit, brings healing of body to one submerged in it (John 5:4). This is a type or prefiguration of baptism. We are buried with Christ in death by being submerged in the waters of baptism, which have been stirred and "sanctified by the power, action, and descent of the Holy Spirit,"[ii] so that we will rise up with Christ out of death into everlasting life by rising up out of the waters of baptism.

Several of the fathers[iii] also point out that this pool is where the priests would wash the animals to be sacrificed to the Lord in the temple. This further strengthens the image of baptism evoked by the Sheep Pool. Because we who are baptized are baptized into the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb of God – whose death destroys death and raises us up from death to everlasting life.

You see, when we are baptized, we are like the paralytic hearing the word of the Lord - "Rise". Before baptism, we are still paralyzed – that is restricted, not free, but enslaved to death and to the consequences of our mortality – to the bodily passions and sin. But through baptism, God fills our lives with grace – with the life of God, with his own energies, which free us from our enslavement to these things.

Maybe we lose sight of our own freedom sometimes. Because we often fall again, pining after the fleshpots of Egypt, wishing we were enslaved again with full bellies, or wishing we were paralyzed again, because when we were paralyzed all we had to do was lie around. Now that we can walk, we must carry our pallet. And that's hard work. We must do the work of living the life in Christ. And it isn't always easy. So sometimes like a dog returns to its vomit we return to our sin, even after we've been baptized and freed from it.

But if we do, our Lord who loves us unconditionally comes to us again in the second baptism of holy repentance. In this holy mystery, it is as if he says to us again, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk." Again healing us with the word "Rise." And again he follows that with the commission to be about the work of God.

This is like when he forgives the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). He forgives her saying, "Neither do I condemn you; go." She can go. She is free to go. She will not be subjected to punishment for her sin. But he continues, "and sin no more." Now that we've been forgiven, we are free to live a sinless life – a holy life – a grace-filled life – a life impossible without grace but made possible by grace. It is God's own life he invites us to live.

This is part of what Jesus means I think by telling the paralytic to take up his pallet and walk. This is a meaningful command. We know that this healing takes place on the Sabbath. And we know that the Jews said it was not lawful to carry a heavy burden on the Sabbath. Did Jesus forget? I don't think he did. I think every word he speaks is well thought-out, profoundly meaningful, and inspired.




It is worth recalling that Torah nowhere explicitly forbids carrying an item from one place to another on the Sabbath. Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. But what is work? Later, Mishnah strives to answer this question. Mishnah developed to serve as “a fence around Torah”[iv] – to make it so that if a pious Jew follows Mishnah, he cannot come even close to breaking Torah. So later, after the time of Christ, Mishnah would outline 39 types of work forbidden on the Sabbath including carrying an object from one house to another.[v] But all this was still in dispute at the time of Jesus. And, in any case, these are human laws built around Torah and not Torah itself. Jesus above all has the authority to supersede Mishnah. And he himself is the word of God before all ages and is himself the source of Torah.

Jesus knew he was commanding the paralytic to break this Mishnah regarding the Sabbath. He does know everything after all. So I believe he had a good reason for telling him to do this. Or many good reasons.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian points out that it would have been a great miracle just for Jesus to say to the paralytic, "arise and go" even if he had not also had him take up his pallet and walk "Would it not have been a miracle that he, who was not able to turn himself about on his bed, should arise easily and go?" But he also makes him carry his bed. Why? Ephrem writes that this is "to show that he had given him a complete healing..., not like the sick who come back to health gradually.... Even if he were silent," Ephrem writes, "his bed would cry out."[vi] So the carrying of the bed demonstrates to all the totality and immediacy of the healing available in Jesus Christ.  

Saint Caesarius of Arles offers a more allegorical interpretation which I quite like. He says that taking up our pallet means to carry and govern our bodies. (Sermon 171.1) You see, before he encountered Christ, the paralytic was carried about by his pallet. It bore him. But after he encounters Christ and confesses to him his weakness – saying “there is no one to put me in the pool when the waters are stirred” – after this, Christ says to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” Now he carries the pallet. Now he carries that which had carried him. He bears it.

This is so like the bodily passions of our bodies subject to death. Before Christ or without Christ our bodily passions – hunger, lust, sloth, and so on – rule over us. We go where they say – do what they want - obey them. We are not free. But Christ frees us. In him, we are free. But notice, he does not tell us to cast away the pallet – the body, or even in some sense the passions. But to rise, take them up, and walk. Our bodies and even our passions can be redeemed and restored to their true nature and purpose in Jesus Christ, in whom we are free, in whom these things are not our masters, in whom we are the masters of these things.

Our passions and appetites and impulses are distorted by sin. They are run amok – drunk with power – having been given by us disordered dominion over our whole lives. As for example when we allow fear of the difficulty involved in making a virtuous choice to prevent us from so doing. And we take the easy way out. But I don't believe that the passions and impulses and appetites in us are in themselves contrary to our true nature. With Saint Isaiah the Solitary, I believe these come originally from God and so are good in essence. But we need to carry them rather than them carrying us. Our passions must, with God's help, “be educated, not eradicated…, transfigured, not suppressed…, used positively, not negatively.”[vii] Having risen in Christ, we must carry our pallets rather than being carried by them.




[i] Tractates on the Gospel of John 17.7
[ii] special petition in the Litany of Peace before the blessing of the baptismal waters
[iii] E.g. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Augustine, Alcuin
[vi] Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron 13.2.
[vii] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrand, and Kallistos Ware, eds., “Glossary,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume One (London: Faber and Faber, 1979-1995), 364.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Eight Days Later

Christ is Risen!

Such joy we have known! "We have seen the Lord!" (John 20:25). Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs bestowing life. Darkness and death and every sorrow have been extinguished by Christ our light and our life and our joy. Rising up from his tomb, Christ recreates us who were not created for death but for life.

We have come to today, the eighth day of Pascha – sometimes called Antipascha (not to be confused with antipasto) which means opposite of Pascha, that is, on the opposite side of Bright Week. Historically, those who were baptized on Pascha would wear their white baptismal robes for eight days, until today. For this reason, today was also once called White Sunday. So this day is connected to baptism.  

We have come here through Holy Week, Pascha, and Bright Week. Our liturgical remembrance and celebration of Christ's death and resurrection reminds us also of our own death and resurrection, already accomplished in our baptism. It is by baptism that we die with Christ so that we might rise with Christ. Christ himself is our true, brilliant, radiant, and pure baptismal garment. It is with him that we are clothed. Clothed with the risen Christ, we live again and live forever with him and in him.

Baptized into Christ, we know true freedom and forgiveness.  He returns us to our first natural innocence. On Pascha, the holy doors – the gates of paradise – are flung open and they remain open all of Bright Week. During this time, we see the Lord more clearly and more familiarly. There is no locked door between us. It is as if he walks with us again in the garden. It is as if the Lord Jesus has come and stands among us as he did among his disciples even though the doors were locked. "The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20) and we are filled with joy throughout Bright Week. Though, sadly, a child of my acquaintance said on Bright Wednesday, “All the excitement was on the first day, and the excitement is wearing off now.” Well, that’s one person’s experience.


Today, the holy doors – the gates of heaven – are closed again. What once closed the gates of paradise was sin. What opens them again is forgiveness. When Jesus stood among his disciples after his resurrection, "he breathed on them and said to them, 'receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). So Jesus Christ has given from his Father to his disciples – his Church – the life of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins that comes with that. So now, even though sins still shut the doors to paradise, forgiveness, especially through the holy mysteries of the Church, opens them again.

The holy mystery of baptism washes away our sins (Acts 22:16). We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:3-4) – into the life of Christ – and we are chrismated and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit – to live the life of the Spirit. The doors to heaven are wide open to the newly illuminated.  

When we sin again after baptism, there is for us the necessary second baptism of holy repentance and confession. Go often to confession; it is a way to begin to see God in your life. When we receive the holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as our newly illuminated soon will for the first time, it is “for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting.” Come often to holy communion; it is a way to begin to see God in your life.

There is also the mystery of holy anointing, which all who came and prepared for received on Holy Wednesday. It is for the healing of all the sicknesses of our souls and bodies and also for the forgiveness of sins. James asks us, “Is any among you sick?” The answer is, none of us is totally free of physical or spiritual illness in this life.  Therefore, “Let [us] call for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over [us], anointing [us] with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save [us], and the Lord will raise [us] up; and if [we have] committed sins, [we] will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).

All of these holy mysteries forgive our sins and unite us again to God. They open the holy doors and offer us a glimpse of God.

Now again we will close and open the holy doors as we did before – occasionally offering fleeting glimpses of the paradise from which we were once shut out. These glimpses present us with what really matters — an image of God in his heavens, into which he beckons us. To see God is to be with God. Θεωρία leads to Θέωσις – the vision of God to union with God.

Thomas wanted to see God. When the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord," he said, "Unless I see..., I will not believe" (John 20:25).

Eight days later, he does see and does believe. And, seeing the Lord, says, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). Other men, seeing Jesus, failed to see God. But Thomas, seeing Jesus risen from the dead, sees God. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," says Jesus (John 20:29). What shall their blessing be? At least in part, I believe, it will be to see God. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

We do not limit grace.

Saturday was the feast day of St. Mary of Egypt and Sunday – the last Sunday of the Great fast – we remembered St. Mary of Egypt again.

Before her repentance, St. Mary of Egypt was, as Simon the Pharisee observed today about the woman of the city, "a sinner." Though she is often thought of as a prostitute, her sin was not so much prostitution as fornication. Saint Sophronios says that she would not charge her many sexual partners, but survived instead by begging and spinning flax. She was, like so many of us in this hypersexualized culture, consumed and driven "by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion" of lust.  

She went to Jerusalem among the pilgrims, but her reason for going was not pilgrimage. Rather, she went in a large group for the purpose of seducing many partners. Some might question how such a sinner could even think to enter the holy city and its holy places.
But remember the sinful woman of the city in Simon's house (Luke 7:36-38). She goes right up to Jesus himself and, weeping, wets his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair and kisses his feet and anoints them. Though she is a sinner, she touches Jesus. And Jesus, who is more than a prophet, knows that she has sinned, yet allows her to touch him.
On the other hand, when Mary of Egypt, who is also a sinner, tries to enter the house of Jesus – that is his Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Resurrection – she is prevented by an invisible spiritual force. 

Why? What's the difference between these two sinful women? Why does Jesus allow one to touch him and kiss while the other is prevented from even entering his house? There is only one difference between them – repentance. The woman of the city in the Pharisee's house is penitent. She is weeping. And she is loving. She does not cease to kiss Jesus's feet. So all her many sins are forgiven because she loves much (Luke 7:47).

Meanwhile, Mary of Egypt tries to enter the holy place of the Lord while yet impenitent. She goes to that holy tomb not seeking to anoint the body of the Lord, but rather while seeking more partners for her lust. The invisible blockade that she experiences is in fact a strong medicine. It's not meant, I don't think, simply to keep the holy separated from the unholy or the clean from the unclean, but it is meant, I think, to reveal to her her situation and to bring her to repentance.

And, gracefully, it has this effect. Seeing outside the church an icon of another Mary – that is, of the Theotokos – she does repent. She weeps and laments, like the woman of the city in the Pharisee's house. And she learns that true love for the Lord surpasses any self-satisfaction gained by indulging in the passion of lust. Trying again, in her new state of penitence, to enter the Church of the Resurrection, she finds no force keeping her out. And she does enter and there she kisses the Holy Cross, just as the woman of the city kissed the feet of Jesus. She who is forgiven much loves much.

Now what might her fellow pilgrims have thought of her at this moment? Seeing this woman who they knew to be among their number expressly for the seduction of their members, now entering the Holy Sepulchre weeping and kissing the Holy Cross, what might they have thought? When Simon saw the sinful woman enter his house and kiss the feet of Jesus, he thought, "If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." If Mary's fellow pilgrims were true followers of Christ, then they rejoiced at her repentance. But if they were like some of us, then they probably had thoughts rather similar to Simon’s. They may have thought "Who is this woman to kiss the Holy Cross? She has not embraced the cross by her dissolute living.” They may have judged her and thought her presence among them in this place at this time inappropriate.

I hope not. But if they did, the only true judge knew their thoughts. And if we have thoughts like this about those who come among us, he knows this as well, and we will hear about it. Let's keep our thoughts on our own sins rather than on the sins of those around us.
For things are often not what they seem. A person who seems to us to be a great sinner may, in fact, be awash in the holy grace of forgiveness through repentance.

This was the case with Mary of Egypt. She seemed to be still a great sinner, but in truth, her glorification by grace, by the life of God, had already begun. She went immediately after her eyes were opened to the holy mystery of repentance, was absolved of her sins, and received holy communion. This is the proper, ordinary, and churchly way to begin again the life in Christ after we have sinned. When we fall, we get up again. When we sin, we repent and enter again into communion with the Lord through the mysteries of the Church.

But then Mary did something less ordinary, less usual, and even less churchly by some standards. The next morning, she crossed the river Jordan and then lived the rest of her life – 47 years – in the desert as a hermit. I say this is a less churchly way of life because, for one thing, it is extremely peculiar for a person to be called directly into the anchoritic life – that is, to live alone as a hermit – without first having lived the coenobitic life for a long time in community. (Though, there are other examples of this – particularly in early monasticism – such as St. Antony the Great.) And then, even among anchorites, it is peculiar to live most of life deprived of the holy mysteries, especially the Eucharist. Yet, they say, that this is what Saint Mary of Egypt did. After that first holy repentance and communion, she went into the desert and never communed again, until the day that she died many years later.

A year before she died, St. Zosimos, a priest (whose feast day is Tuesday), came upon her in the desert. She was so rough from her many years of ascetic practice, that from a distance he did not at first know for sure whether she was human. She told him her life story and she asked him to bring her holy communion the following year on Holy Thursday, which he did, on the banks of the Jordan – the same place she had received communion the last time. When she came to receive communion from him, she walked on the water of the Jordan to meet him.

Abbas Zosimas and Mary of Egypt. 17 c. 

Here is a woman who defies all of our churchly expectations. Living apart from church services, even apart from frequent reception of holy communion, and yet living a life somehow filled with grace and faith. I do not recommend that we all imitate Mary of Egypt in her way of life. St. John Climacus (who we remembered on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast), warns us, after all, that the avoidance of church services is a sure sign of the deadening of the soul. But I think we can hold up Mary as demonstration that God can and does act as he will. He is not confined by us or by our expectations. We do not limit his grace.

It is good to remember John Climacus' observation when we are tempted to avoid church services. But I think Mary of Egypt is marvelous for us to consider when we are tempted to judge others for the way it seems to us they are living or not living the Christian life. We do not necessarily see their life in Christ or where God is leading them. We do not know what prayers they pray in their closets nor do we see their ascetic practice. Sometimes there is one whom the Lord loves in his own way and for his own reasons, blessed be the name of the Lord.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Preach

Wisdom! Be attentive! We must pay close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it (Heb 2:1). We will not escape the just retribution of the Lord if we neglect the great salvation he declares to us (Heb 2:3).

Our salvation in our incarnate Lord and God Jesus Christ is preached to us. The Lord declares our salvation and those who hear him, attest to that salvation (Heb 2:3). This proclamation of salvation is necessary for our salvation. Because, as St. John Chrysostom says, "I do not believe in the salvation of anyone who does not try to save others."

We know our salvation because it has been shared with us. Those who knew Jesus, and witnessed his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection proclaim it to the world. And those who believe proclaim it to the next generation and so on and on until the present. This is tradition – that which is handed down to us from Jesus Christ through his apostles and their successors in unbroken continuity to us here today. This is the gospel to which God bears witness by signs and wonders and various miracles (Heb 2:4) such as the healing of the paralytic in today's gospel (Mark 2:10-12).

Sixth-century mosaic

A purpose of all of these healings and miracles is to point to our new life in Christ – the everlasting life in Christ – that is, the resurrected and glorified life through death that awaits all of us who believe and live faithfully.

If we really hear and really believe the gospel, then we don't stop with hearing. We can't. Because it is the gospel that we must go and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). We are to evangelize.

My, how we Catholics often loathe the thought sharing the gospel with our neighbors. Of admitting to people how in love we are with Jesus Christ. But if we don't share, they won't know.

We tend to cling to an old model of church growth through fertility – of passive proselytism by propagation if you will. We don't mind sharing our faith with our children, but we're terrified of sharing it with a neighbor who might disagree with us about it. I think our accommodation of our surrounding culture has become too deeply ingrained at this point.

We must learn again how to evangelize. How to preach the gospel to the world – to every creature – to the whole cosmos (Mark 16:15). It doesn't involve casting our pearls before swine (Matt 7:6), but it also doesn't involve hiding a light under a bushel basket (Matt 5:15). There is mystagogy only for the initiated, there is catechesis for the uninitiated, and there is evangelism for everybody. To all, we preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 1:23).

The Philokalia or the writings of St. Gregory Palamas in defense of hesychasm probably don’t make a good opening salvo in our proclamation of the gospel to the world. These are pearls before the world’s swine. These are treasures that aid in living the life in Christ after we have answered his call and entered into his holy mysteries.  

But our light shining before all – which comes from living this mystery – is our love for one another, for God, and for all. This is a word for all: Christ, and him crucified – that our God so loves us that he comes among us in every way but sin.

Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). If we never hear this word we never have an opportunity to believe it. So we must preach the gospel at all times, and use words constantly – not with wise-sounding words, but with the word of the cross (1 Cor 1:17-18). 

The words of the gospel are good. They need to be heard. And so they need to be preached – with words – but also with the example of life lived in Christ. The gospel is worth talking about, and it’s even more worth living. Without this, we can actually do a disservice to the gospel we preach. Our hypocrisy can be a bad witness.




I used to be a bumper sticker guy. As an artist and a designer, I still have a significant interest in bumper stickers as a means of social communication. So, I used to want to put bumper stickers on my car that express my Christian faith, and my own perspective on Christian faith. So I designed one that said, “Is the pope Orthodox?” – playing on the expression “Is the pope Catholic?” And I designed another one that said “Liturgy is Life,” playing off those old “Basketball is life” or “Football is life” stickers that I used to see. Anyway, I've always hesitated to actually put Christian bumper stickers on my car because I'm such a bad driver. I mean, I'm all over the road, and I have a lead foot, and I crash into things a lot. I probably shouldn't have a license. I feared, you understand, being a bad witness. It's one thing to share with people how much I love liturgical worship, it's another thing to share it with them while I'm cutting them off in traffic, which is a selfish and unchristian thing to do. Lord, have mercy. 

Let us share the gospel with words and with our way of life – and even with how we drive. Evangelism is all-encompassing and cannot be reduced to any technique.

But what is the gospel really – the εὐαγγέλιον – the good news?

Jesus gives a foretaste of the good news today in his healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:10-12). And he has been healing many people. As soon as Jesus begins his ministry, he immediately begins driving out unclean spirits (Mark 1:22-26, 34), lifting up those who lay fevered (Mark 1:29-31), cleansing lepers (Mark 1:40-42), and healing many with various diseases (Mark 1:34).

“What is the point of all of this?” some have objected. All these people that Jesus heals will only get sick again anyway and someday die. There is a seeming inescapable finality and inevitability about death. Well, these healings are signs pointing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the gospel is that the coming healing is not temporary, but everlasting.

Imagine for a moment that you know a doctor who has a diet plan that is the cure for cancer. I'm talking about a cure. Cancer killed both my parents. And it’s killing people right now in its many and varied forms. So it is our enemy and we rightly seek to destroy it. Well, what if you knew a doctor who has the cure? Would you say, I need to tell everybody about this doctor, but only use words when necessary? No, I hope you would tell everyone by every means available to you. I hope you wouldn't hesitate and worry, what people might think of you if you fail to keep this cancer-curing diet yourself at times. If the diet cures cancer, tell me about the diet, whether you keep it or not. If the diet cures cancer, tell me about the diet using spoken and written words and images and videos and Facebook and social media and everything available to you and yes keep the diet yourself, but even when you fail in some of this, don't neglect the rest.

Well, the gospel is like this. I really do know a guy who has the cure for cancer. In fact, though my parents are already dead from cancer, he can still cure them. Not only can he, but he has cured them. He has risen them from the dead in the eschaton which is present, as well as future. And I can only see it with eyes of faith, but I can see it. I've been given eyes to see. I'm going to tell you about him. And I'm going to use words, which are at all times necessary.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feed the Goats

At other times, Jesus says he does not come to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17; 12:47). The word is κρίνω, to separate, or to judge. He did not come to judge us. But here today he comes in his glory with all his angels and sitting on his glorious throne before all the nations and he separates us into two groups (Matt 25:31-33). It seems he's making a judgment – a κρίσις, a separation – and that this is his coming "day of judgment" (Mat 12:36).

In the parable, he is separating sheep from goats as would a shepherd (25:32). And much is often made of the difference in character between a sheep and a goat. I have to admit I have pretty limited experience with farm animals, but I have encountered both sheep and goats. I once held a lamb, and I found it to be the most receptive, docile, and pleasant creature I've ever touched. And then once in a petting zoo, I encountered a goat. I became particularly well acquainted with its horns as it butted me, trying – successfully – to get me to drop the feed I was carrying and run. So my own experiences prejudice me against the goat and in favor of the sheep. And I'm therefore tempted to go along with the usual narrative that we ought to be more like sheep and less like goats.



But I want to challenge this narrative just a bit. I'm not sure that the Lord really has anything against goats. God made them too, you know. And a goat can't help being a goat any more than a lamb can help being a lamb. They are as God made them, and God did not make us for damnation. He made us for himself, out of love.

So, pushing the metaphor too far, you might end up with something rather like Calvin's heretical doctrine of double predestination, wherein God creates some for salvation and others for damnation – wherein the theological virtue of hope is rendered really rather pointless.

So I think we should see this separation of animals rather as a simple image of judgment than as a commentary on the character and destiny of goats. And this is important because it affects how we regard one another. We might be tempted to regard our enemies as hopeless, irreformable goats, but this is not a Christian attitude toward anyone. Certainly, it’s not our job to judge the goats. And our attitude toward others, our regard for others, and our relationship with others is really the heart of this parable.  

The light of Christ illumines every relationship. When all the nations gather before the glorious throne of our King and our God and his light shines upon us, the reality of all our deeds toward others will be brought into his light. It isn't that Jesus is condemning anyone, but rather that some condemn themselves by living without love of others.

Fr. Thomas Hopko says that “it’s important to see that the judgment is simply the presence of Christ.” This is like a judgment with no judge. If we love Christ in the least of his brethren, to be in his presence is our salvation. To be in the presence of Christ is also judgment.

God is love. If we come into the presence of love himself unlovingly, our own hearts stand in judgment against us. In his presence, what we do in secret, which our Father sees in secret, is brought into his light and our own actions judge us (cf. Matt 6:3-6).  Christ does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to welcome the stranger, even if the stranger is a foreigner or of a different race or follows a false religion, even if we’re a bit afraid of him. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to visit the sick, even if they’re irascible, and the imprisoned, even if their crimes are heinous. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, even if they seem like goats to us (Matt 25:42-43).

This is what the judgment comes down to: How do we treat each other? Do we love each other? I've been teaching our first graders about this greatest commandment. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself - as yourself. This is remarkable. The command is not to love your neighbor as you love yourself, as it is sometimes rendered. Rather, it is to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31: Luke 10:27).

It's true that we should love ourselves, but it's all wrong and unhealthy to imagine that this means that we should have a preferential love for ourselves over and against our neighbors. In fact, this doesn’t make any sense and the very opposite is the case. It is in our neighbors – our enemies and our friends – that we find our very selves. You won't find yourself in the mirror. It's just cold glass - an illusion. We find ourselves in our spouses, in our brethren, in our friends, and even in our enemies.

Love your neighbor as being your very own self. If you are hungry, what do you do? You go get something to eat. If your neighbor is hungry, what should you do? Go and get him something to eat. This is how we can find ourselves and come to know ourselves – in other people. The other kind of self-love is a sin condemned by the fathers because we, like God, are essentially relational. That is, totally cut off from others, we have no selves. Our selves exist in relationship – even in relationship to the least of Christ’s brethren.

Who are the least of Christ's brethren? This is an important question because Jesus says that it is on how we treat these that we are judged. I think that the least of Christ's brethren are whoever we love the least. Who is your worst enemy? Who do you dislike most? It is based on how you treat that person or group of people that you are judged. The love we have for the Lord and his Christ is equal to the love that we have for the person or persons we love the least.

We’re not to worry about whether or not a person is a goat or a sheep – and therefore worthy of our love – before we decide to love them. Judgment is not our job, thank Christ. The presence of Christ is the judgment. And Christ chooses to identify himself with the least of his brethren. What we do to those we love the least we actually do to Christ.

He also gives us a new commandment to love each other as he has loved us. We are to love as Christ loves. We are to be as Christ to others. This puts Christ on both sides of the equation – both in the self and in the other. So, as Christ, we are to love the least of his brethren – as Christ. Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11). Glory to Jesus Christ.



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