Sunday, October 4, 2015

To be Sons of the Most High

According to Matthew, Jesus preaches to us from the mountain. He preaches above us, as God, and with all the authority of God. Just as God speaks to Moses on the mountain, so Jesus speaks to his disciples this Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1).

And, according to Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place (Luke 6:17) to be among us, to be one of us, to be a man like us in all things but sin, to be our brother and to speak to us as our brother, this Sermon on the Plain.

And really these two sermons are substantially similar, though perhaps the one has a more divine perspective and the other a more human perspective. The fact that the divine and human messages agree completely reveals how completely Jesus is both God and man, how clear is the image of God in man, and how possible it has become for us to become one with God in Christ Jesus.

Today, speaking to us on the plain, Jesus admonishes us to behave in quite extraordinary and unworldly ways.

He tells us to do to others what we wish they would do to us (6:31). That’s as opposed to getting all you can get, doing what you can get away with, and looking out for number one, which seem to be guiding principles of life in the world. Pope Francis, I understand, recently repeated this golden rule to a joint session of Congress. Let us pray they hear and listen.

St. Maximos the Confessor
Jesus tells us to love, not only those who love us, but even those who hate us. St. Maximus the Confessor says that Jesus commands us this “to free [us] from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make [us] worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. [We] cannot attain such love if [we] do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them 'to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'" (1 Tim 2:4).

A lot of people in the world and in the Church support family values. As well they should. But sometimes, our idea of strengthening the family goes no further than loving those who love us. And sometimes we even think it includes hating and seeking to destroy those who would tear our families apart.

And that’s not enough. Jesus sets us a higher standard. What about loving our enemies? Or the enemies of our families? What about murderers and drug dealers and prostitutes and rapists, who make our neighborhoods unsafe? Do you want them dead? I have heard fellow Christians speak murderously of evil men. I myself know what it is like to hate and even to want dead someone who would hurt the innocent or the weak. May God forgive me, the sinner. Let me tell you something, God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23). This is the word of the Lord that came to Ezekiel (18:1). So, when we desire the death of a sinner – even if he is an Islamic terrorist, even if he hurt our child – we are not like God.

Jesus tells us to do good to those who do no good to us. Giving on condition of getting is just bartering. It isn’t love. Just because someone isn’t in a position to do anything for us, doesn’t mean it’s alright for us to neglect their needs. The neighborhood in which we find ourselves right now offers many opportunities to do good for those who can’t or won’t do good for us. When we think about the poor and the drug addicts and the homeless and the alcoholics who are our neighbors here, alongside the other fine and virtuous people who live here with us as well, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “what good are they to us?” or  “What good can they do for us?” That isn’t the right question. Rather, if we think about our neighbors here with the mind of Christ, our question will be, “What good can we do for them?” “How can we make their lives better?” “How can we benefit them in both spirit and body?”
Russian icon of St. Nicholas of Velikoretsk,
17th century,
made for the Church of Velikoretsk

If we were Christians, the idea of a needy neighborhood would attract us, not repel us. We would seek people in need – people among whom we could do good without receiving anything in return.

Remember that Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and they say that this was also the motto of St. Nicholas, the patron of the Byzantine Catholic Church,

Jesus tells us to lend our goods and our money expecting nothing in return. Now this is distinctly unworldly. Already, more than five hundred years before Christ, the Lord plainly says to Ezekiel that a righteous man does not lend at interest (Ezekiel 18:5,8). Nowadays, collecting interest is as common as opening a savings account or an IRA. And, given the economic reality that our money has no fixed value, I suppose these interest rates actually are usually not usurious in that they do not increase the value of our savings so much as maintain it. But we have lost all understanding of usury in the contemporary world and Church.

Even if interest rates are not always usurious in the contemporary context, they often are. Witness the predatory pay-day loan stores that pop up especially in poor neighborhoods to take advantage of those who already have little by offering them needed loans, but with outrageous and crippling interest. The Christian ethical principle to keep in mind with lending is that a loan is always to be made for the benefit of the borrower, not the lender. This is just exactly backwards of how the world thinks.

Meanwhile, Jesus goes beyond prohibiting the collection of interest and commands us to expect nothing in return for our loans. Not even the principal, let alone the interest. Now that’s radical. It’s downright ludicrous, in fact, by any worldly measure. That’s not even what we’d call lending, It’s more like just plain old giving. I think that’s his point.

Treat others as you want them to treat you. Love even those who do not love you. Do good even for those who do not do good for you. Lend without expecting any return. Why? What is the purpose of all this disproportionate behavior? Do you know who you'd be like if you did all these things? Well, I"ll tell you: you’d be like God.

God loves us, even when we do not love him. He loves even his enemies, those who hate him, and those who persecute his Church. He loved Paul before, during, and after his persecution of the Church. Jesus loved and forgave those who crucified Him even as they were driving the nails into his hands and feet.

God does good for those who do no good for him. What good can we – we, who are sinful – do for God? What gift can we creatures offer to our creator worthy of his greatness? And yet, he gives us every good thing. All blessing flows from our good God. He gives us our lives, our loved ones. Every simple pleasure and every blessing come from God.

“He is kind [even] to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35) As the life of Hosea prophesies, even if we are unfaithful like Gomer, God is faithful (cf. 2 Tim 2:13).

So this way of life Jesus commands us to today is nothing less than a prescription toward theosis. Do these things and you will be like God. Jesus says that if we do these things, we will be “sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). These things, which are impossible without grace, help make us again like God.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

To take up a cross

We know – most of us – what happened on the cross.

For example, just last week, I asked my five year old nephew what happened on the cross and first he said, "You mean the cross on top of the church?" And I said, "No, I’m asking about the reason we put a cross on top of the church. I mean, what happened on the real cross? Do you know?" And he said, "They nailed Jesus to it."

That is indeed the awful and awesome truth – that Jesus, our Savior and the Savior of the world, hung upon the cross and there he died for us and for our salvation. “[He] ascended the cross in [his] human nature, to deliver from the enemy’s bondage those whom [he] created,” as we pray quietly before the Divine Liturgy. The one who is life himself – the way the truth and the life (John 14:6) – died. Life died – life entered into death – so that, though we die, in him, we may live (John 11:25) – and live forever.

We know this – most of us. We have the inestimable benefit of living in a post-resurrectional cosmos. We know and partake of the life that comes after the cross and through it. The cross for us has rightly been bejeweled. The cross for us is the tree of life. For us it no longer symbolizes death and ignominy, but life and glory. “The King of Glory” we write on icons of the cross. And now, if we glory, let us glory “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [we] to the world,” as Paul writes to the Galatians (6:14).

“We bow to your cross, O Lord, and we glorify your holy resurrection!” We will sing this for the last time tomorrow, on the leave-taking of the exaltation of the holy cross. 

This action is itself a beautiful image of death and resurrection. We bow or prostrate as we sing of the cross. Our bodies are lowered to the ground as they will be in death. Then, we stand upright again as we sing of resurrection, as we will stand up again from our graves when the Son of man “comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

So when Jesus says today, ""If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34), all of this imagery should come to our minds, given the benefit of our vantage point.

But what can Jesus' disciples and the multitude have thought when he preached this to them? This is the first time that Jesus directly mentions the cross. This is the case in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is the first time Jesus uses the word “cross,” and he’s not talking just about his own cross, but about the crosses of those who would be his followers – about our crosses. Isn’t that something?

Now Jesus had just foretold his own death and resurrection, so I suppose we could presume that he also described how he would die, but the gospel doesn’t tell us that. Regardless, how confounding the idea of taking up a cross must have sounded to those who first heard it! In a way we have an advantage over these first hearers, but in a way they have an advantage over us.

They perhaps could not see the good and beauty of the cross, as well as we. Even though Jesus had just told them that he would rise again from the dead, I imagine that it still would be difficult for them to conceive of this instrument of torture and death (to which Jesus is calling them) as a life-giving thing.

We, on the other hand, knowing the outcome, having read the last page of the story, may fail to see sometimes the suffering and scandal the cross represents as it lies before us on the tetrapod in bright pigments and enwreathed with flowers. We may expect to skip straight to the resurrection and forget about how the way to resurrection is through the cross. We may be tempted to skip straight to the feast of Pascha without first observing the black fast of Good Friday.

But when Jesus told the multitude that, if they were to follow him, they were going to need to follow him to the cross, they’d have had no illusions about what this meant. They knew what crosses were for and they had witnessed crucifixions, which were all too common in that time and place.

To carry a cross is to suffer. To take up a cross, is to accept or even embrace that suffering. Here’s the thing: we all have a cross whether we accept it or not. There’s no escape from suffering in this life. Most of those crucified went to the cross very much against their will. The end of suffering can only be fully realized in the life to come, if we choose to go that way. 

This is our choice, then: to reject the cross and die anyway or to accept the cross with love and, through death, live forever. We can react to suffering as Job’s wife recommends, that is to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Or we can respond to suffering as Job does, not without questioning, but without sin anyway (Job 1:22), and with love anyway (Job 10:12), blessing the name of the Lord anyway (Job 1:21).

Our Lord heals us, but he does not always and immediately take away all our suffering. Everyone here has suffered. Some more than others. And there is nothing just about its distribution. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt 5:45), and so does pain afflict us all physically, psychologically, spiritually. And there is no understanding it, as far as I can tell.

Sometimes suffering is the direct result of sin – for example, gluttony, and drunkenness, and violence all result almost immediately in some kind of suffering either for the self or for others. Dying by the sword, Jesus says, results from living by it (Matt 26:52). But then sometimes children as innocent as doves are cut to death this way for no reason. And there is no understanding that, as far as I can tell.

It is possible only by the grace of God for us to be freed from sin, and even then we will not be freed from suffering and affliction and persecution by the evil spirits and by the enemies of God. Jesus was without sin, yet in his great love for us, he suffered greatly. He suffered so that, through suffering, we can be united to him. He has given suffering, which was meaningless, the only meaning that it can have. God, by becoming a man who suffers, has transfigured suffering into grace – into a way of living the life of God.

Because Jesus takes up his cross, we must take up our crosses if we are to follow him – if we are to become like him, which is what it means to be his follower. Our crosses are made up of all our difficulties and all our pain and suffering. And Jesus is present to us in these. By his cross, Jesus has transformed our suffering, as Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon writes, “into a creative force, a means of drawing near to God, so that we can make it into a ladder by which we climb up to heaven.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

You shall love

Today a Pharisee – a lawyer – asks Jesus to tell him the greatest commandment.

This is meant as a test or – the word also means – a temptation. Little does the Pharisee know that he is testing the Lord his God. Jesus is Lord. And, by testing him, the lawyer is breaking the law in ignorance: “You shall not test the Lord your God,” it says in the law, (Deut 6:16; cf. Matt 4:7; Luke 4:12) but that is not the greatest commandment. And so Jesus does not point this out, as he did to the devil in the desert, who also tested him (Matt 4:1,7).

Jesus is patient with these Pharisees. This is the fourth and final time they test him in the gospel of Matthew. He answers their questions. The questions are good, even if the motive behind them is not. Jesus tells us later to “practice and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell [us], but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt 23:3). It is for this hypocrisy and not for their teachings that Jesus denounces the Pharisees.

A rabbi once came to our seminary in Pittsburgh to give a presentation. During the Q and A, a member of the staff asked the rabbi what he thought of Jesus. And the rabbi shocked all by saying, “Jesus was a Pharisee.”

We are so used to hearing the name of Pharisee associated with various evils that this idea could sound blasphemous. If you look up the word ‘pharisaic” in the dictionary, it says “hypocritically pious.” And Jesus is most certainly not this, but that isn’t what the rabbi meant.

The rabbi meant that if you study first century Judaism and compare the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of the various Jewish factions, you will find that Jesus agrees more with the Pharisees than with the other groups.

For example, Jesus accepts the prophets as from God – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, who hold that only the law – that is, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – only these books and no others – are scripture inspired by God and binding upon the people of God. 

So dispute about the canon is nothing new. In our day, we have Protestants rejecting certain books of the Bible – the deuterocanon, which they call the apocrypha. In Jesus’ day there was also dispute – though of course about different books.

And Jesus agrees with the Pharisees about what was inspired by God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that David is inspired by the Spirit in composing Psalm 109. I suppose the Sadducees would have disagreed because the Psalms are not a part of Torah. Jesus, however, agrees with the Pharisees, who clearly recognize the inspired authority of the Psalm and therefore have no argument against Jesus’ revelation regarding it – that the Messiah is more than merely a Son of David, but also the Lord. Being the Lord, Jesus knows best what the Lord inspires.

And Jesus teaches the coming resurrection of the dead – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,”(Matt 22:23because it is not as clearly and directly described in the Torah as it is in the prophets and later writings. However, Jesus points out that a proper understanding of Torah does reveal the resurrection (Matt 22:31-32).

And finally, Jesus knows which is the greatest commandment of the law – so do the Pharisees. They agree about this. The lawyer is asking Jesus a question to which he already knows the answer – an old lawyerly trick.

The greatest commandment is “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Matt 22:37; cf. Deut 6:5). The Pharisees know this, because this, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the Shema, the principal words of the law, found in Deuteronomy:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”(Deut 6:4-9).
These words from Deuteronomy are among those contained in the Pharisees’ phylacteries. A phylactery is a little leather box containing a scroll with these words – the shema. They literally bind these to their foreheads and to their arms when they pray. You may remember how Jesus later criticizes how the Pharisees make their phylacteries broad, so as to be seen by men, (Matt 23:5) rather than so as to always remember this greatest commandment, which is their true purpose. 

So this commandment is certainly not new to the Pharisees. They have heard it and prayed it daily since they were children. Jesus did not fail the Pharisees’ test. He knows the answer as well as them.

But he doesn’t stop there with the rote answer. Rather, he reveals something more about how it must be lived. He draws a correspondence between this great commandment and a second commandment, from Leviticus. “A second is like it,” he says. And that is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Some had noticed before that there is a verbal correspondence between these two commandments that joins them: each begins “you shall love.…”  Of course, they have more in common than that. Jesus is making a very striking point about these two commandments. Loving our neighbors is like loving God because God has made our neighbors like God. In his image and likeness he has made us.

Sometimes, during the Divine Liturgy, the reality of God’s presence in us becomes strikingly apparent. For one example, there are prayers prescribed for the priest and deacon to say quietly before the holy doors before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. At a certain point, the rubrics say that the priest and the deacon are to bow to the faithful. While they bow, they are praying part of psalm 5: “I will bow down before your holy temple in awe.” Notice this. The rubric says to bow to the people, and the text says we are bowing to the temple. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?”(1 Cor 3:16). Therefore, how can we love God if we do not love one another, when God dwells in our neighbors?

For another example, at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, I cense all the icons of the church. Toward the end of this great incensation, I cense the people. It has occurred to me that this is not something separate from the incensation of the icons. Rather, I am continuing to cense the icons, because you all are icons of God. An icon is an image, and God has made you in his image.

The image of God in us is indestructible. No sin can destroy it. It is who we are in our very being. We are in his image, but we are in pursuit of his likeness. Some have suggested that we have lost our likeness to God through our sin. But Jesus restores our likeness. In him, we can again become like God. Because he has identified himself with us. He, who is the Lord, has become man.

Jesus reveals this when he teaches the Pharisees something more about the Messiah – about himself – by interpreting David’s Psalm messianically. The messiah is the one who sits at the right hand of the Lord, and Christ points out that the one who sits at the right of the Lord is also the Lord: “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” So he who is truly our Lord and God has become the messiah of Jews and the savior of all humanity.

Though it was always true, now in Christ it is fully revealed, that we must love our neighbor if we are to love God, because in Christ, God is become our neighbor. Many of the Pharisees were failing to love their neighbors, neglecting “justice and mercy and faith”(Matt 23:23and so, Jesus reveals, they were not really loving God after all. So let us follow the teaching of the Pharisees to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, but let us not fail as they fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Let us be doers of the word and not hearers only”(James 1:22).

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ten Thousand Talents

Today in a parable, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a God’s eye view of sin and forgiveness (Matt 18:23-35).

An official owed his king ten thousand talents. The king is the Lord. You and I are the servant. His debt represents our sinfulness. So when Jesus describes this debt, he is actually describing our sinfulness, which concerns us personally and is worth considering carefully.

There are different estimates as to the actual value of ten thousand talents. We know that a talent was the largest unit of money at the time. It was worth about six thousand denarii, which was a day’s pay. So a talent was more than 15 years of pay. Even if a day’s pay was equivalent to less than half of the current minimum wage in Indiana, ten thousand talents would be worth more than a one and a half billion dollars. So we are talking about a huge amount. Imagine the burden of a debt like that. It is an impossibly large sum – more than a laborer could make in two thousand lifetimes. 

It will help us to understand Jesus’ rhetoric a bit further if we also consider the word here for ten thousand – it’s μυρίος, which is the largest Greek numeral – and as such, it is sometimes used rhetorically and less technically to mean “countless” or “innumerable” – it’s where we get the word myriad. So the servant’s debt to his master is the largest numeral of the largest unit of money. In other words, it’s as big as it can be – that’s the point, I think.

And it’s also possible that Jesus is making an allusion – because this isn’t the first time that the sum of ten thousand talents is mentioned in scripture. In the book of Esther, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, feeling himself insulted by Mordecai, offers to the Persian King Ahasuerus – also known as Xerxes – ten thousand talents of silver if he will agree to destroy all Jews (Esther 3:9).

Haman was indebted to his king ten thousand talents, just like the official in today’s parable. And for what? – for seeking “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews”(Esther 3:13) – the people of God. So this sum of ten thousand talents here is blood money. The debt of the servant in today’s parable represents our sin. And the consequence of our sin is death – and that death is born by the true messiah of the Jews – Jesus the Christ.

By our sins, we participate in the failed attempt to destroy Jesus, just as Haman, by his debt of ten thousand talents, participates in a failed attempt to destroy all Jews. In both cases, the Lord triumphs over sin and death. Through Esther, he delivers the Jews from oppression in Persia. And he raises Jesus from the dead. So there are meaningful parallels here. This enormous debt is an image of sin and death. 

It is fitting that Jesus describes all our sinfulness with a parable about money – because the love of money is the root of all evil. But we mustn’t think that if our sins don’t involve money that this isn’t about us – we must not leave this comfortably in the abstract.

We should feel invited to place ourselves in this parable as the servant, to examine our own consciences, and to discover our own sins against God and against our fellow servants. Sins perish in the light and thrive in the darkness – so we must name them and confess them.
I cannot judge you. You and God alone know which sins trouble your hearts – and I can only know my own sins. We must all bring our sins to God in holy confession, as the servant did at first – falling on his knees and begging for the patience and kindness of the Lord. When we do, we will receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

When the extent of his debt is revealed, the servant stupidly asks for more time to pay back his king – it should be clear to us that this is a sum no servant could ever repay. This, I think, is how it must sound to the Lord if we ever say that we’ll make it up to him by being good people for the rest of our lives. That won’t make it up to him! That is good and necessary, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. Nothing we do can ever earn our reunion with God. We are utterly and absolutely dependent upon his grace. Apart from the energies of God, there is no theosis. We do not partake of the divine nature by our own power, but by the power of God, with which we cooperate. We must make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue, but we must never think that our efforts can succeed unaided (cf. 1 Pet 1:4-5). They spring from, are supported by, and succeed in and only in the life of God, freely and gratuitously given by God.

So the king does not give his servant more time to pay him back, which would be impossible – no, he forgives the debt completely! He gives more than the servant asks for. The Lord is gracious and we depend upon his grace.

We must realize that our sin is like a debt too large for us to ever repay, and, having received the forgiveness of that debt, let us turn from our sin, repent, and sin no more. We should allow this seemingly inexcusable, impossible forgiveness and lovingkindness to prick our hearts so that we do not remain inert and insensible to our “natural wickedness.”[i] With all our hearts, let us turn away from the evils to which we have become habituated and enslaved.

This turning, this repentance, this conversion, this μετάνοια begins, as our Lord demonstrates in this parable, with forgiveness. Not only with being forgiven, but also with forgiving others.

Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or, a more literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer is “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” which closely ties the prayer to today’s parable of debts. So as we forgive, we will be forgiven. And if we are to have any hope for ourselves we must have the hope for others that forgiveness expresses.

After receiving the forgiveness of such an enormous amount, the servant should quickly and easily have followed his king’s example when a fellow servant begged for patience regarding a comparably small debt – a hundred denarii – a tiny fraction of what he had been forgiven.

The wrongs we suffer from our fellow servants – which really are wrongs – sometimes terrible wrongs – are nonetheless small when you compare them to the weight of our sins against the Lord. So forgive others, as the Lord forgives you. Do not nurse hurt feelings or brood on wrongs. Do not let resentments grow in your hearts like weeds growing ever deeper roots. For, according to the measure with which you measure, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2). If you would be forgiven, you must forgive. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t ask for it. But especially those who do.

In light of the great blessing and forgiveness shown him, the unmerciful servant’s unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant who begs for patience is inexcusable. It is so offensive to his king that he rescinds his earlier forgiveness, and turns the servant over to the jailers till he should pay all his debt, which, according our holy fathers Apollinaris and John Chrysostom, is another way of saying “forever,” because the debt is immeasurable and is more than he could ever repay.

The king’s action here reveals something about forgiveness I believe we should notice. You often hear the expression, “forgive and forget” – and this maxim is often held up as a Christian ideal. You should know first of all that this phrase is nowhere in scripture. And when the Lord says to Isaiah that he will not remember sins (43:25; cf. Heb 8:12), I don’t think we should understand this to be a blank space in God’s omniscience. I think it means rather poetically that he puts aside the sins he has forgiven and does not cause us to suffer their full consequence. He still knows what we have done, for he knows everything. And the king in today’s parable demonstrates this. Remember that the king is Jesus’ own image of God. Yet, after he has forgiven the servant’s debt, he clearly still knows its amount – because after the servant is unmerciful the king turns him over to the jailers after all – till he should pay it back. When justice demands it, the king is able to remember the debt.

We should actually find comfort in this because, even if we are unable to forget a wrong completely, this does not mean we cannot forgive. Forgiveness is possible, even when forgetting is impossible.

And thank God, because if we do not forgive, the king will turn us over to the jailers forever. Apollinaris writes that these jailers represent “the angels entrusted with our punishment.” Still worse than this punishment is another: Jesus says, “So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” As Chrysostom points out, Jesus does not say “’your father’ [or ‘our father’] but ‘my father.’ For it is not proper for God to be called the Father of one so who is so wicked and malicious.”[ii]  The greater punishment is to lose our familial relationship with God, gained by our baptism and our faith. It is a rejection of both to condemn our brothers and sisters – to damn instead of to bless – to have an unforgiving heart – to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies.

So we must remember our own sins and forgive others their sins against us. Then, as we forgive, our heavenly Father will forgive our sins against him, which are far greater. So let us imitate “the indescribable love of God” and forgive everything.  

[i] cf. Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 61.1
[ii] Ibid 61.4

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Solitude and seclusion are good, when we are to pray to God."

Jesus was a man among the people. He is God become man and come to save us. And so he dwelt among us – he spent time among us – he was present to us. This is an important model of ministry – but every bit as important is something that he does in today’s gospel.
 Christ feeding the multitude
Coptic Icon

After much time among the people – teaching, preaching, and feeding the five thousand – Jesus dismisses the crowds. He dismisses them and goes by himself up the mountain to pray. He even sends away his closest disciples – telling them to go before him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There is much to learn from this, I believe.

Some of us like to be always among people – or at least among friends. These extroverts are inspired and energized by the company of others. And they quickly get lonely and long for companionship if left alone. Others of us prefer to be alone. More introverted, these find energy and inspiration in times of solitude. And they are emotionally drained by being too much around people.

But whether we’re introverted or extroverted, and whether we consequently seek God more readily in silence or in our neighbors, I think we must learn from Jesus the need for both of these aspects of our lives. He teaches us that when we pray, we ought to go into our inner chamber, shut the door, and pray in secret so as not to make a show of our prayer (Matt 6:5-6). He also teaches us that whatsoever we do to the least of his brethren that we do unto him (Matt 25:40, 45), which means that serving others, attending to their needs, and spending time with them is also a means of prayer – of communing with Christ our God. And Jesus models both of these behaviors himself – both ministering to the people and taking his leave of them to spend time in undistracted prayer with his father.

I believe it is important for us to imitate Christ in both of these ways.

Even if we prefer to be alone, we should also devote some of our time to working out God’s mercies among his people – feeding the hungry, consoling those who grieve, visiting the sick, defending the faith, and in all those countless ways God has given us to love one another – face to face and heart to heart with one another – with the image of God in each other person.  

And, on the other hand, times of solitude with God are also essential, even if we prefer the company of the crowd or our friends and even if we get uneasy when we’re alone – when anxieties soar & restless thoughts and passions disturb us – even waking us up in the middle of the night.

About such times, my mother used to say that if you wake up in the middle of the night it is because the Lord wants you to pray. My father therefore, who woke in the middle of most nights with anxiety, would pray, “What are you doing, Lord, waking me up in the middle of the night?”

The Lord’s purposes are not always easily discernable and it is good, I believe, to be frank with him. The middle of the night can be a good time to be alone with God. Sometimes he just wants to be with us.

I once heard a story of a young man who, after some time away, returned to his father’s house to borrow some money. His father greeted him joyfully and quickly agreed to give him the desired sum. ‘But first,” he said, “come in and sit with me and talk for a while.” And so the son came in and they went to the sitting room and sat and spoke with each other for a while. After some time had passed, the son again brought up the question of money. The father said, “Yes, yes, of course, but now it’s time for dinner. First, let us eat together.” And so the son agrees and they go into dinner together and they eat and drink and talk. An after dinner, the father suggests that it is getting late and that perhaps the son would like to stay for the night. At this point, the son becomes irritated and says to his father, “why do you keep delaying? Why don’t you give me the money as you agreed?” The father answers, “My son, of course I will give you the money and whatever else you desire, but I love you and it has been so good to see you and to be with you, and I don’t want you to go.”

Sometimes God just wants to be with us. Don’t go to the Lord our Father only when you need something, but make time every day simply to be with him – to dwell consciously in his loving presence.

Even if it is difficult for us, we must devote some time daily, I believe, to being alone with God. We must find some moment of silence in which the still small voice of the Lord may be heard over the din of the thousands and millions and billions of distractions that plaguily vie for our attention, especially in our ever noisier technological world with the endless beeping of our “distraction machines”[i] which call for attention and away from attending to the one thing that matters – to the voice of God, which, as was read at the recent Vespers for St. Elias,  came to Elias upon the mountain not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire, but as a still small voice (1Kings 19:11-12).

To hear this voice, both Elias and Jesus went up the mountain alone to pray. The Lord wishes to speak to each of us also and we too must seek a quiet place if we are to hear him. I assure you, none of us are better than Jesus, nor even Elias, his second forerunner. None of us are above this need.

“For what purpose does [Jesus] go up … the mountain?” John Chrysostom asks. “To teach us that solitude and seclusion are good, when we are to pray to God.… We find [Jesus] continually withdrawing into the wilderness. There he often spends the whole night in prayer. This teaches us earnestly to seek such quietness in our prayers as the time and place may afford. For the wilderness is the mother of silence; it is a calm and a harbor, delivering us from all turmoil.”[ii]

Speaking of turmoil, what is happening while Jesus is alone praying on the mountain? All night, his disciples row against the wind in toil and turmoil in the sea. Then, in the fourth watch of the night – that is, just before dawn – Christ returns from his time alone with his father and he walks on the stormy water to the disciples.

Jesus walks on water
ink and pigments on laid paper
by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (Egyptian, active ca. 1684)
Walters manuscript W.592
I don’t think his walking on water is unrelated to his time alone with his father on the mountain. The mountain is like heaven and the sea is like the world. We must spend some time on the mountain if we are to weather the storms of the sea – if we are to be able to rise above the waters of this life forever threatening to drown our faith, our hope, our love for God and one another in so much evil and emptiness. Only by going occasionally to the mountain to pray alone can we keep the faith needed to walk on water.

If Jesus needs periodically to pray alone, so much more do we need to do the same. To maintain connection to God in the midst of this sea of distraction and turmoil, to know inner peace even as strife rages all about us, seems impossible. It is like walking on the windswept water of the sea.  

In Christ, all things are possible.

[i] Tim Wu, “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain,” The New Yorker.
[ii] John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50.1.”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jesus Opens Our Eyes

Today Jesus asks the two blind men, “Do you believe I can do this?” (Matt 9:28)

Christ healing the two blind men
Mosaic  in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century
Do what exactly? Heal them of their blindness? Well, yes and no. The blind men do not exactly and directly ask for sight or for healing. Rather, they follow Jesus, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” So Jesus is not only asking them “Do you believe I can heal you?” but also, “Do you believe I can have mercy on you?”

They do believe and, according to their faith, Jesus opens their eyes. This is marvelous and extraordinary just on the face of it, but the more we meditate on this exchange and this miracle, the more profound we realize it is. Scripture is like this – with layers upon layers of revelation from the Holy Spirit to us, his Church.

Maximus the Confessor
mosaic in Nea Moni, 11th century
When Jesus asks the blind men if they believe that he is able to have mercy on them – he is not asking them if, in their opinion, he can do this. His words are stronger than that. He is asking them if they have faith in him. In English, the word “belief” can connote either faith or opinion, which is unfortunate because faith and opinion are almost antonyms. St. Maximus the Confessor rightly teaches that “faith is a true knowledge[i] – a gift of knowledge of the truth – which is not only an intellectual assent to authentic dogmatic propositions, but also relationship with him who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – Jesus Christ our Lord (Luke 14:6). To have faith is to know the Lord, who is the truth and love himself – whereas to have an opinion is merely to regard an idea as probable – not certain and not known. So, again, Jesus is not asking these blind men merely what they think of him or who he is in their opinion – he is asking them about their faith – about who they know him to be and they confess their faith that he is the one who can have mercy on them in their blindness.

I ask you, who is it that can open the eyes of the blind and give voice to the dumb? It is the Messiah and the Lord. Because the blind men had faith in this Son of David, as they professed, I believe that they know this too. Though they call him son of David, for that is who he is, they know that they ask for mercy from the Son of God – for that is who he is.

What drove Jesus to ask the two blind men about their faith? Well, first they followed him, crying aloud for mercy. They followed him for quite some time, it would seem, as he walked from the house of a ruler to his own house. This in and of itself is a marvel: though they were blind, they were able to follow Jesus to his house. They could not see him, but yet they went wherever he went. Now, maybe they had help, or maybe they were following him by sound, or maybe they simply knew the way to his house – the Gospel doesn’t say – but regardless, I think it is a good image of faith that, though blind, they could still follow Christ. They could see him, not with the eyes of the body, but with the eyes of faith. According to their faith, they could see already.

And all the while as they were following him, they were crying out, “Have mercy on us, son of David!” This kind of prayerful petition ought to seem familiar to us in the Byzantine Church – for here is one of the roots of the Jesus Prayer. I hope you all know the Jesus Prayer and pray it daily:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

We can hear in this, I think, an echo of the blind men’s prayer: “Son of David, have mercy on us.” But it is also similar in the way that they prayed it – crying and saying their prayer while following after Jesus. The words here – κράζοντες καὶ λέγοντες – are present participles which describe continuous, ongoing action. In other words, they did not cry out their prayer only once, but continuously and repeatedly as they followed Jesus. In our hesychast tradition, under the guidance of our spiritual fathers and mothers, we pray the Jesus prayer so frequently that the prayer becomes a part of our very breathing – and of the beating of our hearts  so that we can aspire to pray unceasingly, as Paul teaches us (1 Thess 5:17). Again and again in peace we pray to the Lord for mercy – as did these two blind men before us.

Their way of prayer also evokes to me the uncomfortable parable of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke (18:1-8). Not once does the widow plead for justice, but repeatedly. Not once do the blind men cry out for mercy but they cry aloud continuously.

It seems sometimes like we have to nag the Lord, that we have to bend his ear, or that we have to keep after him. Of course, this is only how it seems to us from our limited human perspective. Repetition, I think, helps to simulate the eternal for us temporal creatures. And it helps us forgetful creatures to remember – in this case – our creator. Anyone memorizing lines for a play or multiplication tables for a math test knows the necessity of repetition for a human mind. If we humans are to remember God, we must often repeat our prayer to him and our calling upon his holy name. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

It is only after the widow has often plead for justice that the judge gives her what is good and right and it is only after the blind men have followed Jesus quite a way calling out for mercy and followed him even into his house that he asks them if they have faith. Only after they have demonstrated faithfulness to some extent are they asked if they have faith. We must be persistent. We must persevere in the faith even when we get no answer to our prayer the first time or the second time or the seventh time we pray. Pray again! Do not lose heart. Keep following after Jesus with a pure heart – not just in the hope of some material reward, mind you, but in the hope of mercy – of healing, eternal life, and union with God.

The physical blindness of these two men has also for us, I believe, a spiritual meaning. We are the blind men – until we through faith receive the grace and mercy of the Lord, for which we must continually cry out. Our vision of all things is darkened until we see them in the light of Christ.

Only in the light of Christ is it possible to see things as they really are.

Only in the light of Christ can we understand the true meaning of the Torah and the prophets.

Only in the light of Christ can we see and love our enemies as images of God.

Only in the light of Christ can we find any meaning in our suffering because without Christ and his cross, all suffering is meaningless. Only in Christ and in his cross can suffering become a means of union with God – because only in Christ and in his cross does the impassible God suffer.

Only in the light of Christ can we see that for us death is but falling asleep in the Lord and that the great dawn of resurrection is coming.

And so, without the light of Christ, we are blind. And, according to our faith, Christ will open our eyes.

[i] Maximus the Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 1:9; 130.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

On New Martyrdom

From the beginning, our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to a radical way of life – to a life rooted in the Gospel and striking – as with an axe – at the roots of evil in our hearts. Not always to ease and to comfort – but first to the cross. Our resurrection to eternal life where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning is attained only through suffering, and death, and the cross. “Take up your cross and follow me” Jesus teaches. And for most of us this possible only as a metaphor. But for many of those to whom he first spoke these words they were terribly, literally true. Andrew was crucified, and Peter, and Philip. They were literally crucified – bound or nailed to crosses and left to die in agony and ignominy.

Amazingly, this did not end at the close of the apostolic age. It is a kind of martyrdom suffered even in recent times. Tomorrow we commemorate the apostle Peter, who died this way, and the day after that we commemorate Fr. Zenon Kovalyk who, in 1941, was tortured and murdered in a mock crucifixion against a wall in a prison in Lviv. Fr. Zenon preached according to his conscience. Even when he had been warned that his sermons were likely to provoke the Bolsheviks, he preached on. And for that they arrested him and locked him in a prison that, poignantly, had formerly been a monastery. And not long after, they crucified him. So, the events of the apostolic age are not so remote from our age as we might imagine. Fr. Zenon of the twentieth century, like Peter of the first, knows fully what Jesus means when he says to take up the cross.

For centuries the early Church endured terrible, periodic persecutions. For their faith, the martyrs suffered unspeakable tortures and deaths. And their blood was the wellspring of the Church. From their blood sprouted new life all the time – conversions to Christ left and right. Those who witnessed the martyrs’ courage – how easily, how blithely, they gave up this passing life in exchange for the life that lasts in Christ Jesus – how – almost nonchalantly – they turned themselves over to wild beasts, to the torturers, to fire, to freezing, to drowning, to crucifixion in order to gain the one thing that matters then as now – union with God in Christ Jesus – even in his death. Those who witnessed this were so moved that in more than one instance, they too gave themselves over to Christ and joined the martyrs in death. That is a great purpose of martyrdom – to give witness. The word “martyr” means “witness.” There is no greater evangelism – no better way to testify the good news that Christ is risen and by death has trampled death  than the small account the martyrs give death. For what is it to suffer death if there is in Christ a resurrection to eternal life? The martyrs are like the merchant who sells all he has in order to go and buy the pearl of great price. They know that he who does not take up his cross and follow Christ is not worthy of Christ (Matt 10:38).

Eventually, through the witness of the early martyrs, so many came into the Church that the persecutions became less frequent and Christianity became the religion of the empire. And so it was no longer quite so courageous to claim faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, in many cases, it became socially or politically advantageous to profess Christianity, and there were many insincere conversions. The toleration of Christianity came as a mixed blessing, therefore. And still, Christ was calling his people to a radical way of life – to a renunciation of the things of this world – but this could no longer be commonly expressed by the red martyrdom of blood.

And so there was the rise of monasticism. Beginning, in many ways, with St. Anthony the Great, men and women in significant numbers began to go to the desert and to live ascetical lives devoted to the Lord. Though yet alive on earth, they lived as though they had already died. And so there is a connection between martyrdom and monasticism. Both are radical, both a kind of death, both are eschatological – they give witness to the life of the coming kingdom of God.  

The Church was so long allied with state power that many, at least in the West, which was somewhat more insulated from Islamic persecutions, must have thought that the age of Christian martyrs was gone. But in the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ would spill more Christian blood than had been spilled in all the centuries before. And just as martyrdom had centuries before led to monasticism, so would monasticism for many now lead to martyrdom.

A case in point is to be found in the Byantine Catholic Church. Today we commemorate two holy and venerable new martyrs, Fr Severian Baranyk and Fr Yakym Senkivskyi. These holy men both embraced a monastic life in the Basilian monastery in Drohobych. And for both, their monasticism would lead to their martyrdom in 1941.

For a long time before this, the Church was relatively comfortable and free from persecution in Ukraine and in that part of the world. But the radical commitment to Christ lived on, among other places, in the monasteries, where it is still always possible to give up your whole life to Christ as a witness to his gospel.

Here in the monastery the courage of the martyrs was lying in wait for the enemy to come and to crucify. The people of Christ had not abandoned Christ’s message. Still they clung to his cross and to their own. And so when the enemy came, they were ready.

Frs. Severian and Yakym would exchange their cells in Drohobych monastery for cells in Drohobych prison. They, together with the many other martyrs of our Church  commemorated this week, such as Fr. Zenon, about whom I’ve spoken, serve as models for us of the greatest love, of radical commitment to Christ and to His Church in the face of adversity from the worldly powers that be.

Before they died for Christ, they lived for him. Fr. Severian, Hegumen of the monastery in Drohobych, was known for his habitual joy and for his work with the young people and orphans. Fr. Yakym, Proto-Hegumen of the same monastery, had devoted himself first to theology and then to many years of pastoral work. He was gifted and he ministered both to scholars and to laborers, both to young and to old, with warmth and humility.  These two really ordinary and holy men of God were arrested on the same day in June of 1941 and taken to the prison in Drohobych. Fr. Severian was tortured to death. His body was broken and on his chest the cross was cut . Fr. Yakym was boiled to death in a cauldron.

One might expect that, in the face of such atrocities, the Christians would learn not to stick out their necks. Not so. As soon as Frs. Severian and Yakym were arrested, a Fr. Vitaliy Bairak was appointed Hegumen of Drohobych Monastery. And he bravely stepped up to the post only to face the same consequence four years later. He was arrested and beaten to death in prison. Just as in the age of the early martyrs, the courage of the martyrs inspired others to join them.

There are lessons for us in all of this. It is essential that we establish, support, and maintain monastic life in our Churches. It provides for us a model and preparation for martyrdom even when we are not enduring persecutions of such magnitude. I hope and pray that we do not face tortures and slaughters as did the many new martyrs we celebrate this week, but we must always be prepared even for that. To this end, the ascetic practices of monastic life can and must be incorporated in our own lives to a certain extent, such as by our participation in th fasts - including the Apostles' Fast, which we are not concluding. We must maintain the spirit of willingness even to die for Christ, because unless we take up our cross and follow him, we will not be worthy of him. Unless we go even to death in Christ, we cannot ultimately live in Christ.

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