Sunday, November 29, 2015

Our deliverer is coming

For eighteen years, a woman was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. For eighteen years, she endured a spirit of infirmity. For eighteen years, she was in bondage to this suffering and torment.

Until the Lord Jesus came into her life.

Do we have something to learn from this woman? I think we do. I think we have patience to learn from her.

The Philip’s Fast in which we find ourselves is a particularly poignant liturgical moment for us to reflect upon patience and hope. We are waiting for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. As Israel prepared for the coming Messiah, so we are preparing for the second coming of our Lord. As the bent over and infirm daughter of Abraham waited for her healer with patience and hope, so we are waiting for our healer and deliverer. Just like her, we don’t know when he is coming, but we know that he is coming. So let us wait – with patience and with an expectant hope and not give ourselves over to despair when things are difficult. If we wait for the Lord, we do not wait in vain.

Through Isaiah, the Lord God comforted his people with the knowledge that “those who wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Is 40:31). If you can't even stand upright, it is hard to believe that one day you will fly – that you “shall mount up with wings like eagles.” But against all doubt and all despair believe it, and wait upon the Lord. No matter what you or your loved ones are suffering, be assured that your healer is coming. No matter what chains bind you or what bars enclose you, your deliverer is coming. His coming is as sure as the rising of the sun.

My soul is waiting for the Lord.  I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
                        and Israel on the Lord (Psalm 129).

God’s time is not like our time. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan – who is Lewis’ figure of Christ – tells the children he’ll be back “soon” and they ask him, “what do you call soon?” And he says, “I call all time soon.” With that in mind, I tell you Christ is coming soon.

But you know, what is soon to us is not necessarily soon to the Lord. Israel endured 40 years wandering in the wilderness before they could enter the Promised Land. And before that, they endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt before the Lord sent them Moses, their deliverer. But he is always coming. Our deliverer is coming. And when he comes, may he find us waiting for him.

When the Lord Jesus comes, where does he find the woman in today’s gospel? She is bent-over and infirm. Does he therefore find her hiding and waiting for death? No, he finds her in the synagogue where he is preaching. He finds her among the people who gather to hear the word of the Lord. This daughter of Abraham comes to the synagogue and there meets the Lord Jesus, who takes away her infirmity and looses her from her bondage. 

Let us all imitate this woman in this. If we are at all able, let us come often to the house of the Lord to worship him and to hear his word, even if to come we must overcome difficulties to do so. When the Lord comes, may he find us here worshipping him and listening to his word. And one day soon, he will take away our infirmities and free us from our bondage.

It is meaningful what the Lord says to the woman, I think. He says, “Woman, you are loosed” – “you are released” – “you are set free.” He doesn’t just say to her, “you are healed,” because he recognizes that the woman has been afflicted and oppressed for many years by this infirmity. Her spine has been tied up in knots and Jesus now unties those cords. But this bodily affliction has also weighed heavily upon her spirit and the Lord is offering her not only healingof body, but also freedom and deliverance from a spirit of infirmity. We are body and spirit – never one without the other.

The woman is bent over in body, but she’s not bowed down by despair. In the face of her suffering, she has not cursed God and given up hope, as Job’s wife would recommend and as many do. No, she carries on. She comes again to the synagogue. She does not give up on God even when, after eighteen years, it may have felt like God had abandoned her to that torment forever.

It may have felt that way, but we know that isn’t true. She didn’t know that morning, when she struggled for the six-thousandth time to get up and go out, that this was the day the Lord would deliver her. But she did know, I think, that her deliverer was coming. It is the same with us. We can’t know the day or the hour of our deliverance, whether it will be in this age or in the age to come, but we do know that it is coming. And so, each day, let us rise up and prepare for the Lord’s coming into our lives.

We can know that the Lord wants to be with us – that our sufferings and afflictions and difficulties – the evil and the death that we contend with daily – is not the will of the Lord. “God did not make death” (Wisdom). It wasn’t the Lord who bent this woman. The spirit of infirmity is not the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord who frees us, not ties us down. It is the Lord who heals us, not afflicts us. Jesus tells us who this spirit of infirmity is: it is Satan. St. Cyril of Alexandria affirms: “The accursed Satan is the cause of disease in human bodies.” Let us not attribute to God the things of Satan. God wants us well, as Jesus makes clear today.

Soon, to begin the anaphora, I will say to all, “Let us stand aright; let us stand in awe; let us be attentive to offer the holy Anaphora in peace.” The liturgy reveals the will of God for us. He wills that we stand aright in his presence. And here in his presence is a woman who for eighteen years has not been able to stand aright. If she were here among us, I would still say “Let us stand aright,” because that is in fact very like what the Lord did say to her: “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.’ And he lays his hands upon her, and immediately she is made straight.” She is able to stand aright. This is what the Lord wills for her and for us. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Who is my neighbor

There’s an infamous story about Kitty Genovese who, in 1964, was knifed in her neighborhood in Queens. She screamed for help. And more than a dozen heard her cries. Yet no one did anything to help or to intervene. Reports have often exaggerated the details of this event, but the fact remains that at least one witness knew she was stabbed and yet did nothing. Not until she was attacked yet again by the same man did someone else call the police. And by then it was too late.

You see, Jesus’ parable today is not so far-fetched. People really act this way sometimes. The priest and the Levite witness the suffering of a fellow man and yet do nothing to intervene. This happens in incidents that grab headlines and it happens in our daily lives.

I hope not many of us have had to witness such atrocities. Those of us who have, I hope, have done something to intervene. But for all of us, it isn’t difficult to find human suffering. Even if our suffering is not so great, we all do suffer and we all, daily, encounter the suffering of others. If we read the news, it will mostly be about suffering. The news from Paris this week tells of great suffering. May God be with them and defend us all. At work, we may witness spiteful and petty cruelties between coworkers. In our families, we may deal with illnesses and addictions. Downtown and in our neighborhood, we may encounter homelessness and addiction.

In my experience, everywhere we go, we see suffering. And wherever we recognize the suffering of another, we may take that recognition, I believe, as a calling from God to be an instrument of God’s healing and help. To be a neighbor.

What we should do in each given situation requires discernment, but we can trust that God has put us in the situation for his purposes. Each and every time. There is nothing random or arbitrary about the situations we find ourselves in, though it may seem that way. In truth, God has put us there. And it’s not to bring harm or callousness, but to bring healing and compassion. If you are witnessing human suffering, God is calling upon you to be a neighbor to the one who suffers.

The lawyer, desiring to justify himself, asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The witness of Kitty Genovese’s attack must have had the same question. He must have thought, "oh she is someone else’s neighbor. Someone else’s problem. Not mine. It’s nothing to do with me. Leave me out of it." When in fact, each witness is given an opportunity by God – not by random chance or accident (which does not exist) but by God, who personally knows and loves every victim, every witness, and every sinner. 

Russian Icon of the Good Samaritan
When the man is stripped and beaten by robbers, God sends him a priest. God calls upon this priest to intervene for good, to help, to show mercy, to be a priest. To the priest, God gives the first opportunity to act as God’s instrument of healing. But the priest passes him by on the other side. He passes by the robbed and beaten man – and he passes by the calling of God in that moment – and he passes by the image of God lying in the dirt. So when the priest fails to do his will, God sends a Levite. And when the Levite fails, God sends a Samaritan, who acts in every way as an image of Christ to the robbed and beaten victim.

Now Samaritans and Jews would ordinarily have nothing to do with one another – they were enemies – but this Samaritan gives no consideration to that. He sees past that tribal acrimony to his common humanity with this bruised and battered Jew from Jerusalem he finds lying in the road.

Our common humanity has its grounding both in the earth we’re made out of and in the breath of life – the ruach – the spirit that God breathes into our nostrils. We are all of us earth with God breathed in – and no human divisions can surmount that common identity.

Our neighbors are not only those with whom we have certain kinds of kinship. Not only our family members and friends. Not only our coreligionists. If we were to assist only those who share our faith, we would thereby prove the enemies and critics of faith correct. They say that faithful religious people are the cause conflict and violence. This becomes true if we fail to live our faith truly.

Neighborliness is not due only to the groups in which we find ourselves. Not only to the born, the young, the healthy, and the free but also to the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned and enslaved. Not only to Americans, but also to the French and to Syrians and Iraqis and all the people of all the nations of the world. Not only to Christians, but also to Muslims and Jews and Pagans and atheists. Not only to the moral, the innocent, and the orthodox, but also to the immoral, the guilty, and the heretical. Also to sinners. Sinners and hypocrites like us.

How often, desiring to justify ourselves, we say, “Well maybe I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so. At least I don’t want to do this or that evil. Ugh, how can a person even be tempted by that sin? I’m so far above that.”  Believe me, our own sins are no better. St. Mark the Ascetic writes that “the devil makes small sins seem smaller in our eyes, for otherwise he can’t lead us to greater evil.”[i] The very fact that our own sins look so innocent to us reveals the depth of our depravity.  How much we stand in need of the cross and of the Lord’s forgiveness and his great mercy, available to us all in the holy mystery of repentance.   

We enter today into the Philip’s Fast, which is a season of repentance. This is an especially good time of year for us to identify with all the other sinners in the world, to stop thinking ourselves better than others, to repent, to confess our own sins rather than listing the sins of others, to fast and to give to the poor, to pray for peace on earth, to be a neighbor to all.

So be a neighbor to all people, not because all people are equally right, or because there any truth the relativistic nonsense that “your truth is true for you but not for me,” but because being right is never a person’s deepest identity. Our deepest identity is that which God creates in us – his own image. Therefore, we must never allow our differences with other people – even when they’re in the wrong – to justify any hatred or indifference toward them.

In today’s epistle to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “There is… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, there is one God who is father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Eph 4:5-6). That is our relationship with all others. Always bear this in mind. It makes us neighbors of all people, even our enemies. For all people are called by the one God to the true faith and to baptism, never to death and destruction. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes and as we sing each Pascha, "Let us call brethren even those who hate us."

[i] “On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts” No. 94,

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Compassion for Demons

Demons cry out to Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. They beg him not to cast them into the abyss, but rather to allow them to enter a nearby herd of swine.

The Miracle of the Gadarene Swine
about 1000
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum

Remember, these are demons, like the one to whom the priest says before baptisms,
“I adjure you, most evil, unclean, foul, abominable and alien spirit, by the power of Jesus Christ…, Depart! Acknowledge the futility of your power, which had no authority even over swine. Remember the One who ordered you, in accordance with your own request, to enter the herd of swine” (Second Exorcism).
These are such as have no right to ask anything of the Lord. They are altogether evil and rebellious, and yet they ask. Because they also cannot do anything without the Lord’s permission. They cannot even lead a pig. In Genesis, the Lord gives dominion to us humans over all the beasts (1:28). Strikingly, the demons have no share in this. In presence of Jesus, a Legion of demons is utterly powerless, even over pigs. So perhaps it is not so surprising to hear them begging the Lord for something. Though their effrontery remains staggering.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the Lord grants their petition. They beg him for permission to enter the swine, and he gives them leave (8:32). He doesn’t have to do this, you realize. He could have said to them at this time, again as the priest does before baptisms, “go back to your own Tartarus until the great day of the judgement that has been prepared”(First Exorcism). But the demons beg to be spared from this abyss and he does spare them – at least for now.

The Lord taught his disciples, “Ask and it will be given you” (Luke 11:9). Does this teaching apply even to the unfaithful demons? For a moment here anyway, it seems so.

Why? Does Jesus love even the demons?

We could point to many passages – for example, in the cursing Psalms – that proclaim God’s hatred for the wicked and for his enemies. But I believe the fathers were right to interpret these passages allegorically. The enemy that God hates and that we should hate is certainly not our neighbors or our fellow creatures, but sin and death, temptations and all the thoughts which deceive or distract us from the love of God.

On the other hand, it is also true that the fathers also allegorize the cursed and hated enemies in the Psalms as demons. Meanwhile, God is love and has taught us to love even our enemies. And surely the demons are his enemies. And surely he loves his enemies. I certainly hope so, because every time I sin, I make myself like a demon and an enemy of God. 

One of the last things Father Sid told me before he died was that we must have compassion for the demons. I found the idea then and now both repellent and difficult, but I’m not sure he was wrong. One could understand Jesus’ permission to enter the swine as compassionate.

This should give us hope, I think. If the Lord hears the petitions even of the demons of hell, then surely he will hear us, even when we cry out to him from the depths of our despair. 
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness:  for this we revere you” (Ps 130:1-4).
When the Lord hears us, has mercy on us, and grants our petitions, we must do good with the good he gives us. This is not what the demons do. When their petition is granted, what do the demons then do? Do they seek the good of the pigs entrusted to their care? Do they lead the pigs to slop? Hardly. As you know, they rushed the herd into the lake and drowned them. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
“Wicked demons are cruel, mischievous, hurtful and treacherous to those who are in their power. The fact clearly proves this, because they hurried the swine over a precipice and drowned them in the waters” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 44).  
When the demons possessed a man, they used their power to hurt the man, and when they possessed the swine, they used their power to hurt the swine. They are utterly petty and hurtful and destructive. They take even the smallest opportunity to do what harm they can. You and I become ever more like these demons when we return again and again to our sins the way that a sow, having been washed, returns to her wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

Yet, every time we repent, the Lord forgives us. He shows us mercy. He spares us from the abyss. Every time we cry out to him, he hears us. Every time the Lord forgives us, we have the opportunity, by the grace of God, to become like the good and kind and loving and merciful men and women that God created us to be.

Maybe Jesus was even giving the demons an opportunity. He does not at this time condemn them to the abyss. If this is an opportunity for them, they immediately squander it. Jesus does not condemn the demons. They condemn themselves. Throwing the swine over the precipice, they cast themselves into the abyss.

This is how damnation works, I believe. God does not damn the sinful and wicked, they damn themselves by their impenitence. God does not desire the death of sinners, but rather that we repent and live. There are no penitents among the damned. There are only those who reject God absolutely – who would rather wallow in their hurtful sins than love God and their neighbors.

In hell, we know, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (e.g. Matt 13:42; Luke 13:28). What might not be clear about this is that all that tooth gnashing is probably not penitent lamentation. The word here can refer to snarling and growling as in anger. The word often communicates “hate, desire for destruction of the other” (TDNT, as quoted by Randal Rauser). So hell is peopled by the hateful, not by victims of some spiteful God. Our God is a loving God who desires our repentance. Let us repent then, and believe the gospel.

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