Sunday, December 25, 2016

“Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”

Christ is born! Christos Raždajetsja! “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”[1] This is what he accomplishes today in that cave. He is restoring our likeness to God from which we have fallen.

If you have a new garment of pure white linen cloth and if you wear this garment too often or for all sorts of rough tasks and dirty jobs, it soon becomes stained. Beautiful, pure, white cloth becomes yellowed, stained, and imperfect. A contemporary American in this situation is likely simply to dispose of the garment and buy a new one. We are, in fact, in the commercial season of buying new things. Our culture and our economy is set up this way. It’s been called a throw-away culture and a consumer culture. But this is not the case with traditional cultures. A traditional textile worker would not give up on a garment even if it was stained beyond the power of any bleach, but might then take the stained white garment and dye it vibrant colors – blues and purples, reds and yellows and greens. A plain white garment becomes a coat of many colors. And the end result is a garment more beautiful even than the new unstained garment.

You know, a beautiful Chinese tea bowl breaks as easily as cheap second hand crockery. What to do then? We break a lot of bowls at my house. Probably, we break one every week. I like to tell the children, as I sweep up and throw away yet another broken bowl, that ceramic can last for a thousand years if properly cared for. This is true. But when the bowl is broken, sweeping it up and throwing it away isn't the only option. There is a custom among traditional Japanese craftsmen to take the broken pieces and fuse them back together. Now, some of us may do this with superglue, which can work well enough for a while – though the result is always compromised and inferior to a new and unbroken bowl. The cracks gradually worsen and the piece must eventually be thrown away anyway. The traditional Japanese craftsman, however, does not use superglue, but lacquer mixed with gold – a material more beautiful, precious, and strong then the ceramic the bowl was first made with. This is called kintsugi – golden joinery. And the cracks are made more visible, not less. They're emphasized by this technique, not hidden – but they're changed into things of beauty. And the bowl that was broken and then made whole is better and more beautiful than the bowl that was never broken. 

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.”[2]

I can tell you as a painter that, almost mysteriously, these reworked paintings often have a greater depth and beauty, at least to my eyes, than a pristine first image. I do love the masterful strokes of the sumi-e painter, who, with just a few rapid movements with an ink brush creates a fresh and startling image. But then the next few stages of a painting often render it overworked or muddy.  It is only after this stage, when all is ruined, when the painter returns again to his easel, that he can restore the image and even go beyond restoration. If he is a great painter, the scars of the overwork and the stains are almost transfigured. They’re not obliterated, but made into things of beauty. They add a texture and depth I’ve found no other way to accomplish. And the painting at the end is even better and more beautiful than it was when it was fresh and new.

St. Athanasius gives us this image of the repainted portrait, in his work On the Incarnation. He explains, “Even so was it with the all-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind after himself, and seek out his lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’ This also explains his saying to the Jews: ‘Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ He was not referring to a man's natural birth from his mother, as they thought, but to the rebirth and recreation of the soul in the image of God.”

It is in and through the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate today, that our rebirth in the image of God is enabled. “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”

His ways of raising us up are marvelous. Wondrous are his works. He does not simply restore us to our starting point like some video game character that gets an extra life. As our almighty God, he could do that. He can do anything. If Jesus breaks a Chinese tea bowl, he can restore it to unbrokenness. But I think he prefers kintsugi. The power of Christ is greater than the power of Tide bleach. He can restore to whiteness a garment with any stain. But I think he prefers the craft of the dyer and the coat of many colors.

When he rises from the dead, remember, he still bears on his body the marks of his crucifixion. And these marks increase and do not diminish the beauty of his glorified body. By them, we are healed.

And when today he becomes for our salvation a baby, he does not become the same first-created Adam, unaffected by sin and suffering and death, but rather a new Adam. He takes on all the fragility and neediness of a baby. He makes himself utterly vulnerable and dependent upon his mother. As of today, the uncreated God nurses at his mother's breast. And if he does not, he feels the pain of hunger. He feels all the pains of life and will ultimately suffer even death.

Many of us sometimes long to go back to the way things were when we were younger, healthier, happier. We succumb to the bitter-sweetness of nostalgia, perhaps especially at this time of year.

In a similar way, maybe we wish we could go back to Eden. Maybe we get mad at Adam and Eve for spoiling things for us, as if we wouldn’t have spoiled them for ourselves, given the chance. Maybe we feel cheated of the simple life of the garden, where we could walk with the Lord in the cool of the day. But God does not send us back to Eden. He comes to us in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem has opened Eden for us.”[3] He raises up the likeness that had fallen, not by erasing the consequences of our sin – our fragility and mortality – but by entering into them himself. He raises up by coming down. By emptying himself and taking the form of a slave. By becoming a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger where animals come to feed. Our Lord becomes our brother and Mary’s son. And our human nature is recreated in him.

Like the kintsugi – broken ceramic joined together with gold – he joins our broken humanity together with his divinity. He adds something better to us than was there in the first place. He doesn’t just patch us back together again as if with superglue, but makes us a new creation, even better than we were in the first place. He doesn’t just take us back to the way things were, but takes us to a new heaven and a new earth, more glorious even than that first created.  And that heaven is a cave; the cherubic throne a virgin. And the manger has become the place where Christ, the incomprehensible God, lies down.[4]

Jesus Christ is born. He leaves his hiding place in Mary’s womb and enters the cave.  At this moment, for the first time in history, human eyes behold the human face of God. And even animal eyes first see the human face of God.  The eyes of all creation are opened for the first time since they were shut in Eden.

A version of this article now appears on Catholic Exchange

[1] Troparion of the Prefestive Days of the Nativity
[2] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
[3] Ikos of the Nativity
[4] Irmos of Ode 9 of the Canon of the Nativity

Sunday, December 11, 2016

There is no excuse.

Maybe some of us can sympathize with the excuse makers in the parable of the great banquet – perhaps especially in this season of office parties to which we may not always want to go (Luke 14:16-24). Though most of us can't believably say to our boss, "I just bought five yoke of oxen and I have to go examine them. Please excuse me," but we might come up with other excuses (Luke 14:19). The classic is to feign illness. Or, you can tell one group that you already made plans with another group and then tell that group that you can’t make it because you’ve got plans with the first group. This is called lying your way out of it. But Paul tells us to stop lying to each other (Col 3:9). It can be a relief to get out of social obligations. The comedian John Mulaney says, "It is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable. Percentage wise, it is 100% easier not to do things than to do them – and so much fun not to do them, especially when you were supposed to do them.”

At one time or another, we’ve probably all experienced the relief of getting out of some odious social obligation, so we all tend to be rather sympathetic toward those excuses for not coming.

Even Scripture – the Old Testament, that is – appears to have some sympathy for these excuses. Deuteronomy lists three acceptable excuses: having built a house but not yet dedicated it (20:5); having planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit (20:6); and having betrothed a wife but not yet married her (20:7). Now, interestingly, these are considered good excuses for not going into battle against the enemies of Israel, but they parallel surprisingly well with those excuses offered in today’s parable by the invited guests who do not want to come to the great banquet.

One has bought a field but not yet seen it; another has bought oxen but not yet examined them; and a third is newly married and so cannot come (Luke 14:18-20). Moses would have accepted these as excuses for not going into battle, let alone the simple matter of not going to a banquet.

But the man in the parable, who represents our Lord, was angry. He does not accept their excuses.

This is not the only time that Jesus takes a harder line than Moses. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17). I'm reminded of what Jesus said when asked about divorce. "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8). Moses introduces a leniency toward human weaknesses that Jesus does not seem interested in preserving.  Rather, he goes to the root – to how it was in the beginning. He is radical. He would not have us too comfortable or self-assured of our place at his table.

The guests invited to the great banquet took too lightly their host's invitation. They were too comfortable. They thought it too small a thing. They failed to appreciate to what a great extent their host was going to please them out of love for them. They failed to notice that this was no ordinary dinner, but communion with their Lord. Their ingratitude barred them from giving proper thanks, that is, from Eucharist.

Their ingratitude is clear because it was at the second invitation that they refused to come. The engagement did not catch them unawares. If they were not going to come because of importuning circumstances, they really ought to have made that known when they were first invited. It’s as if they RSVP’d that they’d be coming, but then all changed their minds at the last minute after everything was prepared. They were too casual with their host’s hospitality. They were complacent and self-assured. They were ungrateful.

We may be like these invited guests.

In one sense, of course, those Jews who rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ are like the invited guests. They had been invited as God’s chosen people, but rejected Jesus when the Father sent him to them. And the Gentiles who accepted the gospel are like the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind from the streets and the lanes of the city and the people from the highways and the hedges brought in to fill the house with guests.

But in another sense – more applicable to us personally – we are the invited guests. We are invited to the great banquet by this gospel we have heard and accepted. We received and accepted this first invitation in our baptism. The banquet, of course, is our salvation in Christ, the kingdom of heaven, the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist.

We have received our first invitation and we're waiting for everything to be made ready for us to go into the great banquet. We have been baptized into Christ and we await his second coming. By our baptism and our faith, we have accepted the Lord's first invitation.

When he comes for us again to make us come into the feast, let us not refuse him. He doesn't want to hear our excuses. We are to be ready at a moment's notice for the announcement that all is ready and for the invitation to come into the feast. We are to receive this good news with joy, not excuses.

Who among us is always ready to meet the Lord?

It is meaningful that the invited guests are replaced by the poor. This tells us, I think, something about the kind of person able to be ready at a moment's notice to enter into the great banquet. Such a person is poor. The poor do not have land or oxen or vineyards or houses. They also have no excuses. They are free of these distractions. They know it would be good to go into the banquet and eat and they have no reason not to. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). Really none of us have any reason not to. Some of us just think we do. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:3).

What reasons do we have to resist the call of the Lord? What excuses do we make for avoiding the Divine Liturgy, which really is the great and heavenly banquet to which we are invited? Even if we have land and houses to attend to, we have no excuse. And if indeed maintaining our material properties keeps us from communion with the Lord, we should shed them. Or if anything keeps us from the Lord, we should cut it off. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt 5:30).

Let us all examine our lives for whatever distractions exist between us and God and let us seek to remove these distractions. This time of fasting in preparation for the coming of the Lord at his holy nativity is a time of reducing these unnecessary distractions that cloud and distort our vision of God. “When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.”[1] God isn’t some odious boss that we should want to avoid. He’s our loving father calling us to a great feast and to communion with himself. Let us stop making excuses. Let us answer his invitation with joy and go into the feast.

[1] Truman Capote. A Christmas Memory. 1956. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Sabbath is a Day of Freedom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Love the Stranger as Yourself

The Hospitality of Abraham,
Constantinople, late 14th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sometimes there is only one who believes.

on Luke 8:26-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Regarding the Dead in the Light of Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Listening to Hear the Word of God in Our Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word of God can be hard to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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