Sunday, June 26, 2016

To be a child of Christ

As Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia often liked to point out, we humans are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As such, we are subject to all manner of affliction. Because, through our father Adam, “sin came into the world and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” Affected and weakened by our mortality, inherited from Adam, we are all sinners, standing in need of forgiveness. And we are all witness to suffering and death.

Today, one of our fellow suffering children of Adam – a paralytic – is carried by his faithful friends to Jesus. And Jesus calls this suffering son of Adam, “my son.” So, the son of Adam becomes the son of Christ. Jesus says to him, “Take heart, my son” or, “Be of good cheer, my son,” or, “Have courage, my son. Your sins are forgiven.”
Through his father Adam, mortality and paralysis came to the man and in his weakness, he sinned. Through his father Christ, his sins were forgiven, his paralysis healed, and his life promised.
Jesus calls the paralytic man his son, his child, his τέκνον. This word is a term of endearment, an expression of loving fatherly regard. Sometimes there is a whole sermon in one word of the gospel. This word τέκνον is the gospel. When the Son of God calls the son of Adam, “my son,” that’s the gospel.[i] That is God tenderly reaching out to humanity as to his own children and inviting us to reach out to God as to our own father. Jesus is inviting us to a relationship more intimate than that of master and slave, or of teacher and disciple. He lovingly relates to us as a father to his children.
Jesus does not commonly call us his children. Today’s gospel offers us a rare instance of that. Other friendly and familial images prevail. Jesus says that whoever does the will of his Father in heaven is his brother and sister and mother (Matt 12:50). So, we more commonly understand ourselves as brothers and sisters of Christ, our fellow human, our fellow son of Adam. He is the Son of God who became the son of Adam, the Son of Man. He is the God who became like one of us, our brother.
We do call him teacher and Lord, and fittingly enough, for that is what he his (John 13:13). He is our brother, but we are not his equals. He is our elder brother, the first born, “born of the Father before all ages,” and the first born of those who have died (Col 1:18). He is above us, of course, and so he is also like a father to us. In fact, his work is the work of the Father (cf. John 5:17). He is about his Father’s business (Luke 2:49). And those who see him, see the Father. He is the image of the Father for us.
Abbott Joseph says that Jesus brings the paralytic “the Father's love and compassion…. [Jesus] looks upon all as his children…. [and] with the Father's love and divine authority, says: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’”
Jesus does give another parental image of himself, comparing himself to a mother hen. He laments to Jerusalem, "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mat 23:37). With words and images like these, Jesus invites us into a familial relationship.
St. Makarios the Great says, “He who wishes to be a friend of God, and a brother and son of Christ, must do something more than other men, that is, to consecrate heart and mind themselves, and to stretch up his thoughts towards God…. When a man gives God his secret things, that is, his mind and thoughts, not occupying himself elsewhere, nor wandering away, but putting constraint upon himself, then the Lord deems him worthy of mysteries… and gives him heavenly food and spiritual drink.”
Contrary to these recommendations, we often get caught up in a minimalistic approach to life in Christ. We ask, “What must I do to be saved?” And we mean, what’s the least I can do and still make it to heaven? What kind of restrictions is Christianity going to place on me? What are the minimum requirements of the job of being a Christian? What rules do I have to follow if I am to be a follower of Christ?
Do I have to go to the liturgy every Sunday, or is it alright if I make it just once or twice a month, so long as I don’t miss three Sundays in a row? The Council of Trullo says that’s enough to keep from getting excommunicated, so is that enough? What about feast days? Do I have to go to church on feast days, too? Which ones? Do I have to go on all the great feasts? Or just on those days that Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh has designated as holy days of obligation? What about fasting? Do I have to fast? Do I have to keep the full monastic fasting tradition as described in the Typikon or is it enough to just eat fish on Fridays? What about tithing? Do I have to offer a full ten percent, or can I figure the ten percent after the taxes have been taken out? Or what if I just put in a five spot? Is that good enough?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not about being good enough. We get caught up sometimes in these rules. Rules are good and they have their place. They are there for us when we need to fall back on them. But Jesus is inviting us to more than this. Not to less, but to more. He’s calling us to be his children, his brethren, his friends. He loves us as more than slaves, followers, servants, disciples, or students. We are these things, or should be, but he freely and gratuitously loves us more than that. He loves us as his brothers and sisters and mothers, and as his friends. He says to his true disciples, “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (Jn 15.15). And he loves us as his children, saying to those who are faithful, “take heart, my children, your sins are forgiven.”
So we shouldn’t seek what is the least we can do for Christ who has done everything for us – who lives and dies for us. Rather, we should seek to make everything we do to be for Christ.
In terms of our worship, let us everywhere worship God who is everywhere. Yes, come often to the church for worship, but let us also worship God everywhere. Pray unceasingly. Make everything we do prayerful. Worship Christ, who is present in the least of his brethren, by serving them wherever they are in the world.
In terms of giving, let’s give all that we can to the parish, yes, but also recognize that all that we have is really the Lord’s – not just ten percent, but a hundred percent. Even the money we pay toward our mortgages is for the Lord’s work. Our houses are to be for the building up of the domestic Church. The Church includes and needs the parish, but it is not limited to parish buildings, programs, and operations. It is everywhere. It is where we live and work and play.
What I’m saying is that life in Christ is not to be merely a part of our life, but our whole life. Jesus does not want to walk into our lives like a boss walks into an office and makes everyone feel the need to look busy. When Jesus comes into our lives, we should invite him to make himself at home, as we would a member of the family. He gives us the unbearably profound opportunity to be on intimate, friendly, and familial terms. So let us practice constantly an awareness of God’s presence in every moment of our lives, in everything that we do, everywhere that we go. Because, Christ wants to be more to us than our master. Not less than our master, but more. He wants to be our friend, our brother, and our father.
Archimandrite Irenei says, “Christianity proclaims, into our broken and disfigured world, promises that defy our expectation – that sin can be forgiven, that the broken can be restored, that the sick can be healed, that the dead can arise. And yet in the midst of so many great and wonderful promises, there is perhaps none greater and none more profound than the promise that the human person, for all his frailty, weakness, rebellion, and apostasy, this human creature may become the friend of the Creator of all; that he may become brother and son to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

[i] P. G. Mathew says, “But when God's Son, Jesus Christ, says to this paralytic, "Cheer up, son," that's the gospel.”

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fear the only trustworthy one

St. Basil the Great was not anxious about his life.

Fresco of St. Basil
in St. Athanasius Church in Zovik, Macedonia
before 1850
A prefect of the emperor came to him and demanded that he adopt the Arian heresy, as was the will of his sovereign. But St. Basil said to him, “It is not the will of my true sovereign.”

The prefect was enraged and threatened to confiscate St. Basil’s possessions. To which St. Basil replied, “What would you want with my tattered rags, and my few books?” He was not anxious about what he would wear or about his things.

So the prefect threatened him with exile. To which St. Basil replied, “Every land is God’s. I am only his guest here or anywhere else.” He was not anxious about where he would live.

So the prefect threatened him with torture. “As for torture,” said St. Basil, “I am so weak that the first blow would knock me out.”

So the prefect threatened him with death. “To me, death would be a kindness,” said St. Basil, “for it would bring me all the sooner to God.” He was not anxious even about his life.

The prefect exclaimed, “I’ve never been spoken to so boldly before!” “Perhaps,” said St. Basil, “you have never met a bishop…. Where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else.”[1]

Like St. Basil, we should fear God alone and then fear nothing and no one else.

Today Jesus commands us not to be anxious. Yet, anxiety plagues many of us. A quick internet search about anxiety reveals a panoply of self-help books, aids, and supplements. We know that anxiety is our enemy. This is actually one thing about which our culture agrees with Jesus.

But the gospel is not a self-help book. It’s not merely a set of suggestions for our happiness and well-being. Though, our Lord does care for us, so his commandments are for our good.

Contrary to the implications of some, God won’t give us a life without suffering. Far from it. He teaches us instead that we are to take up our crosses. Suffering is going to be part of this. The Christian way is not going to be the easy way.

C.S. Lewis says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” But if we are not seeking pleasure and happiness so much as truth and love, then that is to be found only in Christ, who is Truth and who is Love.

An interior view of The Eagle and Child (That is, the Bird and Baby),
a pub frequented by C.S. Lewis.
His portrait hangs over the mantle to the right. 
But all of that notwithstanding, I do not believe that God wants us to suffer. There’s a difference between what God permits and what God desires. He tells us we will suffer, but today’s gospel is good evidence that he does not want us to suffer needlessly. Anxiety is a needless suffering, from which he wants us free. He did not make us just to be sufferers. He did not make us for endless anxiety.  

I myself am anxious much of the time. I am often disobedient to this commandment of our Lord. May he have mercy on me, the sinner.  

He commands us not to be anxious. This God and man who also tells us that we will be hated and persecuted and that we will suffer for his name’s sake, that we must accept suffering, take up our cross, die; that we must go through death on our way to everlasting life. The one who afflicts us with such words, also comforts us. He tells us how to deal with these terrible things. That is, he commands us, do not to be anxious about your life. Be free. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Trust.

Mother Katherine, the local Orthodox nun, iconographer, and psychologist, points out that while we often think of peace as the opposite of anxiety, this peace must be grounded in trust. Trust “implies peace in relationship with something or someone else.” And so trust is the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety is ultimately a failure to trust in the Lord. Trust that the Lord will give you what you need. He clothes the lilies of the field more splendidly than Solomon. He will give us what we need to wear. Trust in him. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Do not worry.

All good things come from the Lord, really. Do not be deceived into thinking that we have earned all the good things we enjoy. Every talent and ability was given to us by God. Every opportunity. Every kindness in every heart that educated us and gave us a chance. All of this is from the bounty of God. We owe him all things. All things are truly his. Nothing is really our own. And gratitude for all these things is an antidote to the poison of anxiety.

Anxiety is an affliction. It is pain, even physical pain, about which our Lord is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?”

Anxiety is restless, undirected worry about all of things that might happen. Someone might not like me anymore. They might even hate me. Our stained glass windows might collapse. I might get hit by a car. We might be attacked by terrorists. These are things that might happen or might not happen. Worry and anxiety about these things are exactly what we are to avoid.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t to care about these things. The King James Bible says we are to have no care about our life, but the meaning of the word ‘care’ has evolved since the seventeenth century. Care and concern and prudence are good and necessary. They’re even a part of love. Anxiety, on the other hand, does no good.

We should lovingly care for our old church buildings, blessings given to us by God that they are. That is love and care, not anxiety.

We should take care when we cross the road. Looking both ways is not anxiety. But looking both ways and then looking both ways again and again and then, seeing no cars, deciding not to cross anyway, in case there might be a car – that is anxiety.

It’s alright to prepare for possible disasters. That’s not anxiety – it’s taking care. But living in such fear about the possibility of a terrorist attack that you begin to ostracize and hate your neighbors – that is anxiety.

Anxiety has no real object.  It has only imagined objects. It is worry about maybes and what ifs. Unlike fear, which does have real objects. We are to fear God. Jesus does not condemn this holy fear when he tells us not to be anxious. God himself is called the Fear of Isaac.  Have this kind of fear, but do not be anxious.

I hear a lot of anxiety about what is happening against Christians in this country. But what are we afraid of? Since when do Christians fear persecution or even death? Have we forgotten the gospel and the resurrection? Do we think the culture or the government can triumph over the cross?

St. Basil wasn’t worried about whether the government official would arrest him. Such worry would have only stifled his courage to witness to Christ and, like a coward, he’d have cowered instead for fear of repercussions. He did not fear the government, because he feared the only one worthy of his fear: the Lord God. When you fear God, then you need not fear anything. If I really fear God, and not people – not my enemies and not my friends – then I cannot be persuaded to act against my God-given conscience.

We often fear our friends more than we do our enemies. We fear losing our friends or offending them. We shouldn’t be deliberately offensive, but we also shouldn’t be so afraid of what people might think, say, or do that it inhibits our witness to Christ in word and in action.

Fear God instead. In that fear – fear of the only one who loves mankind, fear of the only trustworthy one – all fear melts away, because perfect love casts out fear. Our holy father Anthony the Great has two parallel sayings. The first is by far the more popular. He says, “I no longer fear God, but love him.” But he also says, in fact in the next sentence, “Always keep before your eyes the fear of the Lord” (Sayings of Anthony, 32 and 33). This is the paradox. Only in the fear of the Lord is it possible to be truly fearless.

[1] This story about St. Basil is adapted from St. Gregory the Theologian’s Funeral Oration for St. Basil (Oration 43, 48-50). This, and many ideas in this post, were inspired by Fr. Thomas Hopko

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