Sunday, August 21, 2016

Celebrate or Die

Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14). But, for a wedding story, his parable has a lot of murder and violence. Some of the guests invited to the wedding feast simply make light of it and – excusing themselves by this or that trifle – do not come. Others, however, seize and kill the servants whom the king sent bearing the glad news and invitation. In response, the king sends in his troops and kills not only those insensate murderers, but also their entire city.

Having no guests left and finding his first-invited guests unworthy, the king invites a multitude in from the streets. This is where we come in, I expect. But the violence does not end here – for both the good and the bad now sit together at the feast – and the king makes sure the bad do not go unpunished.

He sees among the guests a man who has no wedding garment and asks him how he got in so inappropriately dressed. If the man were guiltless, surely he would defend himself – protesting that he was invited by the king’s servants or that he was too poor to afford such finery. But the man says nothing. It would seem, then, that he has no excuse. So the king has him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is the meaning of all this violence? What kind of party is this? What party comes with such stakes? This is rather like getting a wedding invitation – but in fine print at the bottom is written, “Celebrate or die.” It becomes rather clear that we are not talking here about the usual kind of wedding party. We might not want to be invited to a wedding like this – it sounds rather dangerous – but, like it or not, we are invited.

It is a free invitation to celebrate, but it’s an invitation we’d better accept. It’s an invitation with teeth. It is an occasion of great joy, but it is deadly serious. Those unwilling to partake joyfully will have hell to pay. Because this wedding feast, as Jesus says at the outset, is like the kingdom of heaven. The wedding clothes we are to wear to this feast are those we put on at baptism. That is, they are like Christ himself, for, at baptism, we are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27). To be thrown out of this wedding hall is to be thrown out the gates of heaven.  

But this party isn’t just exactly like heaven either. For one thing, it’s a party to which both the good and the bad have come. I’ve been to a few parties like that.

In fact, every Divine Liturgy is a party like that, if you think about it. Our Eucharistic celebration is like a party to which both the good and the bad alike are invited. The sinners and the saints sit together in the pews. For that matter, they’re usually sitting together in the same seat. If you’re wondering whether you’re a sinner or a saint, remember that you can be both. This struggle between the good and the bad happens mostly on the inside.

Jesus’ parable reminds me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters, which I highly recommend. It’s framed as a series of letters from a senior demon – Screwtape – to a junior demon – his nephew Wormwood – with advice on the best way to tempt a soul to keep him out of heaven and secure his place in hell. The demons sardonically call their victims “patients.”

Well, Wormwood gets in trouble one day when his “patient” converts to Christianity. Screwtape is mightily displeased. But, he assures his nephew, their hope of damning the poor soul to hell is not lost. “One of our great allies at present,” says Screwtape, “is the Church itself.”

You see, Screwtape is well aware of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel: both good and bad guests fill the wedding hall – and the devils can use the bad ones to help corrupt the good. The Church in this world is a mixed bag.

Screwtape points out that the new Christian will get to his pew, look around him and see just those neighbors “whom he has hitherto avoided.” You’ll want to “lean pretty heavily on those neighbors,” he advises Wormwood “It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains,” writes Screwtape. “Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.… Never let him ask what he expected them to look like….”

It may be, of course, that “the people in the next pew” are actually good and holy people. Of course if they’re not, writes Screwtape “– if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge player or the man with squeaky boots is a miser and an extortioner – then your task is so much the easier.”

You see, the demons will use our sins not only to drag us down but also to drag others down with us, if they can. Our neighbors see our sins and our hypocrisy and it sometimes convinces them that the church itself is hypocritical and ridiculous. Of course, I’m reminded of that old retort to the common complaint that there are too many hypocrites in church: “Don’t worry, there’s always room for one more.”

So, do not judge others. Look to your own sins.

That’s the point. All are invited and welcome to the feast, regardless of their sinfulness. But those who accept the invitation have a serious duty. This love feast is not a free-for-all, come-one, come-all, do-as-you-please, orgiastic bacchanalia. This is a wedding feast – a celebration of commitment, fidelity, fruitfulness, life, and love. A wedding is where two become one, and at this wedding, we the Church become one with Christ our Lord. Those unprepared to celebrate these things – those without a wedding garment – cannot remain in the kingdom of heaven. We are now before the gates of the kingdom of heaven and our king is inviting us in. His invitation is this: Repent, and know the joy only Christ can bring.

Holy Gate (Royal Doors), 16th century, 
Arkhangelsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Only Jesus is enough.

St. Athanasius Icon
St. Athanasius Church in Germas (Loshnitsa)
17th century
Some of Jesus’ commandments to us seem a bit out of reach. For example, he commands us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Be like God. We are even to become one with him. This is the whole purpose of God becoming human in Jesus Christ – so that we humans might become God in Jesus Christ.[1] As our patron St. Athanasius puts it, God becomes sarcophore so that we might become pneumatophore. [2] That is, God bears our flesh that we might bear the Holy Spirit. Only in Jesus Christ is any of this possible. That should be apparent.  

We’ve got a long way to go. This coming into union with God is a journey. It is progressive – usually. It is not usually an instantaneous and overwhelming moment of grace. Sure, God blinds Paul with his light, but even after his conversion, Paul is still irascible Paul, thorns and all, and even he needs growth (Acts 9:3; 2 Cor 12:7). I believe even heaven itself is an eternal dynamic ascent into ever greater union with God, and not a static, one-and-done, resting on your laurels kind of place.

When a young man comes to Jesus asking what good he must do to have eternal life, Jesus points first to the seemingly out-of-reach source of all goodness and says, “There is One Who is good” (Matt 19:16-17). Yet, he does not begin by commanding that the young man be good, even as the only good one is good. Rather, he begins with basic commandments – five of the Ten Commandments and the human side of the greatest commandment, that is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 19:18-19).

Dorothy Day
We have to begin at the beginning. We have to love the person in front of us, the image of God in others, before we can love God, before we can be like God. As Dorothy Day says, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

These initial commandments are essential, but they are not sufficient. They are a necessary first step, but alone, they do not perfect us or unite us to God. Even if we were perfect observers of these commandments, we would not be perfect.

There is a list of sins in the Great Book of Needs meant to aid penitents in confessing their sins in holy repentance.[3] I’m sure many are familiar with similar lists, often called Examinations of Conscience. We might get the sense, while poring over these lists, that if somehow by the grace of God we kept free of these sins, then we’d be perfect. But it isn’t so. Perfection goes beyond the negative prohibition of sin and culminates, above all, in being with God – being with the Being One – the One who is. After we fulfill the commandments, Jesus commands us, “Come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Only being with Jesus is enough.

The rich young man desired perfection. That’s clear, because he went away sad – saddened by his own unwillingness to follow Jesus (Matt 19:22). He knew that he lacked something. Keeping the commandments that he kept wasn’t sufficient. He yearned for more. He knew there was more.

We are created by our very nature and from the very beginning for union with God. Our created nature yearns for God. Even if we are committing no voluntary sins (and who among us can say that?) but even if we are like the young man and are seemingly guilty of nothing, it still isn’t enough, as the young man could sense when he asked, “what do I still lack?" (Matt 19:20) He could sense an absence and a need for growth.

Our need for growth is everlasting. Even when we die and are planted in the earth, our growth may not be finished. Our ascent into union with God is never-ending. The divine nature of which we partake is inexhaustible (cf. 2 Pet 1:4). We begin to partake of the divine nature, but we never stop because there is no end of God. He is without end and he alone is all-sufficient for us. No riches are sufficient.

Jesus says to the rich man, “Go sell what you possess and give to the poor… and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). If you would be perfect, turn away from the good created things that comfort you, and turn instead toward the true Comforter – the Holy Spirit.  Come, follow Jesus. Be with Jesus. Only Jesus is enough.

To be with Christ is pure joy and perfection. To be with Christ – even to suffer with him on the cross – is better than to be the lord of great manor with servants to wait upon you, with all delectables to eat and every comfort at your disposal. It is better to be with Christ. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matt 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).

So as we progress in divine communion, we must turn our back on more and more of the things which distract us from that union – even good things. It’s not that the rich man’s things were bad. There is nothing bad about possessions in and of themselves. Except when they possess us.

We must regard our possessions as not really ours. All our things are actually the Lord’s. We are stewards and not the lords of creation. The Lord is the true possessor of all things. If he asks us to give something away, we’d better give it away because it is his to give, not ours.

St. Anthony the Great understood this. When he heard today’s gospel read in the church, he responded as though the passage had been read on his account, and he took it at its word. He went out immediately from the church, and gave away all his inherited possessions. He gave three hundred productive and beautiful acres to the villagers. And all the rest he sold and gave to the poor and to care for his sister and he went to seek the Lord in the desert.[4]

If we will be perfect, it is necessary to turn away from everything that is not God, and it is necessary to keep the commandments, but even this is not enough. Only Jesus is enough.  After we keep the commandments, after we give everything to the poor, Jesus then commands us, “Come, follow me.” Apart from this, it is impossible for us to be saved. 

The disciples grasp a problem here very quickly – more quickly than I would have in their place. When Jesus teaches that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, the immediate and more obvious conclusion would be, it seems to me, that the poor will have an easier time of it (Matt 19:24). But that’s not what the disciples suggest. They don’t ask, “Can only the poor then be saved?” Rather, they ask, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt 19:25).

Perhaps, as poor men, they already knew by experience how difficult it was to be saved. As poor men, they knew that their poverty alone was not enough to save them. And here is a rich man whose wealth is not enough either. So, who then can be saved? And the answer is: it’s impossible (Matt 19:26). We can’t save ourselves.  The rich cannot save themselves and the poor cannot save themselves. Only with God is this possible (Matt 19:26). Only in Jesus. Only Jesus is enough. And that is why Jesus commands the rich young man to follow him, to be with him. That is the only way to perfection, the only way to eternal life.

There is only one way, and it is grace, the life of God. Our salvation is an act of God. It’s not that we don’t have something to do with it. We must do something insufficient, and he makes it sufficient. Divine Grace supplies what is lacking, as the bishop says over those he’s ordaining. Jesus takes our small and insufficient offering, as he took the five loaves and two fish, and he makes it great and sufficient. He takes our poor offering – our prosphora – of bread and wine, and he makes it himself, by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us and upon our gifts.

Bread and wine is not enough to save us. Only the body and the blood of Jesus Christ saves us. It is for the remission of sins and for life everlasting. The divine flesh of Jesus is our life. Only Jesus is enough to perfect us, to save us, to give us eternal life.

(A version of this article now appears on Catholic Exchange). 

[1] e.g. Athanasius, De. Incarn. 54, 3: PG 25, 192 B.
[2] Athanasius, De. Incarn. 8: PG 26, 996 C.
[3] The Great Book of Needs, vol. 1, The Holy Mysteries (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon, 2000), 135-37.
[4] St. Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony, 2.

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