Sunday, December 15, 2019

I want my house to be full.

“I want my house to be full,” says the host of the banquet (Luke 14:23). I hear that. I want our house to be full.
Most people these days call the buildings in which we gather to worship God “churches.” Many people of our particular Church, particularly in the old countries, actually call them “temples,” not “churches.” The Church is the people of God gathered together to worship God. The temple is the place of sacrifice to the Lord. But in the ancient church, it’s interesting to note, the building in which we gather would have been called neither a church nor a temple.
The church, as I say, is the people of God gathered together to worship God, and not the building in which we worship him. As for the temple, there was only ever one building that was a temple – the temple that the Lord commanded be built in Jerusalem. That temple has not been replaced by these buildings in which we worship God, it has been fulfilled by our bodies. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). We now worship God in spirit and in truth. Our bodies are for worshipping God. The Lord dwells in our bodies through the holy mysteries of the Church. Through the Eucharist especially, he comes to dwell inside of us – in our hearts. When we receive communion, our heart becomes the tabernacle of the Lord in the temple of the Lord.
So, if these buildings would have been called neither church nor temple, what would they have been called? –  houses (οἶκοι). Christians first gathered in houses. This term is retained in our liturgy. Every time you hear the deacon praying “for this holy church and for all who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God,” the original Greek word translated as “church” actually is οἶκος – house. The house of the Church. The house of the people of God gathered together to worship the Lord. And, I want the house to be full. The Lord talks about a house today and he says he wants it to be full.
By way of filling it, are we doing what Jesus tells us to do? Are we bringing in the poor and needy to share in our banquet? Or, do we think it’s for us but not for them? As we go about our lives, are we cajoling all we meet to join us and fill the house?
I want the house to be full. Don’t you? And I don’t care about it being full of money or full of people with money. I want it to be full of God’s people. All people. People in need. Also, the blind, the crippled, the lame, and the poor, says Jesus Christ himself (Luke 14:21). Are we doing everything we can to invite them? And to make our houses accessible to them – to the Church, which is the people, so that they can join us in the worship of almighty God? Are we offering to give them a ride? Are there people who want to come but can’t?
What could be more important than filling the house of the Lord with many to share in in his banquet? It doesn’t matter how much that costs. Let’s do all we’re able to toward that end.
The banquet in Jesus parable to us today is, of course, the heavenly banquet. But if it’s less clear, it’s also the banquet we celebrate at every Divine Liturgy. The Eucharistic banquet in which we participate is the heavenly banquet. There is no difference. It is the same banquet. The one that goes on in our houses is the same one going on in heaven. There’s a reason we call the liturgy Divine. It is an act of God. God is present there.
If you listen to the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, you’ll see that God himself has broken into our ordinary time and our ordinary life. He abolishes our earthly anxieties, if we let him. In the house of the Church, we occupy the time when the Lord has already come. The second coming is an accomplished act. It’s not only something we’re waiting for the future. The future is now. The past is now. We are present in Bethlehem at the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ in a stable in a cave in Bethlehem. We’re present also at his baptism in the River Jordan. And we’re present at the foot of his cross. And by his tomb. We’re present as he rises up out of the tomb. We’re present as he ascends again to the right hand of his Father in heaven. We’re present as the Holy Spirit descends upon us with his apostles. Here. Now. Today. We’re present as he comes again in glory. The Divine Liturgy is the heavenly banquet. It is not a rehearsal. It is not a drill. It is the one and only heavenly banquet.
So, do you ever make excuses as to why you cannot come? Let’s listen to Jesus’ parable about such excuses (Luke 14:16-21). He’s not buying it.
The ideal for us for Sundays and Great Feasts is to come and pray Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy. “Evening, morning, and at noon, I will pray,” says the Psalmist (55:17). But we understand that circumstances make this difficult for most of us and impossible for some of us. So, if you can’t come to one, come to another. If you can’t come Sunday morning, come to Vespers Saturday evening. Participate to the extent you’re able. God sees the heart. He knows how legitimate your excuses are. Unlike us, he is a host who really knows those he has invited.
He knows also whether we doing what we can to bring others to the Lord. This is his command to us, remember. According to some research,[1] 82% of the unchurched say they would consider attending church if they were invited. At the same time, only 2% of people who go to church have invited a friend in the last year. As a result, seven out of ten unchurched people have lived their entire lives without ever having been invited to church by a friend.
The host in today’s parable instructs that we not only invite people to this banquet, but that we compel them to come in (Luke 14:23).  Let’s invite and go beyond inviting. Let’s offer somebody a ride. Or, let’s offer to meet them at the church and show them around or walk in with them and sit with them. Make them comfortable. Answer their questions.
Image may contain: text
I also learned that not very many people come to church because they saw or heard an advertisement. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advertise. Even if only one person comes as a result, it’s worth spending quite a lot of money on advertising for the sake of that one person. We should advertise. But still it remains the case, that not a lot of people come to church because they saw an advertisement.
Also, perhaps more surprisingly to some, not a lot of people come to church because the pastor of that church invites them. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t invite people. I should, I can, and I do. And it’s worth it. If only one person comes out of a thousand I invite, it’s worth inviting the thousand for the sake of the one. But still it’s the case that not a lot of people come to church because they’re invited by the pastor.
You know why most people actually come and join the church? It’s because they’re invited by a friend. This makes sense. Even Peter only came and saw Jesus because his brother invited him. Nathanael only came and saw Jesus because his friend Philip invited him (John 1:40-51).
What works is inviting our family and our friends again and again – people who know that we love them. That’s the key that makes all the difference in evangelization – love. If our house isn’t built out of love, then what is it built out of? If it’s built of something other than love, then we should certainly stop calling it a church.

[1] Thom S. Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Eternal Life is Eternal Growth

The rich ruler becomes “sad” after Jesus shows him the way to “inherit eternal life” (Luke 18: 23, 18). Why should that make him sad? That’s what he asked for, isn’t it (18:18)? Yes, but the way Jesus shows him is uncomfortable. It’s not the answer he wanted. Perhaps he wanted a pat on the back for what he was already doing – a “well done, good and faithful servant” – and why not? He’d been keeping the commandments!

God knows that many of us fail to keep the commandments. This rich ruler did not commit adultery, did not kill, did not steal, did not lie. He honored his mother and his father. When Jesus began to list these commandments, the ruler must have been pleased. He had observed all these commandments from his youth (18:21), so hearing Jesus describe these as the way to eternal life must have felt reassuring at first, I would think.

The ruler had done so much already, in his own estimation. Surely following all these commandments should be enough? My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no such thing as enough.

Upon hearing that the ruler has taken the step following the commandments, Jesus has for him another step: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor… and come follow me.” If the ruler had not yet been following the commandments, I wonder if Jesus would have revealed to him this next step. I think not. He feeds us first with milk, not solid food, and gives us solid food only when we are ready (cf. 1 Cor 3:2). And, on the other hand, if the ruler had readily distributed all his wealth to the poor and followed Jesus, as many saints have done, he would then have been given another step to climb. This is what those saints have discovered.

There are those who have followed the way of Jesus and have given away all their wealth to the poor to follow after him. We celebrate one of these great saints of this coming week, Saint Nicholas. Also Saint Anthony the Great. Also Saint Francis of Assisi. Many have followed Jesus in this way of poverty. What they have discovered, is that this, too, is not the end of their growth.

Eternal life is still not a done deal, even if we’ve grown to such a degree of radical trust in God. Rather, out there in the desert with no possessions and following Jesus, Saint Anthony was beset by countless demons and passions. He had to do battle out there still. The work was not done. There is always more growing to do.

We find growth uncomfortable. But Jesus is teaching us to embrace growth, which feels rather like embracing the cross. For as long as we do not embrace it, growth remains painful. We suffer growing pains. If we were to never embrace growth, the pain would become everlasting. The rich ruler did not embrace growth – and he went away sad.

I am convinced that growth is life and life is growth – and that eternal life is eternal growth. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Grow eternally. When we stop growing, it means we’re dead.

St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us this in his book about the Life of Moses. Life is about becoming one with God, and God is boundless and perfect. "How can reach the boundary when there is no boundary?" asks Gregory (paraphrased). "The one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit." The race to virtue never ends (I, 5-6; cf. II, 242).

It’s important to remember that God commands us to be perfect. But perfection is unlimited, so how can we ever reach it? Only God is good, as Jesus reminds us today (Luke 18:19). St. Gregory observes, "The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness" (I, 10).

Growth is the perfection we’re called to. Growth is life. "No limit… interrupt[s] growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the good brought to an end because it is satisfied" (II, 239). There is "always… a step higher than the one [we have] attained" (II, 227). If we live virtuously, our capacity for more virtue will increase. Our capacity to love increases the more we love. It’s not a limited commodity. It doesn’t work like that. Our potential for growth is limitless, because the God calling us to himself is limitless.

In imitation of Christ, our Byzantine tradition constantly calls us to grow. It is not a minimalist tradition. You may have noticed. It does not propose to us the least we must do to in order to find a place in the back pew of heaven. This is not what Jesus does either. When we have grown to a certain point, he shows us that it is now time to grow to a still higher point. Our Byzantine tradition is a maximalist tradition. It proposes to us more than we can possibly do so that, no matter how much we have done, there is always more to do. There’s always another step. There’s always more growing to do.

In this season of the Philip’s fast, our tradition challenges us to grow, to give a bit more of ourselves, more of our time to prayer in the church and at home, more of our wealth to the poor. Let’s listen with some fear of God to Jesus’ admonishment about wealth today and his invitation to remember the poor (Luke 18:24-25, 22). Let’s make an effort to come to church once or twice more than we usually do during the week. Let’s go to a service we’ve never been to before. If we don't sing the Divine Liturgy, let's start singing – even if we only sing quietly at first. Let’s accept the challenges our tradition offers us to grow.

Since this Byzantine tradition of our is so challenging, some might be asking, why should I bother? It’ll be more convenient – won’t it? – and more comfortable to find a Roman Catholic parish nearby where I can get in and out of Mass in 45 minutes and then be about my business. Maybe business, after all, is what we really care about. Probably, most of us could find a parish closer to home, too. Being Byzantine these days takes so much extra effort and, really, what’s the point? It’s all the same thing, isn’t it?

I’m telling you, our tradition has something to offer you very much like what Jesus is offering the rich ruler today: opportunity for growth, which is life itself. We must stop looking at the inconveniences of our tradition and our situation as a problem to be avoided, and begin to embrace them as opportunities to grow in union with God. We must stop regarding our liturgical services as some drudgery to get through in order to fulfill some imagined obligation. Check the box and move on, as if that would help us grow in union with God. If we really pray our services, rather than waiting for them to be over, we wouldn’t care if they went on all day. Getting to the end isn’t the point, we’d realize. The Divine Liturgy has no end. If we don’t like praying together, we’re not going to be able stand it in heaven, because that's what we do there. And not being able to stand it in heaven is a condition of being known as hell.

When we embrace our tradition, we will see how much it helps us grow and eventually we will realize is that it is possible to take joy in our growth. Because we are growing closer to the Lord, who is our true joy. If things other than the Lord are our joy, we find it drudgery to grow. Because growing in the Lord, after all, is growing apart from the things of this world, inasmuch as they are fallen, broken, and disordered by our sinfulness. As long as we resist this growth, it will cause us pain and life will be pain for us. As soon as we begin to take joy in growth, we begin to delight, even now, in the eternal garden of paradise.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Prepare to stand in the glory of the Lord.

Now we are fasting. Now we are simplifying our lives. Now we give to those in need what we save by fasting and simplifying our lives.
Now we examine our consciences in peace. Now we confess and repent of our own sins. Now we are reconciled with God and with the Church. Now we do penance.
Now we remove distractions and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Now we strip away what does not matter and give ourselves over to the one thing that does.
Now is the time.
Now we pray.  Now we try to learn what it means to pray unceasingly. Now we spend less time watching television and more time reading scripture. Now we come more often to the church to pray and worship God.
Because now our lives are demanded of us.
Image result for icon of the rich fool
God will say to those unprepared to stand in his glory, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you.” (Luke 12:20). It does not do to make preparations for this passing life while neglecting to prepare for the everlasting life that is to come. Pope Benedict XVI observes, “This life is not everything. There is an eternity. Today it is very unmodern to say this, even in theology.” But it remains true, and the weight of the eternal is infinitely greater than the weight of all the years of our earthly life.
How can we prepare for that limitless life and the unfathomable glory of God? He has made the way simple for us. He is the way.
The Philip’s Fast, which we have now begun in preparation for the Nativity of Jesus Christ, is a season of preparation for the coming of the Lord into the world. The Lord is coming into the world.
One morning, we will wake up and it will feel like Christmas morning when we were children, because the Lord will have come into the world. Anyway, that’s how it will feel if we have prepared for him. Either way, that day is coming.
This Philip’s Fast is another chance to prepare. I had the opportunity this week to meet up online with several of my old seminary chums. It was a group video chat, so I could see all of them as well as talk to them, even though we were all over the country. Such technological marvels we live among these days. Real life is like an episode of Star Trek. Anyway, unlike the rest of them, I didn’t have a camera, so they couldn’t see me like I could see them. All they could see of me was a photo taken a few years ago. So, I pointed out that I’d gained about 20 lbs. since that photo had been taken. Fr. Lewis chided me, “That doesn’t sound very ascetical, John.” And so I affably retorted, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re starting the Philip’s Fast now. Thank God there’s always another chance to repent.”
“Yeah,” said Fr. Dcn. Tom, “until there’s not.”
There won’t, in fact, always be more time. “The great day of the Lord is near – near and hastening fast” (Zeph 1:14). This Philip’s Fast is another opportunity to prepare and repent. Let’s not squander this chance. How many more will there be? What we do as a Church in these fasting seasons teaches us how to live our lives in preparation for the last things and the everlasting things.
Here’s the thing: the day is coming when we will stand in the glory of the Lord. This is true whether or not we prepare for that glorious day. If we do not prepare (by living the life of God and cooperating with his grace) our experience of that glory will be painful – like staring straight into the sun. But, if we first allow ourselves to be transfigured, little by little, by God’s own energies, then we will truly live this life he is giving us, and, on that day, we will be the glory of God.
“The glory of God is man truly alive,” as St. Irenaeus says. Jesus says to his Father, “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22). You see, this glory of God makes us one with one another just as God, who is three Persons, is one.
What unifies us is the same as what unifies God: love. God is love (1 John 4:8). So, the way to prepare to stand in the glory of God, the way to become the glory of God, to become one as the Persons of God are one, is to love one another. This is the simple way.
We all want to be loved, and that’s as it should be, I believe. Even God wants to be loved. And he made all of us lovable. All of us. You are lovable and God loves you. Love one another as he loves you (John 13:34). Then you will be prepared to stand in his glory and receive his love not as a searing fire but as a transfiguring light.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Balance of Fasts and Feasts

I like to feast. That’s probably becoming more apparent as my girth expands. That’s because I feast too much. My Sicilian rector once observed that I am “a good fork.” God be merciful to me, the sinner.
But it’s not a bad thing to feast and to celebrate on occasion. Feasting itself is a good thing.
Recall the parable of the prodigal son. What does the father do when his son finally returns home to him? He kills the fatted calf and feasts and celebrates with his beloved child.
Jesus himself attends and contributes to a wedding feast in Cana.
The Church gets in on this too. We feast. We celebrate. On every icon screen are twelve icons of events we call ‘feasts.” We call them feasts because they celebrate events that call for a feast. Above all, this refers to the eucharistic feast of the divine liturgy – but it also carries the sense of celebrating and sharing a good meal with friends and family. There’s a time to fast and a time to relax our fasting, to cut loose and party. This is part of what’s good about being human and being children of God.
The first Franciscans were no Friar Tucks. They fasted severely and practiced strict asceticism. So much so that one day Brother Morico came to St. Francis and asked him if they should fast even on Christmas Day, because it fell on a Friday.  St. Francis was flabbergasted. Fast?! “On the day on which the Child was born to us? It is my wish,” he said, “that even the walls should eat meat on such a day, and if they cannot, we should smear the walls with meat!”[i] Francis, it would seem, recognized that here is a time for feasting – and even for rather extravagant feasting.
But today’s gospel begins with feasting of another kind. Jesus says, “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). He not only feasted, but feasted sumptuously, and he not only feasted sumptuously at times in celebration of great occasions, but feasted “every day!”
And furthermore, he acted in this way while the poor man Lazarus lay starving and full of sores just outside his gate (Luke 16:20). He did not ask this man in. He did not invite him to join his feast or send any portion to him at the gate. This is grotesque.
The prophet Amos saw grotesque imbalance like this in his day. He was a simple shepherd called by God to speak against corruption and injustice at a time of great material wealth and decadence. He says,
Woe to those who… eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall… who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile, and [their] revelry… shall pass away (Amos 6:4-7).
And we continue to see imbalance like this in our own day. Being as well sated as many of us are – as I am – can render us insensible to the sufferings of others. Too much comfort can blind us to the discomfort of the poor and needy. Perhaps we hate to be reminded of that because it disturbs our precious comfort.
The tradition of the Church gives us a remedy we ignore at our peril – a remedy that may well have saved the rich man from his torment in the flames had he observed it faithfully: a balanced cycle of feasting and fasting.
We celebrate occasional feasts as expressions of our joy in the Lord. Note that this feasting is occasional. We are not to feast every day, like the rich man. Cookies aren’t for every day, as Pani Katie tells the children and me, but only for special occasions. I should probably listen to her. And when we feast, let’s also remember that the less fortunate are always invited and welcome to join us.
And to balance this feasting, the Church invites us also to many days and seasons of fasting. Count them all up and about half the days of the year are fast days. Half and half. This is a balance.
Fasting is for many reasons, but sometimes we forget the reason of justice. We fast to humble ourselves before the Lord. We fast to train ourselves in virtue and to cleanse our hearts of vanity. We fast also so that we will have more to give. Fasting is to enable giving. Proper fasting consists in consuming less, which means spending less money. These savings are not meant to pad our investment accounts. They’re meant to be given to the poor.
The Shepherd of Hermas tells us,
You must taste nothing except bread and water on the day on which you fast. Then, you must estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day…, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need. In this way you will become humble-minded (Herm 56: 6-8).
This is good and practical advice for us if we are to avoid the tormented condition of the rich man in today’s parable. We might consider drawing up a more austere grocery budget during the fasting seasons and giving the savings to Food for the Poor or to another charitable organization. Or, better yet, giving it directly to those in need in our communities.
Our next fasting season, which will be in preparation for the feast of the birth of our Lord, begins in less than a month, so give this some thought.
Each fasting season ends with a feast. And a life lived simply in the Lord, without flaunting extravagance in the face of the poor, but rather sharing all that we have with those in need, will end at the heavenly banquet table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 8:11).

Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome. 2nd – 4th century.

[i] Saint Francis of Assisi, Celano, Second Life, Chapter CLI

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Lord Gardens as well as Sows

on Luke 8:5-15
There is no question as to whether or not the Lord has sown the seed of the word of God in your heart. He has done so. He pours out his grace upon all of us constantly. He is present with us always. So, rather, the question is, do we receive him? If we become like good soil, we can receive the seed and with it live and grow forever.
Maybe we can recognize ourselves in the various kinds of soil that Jesus describes in his parable of the sower.
Perhaps, like the overtrodden soil, into which the seed cannot nestle, we are beset constantly by distractions and temptations – devils convincing us to turn away from the word in our hearts – from what we really know is beautiful, good, and true, and to turn instead again and again to our enslaving passions and sins, gluttony, lust, pride, or drunkenness, or whatever else.
Perhaps, like the rocky soil into which the seed cannot grow roots, our commitment to the Lord is fleeting. We embrace him with a quick fervor when we hear the good news that Jesus offers us abundant life (John 10:10b), but when it becomes all too apparent that the way to this life is the painful and difficult way of the cross (Luke 9:23), we find there are stones within us blocking further growth – a stony stubborn unwillingness to give that much, to yield, to let go of our own way (cf. 1 Cor 13:5b).
Perhaps, like the thorny, weedy soil, which chokes the seedling to death as it tries to grow, we are not so much discouraged by suffering as seduced by comforts and pleasures of this life, so that, while the word of God sounds good enough to us, we’re deluded into believing we don’t really need it. That’s nice enough for other folks, we think, but I’ve got what I need from my bed or my couch and TV and internet. Endless diversion and entertainment at my fingertips. Who needs to go to church so often?
Perhaps, like me, you’re thinking, yikes, my soil is weedy, rocky, and overtrodden all at the same time.
But whatever kind of soil we have been like so far in our lives, the Lord returns and sows the seed again and again. Like a good gardener, he’s out every year with his bag casting seeds. A sower does not plant only one season, but every planting season as it comes around. We go through seasons in our life. However we have been until now, there is no reason to despair. There is every reason to hope. Our sower has not abandoned us. He is coming again and again.
We want to become like good soil, so that the next season when he comes around, we are prepared to receive him. Much can be done with soil to prepare it to receive seed. Gardening isn’t only sowing, and our Lord is a good gardener, not only a sower.
You and I are the earth. Remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). We are the earth in which the Lord is preparing to plant his garden.
If he sees that you’re overtrodden, he’s building a fence around you to redirect the path away from you. Your deliverer is coming to deliver you from the devils that tempt you. To cooperate with him in building this fence, change your habits. Stop treading the well-worn path from one sin to another. Stop returning again and again to your sin like a dog to his vomit. When the temptations come, as they surely will, immediately take refuge in the Jesus Prayer – “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” And the Lord will deliver you. Repeat the prayer as often and as long as the temptation persists.
If the Lord sees that you’re like rocky soil, he is raking out the rocks. Whatever stony idols you’ve clung to, preferring them to God, he’s raking them out. He’s taking out your heart of stone and giving you a heart of flesh. He’s breathing his spirit into you so that you will walk in his ways. He is delivering you from all your uncleanness. And he’s summoning the grain and the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field and making it abundant (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-30). The Lord is the good gardener. To cooperate with him in this raking, yield and do not resist him. Let go of whatever you’re clinging to that is not God. You let it go and he’ll rake it out. He’ll loosen the soil and make it receptive to his seed.
If the Lord sees that you’re like soil choked with weeds, he’ll uproot those weeds. Whatever riches or comforts or pleasures you’re overly attached to are passing away. The Lord is uprooting your attachment to them. Unlike the stones, which are negatives, the weeds are positives – they’re living things too – but anything, even any good thing, that we put in the place of God will be uprooted. To cooperate with the gardener in pulling up the weeds, embrace ascesis. Simplify your life. Give any excess to those in need. Fast. Pray. Make some prostrations in your prayer. Humble yourself before your creator.
Finally, the soil is almost ready. It is no longer trod upon, nor rocky, nor weedy. The gardener has prepared it. Only one step remains. If we are gardeners or farmers, we know how best to enrich the soil at this point – with the compost. Soil is enriched by death and decay, out of which grows forth new and abundant life. Soil thus enriched will easily receive a seed and help it grow strong and lively. The remembrance of death will enrich our hearts to hear and keep the word of God.
In a Romanian skete on Mt. Athos, they keep the bones of the departed monks in an ossuary. And on the skull of one of them is written, “What I am, you will be, too. What you are, I’ve been myself.” Brothers and sisters, we are going to die. And then, we will stand again in the glory of the Lord. This whole life is preparation for that coming experience of God.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Taking Others at their Word

One morning, oh, about 10 or 11 years ago, I was running a bit late for work. I left in such a hurry, I forgot that I had taken my debit card out of my wallet. There was no cash in there either, but that was par for the course.
Anyway, after I got into my Jeep and had driven down the driveway, I noticed an index card someone had put under my windshield wiper: some kind of note, I guess. But, as I say, I was in a hurry, so I decided to just leave it there and drive on. I’d see what it was when I got to work.
Then, when I got to the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis, it suddenly began to rain. And I mean buckets of rain – a real deluge. So, I set my windshield wipers to full speed and they were barely keeping up. This, of course, dislodged the index card, which then became stuck to the windshield directly in my line of sight.
Some mornings everything goes wrong.
As a result of these distractions, I failed to immediately notice the traffic ahead of me slowing to a stop. When I did notice, I slammed on the brakes of course, but the road was slick from the rain and I slammed – ever so gently – into the car in front of me.
The car pulled into a parking lot just ahead and I followed. We exchanged insurance information and waited for the police, who came and made a report. That was the end of that. (Except for when they sued me two years later, but that’s another story). I never did discover what, if anything, was written on the index card.
When all was said and done, I noticed that one of my tires was mostly flat. To this day I don’t understand the physics behind that. There was no puncture. Anyway, I was right next to a gas station, with an air pump, so I got it over there. The machine took quarters.
I had no quarters – no cash, no debit card, no cell phone. And I’m late for work. I can’t risk driving the Jeep with such low tire pressure. I have no way to work. No way to get home. No way to let my boss know why I’m late and getting later. The rain and the distress of the morning have turned me into a disheveled sight.
So, there I am, transformed in an instant from an employed husband and father of two with a house and a mortgage, into a bum with a ridiculous sob story begging for change from passersby at a gas station.
File:Gavarni P. attr. - Pencil - un mendiant - 14.5x18.2cm.jpg
un mendiant – Pencil –  Gavarni P.
I felt rather a fool telling my story and begging for change only to be ignored by everyone I asked both in and out of the gas station. Most ignored me completely – not even making eye contact. One to whom I did manage to speak gave me quite a look of incredulity, actually rolling his eyes. I was not believed and I was not helped. For me, they could not spare a dime, as they purchased their coffees and gasoline.
Realizing I was making something of a nuisance of myself, I decided to go elsewhere to beg. Across the street was a bar just opening up. I walked in. And there, I was listened to. The bartender opened up the till and gave me some quarters, and all was well. Thus ended my career as a beggar.
One thing to learn from all this is that, if we’re going somewhere together, you may want to offer to drive. But another thing to learn is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and to “give without expecting repayment” (Luke 6:31, 35a).
Do you want to be taken at your word? Then take others at their word, even if your suspicions are aroused. In Christ, we may become as guileless as children – as innocent as doves, even while we are at the same time as cunning as serpents (Matt 10:16).
You might need others to take you at your word quite suddenly, as I learned from experience – even if they don’t know you and have no reason to trust you – even regarding an unbelievable situation.
That’s another thing, just because you don’t believe a beggar’s story (and I’ve certainly heard some whoppers) doesn’t mean you can’t offer to help. “The Most High is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35b). We can be kind to the unbelievable, to the liar and the thief, to the drug addict and the prostitute.
We might be surprised to find that it’s unexpected folks who are kind to us in our time of need. I was quite struck by the fact that the straitlaced types buying gas at the gas station wouldn’t help me, but the folks at the bar, thought by some to be of less moral quality, were the ones who helped me. They gave without expecting anything in return.
Let’s let go of the question of what’s in it for us. God doesn’t show us kindness, mercy, and love for his sake, but for ours. And he commands us to do the same. Far from limiting our loving-kindness to those who can give us something in return, Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, give to everyone who asks, give even to the thief, give without expecting anything in return (Luke 6:27-30, 35).
“Be merciful,” he commands us, “even as your Father is merciful.”  And this is the point, really. He is commanding us to be like God, which we become by his grace. God is kind to the unkind and loving to the unloving. He is kind and loving to us. Let us be kind and loving to each other, also to our enemies, real and imagined. Only when there is not one excluded from our love are we in Christ.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Experience the Apocalypse

“Amen,” Jesus says, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power” (Mark 9:1).  

Icon of the Kingdom of Heaven
19th century Russian
State Museum of the History of Religion, St. Petersburg

What can this mean? This verse baffled me for years. How could it be, I thought, that people living at the time of Jesus have not yet tasted death? Surely all of them died by now.

If we read this without faith, it could read like an embarrassingly mistaken prediction of the time of the second coming – rather like all those doomsday dates that regularly get rolled out by various apocalyptic and fundamentalist groups - especially, I think, in this country.

The next date coming from Dr. F. Kenton Beshore is 2021. So, get ready, I guess. His previous prediction was 1988, but that embarrassment has not dissuaded him from making another prediction. I'll not go into his calculations.

The Lord is coming we know not when. Yet various Christians throughout the ages have made predictions as to what that date will be. Even some saints have gotten in on the act and made some predictions that turned out other than they expected.

But unlike all this merely human guesswork, surely the Lord Jesus Christ knows what he is talking about. And Jesus says to those standing with him almost 2,000 years ago that some of them will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power. We know that everyone who was there all those years ago has by now tasted death. And we know that Jesus Christ, who is Truth himself, is not making an error here. He does not make errors. This leaves only one other possibility, that some who were standing there with Jesus did indeed see the kingdom of God come in power.

The Blessed Theophylact makes bold to name those Jesus means when he says "some standing here" and also to name the moment when they see the coming of the kingdom of God. He writes, 
Namely, Peter, James, and John, shall not die until [they see] at the Transfiguration the glory with which [Jesus] shall appear at the second coming. For the Transfiguration was nothing else than a foreshadowing of the second coming, and as he appeared shining then, so will he shine at the second coming, as will also all the righteous. 
To see the light of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor is to see the coming kingdom of God as already come.

The Venerable Bede sees the coming kingdom of God also in another place. He writes, 
The present Church is called the kingdom of God, and some of the disciples were to live in the body until they should see the Church built up, and raised against the glory of the world.
If we can see the Church for what it really is, not obscured by the sin and corruption into which its worldly aspect has sunk, we would see it as the bride of Christ – one body with her bridegroom, who is the king of heaven and of earth.

To look upon Jesus on Mount Tabor and see in him the light of his Transfiguration; to look upon the Church and see in her the body of Christ; today, to look upon the cross and see there the king of glory enthroned  upon the cherubim; to see any of this, it is necessary to have eyes that see.

It's not a question of whether or not the Lord Jesus was right about the timing of the coming of the kingdom of God. It's a question of whether or not we have the eyes to see the truth that's all around us. It's a question of whether or not we have faith, which is the only way to know what's really going on. It's a question whether or not we have experienced the apocalypse.

We've forgotten what does the word apocalypse means. It doesn't mean the coming cataclysmic events surrounding the end of the world, at least not originally. The word apocalypse means "revelation" or, even more literally, an "unveiling." Some of you may remember a time when the Book of Revelation was commonly known as the Apocalypse of John. Apocalypse means Revelation. God revealing himself to us here and now.

Because he is here now. If we do not see him, it is not because he is not here, but because there remains a veil over our eyes, waiting to be lifted by his grace with the assent of our faith.

Today, we know from Jesus that there are some who have already seen the coming of the kingdom of God. So, why can't we see it? To that I say, who says we can't?

This is what this whole Byzantine Catholic way of life we’re trying to follow is meant to accomplish: the experience of God. This tradition is not a list of intellectual propositions to which we assent nor a series of rote behaviors we perform out of obligation or habit. It is tradition, not traditionalism, we have on offer here. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” as Jaroslav Pelikan writes.

Our tradition passes on to us a bright and lively, warm and living experience of God. It opens our eyes to see the kingdom of God come in power. All this unceasing prayer and fasting, liturgy and sacrament, reading of scripture and the fathers is meant to unveil our eyes; to open our eyes to the light of Mount Tabor shining in all creation; to help us see the truth that God is with us and that his coming kingdom has come among us.

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed. They will not say, “behold, here it is!” or “there it is!” for behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Have all faith (not just a little faith).

If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will move the mountain. And nothing will be impossible for you. (Matt 17:20).

Our faith should be like mustard seed.

A mustard seed is tiny, but its tininess is not the whole story. Remember, the littleness of the disciples’ faith is the reason they cannot move the mountain – that they cannot cast the demon out of the boy and heal him.  

This, by the way, is what it means to move a mountain, in my opinion.[i] Most of us have a mountain in our lives that needs moving. It’s found most often deeply rooted in our hearts. And there’s usually a demon or two who planted it there and who try to keep it there.

If we had faith like a mustard seed, we would say to that mountain of passions or addiction; ill-will, resentments, or unforgiveness; selfishness and self-centeredness; gluttony, lust, and wickedness; unkindness, impatience, and failure to love – we would say to that mountain in our hearts, “move.”[ii] And it, with all its attendant demons would “be taken up and cast into the sea” (Matt 21:21), that is, into the abyss of hell,[iii] where all such inclinations and the demons that harbor them belong.

You know as well as I do, it would be easier to move a mountain in the literal sense. But nothing will be impossible for us if we have faith like a mustard seed.

I do not say that we should have faith “the size” of a mustard seed. Some translations[iv] add a comment here about size, which does not appear in the Greek. Jesus does not say “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed.” He says, “If you have faith like or as (ὡς) a mustard seed.”  

The tininess of the mustard seed is an important part of the power of the image, that’s true, and Jesus speaks about that in another place (Matt 13:32), but to overfocus on that attribute alone causes the image to lose its potency. If we think a little faith is enough because we hear our faith should be like mustard seed, we may have missed the point.  

When we say to one another, “have a little faith,” I hope we don’t mean it in the sense that Jesus does when he tells his disciples that they fail to cast out the demon because of their “little faith” (Matt 17:20).

Size alone is not the point. It’s important that we’re speaking here of a grain of mustard and not a grain of sand. There’s a world of difference between the two – and the difference is life.  

Jesus is not, I think, making a quantitative comparison between the littleness of the disciples’ faith and the size of the mustard seed, as if their faith was even smaller and they only need a bit more of it. Rather, I think he’s making a qualitative comparison between two tiny things. If your faith is so little, let it be little in the way that mustard seed is little – not like a grain of lifeless sand, but like a grain of living seed. It's alright to have a little faith, as long as it's little in the way that a mustard seed is little and not in the way that the disciples’ faith was little that day. The difference is life, growth, & potency.

St. Paul speaks of having “all faith so as to move mountains” (1 Cor 13:2). The kind of faith that moves mountains is not “little faith” but “all faith.” Faith that is like a mustard seed is total faith.[v] A mustard seed is tiny, but it contains the whole. It has the total mustard plant within it – a great shrub rather like a tree, “so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt 13:32; cf. Luke 13:19).

Jesus also teaches that a mustard seed is like kingdom of heaven. So, let our faith be like the kingdom – small, maybe, but full of life and spirit and capable of growing to greatness.
How can a mustard seed move a mountain? Only because it can do something a mountain cannot do: it can grow. It is alive and not lifeless rock. And life always wins. Patient growth has the power to reshape the whole earth.

If we have a living, growing faith, we can trust that that mountain within us that needs to move will move. We can see it begin to erode, in fact – its stones broken by the growing roots of our faith, weakening to rubble the mountain that seemed immovable and preparing it to be swept away by grace.

In the meantime, if our faith is little in the way that shouldn't be, how are we to transform our faith into the faith that is like a mustard seed? One way is by the prayer and fasting that today Jesus says is necessary to cast out this kind of demon (Matt 17:21). Such is necessary because, through these means, God transforms our faith from some dry and lifeless assent to propositions into a living seed of the word within us, that grows and grows, like life in a womb.

A mustard seed is an embryonic mustard plant. The kingdom of heaven is like an embryo. An embryo can grow to become a king. Growth is key. Life is that which grows. If we stop growing, we’re dead. Eternal life is eternal growth. Let us grow ever closer to the infinite Lord for all eternity, and let us begin to grow today.

[i]The mountains here spoken of, in my opin­ion, are the hostile powers that have their being in a flood of great wickedness, such as are set­tled down, so to speak, in some souls of various people.” Origen, com­mentary on matthew 13.7.
[ii] “If they had had this faith within them, they would have been like the grain of mustard seed. By the power of the Word they would have thrown out this burden of sins and the heavy mass of their unbelief. They would have transferred it, like a mountain into the sea.” hilary of poitiers. on matthew 17.8.
[iii] “Then such a man will say to this mountain—I mean in this case the deaf and dumb spirit in him who is said to be epileptic— "Move from here to another place." It will move. This means it will move from the suffering per­son to the abyss.” Origen, com­mentary on matthew 13.7.
[iv] e.g. NIV and NAB
[v] “When someone has total faith…, then he has all faith like a grain of mus­tard seed” Origen, com­mentary on matthew 13.7.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Through One Another

Notice how Jesus works through his apostles.
He could have easily fed the multitude himself with bread from heaven. He could have rained down manna upon this great throng in a lonely place as he did upon the Israelites in the wilderness. He is himself the bread from heaven (John 6:32-35). But note that he does not say to his disciples, “I will feed them.” Rather, he says, “you feed them.”[*] “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matt 14:16).
Certainly, it is Jesus and Jesus alone who works the miracle that makes it possible to feed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish (Matt 14:17-21). All four gospels record this miracle. It is so astounding and full of meaning that none could skip over it.
It is a testament to the divinity of Jesus Christ. It identifies him with the God of Israel who feeds his people in the wilderness. It is surely a divine work and not the work of humans acting on their own.
But still, Jesus chooses to carry out this work through his disciples. Still, he identifies their work with his by saying, “you give them something to eat.”
When he said that, he already knew they would have only five loaves and two fish. This is Jesus we're talking about. He knows everything. Yet still he tells them to give the crowds something to eat. He knew they would require his help. Yet he still wanted to make it their work and not his alone.
File:Brotvermehrungskirche BW 3.JPG
Byzantine mosaic of loaves and fishes
from the floor before the altar
in a church in Tabgha built to commemorate the feeding of the 5000 
His disciples bring him the five loaves and the two fish. And after he blesses them and breaks them, he gives the loaves to his disciples and the disciples give them to the crowds. And after all have eaten and are satisfied, the twelve disciples pick up the twelve baskets full of broken pieces left over (Matt 14:18-20).
Through these ministrations of the disciples, Jesus works his great and compassionate miracle of feeding the multitude. This signifies that it is through the apostles and their successors that God will make himself present to his people in every age.[†]
 So, if you want a religion or a spirituality that doesn't require working with and through other people, then you don't want to follow the way that Jesus has shown us. He gives us one another. He ministers to us through one another.
As an example of this, there was a former practice in the ancient Church, at least in some places, that even a bishop would always receive the eucharist from a concelebrant. Nowadays, we priests place the body of Christ in our own hands, but this was not always the case. And, when the bishop is here, you’ll notice that he gives me communion in the same way as you see me give the deacon communion. This testifies to the truth that, no matter what our role or order is, God gives us himself to us through one another.
How then are we to participate in this self-giving of God to one another?
Jesus shows us the way. After his disciples bring him the five loaves and two fish, the first thing Jesus does is look up to heaven. He does this by way of giving us example. As St. Cyril of Alexandria says, "He himself is the one who fills all things, the true blessing from above and from the father." Yet, even though he is the blessing, “he looks up to heaven as though asking for the blessing from above.”[‡]  He does this for our sake – to teach us by example – in his humanity – how to act as his ministers over the things he has given us.
We are all stewards of some part of his creation. Each of us has something he has given us to care for and to be used for the good of his people. We all have some small gift to give, rather like the five loaves and two fish. When we give it, he will multiply it and make abundant what was insufficient.
What we must do, first of all, when deciding what to offer and how to offer it, and before we offer it, lest we squander it, we must, like Jesus, look up to heaven. We must remember the source of every good thing. We must keep our minds and our hearts and our attention fixed there.[§] We must practice an awareness of the heavenly Kingdom to which we are called and in which we live even now inasmuch as we are looking up to heaven over and about everything we have to consider.
How many of us, when we are giving something, think that we are giving it from ourselves? Do I say to myself, “I am so generous,” as I place my offering in the basket? Or, worse, “now they owe me something”?
The truth is, whatever we give to anyone is actually from the Lord. It belongs to him. “Lend without expecting repayment,” our Lord teaches us (Luke 6:35). This makes a lot of sense only when we remember that whatever it was that we lent actually belonged to the Lord all along. All things are his and he has made us stewards of his creation.  
So, let us give to one another cheerfully and without holding back – as icons of God’s generous outpouring of grace. Let us give to each other as Jesus gives food to the thousands. Let us give abundantly. If we give begrudgingly or with the expectation of getting our own way in return, then we darken and obscure the image of our generous God, which yearns to shine from within us.
Today, he gives us example of how we are to share what we have with all and in common. Note that the disciples give each person the same food. Some are not getting grilled swordfish while others make do with boiled grass carp. From one and the same source all partake of the simple food until each is satisfied.
The worthy and the unworthy eat together there – the sinner and the saint – and Jesus alone knew which was which, and yet he gives to all the same. Judas was there with the other disciples, too. And there were twelve baskets to pick up at the end, one for each of the twelve apostles to bear, including Judas.[**]
There is to be no judging of who deserves what in the giving, but we are to give to all who ask and to all alike. If we are to follow the way of Jesus, we must become the ones through whom he nourishes and leads others. And we must also recognize with humility that he will nourish us and lead us through other people.
Going it alone will not get us there. It is not the way. The way is through and with each other. God is with us.

[*] “For he did not simply say, ‘I will feed them.’ The deeper significance of that would have not been easily understood. So what does he say? ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat,’ He did not say ‘I give them’ but ‘you give them’” (John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 49).

[†] “The loaves were given to the apostles, for through them the gifts of divine grace were to be administered” (Hilary of Poitiers. On Matthew 4.11).

[‡] Cyril of Alexandria, Fragment 178

[§] “He looked up to heaven that he might teach them to keep their eyes focused there” (Jerome. Commentary on Matthew 2.14.19).

[**] “For this purpose he also caused just twelve baskets to remain over: That Judas, too, might bear one. He wanted all the disciples to know his power” (John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 49.3).

Most Popular Posts this Month

Most Popular Posts of All Time