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).

Sunday, July 28, 2019

It is the Lord who heals.

Today, Jesus heals two blind men. He gives sight to the blind. Then, he drives the demon out of a demoniac. He gives voice to the mute. Then, he goes around to all the cities and villages curing every disease and healing every infirmity and preaching the gospel of the kingdom (Matt 9:27-35).
Christ healing the Blind
Detail of Folio 29r from the Sinope Gospels
(Bibliothèque Nationale, MS gr. 1286)
Don’t we wish he would visit our town? Come to us in our homes? Heal our sicknesses and those of our loved ones? Many of us are suffering and in need of the healing presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Healer - the Healer, I say, and not merely a healer.
God is the one who heals. We have to understand this. All healing comes from God. And he wants to heal us. This is clear if we read the gospel. Practically every page of the gospels, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is healing his people.
And he carries right on with his healing here and now. Do not be deceived into thinking his healing work is merely historical. Be attentive: he is in our town, in our homes, and in our hearts. He is here right now, and he wants to heal us. And, if we are healed, it is because he has healed us.
A true and wise healer will always acknowledge this. One way to know whether a healer is authentic – and this holds true whether we're talking about a doctor or a priest or a preacher – is to look at whether they use healing to glorify themselves or to glorify God. Do they acknowledge that all healing comes from God? Or do they just crave attention or fame or money? Does your doctor acknowledge God? You might want to seek one out who does.
I'm not saying that God can't use a self-glorifying atheist to work his healing. He can and he does. He can also use heretics and charlatans. God can do anything. I'm only saying, it's often better to work with those who have some idea of what's actually going on.
And if your surgeons think they’re the ones healing you and that they aren’t instruments in God's hands every bit as much as those scalpels are instruments in theirs, then they don’t understand what's actually going on. For all their education, if they fail to acknowledge God, they understand nothing.
Every good thing comes from God. He is the giver of all talents and all knowledge.
If Jesus appears to you and heals you, it is clear that Lord is healing you. Also, if a holy man or woman prays over you and you are healed, it is the Lord who heals you. If you come before the presbyters of the Church when you are sick and they pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord and you are healed, it is the Lord who heals you (cf. James 5:14-15). But also, if a showy faith healer in it for the money knocks you over and you are healed, it is the Lord who heals you. If a pious Christian surgeon cuts out your tumor and your cancer is cured, it is the Lord who heals you. If an atheist nutritionist gives you good advice about how to eat right and heal your gut, it is the Lord who heals you.
If we are healed, it is because the Lord has healed us.
No one understood this better than St. Panteleimon, whose feast we celebrated just yesterday (July 27th). He was a highly learned physician – so talented that he impressed the ruler Maximian, who gave instruction that Panteleimon was to be prepared as the Royal Physician. (Of course, that was when Panteleimon was still following the paganism of his father, who had paid for all his fancy education).
But Panteleimon wanted to be a great physician, and his desire to bring healing led him to the only true Healer, because healing only comes from God. He came to understand this and so embraced the Christian faith of his mother.
Panteleimon raised up a child bitten by a deadly viper, gave sight to the blind, healed the paralyzed, healed wounds, and cured all who came to him. He was a trained physician, but he insisted that it is Jesus Christ and not Panteleimon who is our true healer.
In fact, though he is counted among the unmercenary healers because he did not charge his patients any money, he did ask for another form of payment: that those who were healed acknowledge Jesus Christ as their true healer.
And so they gladly did, even though doing so at that time and place often earned them a martyr’s death. Think on that – to be healed only to be killed for it. But this, in fact, was their true healing: to come to Christ, to live in Christ, and to die in Christ is to rise in Christ and live forever in him. This is our true and lasting and total healing of both body and spirit.
Saint Panteleimon himself went on to die a martyr at the age of 30. He died even younger than Jesus, who was crucified at the age of 33.
Take note of this as well: they extended the lives of others, but died young themselves. Long life is not the point. Eternal life is the point.
Another fact to bear in mind: all the people that Saint Panteleimon healed, and all the people that Jesus healed before his own death on the cross, have died since then. Even the people that he raised from the dead have died again since then. Despite having been raised from the dead, Lazarus now awaits the resurrection with his sisters Martha and Mary (cf. John 11:23-44).
Some die young and some die old; some die sick and some die healthy, but we all die. So, what is the point of all this healing? Why heal us if we're only going to die?
Well, did you hear what else Jesus was doing while he was going from town to town and healing everybody? He was preaching the coming Kingdom (Matt 9:35)! The healings we receive now are a foretaste of the lasting healing we receive in the Kingdom. They are a sign, as the Gospel of John likes to call them.
Furthermore, they are calling and an opportunity. We who have been healed will have to answer for the fact. What do we do with the gift of life God has given us? Each day we draw breath, it is by God’s mercy and grace.
For one thing, he gives us life so we can be a witness to others of the healing and saving power of Jesus Christ! We must testify to the world that he has healed us and saved us.
For another thing, it so that we have more time to repent and be forgiven. Are we using our time for repentance? For worshiping God? Or for more self-indulgence?
Healing and the forgiveness of sins go hand in hand. We are bodies and souls at the same time. Note that the Lord will often begin his healing by forgiving sins. He says, “your sins are forgiven” even before he says, “stand up and walk” (cf. Matt 9:2-6)
Note also, that many times when our English translations of the scripture say “heal,” the Greek word (ἰάομαι) connotes salvation (eg Matt 13:15). He saves us. From what? From sin and death.
The connection between healing and the forgiveness of sins is preserved in the holy mystery of anointing as we celebrate it in our Byzantine Churches. Our prayers are for healing and also for the forgiveness of sins.
If we repent, we will be forgiven and healed. And if we are healed, it is a calling to repent.
Both as a sign of the coming kingdom and as an opportunity to repent, our healing by the Lord points to the everlasting healing from death we receive in Jesus Christ and in his kingdom.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Jesus knows the hearts of others and we do not.

Jesus knew what the scribes were thinking (Matt 9:4). He knows what we're thinking too. He knows everything. There are no absences in the omniscience of God.

This is not true of any of his creatures – not even the angels, fallen or unfallen. We humans are of massively less intelligence than the angels. Pseudo-Dionysius says that "the intellectual power of the angel shines forth with the clear simplicity of divine concepts."[i] Their minds are close to God. Meanwhile, we tend to muddy things up.

Still, there are things even angels do not know. There is nothing that God does not know. All knowledge, in fact, comes from God. If you know a thing (and that's as opposed to thinking that you know a thing), it is because God has given it to you to know. If God did not give the gift of knowledge, you do not know what you think you know. You merely believe it. And mere belief is not knowledge.

Everybody has an opinion. But not everybody has knowledge. The reason angels and men do not know everything is because God has not given us everything to know.

One of the things he does not give us, usually, is the knowledge of one another's thoughts. People sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that they know what other people are thinking. And this so often leads to judgmentalism. How commonly we fail to give the benefit of the doubt. How commonly we fail to admit our own ignorance to ourselves. We do not know what other people are thinking. We cannot judge them. We do not know their hearts or intentions. But God does.

We should try to remember that we are not Jesus when we are tempted to believe our own suspicions about other people. Let’s become guileless. Let’s stop thinking we know what we do not know. Let’s become unassuming. Or, if we must assume, let’s assume the best possible intentions on the part of others.

I do not say that we should not judge good from evil. I do not say that we should not judge actions. We can, we should, and we must. Paul exhorts us today: “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9). Our consciences are given to us for a reason. I say, rather, we must not judge hearts. That judgment is the province of God alone.

Image result for jesus icon
Encaustic Icon of Jesus Christ, 6th century.Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt)

God alone can see and judge the hearts of other men. Jesus knew what they were thinking because Jesus is God become man. Jesus saw that the scribes in their hearts were accusing Jesus of blasphemy.

Think on that. To accuse God of blasphemy. That right there is blasphemy. There really were blasphemers in Capernaum (4:13, 9:1), but Jesus was not the blasphemer, the scribes were the blasphemers.

We commit this sin ourselves if, in our hearts, we despair. We’re tempted to this despair by the things we suffer. And even more so if we think we know our own sufferings are worse or less just than those of others. Comparison to others will goad us to despair.

We suffer terrible things, it is true. Furthermore, it is true that God had and has the power to deliver us from all suffering. And it is true that, despite this, we continue to suffer.

However, it is our great hope that, in Christ Jesus and in his resurrection, we will, through suffering in Christ Jesus on his cross, enter into eternal life where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning. In Jesus Christ, suffering becomes the way to joy, peace, and life.

But with suffering also comes temptation. Everyone who suffers is tempted. Even Jesus is tempted. The temptation is to flee rather than embrace our cross, which is our suffering, whatever that may be in each of our personal lives – sickness, injustice, poverty.

Whatever we suffer, we do not know what others suffer. As the great spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” We know our own suffering. We see and hear of others’ suffering and we suffer with them because we love them. That’s what it means to be compassionate – to “suffer with.”

Be compassionate and do not fall into the temptation regarding the sufferings of others as less than your own sufferings. That’s another judgment we are not fit to make. It is Jesus who knows. God knows. He alone is the truly compassionate one who truly knows and embraces our passion in his passion.  

We must not try to compare ourselves with others. This comparison, because we cannot see into the hearts of others like Jesus can, only serves to increase our own suffering and diminish our compassion for others. It is utterly useless. Abandon it readily as soon as the temptation to compare appears.

God alone sees and knows everything, even everything that we hide within our hearts. The mysteries we ponder there, the sinful thoughts we think, the doubts, and the faith. He is there with us through all of that.

He is with the really real you. The you that you show no one else. The you that is stripped of all its masks. The you that you would never bring to church. As well as the you that is so self-sacrificial, loving, and noble, that, if others saw it, they would tremble in awe in your presence. But others do not see. God alone sees your heart. Remember that nothing but nothing is hidden from him.

He is with you. Now and always and forever and unto the ages of ages. He. Is. With. You.

It does not matter what I think of you. It does not matter what your fellow parishioners think of you. It does not matter what your friends and family think of you. Whether we think you're a saint or a wretch. It is God who knows your heart.

Jesus knows what we're thinking, so let us be faithful to him.

[i] Divine Names, vii

Sunday, July 14, 2019

To Teach with Authority

BK does not stand for Byzantine Catholic. It stands for Burger King. At Burger King, you can have it your way. But not here.

We are a Church that makes bold to teach with authority. Here, we cannot pick and choose what doctrine we will believe. The word heresy comes from the Greek αἵρεσις, meaning “choice – a taking or a choosing.” Picking and choosing what you believe according to your tastes or inclinations or according to what makes sense to you at the time is heresy and we condemn heresy in the Church.

If we would consider ourselves members of the Church, we must listen to the Church with humility and not run off to hear whatever ideas tickle our ears (2 Tim 4:3). We must believe the teaching of the Church even more than our own ideas. This is hard for individualist Americans to hear.

Some people treat their membership in the Church as a birthright. Membership in the Church is not a birthright. I mean to say, for example, you are not a Byzantine Catholic solely as a result of who your parents are, even though they very often have something to do with it.

At your initiation into the Church, you are required to profess the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed, given to us by the first two ecumenical councils. If you are a baby, your godparents must profess the faith for you. By so doing, they take on the solemn task of doing all they can to raise you as a believer. If they fail in that task and you do not believe, then you do not belong to the Church, which is the body of Christ. It is those who believe that will live in Christ.

Some people think they belong to the Church by virtue of attendance alone (or even by virtue of donations alone!). Even coming to church every Sunday of your life does not make you a member of the Church, if you do not believe the faith we profess. Don’t get me wrong; it’s necessary to show up and all are welcome, but becoming and remaining a member of the body of Christ requires giving him your heart, mind, and soul and not merely your butt in the seat.

To belong to Christ, to be a member of his body, the Church, you must profess the true faith and condemn the heresies, which deny this or that aspect of the faith. Every heresy contains a half-truth, overemphasized to the expense of another truth. Every heresy attempts to make human sense of the divine mystery, and to subject God to human reason. This is grievous disrespect of God. The heretic has no fear of God.

The first six ecumenical councils, which we commemorate on this Sunday, worked always to preserve the mystery against heresy and to proclaim the revealed saving truths we know as dogmas. A dogma is not some odious thing. It is the truth of our salvation revealed to us by God. Dogmas set us free. These saving dogmas are expressed preeminently in the Nicene Creed, which we profess at every Divine Liturgy.

The term “dogmatic” in our culture has come to mean someone who is overly rigid and thinks they know more than do. “Don’t be so dogmatic,” we hear. “Be more open minded.” But as G.K Chesterton observed, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

And he also said, “An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut.” [i]

I would add that, as with the mouth, it’s important to be able to open your mind repeatedly, lest you starve to death, but it’s just as important to then close it again repeatedly.

And I will say this: It really is true that there are many Christians who think they know more than they do. Not every idea that pops into our Christian heads is a dogma. Not every question has an answer that has been revealed to us by God. It is a common error to regard a widely held opinion to be a dogma. We know less than we tend to think we do.

Why God does not want us to know everything, I do not know, but he does not. He wants us to know him (John 17:3), not necessarily to know things – or even everything about him. He gives us the things we do need to know about him and we can trust that what he has given us is sufficient without thinking we have to have all the answers.

We remain ignorant of many things, and, as the free children of God, we are free to have opinions about these things. There’s nothing wrong with having opinions so long as we hold them as opinions and not as dogmas – and so long as they do not go against the dogmas. We should hold our opinions lightly and adhere to the saving dogmas fiercely. Be ready to die for the latter, but not so much the former. We may keep our opinions at least until God shows us that the truth is otherwise than we thought. Our minds must be malleable in God’s hands, but not in the hands of just anyone.

We can and we must hold fast to what has been revealed to us. To dogma. To the creed – the symbol of faith.

But how can we trust this statement of belief, though? There are some Protestants who reject all creeds or say things like, “the Bible is my creed.” How do we know who to believe?

Well, let’s go back to the source – to the Lord. Jesus has authority from his Father over all flesh (John 17:2). And he says, “I have given to [the apostles] the words which [the Father has] given me; and they have received them” (John 17:8). How can we receive these same words? The words spoken with authority. The words we know to be true because they are from God, who is Truth himself. They were given to the apostles and so it is through the apostles that we receive them.

We call this the apostolic tradition. Traditio means “to hand over” or “to pass down.” The apostles received the words of the Father from Jesus himself and they have passed them down to us under the protection and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is, indeed, one of the best ways they have done this for us, but it is not the only way.

They also passed on their apostolic authority to the bishops, who always have the authority to teach the faith and to preserve the apostolic tradition. This tradition, which, remember, is the words of the Father given to the apostles by Jesus Christ and passed down to us, is best expressed when the bishops gather together in council and speak with one voice. When all the Church receives their teaching, we call this an ecumenical council. The saving and life-giving dogmas these councils express for us are worthy of our belief. Therefore, at every Divine Liturgy and also at Compline, we profess the creed they have given us. Listen carefully to the words. Ponder them in your hearts. These are words given to us by God.

[i] (Illustrated London News. October 10, 1908)

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Knowing to Whom We Speak in Prayer

The centurion gives us such an example of faith, as Jesus says, and also of prayer, of trust, of humility, & of divine knowledge (Matt 8:5-13).

Listen to what he says to Jesus: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress” (Matt 8:6).

I am struck by the fact that there is in this prayer – and I would call it a prayer – no explicit petition.

Petition is where we ask God for what our heart desires. Petition is good, and earnestly desired by the Lord. Jesus himself makes petitions to his Father many times. This is good. The Lord’s heart desires that we say to him what our heart desires.

But note that, in this case, the centurion does not here explicitly ask Jesus for anything, not even for healing. He only expresses the suffering of his situation. He suffers together with his servant, I say, because we learn from Luke that his servant is dear to him (Luke 7:2). But, in Matthew, it is the Lord and not the centurion who brings up healing. Jesus says, “I will come and heal him” (Matt 8:7).

Luke recalls this differently. According to Luke, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his sick servant – a petition. And I think it is clear, even in Matthew, that this is what the centurion wants. The centurion wants the Lord to heal his suffering servant. Jesus understands this immediately, and offers to come and heal him.

What can it mean, then, that the centurion does not here give voice to the petition that surely lies on his heart? “Out with it!” we might say to him. “Say what you really want!” “Stop beating around the bush!”

But, no, this is a beautiful prayer in need of no improvements or additions. “Lord, my servant is… in terrible distress.” The centurion knows to whom he speaks.

How he came to know him we do not learn, but he knows him. In Luke, some elders of the Jews point out that the centurion loves their nation and that he built their synagogue for them (Luke 7:5). This gives us some insight as to how a Gentile centurion of the Roman occupiers could have come to know and respect the Messiah of the Jews. But I daresay that his knowledge even seems to go beyond this.

He knows to whom he speaks. He knows that the one to whom he speaks will understand everything. That not everything needs to be said. The one to whom he speaks is all-knowing.

Furthermore, he trusts the one to whom he speaks.  He asks for nothing, but gives the situation into the hands of the Lord, for he knows and trusts that the one to whom he speaks is all-good.

We might try imitating this prayer of the centurion when next we are in distress.

Lord, my daughter is suffering from a terrible migraine.
Lord, my sister’s husband is abusing her.
Lord, my mother is dying of cancer.

There is a radical and profound trust in this kind of prayer. I can barely do it. I can scarcely resist adding, “heal her” “deliver her” “be with her.” And, I hasten to add, again, it is good to add those petitions.

But if we could pause for a moment in faith and trust, like the centurion did, knowing that the Lord already knows, that he already cares, that he is already inside the situation, perhaps we will hear the Lord say, as the centurion did, “I will come and heal.” Perhaps this kind of prayer can teach us something of trust and humility.

If we do hear the Lord say this, what will we say? “Thank you, Lord!” will surely be the first words from our lips. That would be a good thing to say.

But this is not what the centurion says. He says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Such humility! How can we even approach this humility? When we cry out to the Lord for healing, for his presence, for favors, do we remember our unworthiness to receive him?

Or, do we think ourselves worthy to stand in the presence of God? To be given whatever we seek? Are any of us so sinless and perfect and purified?

Many times, I hear people say of some good thing, like a bowl of ice cream or a vacation or a good night’s sleep, “I deserve this.” I do not deserve any good thing, inasmuch as I am a sinner. I am blessed by many good things, and I thank God for them, but I deserve none of them. Every good thing is an unmerited gift, a blessing, a mercy. God’s grace is gratuitous, unearned, and undeserved.

We ought to remember this, as the centurion does. We ought to thank God, yes, but not as an equal thanks an equal for a mutual exchange. Not as I thank my boss for my paycheck. No. We do not earn and do not deserve the good things God gives to us. And every good thing is from the Lord. We are not worthy of him. The centurion understood this.

Note that, after Jesus offers to come and heal, the centurion does make a petition. After, not before, Jesus says he will heal, the centurion prays, “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

The centurion knows to whom he speaks. How he knows, I do not know, but he knows. The great faith that Jesus praises in him is a true divine knowledge. Only God could have given him this knowledge.

What doctor or healer can heal without touching the patient? Without even seeing the patient? Without even being in the same room or even under the same roof as the patient? What doctor or healer could do this? Who can heal by the power of the word alone? By only saying the word? Who commands creation with the authority as a centurion commands his soldiers with authority?

Only the author of creation has authority over it. Only the Word who was in the beginning with God and by whom God creates and who is God can heal by the power of the word alone. The centurion knows to whom he speaks. He speaks to God and knows it.

Echoing the word of creation, “let there be…” Jesus says to him, “let it be…” (Gen 1; Matt 8:13). And the servant was healed at that very moment.

Most Popular Posts this Month

Most Popular Posts of All Time