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.

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