Sunday, September 25, 2016

Listening to Hear the Word of God in Our Lives

Let us press in upon Jesus to hear the word of God (Luke 5:1). When we do, maybe he’ll withdraw a little, as if getting into Simon’s boat and putting out a little from the land, but he won’t neglect to teach us (Luke 5:3).  We must each seek out and listen to the word of God in our lives. He is always speaking to us, I believe, in the language of our lives. But it can be difficult to make out what he’s saying over the crashing of the waves.

The word of God to us is often counterintuitive. 
What he’s telling us often isn’t what we want to hear. 
It’s often not easily recognized or understood, agreeable or believable to us. 
Hearing the word of God and keeping it requires a little faith.

Hearing the word of God is like toiling all night in a boat on the lake in the grueling and backbreaking work of fishing. Casting out your nets, pulling them in, catching nothing. Casting again, pulling in again, catching nothing again. All night long. Hour after hour. Then, exhausted and disheartened, giving up, coming near the shore to wash your fruitless nets and call it quits only to hear a man command you to put out again into the deep and to let down your nets again for a catch (Luke 5:4).

You know how good it feels to get home from work after a long day. But how would it feel if, when you just get home, your boss calls you and tells you to come back in and get back to work? My first thought probably wouldn’t be that this is the word of God to me. That wouldn’t be my first thought. To recognize such a seemingly mad suggestion as the word of God would take a little faith.

Simon, who Jesus will later call Peter, has a little faith. He says to Jesus, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! Nevertheless, at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). Notice that he doesn’t say, “for a catch.” Jesus tells him to let down the nets “for a catch,” but Peter just says that he’ll let down the nets. He’s holding on to a little skepticism, but he also has a little faith. As it happens, God is the master of more than just fish, and so the haul they take in by heeding his word was enough to nearly sink two boats.

We must listen carefully for the word of God in our lives and be open to it, because it can be counterintuitive. Our God is a God of surprises.

Papyrus 46
Hearing the word of God is also like long suffering from a thorn in the flesh – a weakness of body or spirit or condition of life – and asking the Lord to remove it, yet still suffering it and so asking the Lord again to remove it and yet still suffering it and so asking a third time for the Lord to remove it, and finally hearing the word of the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power reaches perfection in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

The word of the Lord isn’t always what we want to hear. Sometimes he has to tell us three times before we’ll accept it. Accepting it requires a little faith. Paul finally accepts his weakness and even boasts of it, saying, “for the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:10). 

The word of God can be hard to hear.

Hearing the word of God is also like trying to sleep at night but being woken by the voice of your teacher calling your name, getting up, going to see what he wants and hearing, “I didn’t call you. Go back to sleep.” Then, trying to sleep again, hearing him call you again, getting up and going to him only to hear again, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” And again a third time – but this time at last your teacher recognizes that the voice you’ve been hearing is the voice of the Lord (1 Sam 3:3-10).

Sometimes we mistake the voice of the Lord for the voice of our human teachers, just as sometimes we mistake the voice of our human teachers for the voice of the Lord. His voice in our lives can be hard to recognize, but our teachers, if they are wise and humble, can help us to recognize him when he calls us.

Elkanah and Hannah bring Samuel to Eli
detail from Walters manuscript W.106circa 1250, ink and pigment on parchment
The priest Eli is a good example of this kind of teacher, even though he had failings (1 Sam 2-3). It is Eli who finally recognizes the Lord calling the boy Samuel in the night, only to learn that the Lord will punish his house for the iniquity of his sons, to which news Eli says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Sam 3:18). This demonstrates a rare humility and openness to the word of God, necessary in teachers who would help us to hear the word of God in our own lives.

Hearing the word of God is also like suffering the oppression of another nation for seven years and them destroying all the produce of the land and taking all the livestock, instigating famine, making you so weak and so powerless against them that you just know that there’s nothing you can do about it , so you call out the Lord and ask him, “Why don’t you do something? Where are your wonderful deeds? Why don’t you deliver your people?” only to hear back from the Lord, “Why don’t you deliver your people?” (Judges 6:1, 4, 13-15). Sometimes we ask the Lord, “Why don’t you help us?” only to hear him say, “You are the help I have sent.”  Sometimes we see our own particular problems because God is telling us to deal with our own particular problems.

Icon of Gideon
17th c., North Russia
This is how it went with Gideon against the Midianites (Judges 6). What the Lord was asking him to do to was unbelievable to him. He was of the weakest clan in Manasseh and he was the least in his family and yet the Lord chose him, of all people, to deliver Israel from the Midianites (6:15). He took a lot of convincing.

The word of God can be like that. It confounds us. It calls us to do things we think are impossible. And they would be impossible without God, but they are not without God. When God calls us to seemingly insurmountable tasks he says to us, as he says to Gideon, “But I will be with you” (6:16), and that makes all the difference.

Sometimes people say that God will never let you suffer more than you can bear, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Rather, we may get crushed by our problems, but he will bear them in us. Be with us. Raise us up when we fall (Ps 145:14). It really was impossible for Gideon to drive out the Midianites, but God in Gideon can do anything.

Of myself, I can’t do anything.
God can do anything.
In God, I can do anything God wills.

So, with the guidance of wise and humble teachers, we must listen carefully for the word of God in our lives so that we can know his will for our lives and live in him who accomplishes great, surprising, new, impossible, confounding, and glorious works in and through us. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

God loves the world.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These must be the most recognized words of the gospel in the United States. We see John 3:16 everywhere: on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in the eye black under Tim Tebow’s eyes. At some point, everyone in America has probably looked up this verse.

I once heard a priest quip that maybe it’s time we start writing John 3:17 everywhere. Then, after a while, we could move on to John 3:18, and so on. That way, maybe, before they die, people would make it through at least one chapter of scripture.

We quote John 3:16 in our Divine Liturgy in the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom just after the “Holy, Holy, Holy….” These words have been popular among us Byzantines since before there were chapters and verses to cite.  

And they tell us that God loves the world. We hear these words so often that maybe they go in one ear and out the other. We might begin to lose a sense of their significance – even of their scandal.  

The word for world here in Greek is κόσμος. God so loved the cosmos. This word is potent and loaded in the Christian tradition, and particularly in John, who uses it more than anyone. Its meanings are complex and varied and seemingly contradictory. The lexicon gives it no less than eight definitions.

We hear from Jesus that God loves the world. But John tells us in another place “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is confusing. We’ve just heard that the Father loves the world, but now we hear if we love the world we do not love the Father? 

And anyway, how can God love this world? In this world, we let children starve to death. We slaughter them before they’re born. In this world, men crash airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands. In this world, we drop nuclear bombs. The ruler of this world is the devil (cf. John 12:31, 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4). We see this wickedness all around us and we don’t love it.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes that “The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world.” The passions, you know, are like greed and sloth, lust and vainglory, envy and resentment, and so on. So, when we say that God loves the world are we saying that he loves these things? That he loves the passions and the horrors that impassioned people carry out? God forbid the thought. The word “world” carries many senses. And we must carefully consider what is meant.  

Jesus is not of the world but is above the world (John 8:23). He creates the world and yet becomes of the world to save the world. We are taught both to love the world and to hate our lives in the world (John 12:25). The devil is the ruler of the world but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords. The world brings up these parallels and opposites. And only Jesus Christ and his cross can reconcile opposites. 

It’s like we have two worlds here. And I think that’s it really. We live in two worlds at the same time. There’s the world as God creates it and there is the fallen world, enslaved to sin. We must be aware of both worlds – both the cosmos and the chaos.

Cosmos means order – and in this order, there’s a union and not an opposition between spirit and matter. It is a disordered world, a fallen world, which rends the spiritual and the physical asunder. The cosmos as God creates it is both at the same time.

The Lord creates and loves the cosmos. The cosmos is all people and it is also all creation. It is the whole universe. Certainly we human beings have a primary place in the created universe but there’s more to it than just us. When we were created in the order of things, we were put in the garden as the gardeners. We were put in the cosmos as the stewards of that order.

But we have disordered this order. Not only do our sins cause personal harm but also cosmological harm. Our disordered acts hurt us, hurt each other and even hurt the cosmos. Our sins break our lives apart in ways that we can see and in ways that we can’t see.  I think entropy itself, like death itself, has its ultimate origin in sin.

Now, in the way that we experience things, death has become so much a part of the order of things that it seems necessary and even good.

A naturalist can well observe all the good that comes out of death. The dead bodies of animals fertilize the plants. Growth comes out of decay. Good comes out of evil. Things cannot live, in the order that we know, unless there is death. We ourselves live and feed on the death of other living things – plants and animals. How can I say that it is not a part of the created order – that death is unnatural?

Death is a part of the cosmos that we know and experience, but we know and experience the cosmos in fallenness. Yes, good comes out of death. The greatest good comes out of the greatest death – the death of Jesus. God enters into this cosmos, which he loves, which is fallen and wounded, and he becomes a part of it himself, and it wounds him.

We often repeat that God becomes man, which is the whole basis of our salvation. A corollary of this is that the creator becomes the creation. Here is a surprise and a paradox – two things being at once while seeming to contradict. Divinity by nature is uncreated, humanity created, and so Jesus, both divine and human, is both creator and creation.  

So not only is humanity saved, redeemed, glorified, brought into unity with God by this, but so is the cosmos. By his incarnation, Christ is cosmically present to the universe. And the whole universe stands in need of his salvific presence, because the whole universe is disordered and suffering from destruction and death of many kinds.

Death is what we’re being saved from. God gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Death is an evil. Some of us are accustomed to thinking about moral evil only and we forget about physical evil. We fail to understand physical evil as evil. We even call it good.

And it has been made good in Christ and in his cross. But we must not forget that this is a paradox, lest we forget all our Lord has done for us. In Christ, all things are new. In Christ, death becomes the means of life, because in him, life goes into the place of the dead, into Hades, so that there is nowhere God is not. God is even where God is not.

God is impassible, yet in his humanity he suffers the passion. God is immortal, yet in his humanity he dies. God creates the cosmos, yet in his humanity he is of the cosmos. God loves the world.

The world is the whole cosmos that God creates. Yet the world is also the passions, the sins, the suffering, and the death. So it gets convoluted sometimes when we’re talking about the world. We see the passions and the weakness, the suffering and the death, all of which is evil, and it gets hard to see what’s good about the world. 

All of this is reconciled only in the cross. We exalt the cross when we say that we love the world. When we say that God loves the world – that can only make any sense in the context of exalting the cross. God is making the sign of the cross over the whole world. He is blessing us with the cross.

The cross unifies opposites. There’s a vertical bar and there’s a horizontal bar. The divine and the human intersected and made one. Heaven is brought down to earth. The cross is the cosmos as it really is. All of it, unified. Life enters into death. Unified, death becomes the way to life through resurrection. Opposites are made one in the cross, this wonderful and holy sign.

by John Russell, 2007
acrylic and charcoal on canvas

A version of this article appears on Catholic Exchange

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Celebrate or Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Only Jesus is enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jesus Christ is an Exorcist

Demons are real. Evil spirits exist. They hate you. They hate me. They hate the lunatic boy in the gospel (Matt 17:15, 18). The demon torments this boy and causes him to fall often into fire and often into water, just to hurt him, or even to try to kill him (Matt 17:15; Mark 9:22).

Demons want us to suffer. They are our enemies. They want to hurt us in any way that they can. Most of all, they want to separate us from God. They want to convince us to put our trust not in God but in them or in ourselves. They want our obedience in whatever small thing – so long as we are obeying them and not God.

It would have been a small thing for Jesus to eat bread, having fasted for forty days in the desert. He was hungry, but it was the devil suggesting he eat and satisfy himself. Jesus knows that we live not by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4). We must obey the word of God rather than the words of Satan. Life comes from the mouth of God, not from filling our mouths with the devil’s food.

When we are fasting, the devil suggests we should eat. The fruit of the tree looks good to us – good for food, delightful to our eyes, desirable to make us wise (Gen 3: 6). The fruit seems like such a small thing. Yet God commands us not to eat it and disobedience to the word of God always ushers death into the world. This is what the demons want. They want to destroy us. They want to kill us. And they’re pretty good at it. This is the bad news.

Jesus Heals a Demon-possessed Boy
Egyptian, Walters manuscript W.592
ink and pigments on laid paper
But I’m not here to preach the bad news. I’m here to preach the good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ – and the good news is that Jesus is an exorcist. He rebukes the demon, casts it out, and cures the boy instantly (Matt 17:18). In Christ, we also can be victorious over the demons that afflict us.

Demons plague us like flies – but they are easily swatted by the God-bearing angels and saints. Λογίσμοι (logismoi) – the pesky distracting thoughts and demonic provocations that buzz around our heads like flies can be rebuked and cast out by the name of Jesus and the Jesus prayer, if we are watchful and vigilant. Yes, there are demons and they are our enemies and they would be formidable enemies, except for the fact that we have Jesus on our side.

If you’re not on the side of Jesus, if you have not been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, or if you’re outside of God’s Church, you are more susceptible to demonic influence. There is a reason that before every baptism, we perform an exorcism. At baptism, we are receiving into Christ people who have not until now been in Christ and so have had no authority over demons. In the early years of the catechumenate, exorcisms were read often, even daily, over the catechumens. At baptism, we put on Christ, the exorcist.

The demon often threw the boy into fire and into water (Matt 17:15; Mark 9:22). I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it’s a mockery of baptism in water and baptism in fire, of baptism into Christ and baptism in the Spirit, of baptism and chrismation.

In ancient Israel, the water was a scary place – especially the sea. It was a place of dark depths and unknown horrors. The place of Leviathan. An abode of demons. And so today the demon tries to throw the boy into water.

Now, as Christians, we lower our own babies three times into water and by this baptism, we overcome the power of the devil, who vainly tries to use this good thing destructively.  Baptism is the undoing of all infernal attacks. It is the reversal even of death, the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26). We are baptized into the death of Christ Jesus and through death Christ destroys the devil “who has the power of death” (Rom 6:3; Heb 2:14). Baptism is our first death and it is also our first resurrection.

In Christ, we’re not afraid anymore. Water may have represented the dark and frightful unknown, but now we go into the water ourselves. Having been exorcized and having exorcized the water, we go into the water and chase the demons out. We confront them head on. Christ gives us authority over them, if we have faith, if we pray and fast. We go into death and we come out alive and we live in Christ forever. This is the good news.

But baptism isn’t a like a magic spell that eliminates demonic activity in our lives from that point on. In fact, sometimes the more we seek God, the more we encounter overt demonic opposition. Those whom the devil has already deceived, he’ll often leave alone in their deception. It is therefore necessary for us to discern spirits.   

John tells us not to believe “every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God…. Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God, [but] is the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:1-3).

It’s really rather simple, if a spirit is not of the Lord, then it is an evil spirit. There is not in the incorporeal spiritual realm the ambiguity that we experience as humans. We are good and evil at the same time, but the angels and demons, as simple spirits, are necessarily absolute and immediate in their determination for or against the Lord. As the Lord says, “he who is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30), and, in another place, “Because you are lukewarm…, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16). So, there can be no neutral angels. We do not believe in capricious fairies. Angels are either good or evil, either for or against the Lord. Any power being presented as neutral or impersonal is in fact demonic.

Whenever there are unseen powers at work, we have to ask who is doing this. Not “what,” but “who,” because all spiritual forces, energies, and powers, have their source in persons – either in the uncreated divine persons of the most holy Trinity or in created persons – whether human or angelic, who may be good or evil. If a power is not of God, then it is demonic. Many increasingly popular occult and New Age activities are in fact demonic. And many of the false and pagan gods are nothing more than demons in disguise (cf. Ps 95:5, LXX; 1 Cor 10:20).

Therefore, we should approach spiritual gifts with suspicion. We should not be immediately enticed or distracted by miracles and apparitions, but we must be hesitant, even suspicious and skeptical. The first thing an Orthodox bishop does when there is a myrrh-streaming icon is not veneration, but exorcism. Only after demonic influence is ruled out, do we venerate such an icon.

When discerning spirits, just ask, does it draw you closer to God? Does it bring you to repentance for your sins? If not, then it is not of God and we must have no part in it.

One of the Desert Fathers was praying in a cave and an angel appeared to him and said, “Prepare yourself, for in three days they are coming to make you a bishop.” Well, the monk didn’t just go along with this announcement. It appealed to his ego, so he rebuked the angel and told him to get out. The next day, the angel came again and said, “The emissaries are only two days away. Prepare yourself, for they’re going to make you a bishop.” And again the monk rebuked the angel, saying, “I am a sinner, and you’re trying to tempt me to pride.”  In other words, the monk accused the angel of being a demon! Only when the angel came the third time, he told the monk, “You are indeed a sinful man, and the Lord is going to punish a sinful people by making you their bishop.” And then monk said, “Alright, now I can believe you.” Because this was a finally a message that brought with it an awareness of his own sinfulness and an inspiration to repentance, the monk believed, and he packed his things.[1]

(Another version of this writing is now posted at Catholic Exchange).

[1] based on a story told by Father George Aquaro in an interview with Kevin Allen, “The Illumined Heart 159: The Occult – Shining Light On Satan’s Shadow, Part 2,” December 10, 2010, 31:52. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

I have compassion on the crowd

The Feeding of the Five Thousand; Jesus Walking on the Water
from an Armenian Gospel book, 1386
black ink and watercolors on paper
bound between wood boards covered with dark brown kidskin

“I have compassion on the crowd.” Jesus saw the five thousand men, the probably twenty thousand people, the great throng, and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick and satisfied their hunger. In the parallel stories of Jesus feeding the four thousand, he again has compassion on them and on that occasion, he actually says, “I have compassion on the crowd.” I heard a preacher once who would begin his sermons this way. Looking out at the gathered crowd he would say, “I have compassion on the crowd.” It strikes me as bold of that preacher to identify himself so closely with Jesus in this way. On the other hand, we are to be like Jesus in this way.

The word compassion comes from Latin and it means to suffer with. To feel the others’ pain. It’s a good translation of the Greek here, but it’s an abstraction of something more physical, fleshly, and poetic. The meaning of the Greek word here seems alien to us. I even find it difficult to say: σπλαγχνίζομαι, which we translate as “compassion”, more literally means to be moved as to the bowels. Where we would sometimes refer to the heart, the ancients refer to the bowels, which they regard as the seat of the more intense emotions. In other words, to feel it in your gut.

Like when sometimes we wince ourselves when we see our children fall and scrape their knees. We know what that feels like. So when we see someone else – especially someone we love – experience that pain, the memory of it is sharp – we can almost feel it ourselves.

And there is no more beautiful image of compassion than that of a nurturing mother toward her newborn baby, crying again in the night. She can almost feel his hunger and is driven by it from her own sleep and her own comfort again and again to comfort the helpless baby.

When we love someone, their pain hurts us too. This is the opposite of sadism or schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure at the pain or misfortune of others. We sometimes mistake the pleasure that someone gives us for love, but true love is not just a gushy feeling. Love must include compassion. This means that there isn’t going to be any such thing painless love in this life – not until that blessed day when we will see our loved ones in a heavenly Jerusalem, when the Lord “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4). Only then will our love be painless.

Jesus himself, who has loving compassion on us, encounters death. He mourns. He cries. He feels pain. Today, Jesus’ love for the crowd is not painless. One verse prior to today’s gospel reading, he had been attempting to withdraw from the crowds to a lonely place apart, to be alone to mourn, because he had just heard news that his cousin and baptist John was beheaded by Herod. Jesus, like any of us would, wanted to go and mourn his departed friend for a while in solitude. Jesus often went off to be alone, to rest, and to pray.

But finding a place to be alone in Galilee was no easy task. Josephus, the Jewish historian, claims that Galilee was densely populated at this time – with more than 200 towns, each with no less than 15,000 inhabitants. So that’s more than three million people in a small region. So it’s not too surprising that Jesus has a hard time finding a solitary place, and that the crowds from the towns quickly hear where he is and follow after him. Crowds tended to follow after Jesus, because great power went out from him and all were healed by that power. They would press in on him and try to touch him, because his touch and his presence was healing to all. This must have been exhausting for him, especially when he was overcome with his own grief. So Jesus seeks solitude and rest. He does teach us by example to care for ourselves as well as for others. He gets into a boat to escape the crowds - and then on the other shore there is another crowd of thousands waiting for him. How exasperating that must have felt. Some of us may have shouted, “Just leave me alone!”

But in addition to teaching us to care for ourselves, Jesus also teaches us to deny ourselves. And today, despite his exhaustion and despite his grief and despite his desire to be alone, he looks out at the great throng and sees their suffering, and he has compassion on them, and he heals their sick.

It must not have been easy for Jesus to add the pain of the multitude to his own pain. But that is what he does. He denies himself and takes up his cross and invites us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.

Sometimes he calls us to set aside ourselves, our heartaches, our exhaustion, our obsessions, and to focus on the needs of others. This is sacrificial love offered in imitation of Christ.  He shows the crowd compassion, and then he invites us, his disciples, also to show them compassion.

The disciples were also aware of the people’s need. They too are capable of compassion and can feel the suffering and need of others. They see that it’s getting late and that the people will soon be hungry. They bring this concern for the people to Jesus, along with a suggestion that the crowds should go off and fend for themselves. This is a familiar story: when we see a need, our first response is often that someone else should do what’s necessary to provide for the need.

Feeling the others’ pain, sensing their need is the beginning, but not the end, of compassion. Jesus, by his own compassion, invites us to compassion. He says to the disciples, “They need not go away, you feed them.”

Jesus’ response here might remind some of us of what happens when we have a great idea for some service or activity that the parish ought to be providing. We take this idea to our pastor, only to hear him say, “Thank you for volunteering to lead the effort!” The needs that we can see are often the needs that Jesus is calling us to provide for.

But the disciples have only two fish and five loaves. It’s a meager offering, but they offer what they have.

The truth is, we really can’t do it alone. What we have to offer really isn’t enough. We really do need Jesus’ help. If I have compassion on the crowd, it is only inasmuch as I am in Christ and he is in me. The disciples offer what they have, but they need the power of Christ to take their poor offering and make it sufficient for the needs of the crowd.

Jesus takes the spark of compassion in the disciples and he multiplies it, when he says to them, you feed them. Jesus is a multiplier. He multiplies the five loaves and two fish and he multiplies our compassion. He shows us that love can grow. It isn’t ever necessary to run out of love.  Love is not like money. Love is not finite. Rather, paradoxically, you have what you give away.

So, whatever small and seemingly inadequate gifts we have to offer, these we offer together with our prayers to Christ for multiplication and he will make them grow to abundance. Not only will it be enough, there will be twelve baskets left over. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

To be a child of Christ

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

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

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

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