Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mystery of Good and Evil

Why do we suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is it that babies sometimes die before they get a chance to live? Why is it that sometimes they are born blind, like the man in today's Gospel?

Healing of the man born blind
Codex Egberti, Fol 50

Theologians know that God does not make death – that no evil comes from God – that God is the author of every good and only good. In other words, theologians know that God is not to blame for our suffering or for death or for blindness.

Whence come these things into the world, then? Well, the wages of sin is death, they also say with St. Paul (Rom 6:23). So, it would seem that sin, which is missing the mark, is the origin of every injustice – every instance of a good person suffering evil maybe rightly blamed on sin – either on their own sin or on someone else's sin. It's clear that it's not always our own sin that causes us to suffer, though it often is. But if someone persecutes or abuses you, you suffer even though you have done nothing wrong. Everything that Jesus suffers is like this. Jesus is altogether sinless. Yet, he suffers greatly from the sins of others who persecute him and mock him and torture him and crucify him. When we suffer at the hands of others, we do well to remember that Jesus has identified with us in that – and has taught us how to respond to it – with forgiveness.

Nonetheless, people usually do not respond that way to the injustices they suffer. Most people, when they get hurt, lash out and hurt others – often the ones they hurt aren't even people that did them any harm. Sometimes, for example, a boss will humiliate someone at work and, too fearful and cowardly to respond like a Christian to the one who has wronged him – with courage and honesty – and without animosity or resentment, instead they swallow the humiliation and shame and anger and resentment and bring that home to their spouse and their kids – snapping at them and humiliating them, though they're totally innocent and only want love and kindness.

Sometimes, we're not even good at revenge. Revenge is a bad thing but taking it out on the innocent is even worse. Yet many times this is what we do.

In this way, our sin sends out ripples of harm into the world. That's clear. When one person gets hurt, it often leads to them hurting others. Hurt people hurt people. It's not a justification, by the way. There is no justification for us to hurt each other – to be nasty to one another, or unforgiving, or judgmental. It's not a justification, it's just an observation. This can all be easily observed in our own lives.

Partly extrapolating from these experiences, many theologians have concluded that all suffering results from sin. I have often counted myself as one who agrees with them. There are the obvious ways in which this is the case, such as the examples I have described, but there are also hidden ways in which our sins hurt other people and ourselves.

We are spirits as well as bodies and so our sins have spiritual ramifications in the spiritual world as well as physical ramifications in the physical world. Sin is a break with our true created nature, which is both spiritual and material. We cannot even begin to imagine how much suffering each of our sins, voluntary and involuntary, brings into the world – into the whole cosmos. With our sin, which is unnatural, we disrupt the whole created order of nature.

So if we understand that sin is the cause of all human suffering, the disciples' question to Jesus about the man blind since birth seems to be a reasonable one: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). You see, they understood that blindness results from sin. That's true.  It's true of both physical blindness and spiritual blindness. 

And they understood that we suffer from one another's sins as well as from our own. In Exodus, the Lord says he will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Ex 20:5; 34:7). So they suggested that it might be the sins of his parents rather than his own sins that resulted in his blindness. Again, it’s not unreasonable, especially if we understand that this man's parents include not only his mother and his father but even all his ancestors back to his first parents Adam and Eve. Surely the world is broken and sometimes people are born blind into this broken world because of sin.

We might also add the sins of demons to our consideration. Their sins too – and not only the sins of us humans – yield great suffering in the cosmos. They too are at war with God and with their own created nature.

In any case, despite all of this, Jesus once again confounds conventional theology. He says, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). Jesus later says the same thing about the illness of Lazarus, saying that “it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).

I am left gasping at this explanation which confounds all my reason. I can dance around it with cleverness and point out that Jesus does not altogether deny the role of sin in the origin of blindness. He only says that it wasn't the sins of this man or his parents. One could argue that perhaps the sins of others or the sins of demons are to blame. But Jesus doesn't blame any sin at all in his etiology of the blindness. My reason wants to chirp, “If sin is not to blame, then what? If no sinner is at fault, then who? God?” I cannot blame God for this man's blindness. But Jesus says that he is blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him.

I understand very well that Jesus heals him – and that this is a work of God that reveals the divinity of Jesus. I understand very well that the Lord uses the man's blindness to teach the world to see. This is what the Lord does again and again. Out of the darkness, he brings light – as on the first day of creation. He says, “Let there be light.” And there is light. I see that, out of death, the Lord brings life. By death, he tramples death. And so, how fitting that through the blindness of one man, he gives many the eyes of faith. The man whose eyes are opened testifies to the healing and that Jesus is of God, and he believes and worships Jesus (9:11, 25, 30-33, 38).

The Lord brings good out of evil. That's what the Lord does. But he is the origin of no evil. So today, when he says that the man is blind so that God can heal him, I don't understand. That's a mystery to me. It's rather like the mystery of the cross.

I want to ask Jesus after he gives his explanation, "Yeah, but, had it not been for sin in the world, surely this man would not have been born blind?" But that's not the kind of question we're going to hear from Jesus or his disciples. That's the kind of speculative theology they don't get into. Maybe that kind of thinking is more Greek than Hebrew – or maybe it's more a curse of this age than that to be vexed by such questions. You won't hear them saying things like, "Well, if reality were other than it is, what then would this or that be?" That's not their shtick – not at all. Jesus is much more interested in healing this man than in theoretically analyzing his condition.

We ought to be like Jesus in this. Simply love, show compassion, heal, deliver, all to the glory of God, rather than trying to subject everything to our finite analytical human understanding, as if reality, or even God, were subject to us. If instead, we seek to glorify God, then God blesses us beyond all understanding.

The mystery of good and evil is beyond our comprehension. And there comes a time to accept that we cannot understand everything and that every answer we can give is a lie. Perhaps we can understand best in silent contemplation of the awesome mystery when we stop trying to figure everything out and abandon ourselves completely to God. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018


Jesus shines his light into the life of the Samaritan woman.

He comes to the well of their mutual father Jacob in the middle of the day - at the sixth hour, that is, at the height of noon - when the sun is at its highest in the sky and the day is at its hottest and brightest point. Given these conditions, it's no wonder that Jesus was weary at this time and that he sat down beside the well to rest (John 4:6).

That's no wonder, but here is a wonder: a woman comes to draw water from the well at the sixth hour. A sane woman would come to the well early in the morning, during the cool of the day, to draw the day's water. These are desert conditions, don't forget. Many have suggested that this Samaritan woman chooses this time to come to the well, in all this heat and brightness, because of a darkness in her life. That is, she comes at noon because no one else comes at noon. We can understand that a woman who had gone through five husbands and was now living with a man not her husband was perhaps outcast among the women of her community.  We don't really know this, but it may be that a woman so popular with the men was rather unpopular with the women. And so she wants to avoid them. Small wonder. That's understandable.

To escape the judgments, criticisms, and harassment of the other women, she comes to the well at the least popular time, when it's at its hottest and brightest and most physically uncomfortable. Better to be physically uncomfortable than to endure the judgmental looks of others - you know that's true. Better the staring eye of the noonday sun than the scornful eye of an enemy. 

So to keep herself in the dark, she comes to the well in the light and finds sitting there by the well the one who is light himself, weary from his journey and asking her for water.

They speak of water and eternal life, of Samaritans and Jews, and of worship. Jesus reveals to her the true worship, which is worship in spirit and truth. And he tells her everything she'd ever done, as she puts it (John 4:39). He shines his light into her life.

Trying to hide, she finds herself exposed - but not exposed by her judgmental rivals - rather, exposed to the light by her merciful and loving Lord.

Sin festers in the dark and dies in the light. We are healed from sin, which is really a disease, by exposing into the light. This is why confession is a sacrament of healing. When we sin, it's as though we've been bitten by a poisonous creature and our choice is to leave the poison in the wound to do its work killing us or to draw the poison out into the light where it can do us no harm.

 Truly, Jesus is the physician of our souls and bodies. And today,  he heals the Samaritan woman by drawing the poison of her secret sin out into the light. She doesn't quite confess it, though what she says is true when she says, 'I have no husband" (4:17). Nonetheless, when Jesus exposes the true meaning of her words to her she recognizes and admits the truth of them by confessing that Jesus is a prophet (4:19), that is, that his words of the words of God and are the truth.

Hearing all that Jesus says and recognizing that he speaks the word of God, she leaves behind her water jar and hastens back to the very community she had been avoiding to tell them all that the long-expected Christ is sitting by their father's well. How can she, an outcast, go among those who have despised her to preach the gospel? But that is what she does. Like the apostles who leave their nets when they are called by Jesus, she leaves behind her water jar to go and preach the gospel to the whole city.[i] She is called by our tradition equal-to-the-apostles.

She is no longer afraid of what other people think of her. Christ frees her from her fear of others' judgment. I'm quite sure he doesn't free her from others' judgment. When this outcast woman of poor reputation comes into the city proclaiming that she has encountered the Christ, I'm sure she received more than one stink eye and suspicious glare. "Why should we trust a woman like you?" I expect many thought or even said. But she is freed from her fear of that judgment. She leaves that fear behind with her water jar at the well, because she has been freed from the darkness in her life by the light of the world, and no worldly power can stop the power of her God-given conviction. And so through her, many come to believe. She brings many into the light – to Christ – because Jesus is the light. She is like the first evangelist, bringing people to Christ even before he dies and rises from the dead.

By tradition, we know that she was baptized and brought her five sisters and her two sons into the faith and they all continued to evangelize. After the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, she and her family traveled to Carthage to preach the gospel there until they, too, were martyred.

And we also know the name she received in her baptism: Photini, the enlightened one, for she received the light of Christ and let it shine before all with neither fear nor shame again until the end of her life.

In some ways, Photini is the quintessential baptismal name. Some of the fathers of the Church regarded all the mysteries of initiation into the Church and into the body of Christ – baptism, chrismation, and eucharist - to be a single mystery, which they name illumination or enlightenment. The one thus received is, therefore, Photini and Photini becomes for us all an image of our baptism. Like Photini, we are all subject to death in our sins when Christ encounters us at the well, or at the font of our baptism, through which he shines his light into our darkness and illumines us. May we all, like Photini, having been filled with grace through the holy mysteries, live out our whole lives with evangelical fervor. Like her, let us proclaim to everyone we meet without fear of what they might think of us, the good news of Christ’s coming into the world and saving us from sin and death by his death and resurrection.

[i] (Chrysostom: As the apostles left their nets on being called, so she leaves her water jar to do the work of an evangelist by calling not one or two people, as Andrew and Philip did, but a whole city. (Homilies on the Gospel of John 34.1).

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Paralytic Church?

Our Church is dwindling – that is, our particular Church here in the United States: the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church sui iuris of Pittsburgh. We’re about one third the size we were in 1990.* There are also signs of diminishment in the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole. And, indeed, in all of Christianity in the United States as a whole. We're shrinking. Have you seen the numbers?

So, what can we do? Well, we can lie down and wait for death. That’s one option. Or, we can rise, take up our mat, and walk (John 5:8). In some ways, our Church is like the paralytic man lying by the sheep pool, who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:2-5).

Incidentally, that is a long time to be sick, don’t you think? That is my whole life – I turn thirty-eight this year. That helps gives me a sense of how long this man had waited for healing – my whole life.

In some ways, as a Church that’s been dwindling for about that long, we can identify with this paralytic man. Maybe we feel powerless as we sit here and watch our limbs wither. “What can we do about it?” we wonder. Sometimes we blame others and shift the responsibility, saying, "I have no one to put me into the pool when it is stirred up” (John 5:7).

Meanwhile, we sit by the sheep pool of healing. And we watch others get healed. After communism fell, our own Churches in Eastern Europe experienced enormous growth. Our seminaries there are bursting at the seams compared to here. And for another example, the Church in Africa is growing by leaps and bounds. We’re talking more than five thousand percent growth over the last century.

Meanwhile, we shrink. We say with the paralytic, “While I am going [to the pool to be healed], another steps down before me" (John 5:7). We sit paralyzed by the pool and wonder who will put us into the water so that we too can be healed.

Well, Jesus is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). Do we? Or, are we too comfortable as we are? Are we even aware that we stand in need of such healing? Or, are we so focused on our own problems, our own lives, our own parish, that we have no regard for the diminishment of our larger particular Church? Or even for the diminishment of Christianity as a whole across this nation?

Of course, we want to be healed, we say. Heal us, Lord Jesus! Descend upon us, O holy and life-creating Spirit, and give us new life and growth!

This is all well and good, but be advised, this healing and new life and growth may require breaking some of our own personal rules and dearly-held expectations (which are not to be confused with the commands of God).

For example, it was forbidden among the Jews to carry certain loads in certain ways on the Sabbath (John 5:10). This was a dearly-held custom or human tradition – part of the Mishnah around the Torah – but not the Torah itself. 

It is worth recalling that Torah nowhere explicitly forbids carrying an item from one place to another on the Sabbath. Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. But what is work? Later Mishnah strives to answer this question. Mishnah developed to serve as “a fence around Torah”– to make it so that if a pious Jew follows Mishnah, he cannot come even close to breaking Torah. These are human laws built around Torah and not Torah itself. They’re good inasmuch as they bring the people closer to the Lord. But, Jesus above all has the authority to supersede Mishnah because he himself is the word of God before all ages and is himself the source of Torah.

So it is meaningful when Jesus, the Word of God, says to the man on the Sabbath, “Rise, pick up your mat, and walk” (John 5:8). And he doesn't just say, “Rise and walk.” The command to go against Mishnah – to pick up his mat – is a necessary part of the healing. It demonstrates the totality of his healing. He carries that which had carried him.§

If we as a Church are going to grow in numbers and find new life – if we are going to rise and walk like the paralyzed man – it is going to come with some violation of our own expectations. We’re also going to have to pick up our mat.  God, as it so happens, is not obligated to fulfill our expectations. We are going to have to let certain things go – including things that we hold dear – maybe even things we falsely regard as central to our faith, our mission, or our identity.

Really, these things are idols. Any good thing can become an idol in our heart once we allow it to distract us from God rather than bringing us to God. Our teeth are good for chewing the bread of life. They are good things. But if one of them begins to decay irreversibly, at a certain point, it causes nothing but pain and becomes a hindrance and distraction rather than a help. At this point, the thing to do is extract it.

I know better than to start giving examples. And I know that there are idols in my own heart that need to topple, too. So, let's each of us in our own hearts consider what our own idols may be, which are distracting us from the divinely mandated purpose of evangelizing this nation and growing this Church.

None of us can do everything, of course. But each and every one of us can do something rather than nothing. Maybe some of us are already doing all we can, but let none of us be complacent. Let each of us prayerfully consider what we are doing to help the Lord bring healing and growth to this Church. Let each of us listen in our own hearts to the Spirit’s inspiration guiding us to new life for this Church. Through us, if we will let go of our own will and seek the kingdom of God instead of our own agendas, the Lord will restore the Church’s withered limbs so that she may begin to walk strongly in this nation.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Thomas of Great Faith

on John 20:19-31

Praise the Lord, who rescues us from our enemies (Ps. 29:2). “Sing psalms to the Lord, you who love him, give thanks to his holy name” (29:5). The maker of all things makes all things new, puts all things to right, turns all things to face him.

Sickness he turns into health (29:3)
Death he turns into life (29:4).
Tears he turns into joy (29:6).
Mourning he turns into dancing (29:12).
He removes our sackcloth and clothes us with joy (29:12).
He takes away fear and grants us peace.[i]
And today, he turns doubt into faith.  
“The lack of faith gives birth to a certainty of faith.”[ii]

Thomas doubts the word of his fellow apostles when they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” He says that unless he also sees, he will not believe it. Let us not imitate Thomas in this moment, for “blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).  

Yet, eight days later, on this day, the eighth day of Pascha, Thomas also sees the Lord, who appears among them again in the upper room even though the doors are locked. Jesus says to Thomas, offering himself and his wounds to be touched and probed, “Do not be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27).   

And upon seeing the risen Lord and hearing this, Thomas makes his statement of great faith: “My Lord and my God.” Thomas, if you will notice, is the first person in the gospels – perhaps the first person on this earth – to call Jesus “God” in so direct and unadorned a way.

By the grace of God, “Doubting Thomas” becomes Thomas of Great Faith.

Thomas is the first one bold enough to call Jesus, “God,” but he is not the last. The other apostles, led by Thomas, also begin to call Jesus “God.”

John is clear that Jesus is God. It is John alone who records this episode with Thomas. And, it was John who told us all last Sunday on Pascha, that Jesus is the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and that the Word was in the beginning with God and that the Word was God.

At the Last Supper, “John leaned on the bosom of the Word” and today Thomas touches his side. “The first discovered the depth of theology,” and the other reveals “the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, saying, ‘My Lord and my God.’”[iii] To touch the body of Christ is to touch God and those who do so lovingly come away with an unshakeable faith in him and knowledge of his divinity.

Peter, who was also in that upper room and heard what Thomas said, addresses his second epistle “To those who have obtained a faith… in… our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:1). It seems that perhaps even the faith of Peter, whose faith made it possible for him to become the rock upon which Jesus builds his Church,[iv] is inspired by the faith of Thomas, whom we often call a doubter.  

The Lord Jesus can and does take the least and makes of that one the greatest. So, the one apostle who doubts the resurrection most of all, becomes the one whose faith inspires us all.

We all echo Thomas, in a sense, at every Divine Liturgy and at every Compline when we chant the Symbol of Faith and say that Jesus Christ is “true God from true God.” Through this doubter, the Lord reveals to us more plainly than through any other the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Thomas cuts to the chase. Seeing his risen Lord, and seeing the still-present wounds in his body, he cries out, “My Lord and my God.” He sees his God before him… and he believes and he worships him.

But isn’t it remarkable which proofs convince Thomas? Which proofs he demanded? Thomas doesn’t simply want to see that Jesus lives again. He doesn’t simply want to see him and hear him again – or to embrace him. He wants to see and touch the wounds of Jesus. The marks of his death. “He said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25). These are proofs not only that Jesus is living, but that he has died. And it is these marks of his death that convince Thomas, not only of the resurrection but also of the divinity of the risen one.

This is somewhat confounding because God does not die – that is, the immutable divine nature does not experience death – and, yet, in looking at and touching the marks of death upon his risen and living Lord, Thomas sees his Lord and his God. And I call that an act of great faith. He sees God in his humanity, which does die. But when divinized humanity dies, it rises again and reveals its divinity to Thomas and to all those who have faith and cry out with him, “My Lord and my God.”

Our Lord and our God has done everything for us – gone everywhere, endured everything. He has made all things new. Touching the body of Christ and the marks of death, Thomas touches the life of all. Beholding the living man, Thomas sees the glory of God.[v]

God is with us, and we must learn to see him with the eyes of faith in our lives and in one another. When we see the wounded, let us realize we are seeing God, as Thomas saw God in the wounded Christ. Let us recognize each other as the same body of Christ that Thomas touches. When we see the sick, the mournful, the depressed, the downtrodden, the fearful, and the doubtful – or when we ourselves endure these things – let us remember Thomas and see God, who is in the midst of us bringing us healing, joy, love, peace, and faith.

Jesus breaks into every dark place – he enters even though the doors are locked – and fills all things with light, for he is “our Light, our Resurrection, and our peace.”[vi]

Nothing will keep the Lord away from us. He did not deem Thomas unworthy for his lack of faith, but “confirmed his faith by showing him [his] pure side and the wounds in [his] hands and feet. He touched them, and when he saw [Jesus], he confessed [Jesus] to be neither an abstract God nor merely human, [but], ‘My Lord and my God.’”[vii] He is the God who is personally with us, who loves us beyond all reason or expectation and who will do anything – whatever is necessary to reach us and unite us to himself. We are not abandoned. He is with us even in our abandonment – abandoned with us. Even the one place we think is defined by his absence – the darkest, deepest recess in hell – he’s there too. He has broken the gates of hell and gone through the doors we locked.

Now, the only thing that can separate me from God is me. We can still reject him and push him away because we are still free. But rather than allowing anything that we suffer to drive us away from God, let us be faithful and realize that mysteriously God is there with us in the midst of everything. With Thomas, let us see divinity even in the marks of death – even in our crosses. With Thomas of great faith, let us cry out, My Lord and my God!

[i] “Although the doors were closed he appeared to his disciples [and] took away their fear and granted them peace” (Stichera of Thomas Sunday).
[ii] Aposticha of Thomas Sunday
[iii] Aposticha of Thomas Sunday
[iv] Matt 16. John Meyendorff, ed., The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir, 1992), 70.
[v] “For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” – St. Irenaeus
[vi] Stichera of Thomas Sunday.
[vii] Stichera of Thomas Sunday 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What return can I make to the Lord?

Our Lord has given himself to us. Have we given ourselves to the Lord? 

Just four days ago, it was Annunciation – God became man, taking flesh from the Virgin. God became man. Have we become God? Not yet, right? Yet, that is why he joined our human nature – so that we may become partakers of his divine nature because he loves us and wants to be with us.

To love someone you have to go out to meet them where they are – like the father who ran out to meet his prodigal son returning home to him at last. To love someone you have to see yourself in them – to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, when God looks at humanity, he does see himself – because now he is also human. He has run out to meet us where we are. He has given himself to us completely. He offers us actual union with himself if we will but take the first few steps toward home. Tonight he prays to his Father for us who believe in him: that we may all be one, as he and his Father are one, and that we may be one in them (John 17:21).

Do we take up this offer? Do we do our small part of showing up, of turning to him, of cooperating with his grace? This is called synergy. As Paul says, “We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God' (1 Cor 3:9a). It’s really all the work of the Lord because we are the work of the Lord. We are “God’s field [and] God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9b).

But he’s given us freedom. Without freedom, there is no love and no repentance (and the Lord is in love with the beauty of repentance). So, if we will join with God, we must freely work with God rather than vainly strive against him. Tonight, he shows us how to work with him. Tonight, he freely gives himself to us and in so doing shows us how to freely give ourselves to him.

Cathedral of Monreale

Tonight, he washes his apostles’ feet. Do we wash each other's feet? This becomes a way for us to give ourselves to our creator and our God.

Behold: the creator washes the feet of his creatures. It is clear at this moment, that the creator of all things has emptied himself completely for the love of his creatures. He washes even the feet of Judas, whom he knows will betray him. Are we selective about who we will serve and humble ourselves before? Jesus is not.

“He who made the lakes, the springs, and the seas… washes the feet of his disciples; in his infinite mercy, he lowers himself, and he draws us up.”* The maker of water shows why he truly made it. “The Wisdom of God, who holds back the great waters… today pours water into a basin.” He lowers himself and serves those whom he loves with water. He makes all things for love.

Jesus’s example of emptying himself and lowering himself is nothing less than a path to theosis for us. To become one with God above, we must lower ourselves as he did. He “humbled [himself] and washed the feet of [his] disciples, thus preparing them to walk in the divine footsteps.” To walk this path is to walk “the most excellent way of humility”§ in imitation of the one “who wraps the heavens with the clouds [and yet] now wraps himself with a towel.”** This is truly “the model of humility,” which any who would follow Christ must imitate.†† If we would imitate Christ Jesus, we must have in us “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” and then we will truly become the body of Christ (Phil 2:5).

Tonight, he gives us his body and blood to eat and drink. Have we become the body of Christ?

With Eucharist, Jesus radically breaks down our perceived barriers and divisions and fills all creation with his grace. He comes like a bridegroom in the middle of the night. Unexpectedly, in the midst of the darkness of this Holy Week, there shines the brightness of this Great and Holy Thursday. The “bridal chamber” is “completely engulfed with light.”‡‡ Though until this day we have been wearing dark garments – not wedding garments – in penitence, now, tonight, at his last supper, the Lord gives us the Eucharist, which is – in no small way – a consummation of God’s marital union with humanity.

 “The true Wisdom of God initiates his friends into the mysteries. He prepares a table filled with spiritual food, and, for the faithful, He fills the cup of immortality.”§§ The mystery of the Eucharist is nothing less than the bread of eternal life, given to us today. This is the very means of union with God.

Jesus says,
“Take and eat, this is my Body; you shall find food for your faith;”
“Take and drink, this is my Blood; you shall find food for your faith;”
“Dwell in me, and you shall find food for your faith.”***

We eat and drink the body and the blood of Christ so that we may come to dwell in him. Jesus gives us the Eucharist in order to bring his people into himself.

He gives us himself in this way. We take of him and eat and drink. By this means and by the descent of the holy spirit upon us, we become the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, we may give ourselves completely to God, as he does upon the cross.
Tomorrow, he dies for us. Can we even stay awake to watch and pray with him for one hour?

He gives us everything and gives us himself completely. Do we give him anything? Do we accept even inconvenience for him, let alone death? Is it too much to ask that we spend time with him? Can we be bothered at all? Or, are we like the disciples who keep nodding off in the midst of his agony as he awaits his betrayal?

He delights even in a small movement toward him on our part. If we but begin to move toward him, he runs out to meet us. We must cooperate with his grace, but there is nothing symmetrical about this relationship. Even our cooperation is enabled by his grace. His grace is everything and is altogether trustworthy.

[*] Sessional Hymns at Matins, Triodion 565
[†] The fifth ode, Triodion 566
[‡] Triodion 565
[§] From the dismissal at every service for Holy Thursday, e.g. Triodion 572
[**] Triodion 566
[††] Triodion 566
[‡‡] Hymn of Light
[§§] The first Ode of Matins, Triodion 564
[***] From the third ode, Triodion 565

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

See the Good

Joseph sees the good in the midst of evil. Do we? Or, do we complain constantly about every little thing we suffer without ever stopping to give thanks and praise to God for the good with which we are also blessed?

Joseph sending his brothers back to Jacob with food
illustration from Byzantine bible
Topkapi Palace Museum

This is not to diminish our sufferings. Our sufferings are real and sometimes unjust and it's worthwhile to complain about them from time to time. We see this with Abraham – and the Psalms are full of complaint. But it's not okay to neglect the other part of it. We must give thanks to the Lord at all times even in the midst of our complaints. If we complain to God about every evil, we must also remember to thank him for every good.

Sometimes, we even blame God for our suffering. Things don't go our way and we say to God, "I can't believe this is how you treat your friends," as if he was the one who visited evils upon us. Or, we look at all the evils in the world – the cruelty visited upon the innocent by war, murder, rape, abuse, and neglect; by poverty and ignorance; by natural disasters, earthquakes, fires, floods, and diseases – and we conclude that no good God could let this happen. By this reasoning, atheists and enemies of God conclude that either there is no God or that God is not good. One important thing to remember is that God is not the author of any of these evils. God did not make death (Wis 1:13). It is our sin that brings all these things into the world. It is my sin. We are to blame, and not God, for every evil.

Even so, we might object, "Doesn't God have the power to prevent these evil consequences of our sin?" Yes, he does. He brings good out of every evil he permits, but he isn't beholden to any evil. God is all-powerful and can do anything by any means. So, I don't have all the answers here. I'm not sure there are answers fully comprehensible to our merely human understanding. Yet God alone gives a peace which surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). And this is the only kind of peace that there is.

Yet, somehow, many of those who blame God for every evil neglect to credit him for every good. We experience a great deal of good in our lives and in creation. I dare say it is very good (Gen 1:31). If it weren't, the evil destruction of things that goes on would not be so very evil, which it is. There is great good, for which God deserves all the credit. We must strive to see this good.

If you cannot see the good, it's not because it isn't there, but simply because you lack the eyes to see – the eyes of faith. If a creature lives in a cave underground all its life and never emerges into the light – and there are these creatures – then it cannot see the sun. 

Nonetheless, the sun is there, and the sun is good, and the sun is necessary to that very creature's life. In the same way, there is good, even if we can't always see it. It is there and it sustains us in being. If you cannot see it now, it doesn't mean that you will never see it again. Have hope and pray for the gift of faith. The Lord loves you and in his own time and by his own means, he will answer that prayer and give you that gift.

Joseph sees the good. The Lord has clearly given him the gift of faith, I think, and he was not a man unfamiliar with suffering and evil. He experienced a great deal more of it than most – not all – but most of us. He says to his brothers, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt" (Gen 45:4). This betrayal by his own brothers (37:18-36) was only the beginning of his sufferings. He would later be falsely accused of trying to seduce his master's wife and thrown into prison (39:12-20). Some of us know the sting of false accusation. When you do, remember that you are in the good company of Joseph and draw inspiration from his example.

Despite suffering all of this as a result of their crime, Joseph says to his brothers, "And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5). Do not be angry with yourselves?! That’s what Joseph is concerned about at this point: his brothers’ feelings? He isn’t angry at his brothers who betrayed him and enslaved him. He doesn’t even want them to be angry at themselves! How can this be? If he was angry, I would not fault him. Would you? Yet, he sees the good so clearly, that the evil he has suffered drowns in the good.

You see, the whole land was afflicted with famine, and would be for another five years. Through Joseph’s interpretation of dreams, God had revealed this to Pharaoh, and so Egypt had prepared for the famine. And this now enables Joseph to provide food for his family throughout the famine and preserve their lives. So, he concludes that it was not his brothers who sent him to Egypt, but God (45:8). This is a stunning faith and ability to see the good.

Though he lived long before Christ, Joseph not only fulfills what Christ commands us – that is, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – he even surpasses this command (Matt 5:44). He not only loves those who tried to do away with him, he even tries to convince them that they have not sinned against him, but that it was the work of God.*

Like Joseph, let us not focus so much on recovering our ease and comfort when we find ourselves in trouble and distress that we forget to always seek and offer thanks to the Lord for everything that is good.

* Paraphrased from St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 64 on Genesis.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Holy Repentance leads to Holy Communion.

St. Mary of Egypt
19th century
Our holy mother Mary of Egypt is a glorious example of repentance, and she shows for us, I think, the deep connection that exists between Holy Repentance and Holy Communion.

In her youth, Mary was brazenly impenitent. She was nymphomaniacal, jaded, and profane. For seventeen years in Alexandria, she lived a dissolute and promiscuous life. It is not known how she began to suffer from this “insatiable desire and… irrepressible passion”[i] but I suspect that she had suffered from the sins of others. It is hurt people who hurt people.

Anyway, upon hearing of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem from her home in Alexandria, Mary resolved to accompany the pilgrims, not as a pilgrim but rather to use them to satisfy her lusts.

By choosing young pilgrims to the Holy Land to be her sexual partners and conquests, Mary heaped evil upon evil. These were people who were trying to repent and experience God and Mary resolves to do her best to distract them from that purpose and to seduce them. She is successful, too, and by prostitution, she pays for her passage to Jerusalem. Beyond even this, she “frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will [into every] mentionable or unmentionable depravity.” So her sins here are manifold and one sin begets another, just as it does in our own lives.

But the grace of God is all-powerful and God's love for us is not diminished by any of our sins. Mary pays for her passage to Jerusalem with sin, and yet in Jerusalem, despite her own impure intentions, she experiences God. She was “hunting for youths,” but God was hunting for her and “seeking [her] repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner.” God brings good out of evil. He does it all the time. Listen to what happens next.

Mary is so jaded and free of compunction for her sins, she is so impenitent about what she has done and is doing that, following everyone else, she marches right up to the doors of the Church of the Anastasis – the place of Christ's resurrection – the Holy Sepulchre – and intends to go in among the pilgrims as if she is one of them – though in her heart there is no piety or fear of God – she is following the crowds for her usual reasons.

God sees through our masks – straight into our hearts. There is nothing Jesus hates more than our hypocrisy. He condemns it again and again with vivid language. We are whitewashed tombs (cf. Matt 23:27). Don't say, “Oh, he's only talking about the Pharisees, not me.” Don't look at Mary's sins and say, “Thank God I am not like her.” Let us remember our own sins and repent of them like the publican (cf. Luke 18:11).

God – who is not mocked and is not fooled by our pretensions – sees Mary coming (cf. Gal 6:7). And, out of love for her, does not let her in. She finds that she cannot walk into the holy place. She tried three or four times to enter but each time was repelled by a mighty force. This is a great mercy from the Lord because this spiritual force opens her eyes to her own sin and brings her to repentance in which is her one hope for salvation – without which we cannot be saved. Take this seriously: St. Mark the Ascetic says, “There is a sin which is always ‘unto death’ (1 Jn. 5:16): the sin for which we do not repent. For this sin, even a saint’s prayers will not be heard.”[ii]

Mary is a creature of extremes. She had sinned boldly and now she begins her repentance with an even greater zeal. After she repents before an icon of the Theotokos and promises to “never again defile [herself] by… fornication,” she is able to enter the holy place. Mary experienced the great mercy of a physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. None of us who are impenitent are welcome in the holy place. Spiritually, we are not in the holy place.

If we are impenitent for our sins, especially if we do not love one another  if we are resentful and unforgiving of those who have wronged us, how can we approach Holy Communion in the body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ? Communion in the Lord is also communion with the whole Church. And who's in and who's out of the Church is not a judgment we're competent to make. When we invite the people of God to Holy Communion in the Lord, we proclaim, “Approach with fear of God and with faith.” If you do not fear God or if you have no faith, do not approach! If you do, you will eat and drink condemnation upon yourself because you are not truly discerning the body (1 Cor 11:29). As I say, the force that prevented Mary's approach was a great mercy.

After she did repent, Mary was able to enter the holy place – the Church of the Resurrection – and there venerate the holy cross and she then went the Church of the Forerunner and received the holy mysteries of the Church. Holy Repentance leads to Holy Communion. You can't really have one without the other.

So clearly and emphatically did our holy mother Mary of Egypt understand this, that she then began a life of severe repentance for many years. For seventeen years, she battled the wild beasts in the desert – that is, her own mad desires and passions. When you go to a place of isolation and quiet, you will see more clearly the battle being waged over your own heart.

St. Mary was not a frequent communicant. Only after more than seventeen years of repentance in the desert with severe fasting, ceaseless prayer, and self-discipline did Mary finally again receive Holy Communion from the priest Zosimas.

I'm not going to recommend this degree of severity to anyone. I believe a more frequent nourishment from the body and blood of Christ is helpful and even necessary for most of us as we seek and strive by the grace of God for ever greater union with God.

However, I am going to insist that for the most part, we Catholics have been taking Holy Communion far too lightly for many years – and we do so to our peril. Frequent reception of Holy Communion without holy repentance – will not save us. You can't have one without the other. The first word Jesus preaches to us is, “Repent” (Matt 4:17).

An essential – that is to say, not an optional – part of repentance is the holy mystery of repentance, which our holy mother Mary received in the Church of the Forerunner the evening she began to repent. Whatever you want to call it – going to confession, the sacrament of penance, reconciliation – we can't skip over this entirely and remain in good with the Church. This must be a part of our lives as Orthodox Catholic Christians. This doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from the Holy Spirit through the Church and through the Scripture. We can't live without it. I'm serious – there is no life without it. 

How often you need to go personally is a discussion that you need to have with your spiritual father or mother. A good general guide is to go four times a year – once during each of the four fasts. If you haven't been to confession in a long long time, please make a point of going before the Great Fast ends. It's not going to hurt you. It's only going to help you. It's sin that hurts us, not repentance. As St. John Chrysostom says, “Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine.” Do not be ashamed to repent. Be ashamed to sin.[iii]

Do not utterly neglect to confess. Do not fail to repent. Let us be inspired by the example of our holy mother Mary of Egypt – by her fervor and zeal for repentance – and let us not take too lightly the discipline of God (cf. Heb 12:5). Let us repent and approach with fear of God and with faith.

[i] The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt.
[ii]No Righteousness by Works 41, The Philokalia, London, 1979, v. 1, p. 129.
[iii] John Chrystotom, Homily 8, On Repentance and Almsgiving

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