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.”

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fear the only trustworthy one

St. Basil the Great was not anxious about his life.

Fresco of St. Basil
in St. Athanasius Church in Zovik, Macedonia
before 1850
A prefect of the emperor came to him and demanded that he adopt the Arian heresy, as was the will of his sovereign. But St. Basil said to him, “It is not the will of my true sovereign.”

The prefect was enraged and threatened to confiscate St. Basil’s possessions. To which St. Basil replied, “What would you want with my tattered rags, and my few books?” He was not anxious about what he would wear or about his things.

So the prefect threatened him with exile. To which St. Basil replied, “Every land is God’s. I am only his guest here or anywhere else.” He was not anxious about where he would live.

So the prefect threatened him with torture. “As for torture,” said St. Basil, “I am so weak that the first blow would knock me out.”

So the prefect threatened him with death. “To me, death would be a kindness,” said St. Basil, “for it would bring me all the sooner to God.” He was not anxious even about his life.

The prefect exclaimed, “I’ve never been spoken to so boldly before!” “Perhaps,” said St. Basil, “you have never met a bishop…. Where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else.”[1]

Like St. Basil, we should fear God alone and then fear nothing and no one else.

Today Jesus commands us not to be anxious. Yet, anxiety plagues many of us. A quick internet search about anxiety reveals a panoply of self-help books, aids, and supplements. We know that anxiety is our enemy. This is actually one thing about which our culture agrees with Jesus.

But the gospel is not a self-help book. It’s not merely a set of suggestions for our happiness and well-being. Though, our Lord does care for us, so his commandments are for our good.

Contrary to the implications of some, God won’t give us a life without suffering. Far from it. He teaches us instead that we are to take up our crosses. Suffering is going to be part of this. The Christian way is not going to be the easy way.

C.S. Lewis says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” But if we are not seeking pleasure and happiness so much as truth and love, then that is to be found only in Christ, who is Truth and who is Love.

An interior view of The Eagle and Child (That is, the Bird and Baby),
a pub frequented by C.S. Lewis.
His portrait hangs over the mantle to the right. 
But all of that notwithstanding, I do not believe that God wants us to suffer. There’s a difference between what God permits and what God desires. He tells us we will suffer, but today’s gospel is good evidence that he does not want us to suffer needlessly. Anxiety is a needless suffering, from which he wants us free. He did not make us just to be sufferers. He did not make us for endless anxiety.  

I myself am anxious much of the time. I am often disobedient to this commandment of our Lord. May he have mercy on me, the sinner.  

He commands us not to be anxious. This God and man who also tells us that we will be hated and persecuted and that we will suffer for his name’s sake, that we must accept suffering, take up our cross, die; that we must go through death on our way to everlasting life. The one who afflicts us with such words, also comforts us. He tells us how to deal with these terrible things. That is, he commands us, do not to be anxious about your life. Be free. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Trust.

Mother Katherine, the local Orthodox nun, iconographer, and psychologist, points out that while we often think of peace as the opposite of anxiety, this peace must be grounded in trust. Trust “implies peace in relationship with something or someone else.” And so trust is the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety is ultimately a failure to trust in the Lord. Trust that the Lord will give you what you need. He clothes the lilies of the field more splendidly than Solomon. He will give us what we need to wear. Trust in him. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Do not worry.

All good things come from the Lord, really. Do not be deceived into thinking that we have earned all the good things we enjoy. Every talent and ability was given to us by God. Every opportunity. Every kindness in every heart that educated us and gave us a chance. All of this is from the bounty of God. We owe him all things. All things are truly his. Nothing is really our own. And gratitude for all these things is an antidote to the poison of anxiety.

Anxiety is an affliction. It is pain, even physical pain, about which our Lord is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?”

Anxiety is restless, undirected worry about all of things that might happen. Someone might not like me anymore. They might even hate me. Our stained glass windows might collapse. I might get hit by a car. We might be attacked by terrorists. These are things that might happen or might not happen. Worry and anxiety about these things are exactly what we are to avoid.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t to care about these things. The King James Bible says we are to have no care about our life, but the meaning of the word ‘care’ has evolved since the seventeenth century. Care and concern and prudence are good and necessary. They’re even a part of love. Anxiety, on the other hand, does no good.

We should lovingly care for our old church buildings, blessings given to us by God that they are. That is love and care, not anxiety.

We should take care when we cross the road. Looking both ways is not anxiety. But looking both ways and then looking both ways again and again and then, seeing no cars, deciding not to cross anyway, in case there might be a car – that is anxiety.

It’s alright to prepare for possible disasters. That’s not anxiety – it’s taking care. But living in such fear about the possibility of a terrorist attack that you begin to ostracize and hate your neighbors – that is anxiety.

Anxiety has no real object.  It has only imagined objects. It is worry about maybes and what ifs. Unlike fear, which does have real objects. We are to fear God. Jesus does not condemn this holy fear when he tells us not to be anxious. God himself is called the Fear of Isaac.  Have this kind of fear, but do not be anxious.

I hear a lot of anxiety about what is happening against Christians in this country. But what are we afraid of? Since when do Christians fear persecution or even death? Have we forgotten the gospel and the resurrection? Do we think the culture or the government can triumph over the cross?

St. Basil wasn’t worried about whether the government official would arrest him. Such worry would have only stifled his courage to witness to Christ and, like a coward, he’d have cowered instead for fear of repercussions. He did not fear the government, because he feared the only one worthy of his fear: the Lord God. When you fear God, then you need not fear anything. If I really fear God, and not people – not my enemies and not my friends – then I cannot be persuaded to act against my God-given conscience.

We often fear our friends more than we do our enemies. We fear losing our friends or offending them. We shouldn’t be deliberately offensive, but we also shouldn’t be so afraid of what people might think, say, or do that it inhibits our witness to Christ in word and in action.

Fear God instead. In that fear – fear of the only one who loves mankind, fear of the only trustworthy one – all fear melts away, because perfect love casts out fear. Our holy father Anthony the Great has two parallel sayings. The first is by far the more popular. He says, “I no longer fear God, but love him.” But he also says, in fact in the next sentence, “Always keep before your eyes the fear of the Lord” (Sayings of Anthony, 32 and 33). This is the paradox. Only in the fear of the Lord is it possible to be truly fearless.

[1] This story about St. Basil is adapted from St. Gregory the Theologian’s Funeral Oration for St. Basil (Oration 43, 48-50). This, and many ideas in this post, were inspired by Fr. Thomas Hopko

Sunday, May 22, 2016

There is one holiness

For All Saints Sunday 

Paul addresses most of his epistles to the saints of this or that city. And, I hope, if he were writing to us, he would say the same and would address the saints among us.

Although, when he addresses the Galatians, he does not call them saints. His letter is written to rebuke them because they have been turning to a different gospel, a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

So, if Paul were writing to our church, would he call us saints? Or, would he, as he did addressing the Galatians, leave that part out? Are we following the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches? Or are we accepting a different gospel, receiving a different spirit, or preaching another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 11:4)?

Some in Galatia were holding up circumcision and the works of the old law over and against faith working through love in Christ, the love which in truth fulfills the whole law (cf. Gal 5:6,14). This excessive regard for externals I don’t think is the typical error of our age, but we are inclined toward other errors.

Sometimes, we excessively internalize our faith. We regard it as a private matter, not something to be discussed in public. We are sometimes cowards and we sometimes fail to acknowledge Christ before others. Today, Christ tells us that if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. That is, he will make us his saints. Likewise, if we deny him, he will deny us before his Father (Matt 10:32-33).

If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). Among other things, He commands us to acknowledge him before others (Matt 10:32). He commands us to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). And he commands us to baptize every nation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).

If we keep these commandments, Christ will acknowledge us before his Father (Matt 10:32). He will remember us forever. And so we will live forever in him, our resurrected Lord. In Christ, we will know the Father, which is eternal life (John 17:3). This is holiness indeed: oneness with God. This is what it is to be a saint.  

This word “saint” is interesting. If we look at the Greek, ἅγιος, it’s the same as the word for holy. Sometimes Greek has many words for which we have only one, as in the case of “love,” but sometimes, it goes the other way and they have one word, for which we have many. And this is the case with the word ἅγιος, which means holy, which means saint, which means sanctuary (e.g Heb 8:2). At times, even Jesus is simply called the Holy – ὁ ἅγιος (e.g. Mark 1:24). This is worth keeping in mind when we think about the saints. Saint and Holy are utterly synonymous. There is no difference at all in the mind of the fathers, or in the mind of Paul. There are not two holinesses, but one holiness. If someone or something is holy, it can only be because they are partakers of the one holiness.

The single greatest teaching of the second Vatican council, in my opinion, is that there is a universal call to holiness. This is not a new teaching. Not by any stretch.  This was already the teaching revealed by the Lord God through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai 3,310 years ago – or so. The Lord our God says in all ages, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45).

There’s a tall order. The holiness of the Lord our God cannot be overstated. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, the God of hosts. Three times holy is he. In Hebrew, this is a superlative. He is the holiest one and the source of all holiness, in whom is any holiness that is.

Yet, as the Lord, he is God of hosts, that is, as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it, God of a huge crowd. He is in and with and surrounded by his saints. “Orthodox worship and prayer,” Fr. Stephen writes, “is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’” God, who alone is holy, has chosen not to be alone in his holiness, but to surround himself with those he has made holy, those he has made one with himself by his grace.

In the Divine Liturgy, after the consecration, the priest holds the holy lamb and says, “Holy gifts to holy people.” Does this mean you have to be a saint in order to come forward to receive Holy Communion? Yes, it does! There is no difference between “saint” and “holy.”

Then how do we become saints? None of us is sinless – but among the saints are sinners, every degree of sinner, and every kind of sinner – just like us. So when I say, yes, we have to be holy before we come forward, we have to be saints before we receive the holy things which are for the holy ones, I am speaking of a miracle of God’s mercy and grace with which we cooperate through prayer and humility and confession of our sins. We do not make ourselves saints, the Lord makes us saints.

Every saint he makes is unique. We honor them all. We need them all. Just as in one body, every member is different, yet every member needs the others for the whole body to thrive (cf. Rom 12:4-5). Every person that God makes, God wants and needs for his purposes. We are wanted and needed by God. We should seek God’s purpose for our own lives. As Fr. Thomas Hopko points out, if we are condemned or damned it will not be because we are not the Theotokos, or we are not John the Baptist, or we are not Isaac the Syrian. It will be because we are not truly ourselves. It is for not being who God created us to be that we could be damned. The ultimate authority on who we should be and what we should do is our author and creator.

He reveals a lot of this to us through the Church, so don’t think this means that we can go it alone. Because God gave us the Church to guide us into holiness, that is, into the person that God made each of us to be. Going it alone was never his vision for any human being. We are communal creatures. We are a community of persons, in the image of God, who is a community of persons. The Church is that community - that coming together as one with God and one another.

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza has a beautiful image of a wheel, in which the center – the axis – is God, and each of us are somewhere along the spokes of the wheel. You see, the closer we get to God, the closer we get to each other. Also, the further we get from God, the further we get from each other.

For this reason, it makes no sense to receive communion – to enter into communion with God – if we have animosity toward our brother or sister (Matt 5:23-24). There is no communion with God without communion with one another. First of all, we must “be reconciled with everyone and have no animosity toward anyone.” This is the first rubric in the Liturgikon.

Before we dare to approach with the fear of God and with faith, we pray that the holy mysteries be for our healing and not for our condemnation. We pray that the Lord make us worthy to receive. And we pray for mercy. This prayer – this Kyrie eleison – is our path to holiness. Holiness never comes from relying on the self, but rather on the one to whom we pray. To rely on the Lord, who alone is holy and who alone can make us holy.

So, when the priest holds the Eucharist in his hands and says, “Holy gifts to holy people” what can we say? We can only say, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.” All holiness that is comes from the holy one.

The holy one, Jesus Christ, teaches us how to be holy in today’s gospel. We must confess Christ before others, we must love him more than all others, even more than our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. And we must take up our cross and follow him (Matt 10:37-38). These are Jesus’ own words. This is his prescription for holiness.

When we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ and we begin to become one with him. We must thereafter imitate him, especially in his self-sacrificial love, to remain and grow toward ever greater union with the holy one, Jesus Christ, who is one in essence with the Father who is holy.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Holy Spirit Inspires the Church

Sunday of the Fathers at the First Nicene Council
Today, (did you hear?) Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem in order to get there for Pentecost (Acts 20:16). Pentecost is coming next Sunday, and with it our commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Already, the Spirit is with us. And today we remember the fathers of the first ecumenical council, which met in Nicaea in 325, and who were also inspired by the same Holy Spirit.

The First Council of Nicea, wall painting at the church of Stavropoleos
Bucharest, Romania

At every Divine Liturgy and at every Compline, we repeat the Nicene Creed which these fathers began to craft under the inspiration of the Spirit. The Nicene faith is our faith, the God-inspired faith, the faith of our fathers and mothers.

The Holy Spirit inspires the Church. God is with us. Some fall into a trap of confining the presence and action of God to historical events like Pentecost or to historical documents like Scripture. Or, toward another extreme, some limit their understanding of the Spirit to private individual ecstatic experiences.

In truth, the Holy Spirit inspires the Church.

The Church is, but is not only, historical. It is also the living and breathing body of Christ. It is fully present here where we are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, where the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon our gifts, where the Father hears our prayer. And it is present throughout the world wherever orthodoxy is believed and wherever orthopraxis is observed.

In the Church, our experience of God is, but is not only, private and personal. We encounter God alone in our prayer closets, but we also encounter Him in one another, in the least of his brethren, and in our communal prayer, in the mysteries of the Church and in the public proclamation of His Word.

In that public proclamation today we, with the apostles, overhear Jesus say to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3).

There are ten thousand sermons in this one verse, but today I am struck by an odd turn of phrase: Jesus Christ calls himself Jesus Christ in the third person. This points to an intriguing possibility. It is possible that this prayer of Jesus at his Last Supper was long remembered liturgically before it was committed to writing, which could explain why the prayer is both from Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ.[i] The gospel of John is the latest gospel to be written and it benefits from the longest theological reflection. Its prose and rhetoric are finely polished. Chiefly for this gospel’s sake, John, whose feast is today, is rightly called the Theologian.

These facts call to mind the reality that while for a while there were Christians without any written gospels, there were never any Christians without worship, without liturgy, without anamnesis/remembrance, without Eucharist/thanksgiving. The inspired Divine Liturgy precedes the inspired written gospels.

Today Jesus says to His Father, “I have given them the words you gave me and they have received them” (17:3). But Jesus did not write down these words. The gospels tell us that Jesus could both read and write. But the only writing that he does, mysteriously, is in the sand – letters that the wind could blow away – perhaps a wind like that wind that blows in the upper room where the apostles hide.

Jesus does not give us a manuscript, but rather the testimony of women and men. He writes his revelation on their hearts. He chooses to reveal himself through people – the people of God - that is, through the Church.

The Holy Spirit inspires the Church, and we must follow the Church, never the Scripture alone. The Scripture is the inspired word of God and the Holy Spirit inspires it in and through the Church, never apart from or against the Church. Decontextualized from the Church, the Scripture can be distorted and perverted to any false teaching or wicked purpose the interpreter desires. Thank God, God did not leave us with the Scripture alone, but also gave us His holy Church.

Today in Acts, Paul tells the elders [that is, the presbyters] of Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [that is, ἐπίσκοποι, bishops] to feed the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The same Holy Spirit that inspires Scripture and that descends upon the apostles at Pentecost also makes presbyters and bishops for the Church. Ordination is an act of God, a holy mystery, an epiclesis. This isn’t a different Spirit, but the same Spirit. There is one Holy Spirit, one God, one faith, one Church. The Holy Spirit gives us the Scripture and he gives us the bishops too. We don’t get one without the other. We need them both absolutely.

This doesn’t mean that bishops are always good and holy. In fact, if we study the history of the ecumenical councils we discover an uncomfortable amount of all-too human politics, rivalries, and intrigues. Despite this, the Holy Spirit works through these councils, just as he works through Peter, who denied him, and through Paul, who persecuted his Church. Truth is expressed by God from out of the midst of human failings. God is with us, in the midst of us. The Holy Spirit inspires the Church.

When a presbyter, Arius, begins to lead people astray, teaching that Jesus is not of one divine essence with the Father, but rather some kind of exalted creature of God, the Holy Spirit inspires the Nicene council which we commemorate today.

The Arians misread today’s gospel. When Jesus says to his Father that he is “the only true God,” the Arians thought that this must mean that Jesus himself was not the true God. This is what I mean. How quickly the human mind can stumble into error when reading the Scripture alone unaided by the Church. The Holy Spirit has given us both because we need both in order to come to orthodoxy.

The Nicene Council provided the needed corrective. As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages.  Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father.” Our Christology couldn’t get any higher.

Our holy father Athanasius, who was present at the Nicene Council as a deacon and who spent the rest of his life defending its teachings against the world, provides the true understanding of the word “only” in today’s gospel. He writes against the Arians,

“If then the Father is called the only true God, this is said not to the denial of him who said, "I am the Truth…” And so the Lord himself added at once, "And Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Now had he been a creature, he would not have added this and ranked himself with his creator. For what fellowship is there between the True and the not true? But as it is, by including himself with the Father, he has shown that he is of the Father's nature.”[ii]

The Holy Spirit was inspiring the Church before the gospels were written, and he continues to inspire the Church after they are written. This is never more evident than when there is an ecumenical council. At the council of Nicaea, the Holy Spirit taught the Church a new word: homoousios, that is, of one essence. The Son is of one essence with the Father. Jesus Christ is not less than God. He is God. And there are not two Gods, but one God. Many of the fathers of the council were reluctant to accept this word at first because it appears nowhere in scripture and because it had been employed in the past by heretics. But guided by the Holy Spirit and for the benefit of all the people of God, accept it they did.

A priest once told me that there are only two words I must never say from the pulpit. One of them is “change.” I’m not going to say the other word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires change. Homoousios was a new word, once.

We must not forget the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church at all times, without whose presence we are not the Church.

[i] (Suggit 1992). Malan, G.J., 2011, ‘Does John 17:11b, 21−23 refer to church unity?’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #857.
[ii] Discourses against the Arians 3.23.6-24.8-9.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Now Worship in the Spirit

On John 4:5-42. Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Фотина Самаряныня в Протате1290-1310
 “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).

“The hour is coming, and now is.” This is the first Sunday after Mid-Pentecost, the mid-point between Pascha and Pentecost, between that day when the Lord breathed the Holy Spirit upon his apostles for the forgiveness of sins and that day when the Holy Spirit will descend upon the apostles like tongues of fire so that the good news will be preached to all nations.

As we await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have not been singing our hymn to the Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and who fills all things, who is the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, who is the gracious one who dwells within us, cleanses us of all stain, and saves our souls. This hymn is omitted until Pentecost. In its place, we sing, “Christ is risen.”

But we are now more than halfway to that feast of the Spirit’s coming, and on this day our Lord reminds us that the hour is coming when we will worship in the Spirit. We have not been praying “Heavenly King…,” but the Spirit of Truth is nonetheless among us and animates our worship. “The hour is coming, and now is.”

Even as the Lord Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman – not only before Pentecost but even before his own death and resurrection – he says that the hour is coming, and that the hour now is. Even then, the Spirit is already present everywhere and filling everything. Wherever there are blessings, there is the Holy Spirit, the treasury of blessings. Wherever there is life, there is the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Wherever there is mercy and grace, there is the Holy Spirit, the gracious one, dwelling within us.

The Samaritan woman – called by tradition in various languages Photini, Svetlana, Fiona, or Claire – all names which mean “light” – is blessed and enlighted by the presence of Christ, the Light and by the unseen Holy Spirit, whose grace is the living water Christ promises. She is blessed, and so the treasury of blessings, the Holy Spirit, is with her.

Mercy and grace are present also to the Samaritan woman. The Lord shows her mercy and does not condemn her even as he reveals her illicit union saying “you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband” (4:18). Origen observes that her words – “I have no husband” – may be understood as a confession rather than an obfuscation. He writes, “She already had, as it were, something of the water that leaps into eternal life since she had said ... ‘I have no husband,’ having condemned herself on the basis of her association with such a husband.”[i]

She could have been admitting to Jesus that her union was not lawful – which would not have been an easy thing to admit in that culture to a strange man. Regardless, when the Lord rebukes her and reveals the full nature of her wrongs, she does not deny but admits that what he says is true because she calls him a prophet, which is to say that his words are the words of God. Clearly, mercy and grace are with her, and so the Holy Spirit, the gracious one, is with her.

The humble confession of wrongs always springs from the grace of the Holy Spirit as from a spring of living water. She says “Lord, give me this water,” and immediately the Lord provokes her confession – thus giving her the water she asks for. Immediately, she begins her entrance into eternal life.

It always begins with confession and repentance – the baptism of repentance – the baptism in living water – baptism into the death of Christ that we may rise with Christ. First, by baptism, comes death to the old self, the crucifixion of the old body of sin. Then comes life in Christ, free from sin, never more to die. (cf. Rom 6:3-12).

Baptism is our initiation into the Church. It makes sense, then, that after their talk of living water that gives eternal life, and after her moment of confession, the Samaritan woman asks about right worship – whether it is to be offered on Mount Gerizim as the Samaritans say or in Jerusalem as the Jews say – because worship is the life of the Church. Jesus of course answers that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” We are baptized and chrismated once so that our life of true worship in the Spirit may begin.

Above all, the true worship in Spirit and in Truth that the Lord prophesies is the Divine Liturgy. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes that our Divine Liturgy “is entirely, from beginning to end, an epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit” (222). And so, even though we are only halfway to Pentecost, in a way, it is Pentecost at every Divine Liturgy.

Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas conceives of the Eucharist as a “continuous Pentecost” and writes that, in the Divine Liturgy, “the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in the Church, [is] animating and vivifying the Church, transforming the assembly into the Body of Christ” (181). The Holy Spirit, who is already and always with us, comes upon us before the gifts to prepare us to receive and become the body of Christ, the Son of God, in the Eucharist. “In the Eucharist,” Calivas writes, “we become Spirit-bearers so that we may receive Christ” (182). 

Every blessing offered in the Liturgy only blesses inasmuch as the Holy Spirit – the treasury of blessings – gives the blessing. Without the grace of the gracious one dwelling within us, our ceremony would be empty. It would not cleanse us of our stains and it would not save our souls. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). Unless the Holy Spirit comes upon us in the Divine Liturgy, those who offer it labor in vain. Thanks (εὐχαριστία ) be to God the Father, who does hear the prayer of his priests and so does send his Holy Spirit first upon us and then upon our gifts of bread and wine making them the precious body and blood of his Son that we may partake of them for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting (Liturgikon 75-77, 92).

[i] Commentary on the Gospel of John 13.50.

Sunday, April 3, 2016


On Acts 5:12-20 and John 20:19-31
Thomas Sunday

The Harrowing of Hell, a northern Russian icon
tentatively dated to late 13th century

All of Bright Week, the doors of the icon screen stood open. The way to heaven, to resurrected everlasting life is opened by Christ’s glorious triumph over death. There, in the icon of the resurrection – his harrowing of hades – he stands on the broken gates of death, now in the form of a cross. The tomb had been sealed, but our Lord, the Life of all, breaks open this seal and he rises from the grave. And so the doors are opened.

But today we close the doors of the icon screen. Beginning at Ninth Hour yesterday, the doors were closed, having stood open all week. And after this homily, I will close the royal doors again. Bright Week is ended. And we return to some of our more ordinary customs.

There is a kind of sadness to this moment of closing the doors. The gates of heaven have been open all week and now it strangely seems as though they are no longer.

Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes,
“I am always grieved by the closing of the sanctuary gates on the Saturday of St. Thomas and in general by the ending of bright week. They still sing 'Christ is Risen' but everything becomes more difficult, as if the gates of the kingdom of heaven had really closed, those gates which have only just been opened in answer to our prayer and fasting. People plunge themselves once more with a sort of ravenousness into futile, worldly pursuits, and the churches become empty."

And yet, closed doors do not stop our Lord from entering. And hearts closed by faithlessness do not stop the Lord from entering.

Soon after we closed the doors yesterday, we sang Vespers. The first sticheron at Vespers begins, “When the doors were closed and the disciples were gathered together, you suddenly appeared in their midst, O Jesus our Almighty God.” Again and again, throughout this day’s services, the hymns are filled with this image of closed doors. Again and again, we are reminded that Christ enters regardless. 

It’s almost as if we close the doors just to demonstrate that this closing has no power to keep out the Lord. Shut the door and lock it, as the disciples did in the Upper Room. Soon the Lord will stand among us regardless, saying “Peace be with you.” Thomas tries to lock him out of his heart and mind, saying, “I will not believe.” Soon the Lord stands before him regardless, saying “Peace be with you,” showing Thomas his living body marked by the nails and the spear, and saying “do not be faithless, but believing.” And Thomas does believe. The doors were closed, but not to the Lord.

Русский: Уверение Фомы.
Дионисий и мастерская.
Икона из церкви Св. Троицы Павлова Обнорского монастыря.
1500 г. (ГРМ)

Where ever the apostles go, the Lord opens doors for them. Today, from Acts, we hear that the Sadducees, filled with jealousy, rise up and arrest “the apostles and put them in a common prison.” The apostles are again behind locked doors, but this time the doors are locked from the outside – a different kind of lock for the Lord to pick. So, “at night an angel of the Lord open[s] the prison doors and [brings] them out.” The next day, the officers report, “We found the prison securely locked and the sentries standing at the doors, but when we opened it we found no one inside” (Acts 5:23). There is no lock of metal or of mind that can keep out the Lord from where he wills to go.

And it is greatly encouraging to know that, as he repeatedly demonstrates, he wills to be with us – and for us to be with him – even after we have been faithless. Jesus loves Thomas and wants to be with him even though Thomas has been faithless. Jesus, our Christ and our God, stoops to prove himself to Thomas! He lowers himself to satisfy the doubting mind of a mere human, as if this human’s opinion of things counts for something. Thomas matters to Jesus this much.

To understand how Jesus regards Thomas and all of us who doubt or fall away or make mistakes or sin in countless ways, I think it may be helpful to consider the relationship of adults to children. After he washes their feet, Jesus says to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). He is our teacher and our Lord. If we love him at all, we are his pupils, his students, his disciples. To our Lord, we are like children. We are like the little ones about whom he says, “Let the little children come to me” (Matt 19:14).

If you think about it, it is easy to see that, next to the eternal God, we really are like little children – no different at all than children. Just consider the age ratio. If someone 25 years younger than me – or 70 years younger than some – seems like child to us, imagine how we must seem to God, who is Ancient of Days (Daniel 7). We surely are merely children.

Many of us – perhaps like Thomas – often take ourselves too seriously, as if it really mattered above all else how we see things – as if our perceptions were really what it was all about. As if our opinions were great and weighty and really counted for something. We might do well to occasionally ask ourselves – where we were when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:4).  We are new to this world, even compared to our ancestors, let alone to God. We are all like children.

It might help, then, to think about how we adults regard children, with all their struggles and their questions, because this will be similar, I think, to how Jesus regards Thomas, to how God regards us.

Well, first of all, many of the problems of childhood seem small to us. Tying my shoes is not really a problem for me anymore (except during liturgies, it seems). Nor am I preoccupied with endless questions about dinosaurs. But I also understand where they’re coming from. I’ve been there too. And I try to look upon them not with contempt, but with compassion. I try to treat them with patience and kindness and love. I have seen enormous patience with children from the teachers and parents among us. In this, they are icons of the Lord, our Teacher. 

So how does Jesus regard Thomas? How does he regard this man who doubts him? With contempt? Does he say to Thomas, as is his perfect right, “who are you to doubt me?” No. Not with contempt, but with compassion. Yes, he does rightfully reproach Thomas to a degree, but not to the point of rejection.

I believe that Jesus loves us all as he loves Thomas and that he will give every sinner and every doubter an opportunity to stand before him and say, as Thomas does, “My Lord and my God.” Even now we have this opportunity.

Those who believe without seeing are blessed. But those who doubt are not abandoned outright. Nor are those of us who turn away from God in countless other ways. Nor are those who worshiped with us on Pascha and are not here on Thomas Sunday. The Lord does not extinguish a dying ember. Rather, he does much to enkindle in us again the flame of faithfulness. Though the doors of Thomas’ heart were shut by his faithlessness, Jesus comes and stands with him anyway.

This is how it works now: The doors close now, but they also open again. We may be paused now a little in our dance in and out of the holy place, but we are not halted. The doors open and they close again. They close and they open again.

Sin and doubt threaten to lock us in a prison of despair. But the Lord opens these prison doors, as his angel opened the prison doors for the apostles (Acts 5:19). No doors – not even those of death – can keep out the Lord from where he wills to go.

Christ is risen!

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