The Forgetful Human Heart

Friday, March 23 (O.S., March 10), 2018: Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent; Martyr Quadratus and those with him at Corinth († 250-258): Cyprian, Dionysius, Anectus, Paul, Criscentus, another Dionysius, Victorinus, Victor, Niciphorus, Claudius, Diodorus, Serapion, Papius, Leonidus, and the holy women Chariessa, Nunechia, Basilissa, Nica, Calisa, Gala, Galina, Theodora, and many others; New Hieromartyr Priest Demetrius († 1938); Holy Martyrs Quadratus of Nicomedia, Satorinus, Rufinus and others (3rd C); Venerable Anastasia the Patrician, of Alexandria († 567-568); Venerable George Arselaitus, Brother of Venerable John Climacus; New Martyr Michael of Thessalonica.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 45:11-17
Vespers: Genesis 22:1-18
Vespers: Proverbs 17:17-18:5

To say, as we did yesterday, that God is holy is to affirm that relative to His creation God is wholly and absolutely free.

In Isaiah God asks “Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?” He immediately answers His Own question by pointing out that as the Creator He can do as He sees fit.

When like Israel is Isaiah, I am the immediate beneficiary of God’s will, I’m happy. It’s hard not to rejoice when (seemingly at least) God punishes my enemies the way He punishes “Egypt … Ethiopia and the Sabeans.”

If I’m not careful, I can easily get lost in a self-satisfied revery in which I imagine that I’m different from those who annoy or harm me. I can easily lose sight of the fact that I too am a creature and so subject to God’s will. It is a false comfort to think that God reserves His harder and harsher decisions for other people, that I’m exempt from being asked to do painful things.

Did Abraham think as I often do, that God punishes his enemies but would never ask anything hard of him? If he did, the events in today’s reading bring this line of thought to an abrupt and painful end.

God gives Abraham in his old age a son, Isaac. He sees in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him a mighty nation. Imagine then the conflict–to saying nothing of the horror–when God tells him “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Today, and not unreasonably, someone planning to sacrifice a child to God would be arrested and likely medicated. Child sacrifice is as much an abomination to us as it was to Abraham. And yet, this is what God asks from the Patriarch.

So in obedience Abraham sets out to sacrifice Isaac. The fathers of the Church see in these events–and especially in Isaac carrying “the wood of the burnt offering”–a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

Unlike us, Abraham hadn’t received the grace to understand God’s request as a prophecy of the “good things to come” (see Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 9:11, 10:1). Nor did he have any way of knowing that at the last moment “the angel of the Lord” would call to him from heaven and tell him to not kill his son.

All Abraham knew was that God has asked him to do the unimaginable. To kill his son and to offer his child as a “whole burnt offering” (see Leviticus 1-17).

Truth be told, I find passages like today’s reading from Genesis troubling.

I much prefer the gentle, prudential wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs to the unbending demands of God’s holiness. How much easier it is for me to hear “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” than it is to think that God demands of me all that I love.

Important as human freedom is, and we shouldn’t deny or minimize freedom’s importance, we only exercise our freedom in response to God. Always and everywhere, God has both the first and the last word. In between these words, we exercise our freedom though even here we do so because we are sustained by His Word. It is, after all, God Who by His grace and in His great love that upholds “all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3, NKJV).

The folly of this world, and of my heart, is the ease with which God’s holiness is forgotten. True wisdom doesn’t forget the heart’s tendency to this forgetfulness.

How easy it is for me to turn even the things of God into occasions of forgetfulness of His holiness and sovereignty. Like Solomon says “He who is estranged seeks pretexts to break out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Holiness is the Goal

Thursday, March 22 (O.S., March 9), 2018: Thursday of the Great Canon of St Andrew; New Hieromartyrs Priests Michael, Alexis, Demetrius, Sergius, Sergius and Deacon Nicholas, Venerable Martyrs Ioasaph, Natalia and Alexandra († 1938); Martyr Urpasianus of Nicomedia († c.295); Venerable Cæsarius, brother of St Gregory the Theologian († c. 369); Martyr Philoromus; Righteous Tarasius of Liconium; Martyr Philoromus; Albazinian Icon of the Mother of God called “The Word Was Made Flesh” (1666).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 42:5-16
Vespers: Genesis 18:20-33
Vespers: Proverbs 16:17-17:17

Once again Isaiah reminds me that God isn’t “good” in the way I typically think of goodness.

Isaiah begins by telling us about God redeeming His people. In words that Jesus will quote at the beginning of His ministry (Luke 4:18), we are told that God has made the Jewish people “a light to the nations.” Through them, He will “open the eyes that are blind,” He will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,” and liberate “those who sit in [the] darkness” of sin.

In response, creation and the whole man-made world join in sing “to the LORD a new song.” The sea roars together with “all that fills it,” roars in praise of God. Then “the coastlands and their inhabitants” join in the song together with “the desert” and the “cities.” All “lift up their voice,” all “sing for joy,” and “shout from the top of the mountains” their gratitude to God.

At this point, things quickly take what might seem to us to be a dark turn.

“For a long time,” God says, “I have held my peace.” God has “kept still and restrained” Himself in the face of human sinfulness and disobedience. Now though, God cries out “like a woman in travail.” God gasps and pants as He makes ready to destroy.

I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools. And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.

We see something like this in God’s response to Sodom and Gomorrah.

God is intent on destroying these cities because their sin is “great and … very grave.” Abraham negotiates with God to spare the cities for the sake of ten righteous individuals. But as we discover a bit later (Genesis 19:12-29), the cities don’t have even ten good people between them and so they are destroyed.

God’s isn’t good the way I understand goodness.

God isn’t the aggregate of moral goodness. Rather, God is holy–He is sovereign and as Lord of All is over all that is. As the Creator of the universe, He is the source of moral goodness but moral goodness itself is only a shadow, a veiled revelation of God (see Hebrews 10:1, Colossians 2:17).

And so we come again to the importance of Wisdom.

Wisdom not just as practical and moral guidance–though it includes both. As we hear today, Wisdom is the “fountain of life.”

Wisdom fosters in us “a lowly spirit” (humility) and willingness to “heed” God (obedience). The wise heart is discerning and speaks in a way that is both “pleasant” and persuasive. Like Jesus, the wise speak and teach with an authority that comes not simply from moral goodness but the disinterested freedom of holiness (Matthew 7:9, Mark 1:22 and Luke 4:32).

And wisdom levels, or better transcends the often arbitrary distinctions with which we divide ourselves off one from the other as we jockey for power and control. “A slave who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers.”

Christians are called not simply to be morally good but holy. We are called to share (as we can never tire of repeating) in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). In fact, everything we do as Christians has only one goal: to become like God, not just good but holy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Invited to Believe

Wednesday, March 21 (O.S., March 8), 2018: Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent; St. Theophylactus the Bishop of Nicomedia († 842-845); New Hieromartyr Priest John († 1923); New Martyr Vladimir (1942); Venerable Dometius († 363); Hieromartyr Priest Theodoritus of Antioch (4th C); Apostle Hermas of the Seventy (1st C); Venerable Lazarus († 1391) and Athanasius (14th C) of Murom; St. Felix of Burgundy, Bishop of Dunwich and Enlightener of East Anglia.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 41:4-14
Vespers: Genesis 17:1-9
Vespers: Proverbs 15:20-16:9

Creation testifies to the goodness of God, His mercy and fidelity.This is why idolatry, economic sins and sexual immorality are so roundly condemned by the prophets. These obscure and even undermine the testimony of God’s holiness of God and concern for His people.

The stability of creation, the ability of human beings to create wealth and engage in trade and the fidelity of husband and wife, all join together to affirm what God says to Israel

“You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.

While they are all of different moral weight, floods, earthquakes, double-dealing in the marketplace, fornication, and adultery, all shake our confidence in God’s offer of friendship. They do this by violating our sense of trustworthiness of creation, of each other and, ultimately, of God Himself.

Our trust in God is important because God Himself is the guarantor of the covenant with Israel and the promise of salvation in Christ. “I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.’”

Abraham (as he’s now known), is the exemplar of this trust in God. At “ninety-nine years old” he is still waiting for the son through whom God will make of him a great nation and give him “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.” This doesn’t mean he doesn’t struggle to be faithful. Rather it means he is never overwhelmed by his doubts.

The majesty and stability of creation, economic fair dealing, and chastity all testify to God’s faithfulness. Not only that. They also serve to foster a similar fidelity in us.

Without this fidelity to God, as Solomon makes clear, my life falls apart.

The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but maintains the widow’s boundaries. The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the LORD, the words of the pure are pleasing to him. He who is greedy for unjust gain makes trouble for his household, but he who hates bribes will live.

As Abraham’s example makes clear, in a fallen world, trust in the promises of God will always be a struggle. There is no shortage of occasions to doubt God. Creation is marred by pollution. Greed afflicts our economic relationships. Marriages fail. To those who look, there is ample evidence to justify mistrust in God.

Solomon is aware of this. His counsel in response is not to close our eyes and pretend that the world isn’t fallen. Instead, he counsels intellectual humility. He reminds us that “The plans of the mind belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”

Hearing that answer requires that, like Abram, I quiet myself. Good though they may be, to hear God I have to lay aside my plans and projects and instead “commit” or more likely, re-commit my “work to the Lord.”

The evidence of God’s fidelity is there to be seen. As Solomon reminds us the “LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Understanding how “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28), however, requires effort on my part. God doesn’t impose faith on me. Rather, He invites me to believe.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Wise Are Like God

Tuesday, March 20 (O.S., March 7), 2018: Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent; the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste († c.320): Cyrion, Candidus, Domnus, Hesychius, Iraclius, Smaragdus, Eunoicus, Valentus, Vivian, Claudius, Priskus, Theodulus, Eutichius, John, Xanthus, Ilian, Sisinius, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Dometian, Gaius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyrill, Sakerdonus, Nicholas, Valerius, Philoctimon, Seberian, Chudionus, Aglaius, and Meliton; Hieromartyrs Basil, Ephraim, Eugene, Elpidius, Agathodorus, Aetherius, and Kapiton of Cherson (4th C); New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1930); New Venerable Martyrs Nilus, Matrona, Mary, Eudocia, Catherine, Antonina, Nadezhda, Xenia and Anna († 1938); Venerable Paul the Simple (4th C); Holy Hierarchs Nestor and Arcadius, Bishops of Tremethus in Cyprus; Venerable Emilian, in the world Victorinus, of Italy; St. Paul the Confessor the Bishop of Plusias (9th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 40:18-31
Vespers: Genesis 15:1-15
Vespers: Proverbs 15:7-19

The reading from Isaiah begins with a challenge. God asks humanity “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with Him?” God answers His own question by calling humanity to account for our idolatry: “The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.”

God quickly points out the inherent weakness of the idol. Some are covered with gold and held in place with “silver chains.” Others are made of “wood that will not rot” by skilled craftsman who carefully places the idol in its niche so that it “will not move.”

The irony here is clear. It is human ingenuity and skill that protects from damage and rot the idol crafted to protect the worshipper.

Unlike the idol, “the work of human hands” (see Psalm 115:4 and 135:15), the Lord doesn’t need my protect. God creates the earth and rules over it as its absolute Lord.

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

God has no equal and His will “is unsearchable.” While even the young grow “faint and … weary” God is mighty and “strong in power.” What strength we have, we have as God’s gift.

It is this God Who makes a covenant with Abram, promising that he will be a great nation.

In the ancient near east, when a covenant was made, both parties would walk between the split animals calling on themselves a curse if they failed to live up to their side of the bargain. When the covenant is made between only God and Abram, only passes between the animals (Genesis 15:7). God takes on Himself the whole penalty for any violation of His agreement with Abram.

The Creator of Heaven and Earth doesn’t just make a covenant with us. In Jesus Christ, He willingly bears the cost of our violation of the agreement.

God’s willingness to suffer a curse that I bring on myself by my own folly and sin is central to the Gospel. Understanding this helps us see a depth of meaning in Solomon’s extended praise of wisdom in Proverbs.

The wisdom of the wise isn’t passive but dynamic. God the Creator of the “all things visible and invisible” (Creed) takes on Himself the sins of the world and so brings about reconciliation. In imitation of God, the wise man by his wisdom brings peace not only to himself but to others.

Beginning with himself, the wise man reconciles humanity to God. This is why the wise man “pursues righteousness” and, unlike the fool, loves reproof. In stark contrast to both God and the wise man, the fool is “hot-tempered” and “stirs up strife.”

As we’ve seen throughout our reflections of Proverbs, wisdom doesn’t just bring peace; it also brings prosperity. In part, as we read today, this happens because the wise man is content with however much or little he has. “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”

For Solomon, however, detachment from wealth and power is very different from rejecting or disparaging wealth and power. Wisdom is found, as the reading from Isaiah suggests, in understand what wealth and power can and can’t do.

The paradox is this: I become like God the more I realize I am not like Him.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Repentance the Gift Condemns Me

Monday, March 19 (O.S., March 6), 2018: Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent; 42 Martyrs of Ammoria in Phrygia († c. 845): Theodore, Constantine, Aetius, Theophilus, Basoes, Callistus, and others; ; Hieromartyr Conon and his son Conon of Iconium († 270-275); Venerable Arcadius of Cyprus (4th C); Venerable Abraham of Bulgaria; Holy Hierarchs Evagrius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople; Holy Hierarch Taranius, Bishop of Antioch; Venerable Fridolinus, Abbot of Sakingena; Martyr Gregorisus; Venerable Job, in Schema Joshua, of Anzer († 1720); Finding of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Holy Empress Helen in Jerusalem (326); Icons of the Mother of God: “Chenstokhov” (1st C), “Blessed Heaven” (14th C) and “Shestokovskoy” (18th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 37:33-38:6
Vespers: Genesis 13:12-18
Vespers: Proverbs 14:27-15:4

Reading the passage from Isaiah quickly, we might overlook the fact that–in both cases–God is merciful. Both kings suffer. The King of Assyria is defeated in battle, Hezekiah suffers a debilitating and–but for God’s intervention–fatal disease. The difference in outcomes between the two rulers is straightforward. Hezekiah repents, the Assyrian king doesn’t.

Repentance requires more than I’m sorry for my sins. This, after all, can be motivated as much by being disappointed with myself as easily as it can an awareness that I’ve strayed from God’s will. Often the sorrow I feel is more the former than the latter.

While sorrow is the opening moment of repentance, in the full sense I need to move past my distress. Repentance requires not bad feelings but a change of heart (metanoia). Not grief for my failure, but obedience to the will of God.

We have an example of obedience in Abraham.

God promises the patriarch that He will give him “the land of Canaan.” Abram (as Abraham is still called), we receive from God all the land he can see from where he stands. “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever.”

To this promise, God adds that Abram’s descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.”

At God’s command, Abram walks “the length and breadth of the land.” Eventually, he comes to “the oaks of Mamre” pitches his tent and worships God.

The metanoia God seeks from me isn’t simply sorrow for my sin, it isn’t even obedience. What God seeks from me is my willingness to still myself and, like Abram, worship Him.

Material wealth, political power and military prowess, these are celebrated by the Old Testament as God’s blessings. The coming of Christ doesn’t undo any of this or any of the other blessings God bestows on His Israel.

What Christ does, is make available to us the wisdom without which material and social blessings become traps. As Solomon says

The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing, but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity. Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding, but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.

It isn’t that the King of Assyria was a sinner and Hezekiah wasn’t. It isn’t that one man regretted and the other didn’t. It is rather that, like Abram, one man worshipped God and made God’s will his own.

Without the wisdom that comes from the “fear of the LORD” the blessings God give us remain fallow. Separated from a living awareness of God’s gifts as exactly that, His gifts to me, I begin to think of God’s blessings as my own achievements.

As gratitude withers, prides grows until “passion makes the bones rot.” and I become the man who “oppresses the poor” and “insults God.”

But Christians who reject or minimize material and social blessings are equally misguided. These are given to us so that we can share in God’s redemptive work. Like the man who uses them for his own selfish ends, the Christian who turns his back of these blessings–or condemns those to whom God has given them–and becomes one “who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory