You Say “Dogma” Like It’s A Bad Thing

May 20 (O.S., May 7), 2018: Seventh Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; Afterfeast of the Ascension; Commemoration of the Apparition of the Sign of the Precious Cross over Jerusalem in 351 A.D.; Martyr Acacius the Centurion (303).

Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13

Dogma has a rather bad reputation.

Not wholly without reason, we associate being “dogmatic” with rigid and merely formulaic thinking. A “dogmatic” thinker doesn’t think at all. Instead, he parrots what he’s been told.

The first thing I should point out is that there is more than a little justice to this criticism of dogma. There are many individuals, including many Orthodox Christians, who seem to resist ever having a new thought. For these people–did I mention some of these are Orthodox Christians?–the old answers are sufficient not so much because they are true (even if they are) but because they are old.

Clinging to the old answers, the old ways, simply because they are old has the advantage of being easy. And there is, to be sure, comfort in knowing what we believe and how we are to live.

But excluding anything that might challenge my beliefs and practices isn’t a good thing. I do this because I’ve fallen into the trap of holding on to the old answers, the old ways, and the received views because they are old rather than because they are true.

It is as dangerous to accept tradition simply because it is old as it is to reject it for the same reason.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is not a matter of what is old but what is true. As the word itself suggests in Greek (dogmatika) means clear or right thinking. The “dogmatic” person, in other words, is the one who thinks clearly and rightly.

This has two, important, applications.

We must think dogmatically about the Gospel not because we are slaves to external authority but because the Gospel is true.  It is when we fail to think dogmatically about the Gospel that we become slaves to our emotions or to passing social fads.

Most of all though, our thinking about the Gospel must be dogmatic because our thinking about the Gospel must be guided by the truths.

It is all too easy, as St Paul warns about in today’s reading from Acts, for me to be swept away by glib preachers. In every generation, there are in Church “fierce wolves” who speak “perverse things in an attempt “to draw away the disciples” from Christ. For all that they offer an appealing face to their listeners, these are cruel individuals who in their pursuit of power and control over others will be unsparing in their lies and half-truths.

We need to think clearly lest, when these false witnesses appear in our lives, we are seduced by their charm or confused by their lies.

Such clear thinking, and this the second point, is not simply a matter of theology. Yes, we need to know the Scriptures–is there any Orthodox Christian who doubts this? And yes, we need to know the Creed and the basics of the faith.

But our clear thinking, our dogma if you will, must embrace not only the truths of the faith but also of creation, of human life and society and of our own identity in Christ. Divorced from these, our theological thinking will sooner or later (and usually sooner than later) devolve into heresy. When this happens, our community in Christ becomes a cult that apes the Church and in which the things of God are distorted and put at the service of binding us to the fierce wolf’s cruel control.

In Holy Tradition, the truths of the Gospel are not opposed to those of philosophy. Likewise, sacraments and science are not enemies but rather, in Christ, divinely bestowed gifts give to us for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Faith and reason, in other words, are not opposed but–to paraphrase St Maximus the Confessor–the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

To be sure not all Orthodox Christians have the same intellectual gifts. Nor do we all share the same interests.

But whatever might be our personal differences in our abilities and interest, theology and philosophy, sacraments and science, faith and reason, are all God’s gifts. To think dogmatically, that is to think clearly, is to understand that each element in the pair compliments and deepens our appreciation and understanding of its partner.

All this is possible because Jesus Christ is not simply a good man but God become Man. In Christ, the Eternal Word of God speaks in human words. He Who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creates the universe, drawing it from us “nothingness into being,” creates and shapes the creation with human hands and according to the insights of a human intellect.

All this He does without loss of His divinity.

As truly God, He creates even as truly Man He shapes the creation. He Who as the Word of God from All-Eternity is beyond what our minds can grasp, as truly Man speaks words we can comprehend though never exhaust.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In the Incarnation, human life, human thought, human labor, and human society are come to share in Divine Life, Divine Thought, Divine Labor and the Divine Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

To think dogmatically is to see the revelation of God not only in the pages of Scripture but in the Book of Nature.

To think dogmatically is to overcome the chasm sin would place between faith and reason, science and sacrament, created and Uncreated.

To think dogmatically is not to cling to the old answers because they are old but rejoice in them because they are true.

To think dogmatically is to see that in each moment “all things are made new in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To think dogmatically, means to think clearly, because we think with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:6), “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), and so conform ourselves to His example (see Romans 8:29) for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Witnesses to Beauty

Sunday, May 13 (O.S., April 30), 2018: Sixth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Blind Man; Holy Apostle James, the brother of St. John the Theologian (44); St. Donatus, bishop of Euroea (387); Uncovering of the relics of Hieromartyr Basil, bishop of Amasea (322). Martyr Maximus.

Epistle: Acts 16:16-34
Gospel: John 9:1-38

Christ is Risen!

St Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that they are to speak “the truth in love.” He tells them this so that they might not be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men” and “in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.”

And they are to speak the truth in love so that they

…may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (see Ephesians 4:14-16, NKJV).

We need to pay close attention to what the Apostle says here.

The command to speak “the truth in love” is not something we do to draw others to Christ. Speaking “the truth in love” is essential for our own salvation, own growth in Christ and spiritual maturity.

Compare this to the idea that, as I’ve heard more than one Orthodox Christian say, “The most loving thing I can do is to tell someone the truth.” Did you catch the difference?

Paul says that for your own salvation and to become more like Christ, let love guide your words. This is different from the rather crass assumption that my words are loving because they are true and I’m telling you something for your own good.

The naked expression of the truth is not loving. Far from it. It is simply a means of gaining power over others by shaming them. Rarely, if ever, are the people who say the most loving thing you can do is to tell someone the truth open to such “love” themselves.

Look at the reading today from Acts.

The slave girl is saying something which is indubitably true. St Paul and his companions “are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And yet, as events unfold, we discover that while what is said is true, it is said not “in love” but because of demonic possession. The girl says something true in the service of extending the power of demons.

Her owners, by the way, are fine with this. They are happy to see this girl enslaved to a demon because it makes them rich. They are willing to grow wealthy by enslaving not only the girl’s body but also her soul.

And in all this, she tells the truth but she does so without love.

Compare the situation of the slave and her owners with what happens at the end of today’s reading.

A “great earthquake” opens all the doors of the prison freeing all the prisoner. Because of this, the jailer is prepared to commit suicide rather than face the consequences of allowing the prisoners to escape.

But what does Paul do?

At the cost of his own freedom, he remains in his cell with Silas and cries out to his jailer: “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”

Speaking the “the truth in love” is salvific because it puts the good of my neighbor before my own. To speak “the truth in love” means that I sacrifice myself for you. And it is this sacrifice for others that join us ever closer together in Christ and which fosters our spiritual maturity.

What, though, does it mean–concretely–to speak “the truth in love”? We get a glimpse in today’s Gospel.

While the text says Jesus restored the man’s sight, this isn’t strictly speaking true. The man was, after all, born blind. He didn’t live in darkness because, never having seen light, he had no understanding of its absence.

While he felt the sun on his face, he never saw its light. He felt the wind but never saw trees bend. He felt the rain but never saw clouds.

And then is one amazing moment–and for the first time in his life–the man born blind saw the beauty of creation. And he saw this beauty not gradually but in an instant!

He saw the sun he only felt.

He saw the trees bend in the wind.

He saw the clouds that carried the rain.

All around him and all at once, he saw the beauty of creation. And, in that same instant, he saw the face of Jesus, of God become Man.

To speak “the truth in love” is to heal the blindness of the human heart. It is to reveal to others a beauty that, like the blind man, they could not even imagine.

To reveal this beauty to you, I must first see it you, in creation, in myself and in God. That which is True, and for that matter what is Just and Good, is Beautiful.

And because Truth is one, if I can’t–or won’t–see the beauty in one part of creation, I can’t see the beauty elsewhere. If I can’t see beauty here, I can’t see it there; if I can’t see it in you, I can’t see it in myself and I certainly can’t see it in God.

Or rather, I fail to see the beauty around me and in me because I fail to see it in God Who is the Uncreated Source of all the is Good, True, Just and yes Beautiful.

Why does beauty matter? Because it is in the nature of beauty, of beautiful things, to attract us. To speak “the truth in love” is to make manifest not simply the beauty of the Gospel but of the person to whom we speak.

And. as I said, I can’t do this unless I have grasped something of the beauty of God and creation, of my neighbor and myself.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called us to reveal beauty to the world. We are here, in this small and poor room today, for no other purpose. This is why we concern ourselves with, among other things, not only being the Church but building a church. So that we can through our words and deeds reveal the Beauty of God to the world.

May God bring to completion the good work He has started in us.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Archbishop Daniel: 10th Anniversary

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Axios! Axios! Axios!

Happy 10th Anniversary Archbishop Daniel!

The Prime Hierarch of the UOC of the USA, Metropolitan Antony, along with the Council of Metropolia, members of the Consistory, clergy, faithful and the student body of St. Sophia Theological Seminary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA express their sincere greetings and assurance of prayers for His Eminence Archbishop Daniel on the 10th Anniversary of his episcopal consecration.

We thank Almighty God for your ministry to the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

May God grant you many blessed and healthy years in the service of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA!

Only Got One Job

Sunday, May 6 (O.S., April 23), 2018: Fifth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Holy Glorious Great-martyr, Victory-bearer and Wonderworker George (303). Martyr Alexandra the Empress, (303). Martyrs Anatolius and Protoleon (303).

Epistle: Acts 11:19-30
Gospel: John. 4:5-42

Christ is Risen!

Marriage is hard and because it is hard sometimes a marriage will fail.

The woman in today’s Gospel has tried and failed at marriage five times. Not surprisingly, she has given up on marriage and has chosen simply to live with the latest man in her life.

And Jesus knows all this about her:

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”

This might at first sound harsh but the woman takes no offense. In fact, and surprisingly for the time, she goes on the offensive. The woman challenges Jesus on, as she says, the Jewish contention “Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” God.

In short order, this heretic (which is how the Jews saw the Samaritans), this public sinner is transformed! By the simple fact of His presence, Jesus reveals this woman her dignity and value.

Secure in who she now knows herself to be, the woman races back to the city and began to tell people about Jesus. And, amazingly enough given her reputation, people believe her!

So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him.

Through her encounter with Jesus, this woman becomes an apostle to the Samaritans who tirelessly preached the Gospel in Carthage.

Later in life, after she is arrested for being a Christian, this woman–St Photina–is entrusted to the care of Nero’s daughter Domnina pending trial. And, again, the saint leads someone to faith in Jesus Christ. This time Nero’s daughter.

The saint ends her life as a martyr. But the boldness she had before Christ is boldness with which she dies. As her last act St Photina spits

…in the face of the emperor, and laughing at him, said, “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”

And all of this because she has the experience of being known, really being understood, by Jesus.

For all the differences between our time and that of St Photina, like her we all of us want to be understood. We don’t necessarily want someone to like us or agree with us. But we want to be seen for who we are and, on that basis, taken seriously. We want to be heard and, like Photina, really understood.

Unfortunately, and again like in Jesus’ time, we often misunderstand others. We reduce people to categories, we pigeonhole other people.

To love someone, however, is to see them as they really are without embellishments and with all their blemishes.

To love someone, in other words, is to see them as God sees them. But love is more than this.

Through His conversation with St Photina Jesus awakens something in her that she likely never suspected was there. He awakened in her a vocation–a calling–to be an apostle, an evangelist and eventually even a martyr.

When we love someone, we don’t simply see them as God sees them, we work to help them discover and fulfill their vocation. We commit ourselves to help them realize the life work that God has given them to do. To love others as Jesus loves them, is to see who they are and then to help them become who they are.

You see the great sorrow of human life is that most people don’t know who they are, they don’t know what God has called them to do and so become. Many, even most Orthodox Christians, are in this situation. This is why so few of us attend church and even fewer of us regularly receive the sacraments.

Without a sense of my own, personal vocation, the life of the Church will feel artificial. Prayer and fasting, the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, and the sacrifices and good works we are all called to do, all of this will feel like an imposition.

And friendship with my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Even this will be at best superficial; often it will be fraught with tension and drama. Why? Because apart from Christ, we can’t see each other as we truly are.

And who are we? After Christ, we are each of us God’s gift to each other.

It is because we don’t see each other as God’s great gifts, that we are so often lonely and discouraged.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We don’t need to live this way!

No one here starts as far from Christ as did Photina at the well! And everyone here is capable of doing things greater than the saint!

Why?

Because everyone here has a vocation, a call from God to do a great work only he or she can do.

Discovering and living that vocation is the inner meaning of all we do in the Church. How do we do this? Through prayer, confession and the sacraments.

And here’s what I’ve figured out about my vocation.

I’ve only got one job: To help you discover and become the person God has created and called you to be. That’s it. The vocation of being a priest and, for that matter, the vocation of the deacon and the bishop, is to help other people discover and live their own vocation.

The clergy only have one task in life: to help you become who God has called you to be.

Put us to work!

Christ is Risen!

Being Responsible

April 29 (O.S., April 16), 2018: Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralyzed Man. Righteous Tabitha (1st c.); Translation of the relics of Martyr Abramius of Bulgaria (1230). Virgin-martyrs Agape, Irene, and Chionia in Illyria (304). Martyrs Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista (Calisa), Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth (258).

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Before Jesus heals the paralytic He asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?”

On one level, this would seem to be an unnecessary question. The man is at the pool of Bethesda in the hope of being made whole. There is, however, a deeper meaning to Jesus’ question.

God respects our freedom; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. While “God created us without us,” says St Augustine, “He did not will to save us without us.”

This means Hell isn’t so much a punishment for sin but a sign of God’s great respect for our freedom. Out of His great love for me, God allows me to turn my back on Him even if this results in my condemnation.

Divine love is as different as can be from mere human sentimentality that seeks to alleviate suffering by violating the freedom of the person. For God, the human person is not an object of His love but a subject.

This means that God waits patiently for our free response to Him. He Who is our Friend desires that we should freely choose to be His friend (see John 15:15). And so Jesus asks the paralytic: “Do you want to be made well?”

Just as the question reveals to us something about God–that He respects our freedom–the man’s answer reveals something about our predicament as fallen human beings. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Hearing the same Gospel readings year after year can cause us to miss important points in the text. In this case, we might overlook the fact that the man’s paralysis is not absolute. He can move, if slowly and no doubt painfully.

Rather than taking his limitations into account–say by staying closer to the pool or asking for assistance–the man blames others for his inability to get to the pool. However understandable, the man doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his life.

When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made whole, He is asking the man if he wants to be responsible for his own life. And his willingness to be responsible for himself is in important.

A paralytic, after all, can live by begging. But an able-bodied man? He must work for a living. Being made whole means that he will now have to take care of himself. No more blaming others for what his situation.

The hymnography of the Church draws a parallel between our spiritual state and the man’s paralysis. Like the paralytic, I have reasons for not accepting responsibility for my decisions. And, just like the paralytic, my reasons are, to me at least, reasonable.

They are however only excuses.

In ways subtle and not so subtle, I want to want to hold other people responsible for my situation. Like Adam, I want to blame someone else for my sins. First, I’ll blame you; ultimately, I’ll blame God (see Genesis 3:12).

At some point, becoming an adult–to say nothing of becoming a saint–requires that I stop blaming others for my decision and accept responsibility for my own life. This, psychologically, is the essence of repentance.

Spiritually, repentance means more than just accepting responsibility for my life. The repentant heart is one that sees the whole of life as a gift to be received with gratitude from the hand of an All-loving God.

In the first flush of grace, this is easy.

But as we see toward the end of today’s Gospel, obedience to God will eventually put me in conflict with others. Obedience to God means conflict with those who prefer their own will to the will of God. “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, said to him who was cured, It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”

Even if I (mostly) avoid such conflict, being responsible for my own life means accepting the fact that my life unfolds in unexpected ways. Accepting with gratitude this life with all its successes and failures, its joys and disappointments, is the beginning of wisdom.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be wise!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory