As Mary For Us

Sunday, October 14 (O.S., October 1), 2018: 20th Sunday after Pentecost: THE PROTECTION OF OUR MOST HOLY LADY THE THEOTOKOS AND EVER-VIRGIN MARY; Apostle Ananias of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Romanus the Melodist of Constantinople (556). Martyr Domninus of Thessalonica (4th c.). Martyr Michael, abbot in Armenia, and 36 Fathers with him (790).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19; Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Luke 6:31-36; Lk. 10:38-42; 11:27-28

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Prokov, the Protection of the Theotokos. The facts of the event are these. Under attack from pagan invaders, the residents of Constantinople prayed to God to be delivered from their enemies. In response, the Mother of God appears and spreads her cloak over the faithful praying in the church as a sign of her protection.

For many Christians, including some Orthodox Christians, events like this in the life of the Church are hard to understand. To some, they even seem nonsensical. Why, some wonder, is it the Mother of God and not her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who acts?

While there are no doubt different motivations for asking this, a central one is our tendency to compartmentalize our lives.

Most of us think of our Christian life as private; as somehow separate from the rest of our lives. We’ve lost the sense that being Christian while personal is anything but private. Our life as Orthodox Christians is–or at least is meant to be–a life of public witness.

We are able to wall off our spiritual life in this way because we think that the spiritual and material exist in separate spheres. How often do I imagine that my actions don’t reflect–much less affect–my heart or character? “He’s not bad, he just does bad things.”

This separation of life into unrelated spheres reflects a deep misunderstanding of the Incarnation and so of what it means for us to be “fully alive” in St Irenaeus’ happy phrase.

In Jesus Christ, we not only overcome the power of sin and death (see Romans  8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57) but also the conflict between the different dimensions of life. This means that in Christ, the public and private, the material and the spiritual, are brought into harmony, each supporting and deepening our openness to grace. This is possible because in Christ, the chasm sin creates between the created and Uncreated is bridged.

Just as God uses human words in the Scriptures to reveal Himself, He also can–and does–use human actions and the whole material world to do the same. Think of the sacraments. God uses human words, deeds, and the material world to pour out His grace on us.

In the sacraments, our experience of grace is not mediated; it isn’t hidden in creation. Rather, as St Paul suggests in the first epistle, even as it was to him on the road to Damascus, in the sacraments grace is given to us directly. The communion of the Uncreated and created in Christ doesn’t diminish or compromise the integrity of either.

And just as in Christ, the sacraments are a real encounter of divine life and a real human encounter at one and the same time.

Though related, this is different from humanity’s experience of grace in the Old Testament. As we hear in Hebrews (10:1), before the coming of Christ, the things of God were shadows of what was to come. This is why, as we hear in the second epistle, things done under the Old Law must be redone. Shadows are fleeting, they pass away.

This reflected no deficiency on God’s part, no lack of grace given to Israel.

What it does make clear is that humanity’s communion with God was not yet perfect. This would only happen with the coming of Christ. It is only in and through Jesus Christ we become able to give ourselves over fully to God Who has first given Himself over fully to us.

To ask the Mother of God to intercede for us–to say nothing of our celebration of her protection of Constantinople, takes nothing away from God. Instead, it shows that we who are in Christ are not only in communion with Him but act along with Him Who acts along with us.

This is why, looking to the first Gospel, we can be told not simply to love those who love us but to love our enemies and do good to them. In Christ, human love while still human is no longer simply human.

Christian love now shares in God’s love. Just as the chasm between the Uncreated and created is bridged and the different dimension of our life are brought into harmony, so too the divisions and hostility that afflict the human community can now be transcended.

Simply put, we can now love sacrificially even those who would do us harm. We can freely and generously (though not without grace and personal struggle) do good to those who do us evil. We are called and made able to be a source of protection, healing, and eternal life even those who would attack us, wound us, humiliate us, and kill us.

As the Mother of God is for the fearful citizens of Constantinople, we, you, me, can be for all those we meet.

All of this though, to look at the second Gospel, is only possible if–like the Virgin Mary–I hear the word of God “and keep it.”

There is nothing mysterious about this. Like Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, I must draw close to Jesus as His disciple. It isn’t a matter of being active or not but of prayerfully discerning the will of God for my life and then acting on it in an equally prayerful obedience.

Or, if you’d rather, to be for you as Mary is for us all, I must discern my vocation and be faithful to it.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the Mother of God, we each of us has a vocation, a work that God has given us personally to do.

And like the Mother of God, for each of us, part of that work is to help others discern and pursue their own vocations.

All the grace we have been given as Orthodox Christians have no other purpose than this.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Becoming Fire!

October 7 (O.S., September 24), 2018: 19th Sunday after Pentecost. Holy Protomartyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles Thecla of Iconium (1st c.). Ven. Coprius of Palestine (530).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9
Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The first two chapters of Genesis introduce us to the God Who is both Redeemer and Artist of Creation.

Rather than Aristotle’s impersonal Unmoved Mover or the Enlightenment’s somewhat more personal but nevertheless detached Watchmaker, as portrayed in Genesis God is intimately involved in the shaping and ordering of Creation.

Day after day, God orders the primordial chaos. To those who lived at the time, this ordering of chaos would not have been understood abstractly.

In a world beset with the chaos of disease and famine, war and accidental death, God’s actions at the Creation would have been proof that the God of Moses was worthy of human obedience. This God above all the gods of the time was victorious not only over the passing chaos of daily life but the cosmological chaos that always threatened to overwhelm humanity.

And when God creates His finest creation–humanity–He doesn’t do so like the other gods from a distance or with violence. Rather, He reaches down in love to His creation and forms Man out of the dust, the mud, of the earth.

We can see in this a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. As St Augustine points out (City of God, 24), the One Who gives us physical life by His breath will later breath upon the apostles and disciples granting them the power to forgive sins and so great us life everlasting (see John 20:19-25).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What God creates first, is more manikin than Man. It is only when God mixes His Spirit with His this model of a man that the mud of the earth becomes, as we read in Genesis, “a living being” (Genesis 2:7). This means that to be human means to be a creature who shares, participates, in the divine life (compare 2 Peter 1:4).

The Hebrew word translated as “living being” is nephesh. It is a word often used to describe things like a flute or the throat. It has the connotation, in other words, of things that are only themselves when they are empty so they can be filled with breath. It’s only with breath, that the flute makes music or the throat words.

For the human to be nephesh means that, from the beginning, we are only ourselves when we are filled with the Spirit of God. This is the context with which we can understand St Paul’s boast that in human weakness, divine grace is perfected.

The power of the Gospel is only made real in the lives of those who have come to accept and embrace with gratitude their absolute dependence on God. This means as well, that I am most fully myself only to the degree that I depend on God. And it is this dependence on God that makes possible for us to do the mighty works of God.

Look at St Peter in the Gospel.

After a hard night of failure, Jesus comes to him and asks to be rowed out into the lake. Of all the things Simon wanted to do that morning, going back on to the water was likely not one of them.

But out he goes.

And when Jesus is finished preaching? He tells Simon to row out to the deep part of the lake and let down his net.

Not surprisingly, Simon doesn’t want to do this. After all, he not Jesus is the fisherman. And while he was willing to provide Jesus a platform to preach, rowing out on the water and dropping his net means revisiting the scene of his failure.

We need to understand, Simon’s failure wasn’t an abstraction for him. Failing to catch fish the night before, means he goes hungry this morning. And not only Simon.

His wife and children will have no food this morning. And he will have no fish to trade. This means he has failed not only his family but his village as well.

And so for Simon to hear Jesus, this rabbi, this carpenter, and his friend, to say “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” means to be asked to revisit the scene of his failure as a husband, a father and a member of the community.

To do as Jesus asks is humiliating for Simon. The successful catch comes at the cost of Simon surrendering all his notions of who he is and what it means to be a good husband, father, Jew, and man.

Rather than responding with anger, he confesses his sinfulness. In that moment of miraculous success, Simon realizes how little room he has in his heart for God.

It is precisely at the moment when he realizes his weakness, that Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the Apostle who’s preaching will set the world on fire!

We are called to live the same life as Peter and Paul. If we embrace our dependence on God if we root out all the things in our life that we cling to instead of God, then like Peter and Paul, we can not only set the world around us on fire, we can become ourselves fire!

And what does fire do but shine and burn?

We can become light and warmth for a world grown cold and dark because of sin. And far from being used up or destroyed in the process, we will become more and more the persons who God has created us to be.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus says to each of us today, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Today, Christ calls us to fulfill His desire for the world!

Today, Christ calls us to be His disciples, His witnesses!

Today, Christ calls us to become who we are!

Today, Christ calls us to become fire!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grateful Faith

September 30 (O.S., September 17): 8th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday after the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Martyrs Sophia and her three daughters: Faith (Vira), Hope (Nadia), and Love (Lyubov), at Rome (137). Martyr Theodota at Nicaea (230) and Agathoklea. 156 Martyrs of Palestine, including bishops Peleus and Nilus, the presbyter Zeno and others (310).

Epistle: Galatians 2:16-20
Gospel: Mark 8:34-9:1

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We are, the Apostle Paul tells us, not saved “by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” To be more accurate, we are saved by the personal faith of Jesus Christ, by His faithful obedience to His Father. Or as Paul says in another place: “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” Philippians 3:9, KJV).

Our faith then is in Him Who is always faithful, Our faith, my faith and yours, derives from the faith of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that our faith need not be personal. Too often, Orthodox Christians imagine that conformity to the Tradition of the Church is sufficient for salvation. But it simply isn’t enough to be carried along by Holy Tradition like a stick in a stream.

Faith to be faith must be personal or it isn’t faith. Think about the words we say before receiving Holy Communion. “I believe O Lord and confess, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.”

More importantly, for faith to be personal it can’t be limited to only one aspect of the work of Christ. Think about it for a moment. A meaningful relationship, a relationship that is truly personal, is one in which we embrace and accept the whole of the other person.

Who has ever, to take only one example, built a happy marriage by focusing on one aspect of their spouse’s personality to the exclusion of the rest? We love the whole person or we don’t love at all.

This means that to have faith in Jesus Christ means to love Him not only as Redeemer but also Creator. St Irenaeus the Great says that when God the Father created the heavens and the earth, He did so with His right and left hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

To have faith in Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Creator means to see creation as coming from the hand of a loving God. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Creation, both as a whole and in all its parts, is a revelation of His love. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20, NKJV).

Not only does God reveal Himself to us in Creation, in creating us He endows our lives with meaning. While it is still incumbent on me to live a life worth living, I create such a life from the natural talents and spiritual gifts God gives me.

My talents were given me at the moment of my creation in my mother’s womb; my spiritual gifts are given to me in Holy Baptism and are sustained and deepened through the other sacraments and the life of prayer.

To have faith in Jesus Christ, then, means to have confidence that my own life is meaningful and that God has called me to mix my freedom with His grace to live a life that is profitable. Such a life is, as we have seen, one that serves your salvation and so that my own as well.

More broadly, and this is harder, to have faith in Jesus Christ not only as Redeemer but Creator, means to accept the circumstances of my life as His gift given to me for His glory, my salvation, and the salvation of the world. To have faith in Jesus as Redeemer and Creator means to accept each moment of life as a sacrament of His grace to be received with the same thanksgiving with which I receive Him in Holy Communion.

I should pause here and make an important distinction. To receive each moment in thankfulness as a sacrament of God’s grace, doesn’t mean to remain passive in the face of evil.

It means rather that I must understand that when I see evil around me or in me, God is calling me to fight–or at least resist–sin and the harm it does. it is only when we are confident that each moment of life is filled to overflowing with God’s grace, mercy, and love, that we are able to stand against the myriad manifestation of sin in human affairs.

Make no mistake. Only the grateful and faithful Christian heart can hope to resist successfully the blandishments of sin.

This is what it means, to turn to today’s Gospel, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples.

And again, make no mistake, to carry the cross in faith and gratitude requires from us a real death to self.

How much easier it is to think of life as something wholly of my own creation.

How much easier it is to think the meaning of my life, the terms of success or failure, of virtue or vice, are wholly my own to determine, keep or ignore.

How much easier it is to think that my life is simply mine.

But my brothers and sisters in Christ! Like Jesus, our lives are not our own! He lived to do the Father’s will and so save humanity from the powers of sin and death.

And you? Your life, like Jesus’ life, like mine life, is God’s gifts to you to be received with thanksgiving and lived in faith. We do this not only for our own sake but in fidelity to the example of Christ, for the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Virtues Hard & Soft

September 23 (O.S., September 10) 2018: 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora (305). Synaxis of the Holy Apostles Apelles, Lucius, and Clement of the Seventy. Martyr Barypsabas in Dalmatia (2nd c.). Blessed Pulcheria, the Empress of Greece (453). Sts. Peter (826) and Paul (9th c.), bishops of Nicaea. Ven. Paul the Obedient of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Old Testament background of the today’s Gospel is this.

Because the Hebrew children “spoke against God and against Moses … the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many … died” (Number 21: 5,6, NKJV).

Stories like these are important because they remind us that God is not only a God of mercy and love but justice and vengeance. In this case,  God punishes His People because of their lack of gratitude and faith.

It isn’t so much that we forget this. It is reather that many of us simply ignore the demands of divine justice in favor of “cheap grace.” We don’t want to think that God punishes the unrepentant.

I don’t want to think God would punish me.

And yet, the whole of the New Testament, the whole dispensation of divine mercy, makes no sense if we neglect divine justice.

The “soft virtues” like compassion, mercy, and forgiveness depend on the “hard virtues” of justice, courage, honor, and duty. To see why this is, let’s return briefly to the events in the desert.

Even though they have blasphemed God and slandered him, Moses puts this aside and intercedes on behalf of the Hebrew children when they come to him in repentance (Number 21:7). As events unfold we see that both repentance and forgiveness requires real strength of character. Both require a willingness to look unflinchingly at human sinfulness and the terrible harm it inflicts on us.

And this is true whether I am the one who has sinned or been sinned against. There can be no forgiveness if I refuse to accept the harm inflicted.

And so, Moses makes “a bronze serpent” and puts “it on a pole” so that “if a serpent had bitten anyone when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” There is healing for those who have the courage to repentant.

Healing requires that I first have the willingness to look at the evil in my own heart and acknowledge the harm I have brought on myself and others by my sins.

Jesus draws a parallel between the Cross and the bronze serpent in the desert. To look at the Cross with faith means this: To acknowledge that it is not simply for my sins that He dies. It is rather because of my sins that Jesus suffers crucifixion.

To put the matter more directly, Jesus is not crucified by the Jews or the Romans but by me, by my sins.

This is a hard saying which is why I need the “hard virtues.” I’m tempted to turn away, to want mercy and forgiveness without self-examination and repentance. I want to be loved by God but resist loving Him if doing so requires that I acknowledge my own unlovable qualities.

There are many ways in which I seek to sidestep the necessity of repentance. The events in the early Church that the Apostle Paul alludes to in his epistle to the Galatians highlights one such way.

Since the Fall, humanity has been divided against itself. This happened in the early Church. Then the dividing line was drawn between those who demanded the Gentiles keep the Law of Moses and those who, like Paul, said that this was not only unnecessary but impossible. “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.”

Like some in the early Church, I am all too willing to divide the human family into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Maybe my preferred categories aren’t theological. Maybe I prefer to think in terms of “liberals” versus “conservatives,” or “Democrats” versus “Republicans.” Or maybe just “them” and “us.”

The categories don’t matter.

What does matter is that the “good guys” are on my side. The real problem, I tell myself, is those other guys. Those “liberals” or “conservatives,” those “Democrats” or “Republicans.” Not “us” but “them.”

And yet, Solzhenitsyn points out, the line between good and evil runs not between people but through each human heart. If I forget this if I insist on dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” do something worse than fail to acknowledge the presence of evil in my own heart.

If I remain on this path, I quickly come to a point where–to maintain the illusion that evil is “out there” in “those people”–I turn against those who were until only just a moment ago were my allies, my fellow “good guys,” my friends.

To refuse to look on the Cross without repentance is to condemn myself to a life of isolation in which each person I meet is not my friend but my enemy. Absent repentance, the world around me is filled with nothing other than “bad guys” intent on my harm.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, all these require from us a real effort. There is no “soft virtue” that isn’t the fruit of a “hard virtue.” Likewise, there isn’t a “hard virtue” that doesn’t bear fruit in a “soft virtue.” Both, in fact, require the other and one without the other is simply a to write “Christian” what is actually a vice.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory