Preparing for Joy

Sunday, March 17 (O.S., March 4), 2019: Triumph of Orthodoxy; St. Gerasimus of the Jordan (475). St. Julian, patriarch of Alexandria; (189); St. James the Faster of Phoenicia (Syria) (6th c.); Martyr Wenceslaus, prince of the Czechs (938); Blessed Basil (Basilko), prince of Rostov (1238).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

If our willingness to forgive others is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that God in Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and forgiven us our trespasses, then joy is the evidence of the sincerity of our forgiveness. To see this, we need to distinguish joy from its cousins pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is a bodily experience while happiness is a psychological one. For example, I get pleasure from eating ice cream and I am happy that I have eaten it.

Joy, however, is different. Joy is the conviction that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I suffer or how I fail, God will bring good out of this.

Joy says with the Apostle Paul, “we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). That is to say,

…to those who have united themselves to the God Who has united Himself to them,

…to those who love their neighbor because they love God,

…to those who forgive because they have been forgiven,

…God brings good out of all they experience.

And the good that God brings is not simply for those of us who are believers. The good that God brings for us is not for us alone but for those around us.

We see this in the saints of the Old Testament who endured suffering as they waited for the Messiah. They hoped for the gift we received.

We see this as well in the saints of the New Testament who, like Andrew, having personally encountered Jesus were eager to share their new found joy with others.

Without joy, without the conviction that as Julian of Norwich says that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”  life becomes unbearable.

And life becomes unbearbale whether we fail or succeed.

If I fail, the absence of joy drives me to despair. How can what I have done be undone? How can my failures be made right?

If I succeed, the absence of joy drives me to anxiety. Will I succeed tomorrow? Will the things I’ve done today be undone tomorrow?

Faced with a joyless life I flee to a life of pleasure; I pursue happiness. Only to realize that happiness like pleasure is fleeting. Like an addict, if I pursues pleasure I quickly discover that what felt good yesterday, flees less good today. The same with happiness.

And so when my life is joyless, I soon give up trying to feel good. Since pleasure and happiness are fleeting, I instead work to avoid pain. But this too proves to be an illusion:

The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.ut this too proves to be an illusion (Psalm 90:10).

Where then is joy to be found? How then do I foster a life of joy?

We need–I need–to first realize that joy is not pleasure or happiness; it is neither bodily or psychological but spiritual and as such it is a gift from God. St Paul tells us that together with love, peace ,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Of these, the only one that is at least partially within our power is self-control. To grow in joy, I must first master myself. This is the purpose of the ascetical of the Church.

Slowly, year after year, as I take on the Church’s proscribed ascetical disciplines, I grow in self-control. While never denying the fundamental goodness of pleasure and happiness, the Church’s ascetical tradition teaches me the limits of both.

But the Church’s offers more than simply a lesson of the limits of pleasure and happiness. From the moral tradition of the Church, I learn the virtuous ways to experience pleasure and happiness.

Ultimately though, I find–we find–the source of joy in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Personal prayer and ascetical effort good though they are are insufficient for the joyful life.

Likewise, as good as they are, the liturgical life of the Church–the daily cycle of service, the devotional services and even the Divine Liturgy itself–is insufficient.

We find joy in the sacraments; it is born in the waters of baptism, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion and restored by Holy Confession when we fall into sin.

The season of the Great Fast is nothing more or less than our preparation for joy!

Not simply the joy of Pascha, not simply the joy of the One Day, but of a life of joy!

During the Great Fast we intensify our prayer and ascetical efforts so that we can remove from our lives anything that quenches the Spirit. We abstain from evil, examine our lives carefully, attend closely to the Scriptures, so that we can recognize and “hold fast to that which is good” where ever we may find it (see, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us prepare ourselves for the joyful life that Christ stands ready to give us and, through us, to the world!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

Don’t Murder Love

Sunday, March 10 (O.S.: February 25), 2019: Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise (Forgiveness or Cheesefare Sunday).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slapping me on the shoulder, my friend Rabbi Joe once told me, “I like you, Fr Gregory! You think like a Jew! You forgive everything but forget nothing!”

I’m not exactly sure what Rabbi meant but I’ll defer to his judgment as to what it means to be Jewish. What I can say is that forgiveness is central to both Judaism and Christianity.

For Orthodox Christianity, forgiveness is the evidence of the truth of the Gospel that

Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!

Jesus tells us not only to forgive our enemies and love those who persecute us (see Matthew 5:44) but that we are to do so “seven times seventy time” (see Matthew 18:22).

And when He appears to His disciples after the Resurrection He grants them the power to “bind and loosen” (Matthew 18:18) the sins of others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

In all this, we should lose sight of the fact that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven by God.

For most of us, most of the time, the sins we forgive, like the sins for which we need forgiveness, are usually petty. We are all of us primarily perpetrators and victims not of great injustices but minor annoyances. We are slowly “nibbled to death by ducks” rather than quickly killed by the sword.

This is why in her wisdom, the Church asks us to begin the season of the Great Fast by participating in the Rite of Mutual Forgiveness. We have all of us sinned against each of us even if only in mostly minor ways.

There is a caution that is important here.

The formality of the rite–”Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives!”–is appropriate when the offense is minor and so easily forgiven and forgotten.

But if the offense is serious, if we were the victim or perpetrator of some great injustice, the formality of the rite is inappropriate. Simply saying “Forgive me a sinner!” would work against forgiveness and undermine reconciliation.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the words would not unreasonably be seen as a way of minimizing the harm and of forgetting the past without working to build–or rather, re-build, trust.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the Rite of Forgiveness erodes whatever trust is left between us. It says to the one I have harmed that I don’t take seriously the offense I’ve given and so I don’t take seriously the harm he has suffered.

As I said, the Rite of Forgiveness isn’t meant to undo “deadly sins” (see 1 John 5:17) but the myriad minor infractions we all of us commit and suffer daily. The latter can be easily forgiven, while the former requires not only that I go to Holy Confession but that I seek to make right personally and practically the wrong that I’ve done.

But today, today we approach each other with a generous, forgiving and repentant heart for the small offenses we have given and received.

But this doesn’t undermine what I said a moment ago. Our mutual forgiveness is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that the power of sin and death have been overcome (see Romans 8:2).

For all that any single offense is minor, in the aggregate, they are as deadly as any single serious sin.

The sad truth is that just as love between a husband and wife, to take only one example, can be killed by one instance of adultery, it can be ground down and destroyed by daily indifference. And like in marriage, infidelity in the spiritual life need not be dramatic to be deadly.

Thinking back almost 30 years later to my friend the late Rabbi Joe, I think what he meant to say was that, a good Jew (and so a good Christian), must always be ready to forgive but never at the expense of denying the harm we do to each other.

Without forgiveness, the harm we do by even the smallest offense is multiplied, eroding trust and affection until love is murdered. Not only is this is something we can never forget, it is something we need to remember.

Let me speaks now simply for myself.

I need to remember this.

I need to remember this not to justify holding grudges but as a reminder of my need to forgive.

I need to remember that even small offenses, over time, will kill love.

Above all, I need to actively seek and extend forgiveness not just for serious sins but also the myriad small and petty offenses of daily life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Joy of Judgment

Sunday, March 2 (OS., February 18) 2019: Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday); St. Leo the Great, pope of Rome (461). St. Agapitus, bishop of Synnada in Phrygia (4th c.). St. Flavian the Confessor, patriarch of Constantinople (449). St. Cosmas, monk, of Yakhromsk (1492).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church. Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Every year when we come to this Sunday, my attention is drawn to the kontakion for the feast. Every year we are reminded by the Church that there will come a day for all of us when “the books will be opened and all secrets disclosed.”

This day when the book of my life is opened and all my secrets are revealed is the Last Judgment. And, as both the Scriptures and the icon of the feast make clear, all of this will be public.

It isn’t just, in other words, that the book of my life and my secrets will be known by Jesus; He already knows me better than I know myself. No, on that Great and Last Day, the whole of my life–the virtuous and the vicious–will be laid out for the angels and all humanity to see.

From one perspective, the dread and anxiety that I, or really any of us, feel at the thought of standing naked before all creation is understandable. As we’ve talked about before, all of us have done things about which we are naturally and justly ashamed. This what St Paul means when he says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NJKV).

But if we are honest with ourselves, there is no real comfort in the universality of sin and shame. As will hear next week, after their transgression our First Parents “knew that they were naked” and in reaction “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” to hid not from God but from each other (Genesis 3:7).

However understandable is the dread I experience at the prospect of the Last Judgment, my fear is itself the consequence of sin. Like Adam and Eve in the moments after the Fall, it is because I am still unrepentant that I fear being known not only by God but by you as well.

In a fallen world, we spend immense amounts of time, energy and wealth hiding not only from God and each other but from ourselves. We craft believable, but ultimately false, images of ourselves. We work so hard to remain unknown and unseen even by those to whom we are closest.

The tragedy of all this is that the only real consequence of hiding is that we are lonely.

Seen from this perspective, far from being something to fear the Last Judgment is something to be desired. Rather than flee from the Judgment which is to come, we should prepare for it with joyful anticipation. To know the judgment of God and is to know the fullness of His love!

The Last Judgment is the moment in which finally all the lies we tell ourselves and all the shame that cripple us melt away in the fire of God’s love. It is the moment in which, finally, we are known and loved for who we are and not who we pretend to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we are finally able to love others for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which the power and glory of God’s supra-abundant love are made clear for all to see.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we together with all creation are illumined by that love.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we will come to know not only God but ourselves and each other.

If all this is true, why am I still afraid?

Because my love is still immature, still imperfect. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that we will be judged based on how we care–or don’t–for others. It isn’t enough to have faith since ”Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19).

St James is unstinting in his condemnation of what the philosopher Etienne Gilson calls “piety without technique.” The Apostle’s clarity is brutal the kind of faith that says to the poor, hungry and naked, “‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’” but doesn’t “give them the things which are needed for the body is the faith of demons. And so he says faith that “does not have works, is dead”  (James 2:16, 17).

We must be cautious here.

St Paul tells us our faith is not about what we eat or drink but about what we freely do out of love for Christ and our neighbor. A few chapters after today’s epistle, he reminds the Corinthians that while miracles have their place, what matters most is the wisdom that reveals the secrets of the human heart and moves the unbelievers to fall down on their faces to “worship God.” Our works must not only be practical but be inspired by the divine wisdom that transforms unbelievers into disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ who go on to “report that God is truly among you” (see 1 Corinthians 14:25).

All that we do–the sacraments, the services of the Church, our personal prayer, our asceticism and yes, our good deeds–have only one goal. We do all these things to strip away the lies and the shame that would kill love.

As these things fall away, we grow in wisdom and become a bit more who we will be revealed to be at the Last Judgment.

And on that Day?

On that Day, we will be clothed in Divine Glory as were Adam and Eve before the Fall.

On that Day, our beauty will be there for all creation to see.

On that day, we will thank God not only for the gift of our own lives but the lives of all humanity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast, let us not lose sight of the fact that we are getting ready not simply to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ but moving toward the Last Judgment, for that Great Day when “God will wipe away every tear” and when “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things” the lies and the shame of sin, will “have passed away.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Catechetical Homily at the Opening of Holy and Great Lent

+ BARTHOLOMEW

By God’s mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch

To the Plenitude of the Church

May the Grace and Peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ be with you together with our Prayer, Blessing and Forgiveness

With the grace of God, the giver of all gifts, we have once again arrived at Holy and Great Lent, the arena of ascetical struggle, in order to purify ourselves with the Lord’s assistance through prayer, fasting and humility, as well as to prepare ourselves for a spiritual experience of the venerable Passion and the celebration of the splendid Resurrection of Christ the Savior.

In a world of manifold confusion, the ascetic experience of Orthodoxy constitutes an invaluable spiritual asset, an inexhaustible source of divine knowledge and human wisdom. The blessed phenomenon of ascesis, whose spirit pervades our entire way of life – for “asceticism is Christianity in its entirety” – is not the privilege of the few or chosen, but an “ecclesial event,” a communal good, a shared blessing and the common vocation for all faithful without exception. The ascetical struggles, of course, are not an end in themselves; the principle that “ascesis exists for the sake of ascesis” is not valid. The purpose of ascesis is the transcendence of one’s own will and the “mind of the flesh,” the transferal of the center of life from individual desire and the “right,” toward love that “does not seek its own,” in accordance with the scriptural passage: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of the other.” (1 Cor. 10.24)

Such is the spirit that prevails throughout the long historical journey of Orthodoxy. In the New Miterikon, we encounter an excellent description of this ethos to renounce “our own” in the name of love: “Some hermits from Scetis once approached Amma Sarah, who offered them a container with basic provisions. The elders set aside the good food and consumed the bad. The righteous Sarah said to them: ‘You are truly monks from Scetis’”[1]This sensitivity and sacrificial use of freedom is foreign to the spirit of our age, which identifies freedom with individual assertions and claims for rights. Contemporary “autonomous” man would never have consumed the bad food, but only the good, convinced that in this way he expresses – while authentically and responsibly employing – individual freedom.

This is where the supreme value of the Orthodox concept of human freedom lies. It is a freedom that does not demand but shares, does not insist but sacrifices. The Orthodox believer knows that autonomy and self-sufficiency do not liberate humanity from the shackles of the ego, of self-realization and self-justification. The freedom “for which Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5.1) mobilizes our creative capacity and is fulfilled as rejection of self-enclosure, as unconditional love and communion of life.

The Orthodox ascetical ethos does not know division and dualism; it does not reject life, but rather transforms it. The dualistic vision and denial of the world is not a Christian concept. Genuine asceticism is luminous and charitable. It is a characteristic of Orthodox self-conscience that the period of fasting is permeated by the joy of the Cross and the Resurrection. Moreover, the ascetic struggle of Orthodox Christians – much like our spirituality and liturgical life in general – communicates the fragrance and radiance of the Resurrection. The Cross is found at the heart of Orthodox piety, but it is not the final point of reference in the life of the Church. Instead, the essence of Orthodox spiritual life is the ineffable joy of the Resurrection, toward which the Cross constitutes the way. Accordingly, during the period of Great Lent, the quintessence of experience for Orthodox Christians is always the yearning for the “common resurrection.”

Pray, then, precious brothers and sisters in the Lord, that we may be deemed worthy, with the grace and support from above, through the intercessions of the Theotokos, as first among the saints, and of all the saints, that we may run the race of Holy and Great Lent in a way that is fitting and joyous before Christ, joyfully exercising, in obedience to the rule of church tradition, the “common struggle” of fasting that extinguishes the passions, constantly praying, helping the suffering and needful, forgiving one another and “giving thanks for all things” (Thess. 5.18), in order that we might venerate with a devout heart the “Holy, Saving and Awesome Passion” as well as the life-giving Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory, power and thanksgiving to the endless ages. Amen.

Holy and Great Lent 2019

✠ Bartholomew of Constantinople

Fervent supplicant for all before God

[1]P.V. Paschos (ed.), New Miterikon (Athens: Akritas Publications, 1990), 31.

Entering Into Freedom

Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.

Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.

But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.

This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.

So what does?

Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.

…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.

Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.

And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.

And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.

We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.

Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.

You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).

Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.

And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.

When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory