Homily: Forgiveness

Sunday, February 18 (O.S., February 5), 2017: Cheesefare Sunday; Sunday of Forgiveness Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss; Apodosis of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy Martyr Agatha (251). Martyr Theodoula, and Martyrs Helladius, Macarius, Boethos, and Evagrius (304). St. Theodosius, Archbishop of Chernihiv (1696).

Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Forgiveness is the Christian tradition’s response to not only the petty annoyances of everyday life and the conflicts that corrode our relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues. It is also our response to systemic social injustice and the naked manifestations of evil.

In the Gospel, our Lord calls us to forgive all from to the most innocuous to the most horrific of harms. If I don’t understand this, if I don’t understand that I must always be ready to forgive and to counsel forgiveness, I’ve missed the point not simply of today’s Gospel reading but of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The world will often scoff at the Christian’s call to forgive. This happens not because forgiveness is seen as hard–though it is often so hard as to require heroic virtue from us–but because forgiveness undercuts the sinful heart’s desire to “lord it over” others (Matthew 20:25, NKJV).

This temptation to exercise power isn’t limited to “the rulers of the Gentiles.” It is a common human failing. This why in His response to the bickering of the Apostles over who is the greatest among them, Jesus says “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28, NKJV).

And yet we need to be careful. We need to understand what forgiveness is and, maybe more importantly, what it isn’t.

When I forgive someone, I lay aside, I give up, my desire to punish them for an offense. To the unforgiving heart, it doesn’t matter if the offense was great or small, real or imagined, intentional or inadvertent. What matters to the unforgiving heart is that someone–indeed, anyone–suffers. To the unforgiving heart, someone must be punished.

Not punishing those who harm us isn’t the same as saying the offense didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter. Nor does forgiveness rule out restitution.

No, what forgiveness does is create a space, it creates the opportunity, for the offender to repent, for restitution to be made and for the reconciliation of those who are estranged.

Sadly, we have all of us had the experience someone who is always willing to remind us of our shortcomings and failures. There are those who see in the failures of their neighbor an opportunity to shame the person, to use their neighbor’s weakness as a way “lording it over” the person.

When this happens, I’ll speak simply for myself here, I resist acknowledging my fault. The more the other person tries to shame me, the less willing I am to examine myself and so to repentant.

This isn’t simply because I am a sinner, though I am, but because shame cripples us.

To forgive then means more than not punishing someone; it also means refusing to shame the person who has harmed me. I do this so that he or she is free to undertake the hard and necessary work of self-examination.

As I said a moment ago, forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation. These are, however, very different actions. While I am always free to forgive, reconciliation requires the cooperation of the other person.

Even assuming a mutual willingness to reconcile, circumstances may prevent this from happening. Once lost, trust in an intimate relationship can be hard to re-establish. Or maybe the harm caused is not simply personal but social–I wound not only my neighbor’s heart and so our relationship but his reputation. This is why gossip is so deadly. It can destroy a person’s place in the community.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and our journey to greet the Risen Lord Jesus, we are commanded by that same Lord to forgive. While last week we are reminded today to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the lonely, sick and imprisoned, today we are told to do only one thing. To forgive.

Let us repent the desire to “lord it over” others.

Let us repent of our fantasies of revenge.

Let us repent of our desire to punish or humiliate those who have harmed or offended us.

Let us, in a word, forgive.

Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Ecumenical Patriarch’s Letter for the Opening of the Great and Holy Lent

CATECHETICAL HOMILY ON THE OPENING OF HOLY AND GREAT LENT

+ B A R T H O L O M E W
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
Together with our Prayer, Blessing and Forgiveness be with You

We offer a hymn of thanksgiving to the Triune God, who has rendered us worthy once more to reach Holy and Great Lent in order to fight the good fight of ascesis and turn towards the “one thing that is needful” (Luke 10:42).

In a world averse to asceticism, in the presence of contemporary de-sanctification of life and domination of self-centered and self-indulgent ideals, the Orthodox Church insists on a Lenten period of spiritual struggle and “venerable abstinence” for its children in preparation for Holy Week, the Passion and Cross of Christ, so that we may become witnesses and partakers of His glorious Resurrection.

During Great Lent we are called to experience the creative and salvific economy of the Trinitarian God more deeply and to partake in the eschatological inclination, direction and progression of ecclesiastical and spiritual life more tangibly. We become conscious of the tragic impasse of the self-serving arrogance of the Pharisee, the hard-heartedness of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal, the callous disregard for hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness and abandonment of our neighbor, according to the gospel account of the future judgement. We are encouraged to imitate the repentance and humility of the Publican, the return of the Prodigal to the household of the Father, in whose Grace he trusts, as well as those who show mercy to the needy, Gregory Palamas’ life of prayer, John the Sinaite’s and Mary of Egypt’s life of ascesis, so that strengthened through the veneration of the holy icons and the precious Cross we may arrive at a personal encounter with Christ the life-giver who arose from the tomb.

During this blessed period, the communal and social character of spiritual life is revealed with particular emphasis. We are not alone; we do not stand alone before God. We are not a sum of individuals but a community of persons, for whom “existence” means “coexistence”. Ascesis is not individualistic but an ecclesiastical event and achievement—our participation as believers in the mystery and sacraments of the Church, a struggle against selfishness, a practice of philanthropy, a Eucharistic use of creation and a contribution to the transfiguration of the world. It is common freedom, common virtue, common good and common adherence to the rule of the Church. We fast as defined by the Church and not as we individually please. Our ascetic effort functions within the framework of our relations with other members of the ecclesial body, as participation in events, initiatives and actions, which constitute the Church as a community of life and of “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Orthodox spirituality is inextricably bound to participation in the entire life of the Church, which culminates in the Divine Eucharist; it is a piety that is nurtured by the Church and expressed as Church.

The period of Great Lent is not a period to highlight religious or emotional extremes or superficial sentimentalities. From an Orthodox perspective, spirituality does not mean turning towards the spirit and the soul, which fosters a dualistic reduction of matter and body. Spirituality is the permeation of our entire existence—spirit, mind and will, soul and body, our entire life—by the Holy Spirit, which is a spirit of communion. Accordingly, then, spirituality means transforming our lives into church, a life inspired and guided by the Comforter, a genuine bearing of spiritual gifts, which presupposes our own free cooperation and participation in the sacramental life of the Church, a godly way of life.

Venerable Brothers and beloved faithful in the Lord,

When spirituality is authentic, it cannot also be fruitless. Whoever truly loves God also loves one’s neighbor everywhere as well as creation in its entirety. This sacrificial love that “never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8) is a Eucharistic act, the fullness of life on earth, the foretaste and truth of the last times. Our Orthodox faith is an inexhaustible source of empowerment, enabling us in spiritual struggle, God-loving and philanthropic action, and generous bearing of fruit in the world for the benefit of all. Faith and love constitute a uniform and uninterrupted experience of life in the Church. The practice of ascesis, fasting and philanthropy in the Holy Spirit and communion of the Church comprises a barrier preventing ecclesial piety from becoming a religious idol and barren introversion or individualistic feat.

The Spirit of God blows unceasingly in the Church, where God is forever “with us”. In these holy days of Great Lent, we are called to intensify our ascetic struggle against selfish attitudes, to be in “constantly waiting in prayer” (Romans 12:12), “living in humility and practicing acts of mercy” (Abba Poemen), living virtuously and mercifully, forgiving others and exercising love toward one another, glorifying God as the Giver of all that is good, and thanking Him for His abundant gifts. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Therefore, we invoke on all of you the strength from above so that we may all, with a burning and cheerful desire, welcome this Holy and Great Lent. We wish you “a smooth journey through the fast” and bestow our Patriarchal blessing to our venerable brother hierarchs in Christ, as well as the beloved spiritual children of the Holy and Great Church of Christ throughout the world.

Holy and Great Lent 2018

† Bartholomew of Constantinople
Your fervent supplicant before God

Great Lent (2018) Epistle

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The Great Lent (2018) Epistle of the Permanent Conference

of Ukrainian Orthodox Bishops Beyond the Borders of Ukraine

To: The Reverend Presbyters, The Honourable Diaconate in Christ, Venerable Monastics, and Pious Faithful of our Ukrainian Orthodox communities Beyond the borders of our ancestral homeland, Ukraine

Beloved-in-Christ!

We, Orthodox Christian faithful, cry out to our heavenly Father with the heartfelt plea, “My compassionate Lord, call me back to Eden!” at Vespers on the eve of the Sunday commemorating Adam’s expulsion from Paradise. We stand together on the threshold of the Holy & Great Fast, preparing to depart on our forty-day sojourn; our collective gaze is trained on the horizon and on the dawn of the New Day, illumined by the brilliant light of the empty tomb of the New Adam; the light which signifies a promise kept through the act of great sacrificial love, which affords us the possibility of our return to Eden!

In these present days, we find ourselves amid a world saturated with the temptation of pride and conscious, deliberate overconsumption for self-satisfaction and the acquisition of material excess. It is becoming – at a frighteningly rapid rate – ever more devoid of acknowledgement of both God’s law, on the one hand, and the reality of sin, on the other. The deception of the godless idea which attempts to convince us that we can embrace all things that bring us pleasure and satisfaction “so long as no one gets hurt,” is nothing other than a dangerous restating of the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve to break their covenant with God by partaking of fruit not created to nourish them, and to acquire knowledge not meant for their comprehension. The result of this initial betrayal of God’s commandments did not limit the “hurt” to Adam and Eve only, but tainted all of humanity with the corruption of sin; for all of us – the fatal consequence of a personal act of betrayal, based on belief in the lie of the evil one that, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4).

We, God’s faithful, need to be vigilant in our daily lives, lest we, too, be tempted to fall for aggressive, secular, atheistic “enlightenment” which is not enlightenment at all! It is, rather, only a symptom of the growing distance between the Lord and His creation and the dangerous comfort with this distance humanity appears to display. Today, arguably, more than ever in the history of our world, the warning of the Psalm to “put not your trust in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation,” rings loud and clear.

And so, once again, our precious Mother, the Holy Church, gathers her children, the faithful members of the Body of Christ, into the protective embrace of the Holy and Great Fast. We will enter the spiritual springtime of renewal, refreshing the image of Christ in us by hearing and declaring the unshakeable truths of the Orthodox Christian Faith (1st Sunday). We shall be reminded that this life and its temporary, corruptible pleasures are not our goal, rather it is eternal, joyous communion with God in His Divine Energy (2nd Sunday). We will be witnesses to the victory of sacrificial, selfless love which brings light, life and hope, conquering darkness, death, and despair (3rd Sunday). We will be encouraged to struggle and battle in spiritual warfare, to ascend the ladder of virtues which reaches up to the Heavenly Kingdom (4th Sunday). Finally, we will be comforted by God’s offer to forgive all our sins – as small or as great as they may be – and we will be inspired to repent, reject the temptations of the world, overcome the passions of the flesh, and flee to our desert where there is peace and where we can hear the call to return to communion with Christ and to Paradise (5th Sunday)!

And so, our dear ones, as we prepare to embark on our Lenten sojourn, let us be of good courage and turn our efforts away from satisfying the wants of the flesh and toward good deeds, to recognizing Christ in one-another – especially in those who are in need of our compassion – and let us commit our spiritual efforts toward receiving God’s grace. Let us not be distracted by the cynicism and empty promises of the godless, but let us stand together confidently as members of the Body of Christ, the New Israel; let us liken ourselves to Old Israel as they took their first steps in freedom from bondage, and begin our Lenten journey with the joy-filled words of the Holy Church:

Let us begin the all-holy season of fasting with joy; let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God: with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, the strength of good courage and the purity of holiness! So, clothed in garments of light, let us hasten to the holy resurrection on the third day, that shines on the world with the glory of eternal life!

We, your spiritual fathers, hierarchs, and constant intercessors, bid each one of you a blessed Lenten sojourn, to the glory of God and for our salvation and eternal life!

With love in Christ, the Lord,

+Yurij, Metropolitan – Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada

+Antony, Metropolitan – Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the Diaspora

+Jeremiah – Archbishop, Ukrainian Orthodox Diocese of Brazil and Church South America

+Daniel  Archbishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Western Europe Eparchy

+Ilarion – Bishop, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada

+Andriy – Bishop, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada

The Great and Holy Fast – The year of our Lord 2018

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Homily: Growing in Love

Sunday, February 11, 2018 (O.S., January 29): Meatfare Sunday; Sunday of the Last Judgment; God-bearer(107). Martyrs Romanus, James, Philotheus, Hyperechius, Abibus, Julian and Paregorius (297) Martyrs Silvanus, bishop of Emesa, Luke the Deacon, and Mocius (Mucius) the Reader (312). St. Laurence, recluse of the Kyiv Caves and bishop of Turov (1194).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

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

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Reflecting on his love of tragedies and of the grief he feels when a character in a play suffers, St Augustine says he did this not because he loved sorrow but because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of man who feels pity at the sufferings of others. He wanted to think of himself in other words as merciful.

After all, he asks himself, “what kind of mercy is it that arises from” fiction? The audience isn’t asked “to relieve” the suffering they see on the stage “but merely … to grieve.” And the more we sorrow, the more we applaud. In fact he says the “insanity” is so perverse that if we don’t go away feeling bad, we feel cheated. But if we grieve at the fictitious suffering we shed “tears of joy” (Confessions, III:2).

Writing some 15 centuries later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to the insanity Augustine saw in himself as “cheap grace” describing it as “the grace we bestow on ourselves.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 44,45).

Whether we call it “insanity” or “cheap grace,” St Paul in his epistle condemns both. Because of sin, there is in me a tendency to selfishness, to deal sharply with God as I seek to minimize what He asks of me. Like Augustine, I want to feel mercy but not act mercifully. Or, to return to Bonhoeffer, I want to be forgiven but not asked to repent.

As we look forward to the beginning of the Great Fast, the Church asks us to reflect once again on St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” This isn’t a rejection of fasting but a sober reminder of its limits. Indeed of the limits of all of our efforts.

Many of us, whether we Christian or not, fall into the same trap as Augustine. We imagine that it is enough if we feel bad for others. We think it is enough to have the right feelings or to hold to the right opinions. If our heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do.

I desperately want to be judged not by what I do but by what I feel. In the grip of this madness, I think my words and actions don’t matter as long as they “come from a good place.” I want, in other words, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This was the spiritual illness that afflicted the Corinthians. They thought their liberty meant they could do as they please without any thought to the consequences of their actions for other people.

As important as fasting is for the fathers of the Church, it is only a means to an end. I fast in order to overcome my selfishness so that, in turn, I am able to love.

And just as “cheap grace” isn’t really grace but a counterfeit, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. True love isn’t just sacrificial, it longs to sacrifice. If I love you, I want what is best for you. And if what is best for you is costly for me? I am glad to pay that cost and more.

St Maria of Paris reminds us that “The way to God lies through love of people.” Reflecting on the Gospel we just heard Mother Maria goes on to say that

At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.

The reason that I will be asked this, and nothing else, is because

About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe (The Pearl of Great Price, 29-30).

Not all of us are called, as Mother Maria was, to open a hostel for the poor. But, as the Gospel makes clear, whatever our state in life, all of us are called to care for those in need as best we can. St John Chrysostom says even the poor are called to care for rich by speaking a kind word or offering a prayer.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do in the Church is done for one reason, and one reason only. To heal the human heart of the selfishness that is the defining quality of sin.

As selfishness recedes so too will fear.

As fear recedes, your desire to love will grow.

As the desire to love grows, your willingness to love sacrificially will also grow.

And as your willingness to love grows, you will begin to discover more and more opportunities to love!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Self-Knowledge and the Knowledge of God

Sunday, February 4 (O.S., January 22), 2017: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Apostle Timothy of the Seventy (ca. 96). Monk-martyr Anastasius the Persian (628). Martyrs Manuel, George, Peter, Leontius, bishops; Sionius, Gabriel, John, Leontus, Parodus, presbyters; and 377 companions in Bulgaria (817). Martyr Anastasius the Deacon of the Kyiv Caves (12th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius, Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

modern1St Antony the Great taught that to know God, I must first know myself. For St Antony and the fathers of the Church, self-knowledge is the road to the intimate, experiential knowledge of God. If we think about this for a moment it makes sense. God’s first revelation for Himself to me is, well, me.

Created as we are in the image of God, we are each of us also a revelation of God. This is why self-knowledge is the way to God. God reveals Himself to me.

The readings this morning make clear to us the importance not simply of self-knowledge but accurate self-knowledge. Too frequently, I allow a partial or even false self-understanding to influence my behavior. The Church in Corinth is an example of this.

Many in Corinth embraced to Gospel but they misunderstood what it meant to be free in Christ confusing it with permission to engage in immorality. While they knew themselves as free they didn’t understand the nature of freedom.

Seen in this light, St Paul telling the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” is nothing more or less than asking them to remember who they are. And who are they? They are temples of the Holy Spirit called to “glorify God” not only in words but in their deeds. In effect, the Apostle tells the Church at Corinth become who you are!

The obstacle to this, to become who I am, is there for us to see in the Gospel.

Like many of us, the young man in the parable has a picture in his head of who he is. It’s important to keep in mind that the young son doesn’t say to his father, “Give me my inheritance so I can waste it on prodigal living with harlots and loss living.” No, and like many of us at 18 or 19, he asks for what is his so that he can strike out on his own. It is only when he acts on this self-image that he discovers its wrong.

The son discovers what all of us at one point need to discover, what the Christians in Corinth discovered, that freedom doesn’t mean the absence of responsibility. Rather, Christ makes me free precisely so I can embrace my responsibilities.

Again, it is likely that the young man didn’t want his inheritance to spend it on riotous living. But, and again like many college students, he discovered that his new, independent life, brought with it new burdens for which he simply wasn’t prepared.

He didn’t strike out on his own to live a life of immorality. Instead, he slowly succumbed to ever greater temptations until he discovered that lost he was no longer free. Little by little, his freedom evaporated until he found himself envying the pigs the garbage they ate.

In that moment, he saw not only the depths to which he sunk but, in coming back to himself as the parable says, he understood that freedom exists so that we can serve others.

Having come back to himself, he rises from his humiliation and returns to his father. But now, rather than being a demanding son, he returns as a servant. Like God the Son in His Incarnation, the boy lay aside what is his by right. Like Jesus, he “empties himself and takes the form of a servant” (see Philippians 2:7).

Finally, the boy sees himself as he is. He comes to understand that it is in service to others, in the practical works of charity, that we find ourselves. In Christ, God has made us free not, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, for immorality but charity. We are made free for sacrifice and it is in and through our sacrifices that we find not only God but our neighbor and ourselves.

What about us? What must we do?

If we would find God and learn to love Him and our neighbor, we must first turn inward. And, looking at ourselves as we must, first of all, accept ourselves as we are. This doesn’t mean saying that everything we see in ourselves is good–much of it isn’t–but that we don’t turn a blind eye toward what we see.

Without self-acceptance, there can be no repentance, no reform our lives, and so no growth in love for God or neighbor.

It may sound strange but the key to the kind of self-acceptance that leads to repentance and growth in charity is rooted in gratitude. If I would grow in the knowledge of God and love for my neighbor, I must first thank God for the gift of my life. And not only this. I must also thank Him for the knowledge of my failures as much as for my successes.

When God reveals my sinfulness to me He is also at the same time revealing His love for me, His willingness (with my co-operation) to heal what is broken in me, to restore me to a greater wholeness of being.

Listen again to St Paul’s words: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” In revealing our sinfulness to us, God shows us the way forward from bondage to sin to the freedom and joy that are the “fruits of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22-23).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God asks us today not only to know ourselves but to do so so that we can become who He has created us to be. This morning through St Paul’s words to the Corinthians and Jesus’ parable, God says to each of us, lay aside your sin, stop listening to the lies sin tells you about yourself, lay aside the fear that sin brings and find the courage to become who you are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory