Homily: Suffering Transformed

Sunday, December 10, 2017 (November 27, OS) 27th Sunday after Pentecost. Great-martyr James the Persian (421), Ven. Palladius of Thessalonica (6th-7th c.), 17 Monk-martyrs in India (4th c.), Ven. Romanus the Wonderworker of Cilicia (5th c.).

Ss. Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17
Gospel: Luke 13:10-17

Until she met Jesus, the woman in the Gospel had not stood upright for 18 years. For 18 years, she has looked down at the ground. For 18 years, she was unable to look up at the sky, see the horizon or look directly into the face of her loved ones.

There’s no doubt that the woman lived a hard life. Only a generation or so ago, it wasn’t uncommon to meet people who–like the woman in the Gospel–were bent over from a life of hard manual labor, poor nutrition and sickness. Today, thank God, we rarely encounter individuals like the woman in the Gospel because there are so few people in her condition.

Ironically, because we are wealthier and so healthier, we often have an unbalanced view of suffering.

The absence of the kind of physical suffering we see in the Gospel means we tend to be upset by things our grandparents and great-grandparents would simply have ignored. When I was a boy, I remember my grandparents talking rather, matter a factly, about siblings that died when they were children. One of my uncles drowned as a boy while his brother, my grandfather, looked on helplessly. My grandmother told me about her sister, my aunt, who died in the first hours after birth. And then there were the others who died because of an illness or injury that today we can cure with a quick trip to the doctor.

And at one time or another, all of my grandparents told me how he or she was one of 5, 6, 8, or 12 who lived. All of them had several siblings who died in childhood. Though my family was poor when I was a boy, I simply had no frame of reference for seeing my siblings die in childhood.

Today these things sound unimaginably to many of us. And to these unimaginable losses we should add the experience of many who, only a generation or two ago, suffered the indignation of casual racism, ethnic and religious prejudice, drunkenness and physical violence in the home. And of course, there was a life of hard manual labor, the absence of central heating, much less air conditioning, indoor plumbing and modern pharmaceuticals.

Because we are, thank God, largely protected from the kind he day to day experience of the kind of physical suffering we see in the Gospel we don’t have a proper understanding of suffering. Sometimes, like I said, we are overly sensitive to even small slights.

But not infrequently, we tend to romanticize suffering. We might even go so far as to think suffering is a good thing. In this, we are simply wrong even if not intentionally cruel for thinking as we do.

Suffering is evil.

To fail to understand this is symptomatic of a malformed conscience and a lack of sensitivity to the grief–large and small, extraordinary and ordinary–that afflicts those we meet.

Suffering is evil and as Christians, we are obligated to alleviate suffering when it is within our ability to do so. The only limit to our obligation, beyond what we are capable of doing, is that we not seek to care for some at the expense of others. I can’t lift your burden only to inflict suffering on someone else. As St Paul reminds us, we cannot do evil that good might result (Romans 3:8).

While suffering is evil, in Christ it can be turned to a good purpose.

We need to look no further than the woman in the Gospel. It was her suffering that leads her to Christ. And with the healing of her body, she also received liberation of her soul. “[O]ught not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”

In Christ, suffering is transformed. But, and this can’t be emphasized enough, the transformation of human suffering requires that, as Paul says in today’s epistle, that we “take up the whole armor of God.”

Before all else, this means that I must lay aside my belief that I have any other opponent in this life beside the devil. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

The true cause of human suffering and sorrow is found in the enemy of souls.

It is the devil’s lies that lead to the corruption of the body and the myriad divisions that afflict the human heart and society. Until I accept this–which is to say, until I repent of my sins–suffering will always undo me.

At the heart of the Gospel is the truth, ratified by generations of Christians, that apart from Christ, every sorrow, every loss, every disappoint, every betray, every physical, emotional or social pain, has the potential crush me. It’s easy to think weak or morally lacking those who are undone by suffering we think minor. But when I do, I reveal my own lack of spiritual maturity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us see human suffering for the evil it is and move to alleviate it when we can. It is in Christ, that every loss becomes a gain because in each loss I discover my need for Him Who in a few days will come as a little Child to save humanity.

As Christ has done for us, let us do for others. We can be for others as Christ is for us, however, only to the degree we have purified our hearts through the grace that comes to us through the sacraments and the ascetical disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor.

Let us, in other words, put on “the whole armor of God” so that by faith we “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” who seeks to do us harm.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Nativity Epistle

Nativity Epistle of the Permanent Conference

of Ukrainian Orthodox Bishops Beyond the Borders of Ukraine
2017-18

To the beloved Clergy and Faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church
beyond the Borders of Ukraine and on her native soil,

CHRIST IS BORN!

By the grace of God, again this year we can celebrate the great mystery of our faith – the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.” (the Nicene Creed). All creation was waiting for the arrival of the Saviour to redeem the human race from sin and death and to reconcile man with God.

Today, humanity, which was in the dark and dwelled in the kingdom of sin, death, and despair, is filled with a new joy “which had not existed until now.”

Today, the prophecies of the prophets of the Old Testament about the Saviour and the Messiah are fulfilled: “Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel” which is translated, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14). The Lord sends redemption to His people (Psalm 110:9). The salvation of the human race cannot be achieved by human forces and for this reason it is necessary for God to come into the world.

Today, the heart of all of us is filled with great joy because the Saviour, who came into the world to give Himself up for us, is born.

Today, in Bethlehem of Judea, the only One who is able to grant salvation to all mankind, to cleanse us from our sins and to defeat death, is born.

Today, He is born in a lowly manger because there is no room for Him among His people.

Today, the eternal God, born as a small Child, enters the world to grant us salvation.

Today, the Saviour is born of the Virgin Mary to bring us the unearthly spiritual joy of the Incarnation. The Lord becomes like one of us; He becomes like us but without sin.

God eternal is born today!
From heaven comes the One,
Who shall save humanity
And for this, rejoice!

Today, the Son of God becomes the Son of man, receives human flesh through the Incarnation in the person of the Newborn Christ. Divine and human nature are united unconfusedly, inconvertibly, indivisibly, inseparably.

Today, God is humbled in the person of the Newborn Christ, the Saviour. As the Apostle Paul writes: “He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of man” (Philippians 2:7).

Today, God descends to earth to give us the opportunity to be deified so that our bodies can become the temples of the Holy Spirit through His grace.

Today, God lowers Himself so that we can raise-up ourselves to become children of God through His grace.

Today, the star of Bethlehem illuminates the whole world with the light of God’s great grace.

Today, heaven and earth sing the Angelic song: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men.”

Today, heaven makes peace with the earth and God makes peace with man through the birth of the Son of God.

Today, as the angels rejoice in the heavens and the darkness of night that covers the earth is illuminated by the light of the Bethlehem star, let us turn our hearts and prayers to the Cave in Bethlehem so that we can receive the blessing from the Newborn Christ, the Saviour.

Let us open our heart to the Newborn Saviour so that He can be born in our heart and live within us.

Let the young child Jesus bless you and fill you with grace, calm, hope, and spiritual joy. Let Him strengthen you spiritually and physically and give you abundant strength to bear your earthly cross. Let us understand that from today we are not alone; we are not abandoned; we are not orphans. God is with us!

Once again, we greet you on the Great Feast of the Nativity of Christ and prayerfully wish that the Lord grants you a new year, 2018, filled with peace and blessings from Him.

CHRIST IS BORN!       LET US GLORIFY HIM!

With Archpastoral Blessings,

☦ YURIJ, Metropolitan
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada

☦ ANTONY, Metropolitan
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Diaspora

☦ JEREMIAH, Archbishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church, South America Eparchy

☦ DANIEL, Archbishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Diaspora

☦ ILARION, Bishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada

☦ANDRIY, Bishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada

Homily: Practical Atheism

Sunday, 3 December (November 20, OS) 2017: Forefeast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Ven. Gregory Decapolites (816). St. Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople (447). Martyr Dasius (303). Martyrs Eustace, Thespesius, and Anatolius of Nicaea (312). Hieromartyrs Nerses and Joseph; and John, Saverius, Isaac, and Hypatius, bishops of Persia; Martyrs Azades, Sasonius, Thecla, and Anna (343).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians  5:8-19
Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

The man in the parable is not condemned for being wealthy. He isn’t condemned for his labor practices or how he treats the environment.

No, he’s condemned for being a fool, for saying “in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1, NKJV).

Since we’re pointing out why the man wasn’t condemned, it’s worth saying that he wasn’t condemned because he failed to keep the Law, withheld wages from his workmen or neglected the poor.

Jesus gives no indication that the man failed in the external observances of the Law. But the external demands of the Law never penetrated into the man’s heart. Much less did his religious observances come from his heart because in his heart “There is no God.”

The man in the parable is condemned for his practical atheism. “Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law” (Borne, Étienne (1961). Atheism. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 10).

In other words, the man lived as if God did not exist.

We sometimes fail to appreciate that the difference between the City of God and the City of Man is not the absence of virtue or goodness in the latter. There is goodness in the City of Man even as there is virtue in the heart of the unbeliever. We fail in our evangelical vocation if we deny the presence of goodness outside the Church.

My own willingness to acknowledge good in the culture or virtue in the lives of unbelievers is as serious a moral failing as in any unwillingness on my part to recognize evil. Any indifference, or worse hostility, on my part to the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just–wherever they are found–is a sign of my own lack of repentance, of the hardness of my own heart. And if left uncorrected it will certainly result in my hearing the same word as the man in the parable: “Fool!”

The difference between the City of God and the City of Man, between the Church and the World, isn’t the absence of goodness in the latter and its presence in the former. The difference rather is that in the City of God any experience of truth, goodness, beauty or justice is received with gratitude as a gift coming from the hand of an all-loving and good God.

The temptation we face as Orthodox Christians living in America–a land of unparalleled wealth and opportunity for the Church–is that we become indifferent, or even hostile, to the gifts God has given us in establishing His Church in this land.

Rather than thanking God for material blessings, we can succumb to envy or greed.

Rather than thanking God for liberty and economic freedom, we can give ourselves over to sloth and fail to cultivate the life of virtue that these blessings make possible for us personally and as Church.

We can’t forget that our witness to Christ and the Gospel is found less in condemning error and more in our embracing the goodness we see around us and redirecting it to God.  In a word, we begin to fulfill our evangelical witness when we thank God for the goodness, the truth, the beauty and the justice we see, however faint, in the City of Man.

When we do this, we invite those who live in the City of Man to renounce their citizenship and become instead citizens of the City of God. Let me offer one example.

Our Founding Fathers, valued freedom of conscience not because they were moral relativists or indifferent to religious truth or divine revelation. In the American Experiment, the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution–freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly–are all ultimately in the service of obedience to God as He reveals Himself in the depths of the human heart.

While this may sound like relativism, and to be honest it is often used to justify moral or religious indifference, what do we hear in the kontakion for Transfiguration? The Disciples beheld the glory of God “as far as they could see it.” God conforms His revelation to our, personal and unique ability, to receive Him.

Ultimately, to live a life of practical atheism, to be a fool in the biblical sense, is to live a life of delusion. This is why the Apostle Paul tells us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” He doesn’t say avoid people who sin. What he says is that we are not to sin. “[D]o not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.”

In the Scriptures, drunkenness is symptomatic of spiritual delusion. I can become as drunk on ideas and fantasies as I can on wine. In fact, I can become more intoxicated by my own fantasies and plans than on alcohol.

It is spiritual delusion (prelest) that leads to the condemnation of the man in the parable. He created a fantasy world in which he equated the real but relative good of material wealth with eternal life. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

These are the words of the practical atheist. And it is this that St Paul tells us to expose as shameful by the light of the Gospel.

But before I can expose this in others, I might root this out from my own heart. And so St Paul tells me, tells us, this morning:

“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us awake from sleep! Let us embrace the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just that we see around us and give glory to God.

And let us be bold in saying to those who live in the City of Man that the good things in their lives all come from the hand of God and invite them to join us in thanking God in the sacrifice of the Altar.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory