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
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!