Human Violence

Sunday, January 13 (OS., December 31, 2018) 2019: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast and Leavetaking (33rd Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord.

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

Christ is Born!

St Matthew’s account of our Savior’s birth is drenched in violence. For example, in his attempt to end the life of the newborn Messiah, Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two.

Horrific as this is, there is something even more horrible that we hear in the silence of the Apostle’s account.

While Matthew quotes the Prophet Jeremiah about the depth and breadth of the parents’ sorrow, he gives no indication that they defended their children. If the mothers–and especially the fathers–of Jerusalem didn’t open the doors children’s’ killers, they certainly didn’t bar the door either.

Matthew gives us no indication that the parents resisted the slaughter of their own children. Instead, it appears as if the parents of Jerusalem, even if unwillingly, stood by and allowed their sons to be slaughtered.

Why would they do this?

Herod’s murderous order and the cooperation of soldiers makes a certain rough sense. They had positions in society that they wanted to protect. Herod especially was a man of great wealth and power because he cooperated with the hated Romans.

But why did the parents and the whole of Jerusalem not rise up in rebellion? Why did they stand aside an allow this great evil?

In the verse immediately prior to those in today’s Gospel we are told that when Herod heard about the birth of the Messiah “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3, NJKV).

As he so often does, St John Chrysostom goes to the heart of the matter. “Since Herod was king, he was naturally afraid both for himself and for his children. But why was Jerusalem troubled?”

After all the coming of the “the Savor, Benefactor and Deliverer” would be to the advantage not only of Jerusalem and the Jewish People but all humanity.

And, after all, it would be a great honor for the Savior to be born of Jewish woman; not only Mary but the whole of the Jewish People would be vindicated for their fidelity to God.

So why was Jerusalem afraid? Why did they passive cooperate with what Holy Tradition says was the murder of some 14,000 infants?

Chrysostom says they behaved as they did because they were gripped by the same “idolatrous affections” that caused the Hebrew Children to turn away in the hearts from God after their liberation from Egypt many centuries ago.

As horrible as was the killing, as oppressive as was Rome in ways great and small, submission to the Empire offered wealth to some and at least the illusion of security to all.

It is tempting to look back at Matthew’s account of betrayal and violence and think that we have somehow grown beyond such things. While I can’t speak for others, I know this isn’t the case for me.

No, I’m not violent but how easily have I become attached to my position as a priest in the Church. I wouldn’t raise my hand against others but how easily come cutting words to my lips or rise malicious thoughts in my heart.

The difference between Herod, the citizens of Jerusalem and me is one of degree. Like Herod “and all Jerusalem with him,” my heart is often troubled when God makes even the smallest request of me.

Like the Galatians, I “bite and devour” my neighbor by my lack of charity (Galatians 5:15).

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).

Like Saul, I do all this because I am more attached to the gifts than the Giver. I  love the things of God more than God Himself.

Or maybe U imagine that what I have, what I have accomplished, I have done simply on my own. Even divine grace I twist into something that I deserve, as something that is mine by right rather than from God’s love for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has blessed each of us with spiritual, intellectual, social and yes, material, gifts. When we forget that what we have we have as God’s gift to us, when we imagine that what we have, we have by right rather than grace, then, at that moment, we too become capable of great violence.

In His Incarnation, Jesus Christ has saved us not simply from condemnation in the life to come but freed us from the violence we see not only in the Scriptures but all around us. The fact that this violence is usually social and emotional rather than physically should not lull us into imagining that violence doesn’t mar our lives and doesn’t dwell in our hearts.

But having acknowledged this, we need not despair. Rather, we turn to Christ with repentance for our sins and gratitude for His many gifts.

If we do this, then when in response to the festal greeting “Christ is Born!” our response “Glorify Him!” will be more than words. Our glorification of Christ will have the power to transform our lives and the lives of all we meet.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Remembering God

SDecember 2 (O.S., November 19) 2018: 27th Sunday after Pentecost; Prophet Obadiah (9th c. B.C.). Martyr Barlaam (304). Martyr Heliodorus (273). Martyr Azes, and with him 150 soldiers (284). Ven. Barlaam and Monk loasaph, prince of India, and St. Abenner the King, father of St. loasaph (4thc.). Ven. Hilarion of Georgia, wonderworker of Thessalonica (875). Ven. Barlaam, abbot of the Kyiv Caves (1065).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 6:10-17

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Sometimes what Jesus doesn’t say can be as important as what He does say. The parable we hear this morning is a case in point.

The Rich Fool is not condemned for his care and skill as a farmer; he is a good workman “and the worker is worth his wages” (see Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18). And anticipating a great harvest, he carefully assesses the cost and not only lays a foundation but successfully builds his barns (see Luke 14:28-29).

All of this is to say that, in a different context, the farmer’s actions are not only prudent but commendable. In his actions at least, the farmer is the model of the “wise and prudent steward” who being trustworthy in small things, is judge able to be faithful in great things as well (see Luke 16:1-13).

Nor is there any indication that the farmer failed in his obligation to pay tithes or care for the poor. Jesus doesn’t say of the farmer what He says to the scribes and Pharisees, the hypocrites who “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (see, Matthew 23:23).

Nor is the farmer condemned for the mere fact that he is wealthy.

No by all outward appearances, the rich farmer is a good man and an observant Jew. But God doesn’t judge by appearances (see 1 Samuel 16:7), God knows not only what we do but what is in our hearts (see Jeremiah 17:10, Proverbs 21:2, 1 Corinthians 2:11).

And in his heart, the farmer is a fool. In his heart, this otherwise good man and obedient son of the Law says “there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, Psalm 53:1). Tragically, the Rich Fool loses his salvation, he suffers condemnation, not for what he does but for his forgetfulness of God.

Like the Rich Fool, we are all of us tempted to live as if there was no God. We are all of us inclined to a life of “practical atheism.”

We sometimes imagine that our evangelical task is to correct theological errors. While the teachings of the Church are important, they are in a sense secondary. What is primary is that people remember God.

I know from my own life, it is easy enough to go through my day forgetful of God, to live the life of practical atheism that I mentioned a moment ago.

Living in Madison, we encounter everyday men and women who are generous of heart and who work tirelessly for the betterment of others. Whatever else might be said of the Madison in general and the University in particular, the practical love of neighbor is at the very center of both.

And yet, how many of our neighbors live not such much indifferent to God as unaware of His presence in their lives? As a consequence, they never know that they are loved by the Creator of the Universe?

St John Chrysostom says that when Jesus calls us the “salt of the earth” (see, Matthew 5:13) He means this: While He has redeemed the world by His death and resurrection, it belongs to us keep the world falling back into corruption. We are not the redeemers of the world, we are not called to save anyone.

What we are called to do, is to remind people of the presence of God in their lives. By our words and especially are deeds (see, James 2:14-22), we are witnesses to not simply the presence of God in human affairs but His great love for each and every single human being.

To be faithful to our calling we need to remember not only that everyone we meet is loved by God but that, turning now to the epistle, the opponent in our evangelical work is not other people but the enemy of souls. We “do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” St Paul reminds us, “but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

When we remind people of God’s presence and love in their lives, we oppose no one but the devil who with his fallen angels seeks to distract humanity from experiencing God’s love. In his envy of us, the enemy of souls makes himself the opponent of patience, kindness, and courtesy in our hearts, our families, and society.

In opposing the distractions of the devil, we become not only leaven for a more just and humane society (see, Luke 13:20–21) but co-workers with God for the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 3:9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have one task and one task alone: To remind people of the loving presence of God not simply in the life of all we meet. We are called to remind people that God dwells in each human heart.

By our witness, we invite people to enter into their own hearts and there find there the God Who from before the beginning of the world loves them and called them, even as He has called us, to live lives that are”holy and without blame” (see, Ephesians 1:4).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Mercy is Inconvenient

November, 25 (O.S., November 12), 2018: 26th Sunday after Pentecost.St. John the Merciful, patriarch of Alexandria (620); Ven. Nilus the Faster of Sinai (451); Prophet Ahijah (Achias) (960 B.C.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:8-19
Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Here’s the thing about being merciful; it’s often inconvenient.

Saying this isn’t cynical. Mercy to be merciful means meeting the actual needs of the person. What can make this inconvenient is that other people rarely have problems according to my timetable.

All of this is to say, that mercy to be merciful requires a real death to self.

This death reflects the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus doesn’t impose Himself on us; He respected our freedom going so far as to accept our will for Him even though it cost Him His life.

The call to be merciful is nothing more or less than a call to participate personally in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Acts of mercy are, in other words, part of how each of us picks up our cross and follows Jesus as His disciples and witnesses.

It is important to keep in mind the sacrificial nature of mercy because mercy can take many forms. This means that how you practice mercy and how I practice mercy don’t necessarily resemble each other.

Look at the Samaritan in today’s Gospel.

In his situation, mercy meant pausing in his travels, binding up the wounds of a stranger, and carrying him to an inn where he could care for him.

This doesn’t mean, as Jesus makes clear, that caring for the stranger means the Samaritan must ignore the business that put him on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; mercy for the stranger doesn’t mean the Samaritan must neglect his own affairs. Because he had to complete his travels, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to care for the stranger until he returns.

Even then in this one instance, mercy takes different forms. The Samaritan cares for the stranger personally. He also hires a caregiver when the stranger’s needs were greater than the Samaritan’s abilities (if not his resources). Both, however, are acts of mercy. Both are sacrificial.

Realizing that mercy takes many forms highlights the failure of the priest and the Levite. They didn’t necessarily have to do all that the Samaritan would do. But as Jesus makes clear, they had an obligation to alleviate–if only in small measure–the stranger’s suffering.

Not only did the priest and the Leviate make the perfect the enemy of the good, they make the good the enemy of the good enough. They prefer to do nothing than to do even a little.

Unlike the Samaritan, the priest and the Levite were important men in the Jewish community. No doubt, their indifference to the needs of a stranger reflected this fact. They had things–important things I’m sure–to do.

This is the other reason why being merciful is so often inconvenient.

Putting my neighbor’s needs first means putting on hold if only temporarily, my own projects and plans. While I might be willing to do this if the need is great enough, mercy is so much harder when the need is minor or my ability to do good is small.

Given how little I can usually do, given how small the sacrifice required and so how little the reward or sense of satisfaction, to be truly merciful requires a humility I often lack. How much easier it would have been for the priest or the Levite to make a sacrifice which even if it wasn’t great in the eyes of others, would have at least been great in their own eyes.

But it is precisely these small acts of mercy that, turning now to the epistle, that exposes the darkness of sin. It is by our humble good deeds, our small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, that we reveal the vanity of the “unfruitful works of darkness” as St Paul describes this world’s addiction to its own plans and project.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The question is this: Am I, are you, are we, willing to be faithful stewards and witnesses of God’s mercy when doing so seems foolish, or even pointless, in the eyes of the world?

Are we, in other words, willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples even in those moments when there is no reward or when our ability to do good or alleviate human suffering is minimal?

Are we, in other words, willing to be neighbor to others as Jesus is neighbor to us?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgiveness is Our Witness

November 18 (O.S., November 5), 2018: 25th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyrs Galacteon and his wife Episteme at Emesa (253). Apostles Patrobus, Hermas, Linus, Gaius, and Philologus of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Gregory, archbishop of Alexandria (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-6
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We don’t this morning need to look outside the Church to find those who hold Jesus in contempt. We need only to listen to the Gospel. It isn’t the Jewish authorities (e.g., John 8:41,  Matthew 9:34, Luke 11:15) or the Romans (Matthew 27:27-31, John 19:15) who ridicule Jesus.

No, today we see that it is His disciples and His closest friends, Peter, James, and John who treat Jesus with contempt.

For the fathers of the Church, one sign of the truthfulness of the Gospels is that while they agree in substance they often disagree in the details. St John Chrysostom says that while we should “strict[ly] heed … the things … written,” in Scripture, apart from the “good tidings” of “ God on earth, man in Heaven,” the biblical text is nothing but “words … without substance” (Homily on Matthew, 1.2-3).

St Augustine argues that if the Gospels were forgeries if the message they proclaim was false, then the authors would have seen to it to agree in all the details. Instead “each Evangelist believed it … his duty to recount what he had to in that order in which it pleased God to suggest it to his memory.”

he goes on to say that the difference in order and emphasis “detracts in nothing from the truth and authority of the Gospel.”  Why? Because “the Holy Spirit, … permitted one to compile his narrative in this way, and another in that” in order that the reader, noticing the differences, might “with pious diligence … and with divine aid” seek the meaning underlying the text (The Harmony of the Gospel II:12.28).

So, with Chrysostom and Augustine in mind, what are we to make of the apostles ridiculing Jesus?

First, I think it testifies to the truthfulness of the Gospels. Just as forgers would harmonize the details, anyone who wanted to boost the prestige of the Church would not highlight the failures of the apostles. But St Luke is concerned not with the protecting the reputation of the apostles but demonstrating the authority of Jesus over the powers of sin and death.

Second, I think in recounting the apostles’ bad behavior, St Luke reminds us that from the very beginning, the life of the Church was marked by a certain, internal conflict. And how could it be otherwise? Then, as now, the Church is a communion of sinners working out our salvation together “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

This helps make sense of why St Paul tells the Ephesians to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Read St Paul enough and it becomes clear that the life of the New Testament Church was often marked by conflict. The Apostle is forever reminding the first Christians to forgive each other (e.g., Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12, 13); to value charity more than miracles (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) and, this morning, to guard the unity of the Church.

As conflict-ridden as this suggests the Church was, what is extraordinary, Tertullian says, is that the Gentiles looking at the early Christians a community of men and women noteworthy for their mutual charity; see “how they love one another.” The pagans lived in an honor-based culture where even the smallest offense often resulted in violence and death. It wasn’t this way for Christians. Christian forgave each other. And while the pagans because of their love of honor were “animated by mutual hatred,” Christians because of their mutual love were “ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39.7).

Like the world around us, the life of the Church has always been marred by conflict. But where those in the world respond to strife with hatred and even violence, Christians forgive one another.

The hallmark of the Church is not the absence of conflict but our eagerness to forgive each other even as Jesus forgives us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Just as the truthfulness of Scripture is not found in a forced agreement among the Gospel, the credibility of the Church is not found in a forced and false peace that denies our moments of disagreement.

The integrity of our witness is found in our willingness, eagerness even, to respond with mutual forgiveness to the inevitable moments of misunderstanding, hurt feelings and yes sharp conflict. It is this, our willingness to forgive one another and nothing else, that reveals the power of the Gospel and our commitment to Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God’s Love Revealed in Us

November 11 (October 29), 2018: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Virgin-martyr Anastasia the Roman (256). Ven. Abramius the Recluse (360) and his niece St. Mary, of Mesopotamia (397). Martyrs Claudius, Asterius, Neon, and Theonilla, of Aegae in Cilicia (285). Ven. Anna (known as Euphemianus) of Constantinople (826). Ven. Abramius, archimandrite of Rostov (1073). Ven. Abramius, recluse of the Kyiv.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission,  Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22
Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Based on how they treated the demoniac, the Gadarenes are not unkind people. Rather than drive him out of their land–or worse, kill him–they made an effort to keep him from harming himself or other people.

The “chains and shackles” they used to restrain him, however, were insufficient. Freed from his restraints, the man is “driven by the demon into the wilderness.” It is here, away from the constraints of civilization that he finds Jesus and the disciples.

The fundamental kindness of Gadarenes is important because it testifies to what St Justin Martyr will teach toward the end of the second century. Just as God prepares the Jewish People through the revelation of the Law, He prepares the Gentiles through philosophy and a love of virtue.

But just as the Law was only a preparation, so too the love of virtue. Both prepare the human heart to receive Christ but neither is, in itself, sufficient. One must still personally and freely welcome Christ.

When we look at the Old Testament as a preparation for the Gospel one of the things we notice is the materiality of God’s grace.

In the beginning, as the late Fr Alexander Schmemann points out, divine grace takes the form of food and drink: “every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29, NKJV). And even though we rebel against God and are expelled from the Garden, God continues to share His grace with us through the good things of the earth.

Slowly through the centuries, God teaches us the goodness of creation. By steps, we learn that the creation is part and parcel of divine grace. Creation in each of its parts, a physical manifestation of God’s mercy and love. The goodness of creation anticipates the Incarnation of the Son.

What do we learn from creation?

We learn of the goodness of marriage and family life; the joy of seeing our children’s children grow to maturity (see Psalm 126:6, Proverbs 17:6).

We learn the joy of wine–new and old; of festivals and feasts.

And we experience the blessing of wealth, of social prominence and political power. And yes, we even learn the goodness of military might and victory of our enemies when they are also the enemies of God.

But together with this, we learn the limits of creation. Good though all these things are, their goodness is circumscribed. These smaller good things point beyond themselves to the singular Good of Jesus Christ.

Make no mistake though. God prepares us to receive Christ by teaching us the real goodness of creation. Before humanity able to receive Christ, however, we had to learn the joys and sorrows of marriage and family life. We needed to learn the possibilities, limits, and temptations of wealth and power before our hearts are open to receive our Savior.

All that God gives the Jewish People, He gives, as St Paul tells us, to break “down the middle wall of separation” between humanity and God and to create from humanity the Church, the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” in creation.

And just as God slowly teaches this to the Jewish People through the Law, He teaches these same lessons to the Gentiles through philosophy and their love of virtue.

So why, if God has done all this, do the Gadarenes not receive Christ but instead ask Him to leave? Why of they afraid of He Who is the fulfillment of all the good things in their lives?

The answer is hidden in the heart’s secret place. We can’t say with any certitude why the Gadarenes behaved as they did. What we can do though is suggest a possible answer.

Sometimes in the spiritual life, we become so impressed, so enamored, with the grandeur of God’s revelation that we miss the smaller moments of His grace. This shouldn’t surprise us. It is something that frequently happens to each of us.

We are often so overwhelmed by events in the world around us–say in the political realm–or by all that we need to do in our professional or personal lives, that we miss the small moments.

Let me suggest this. Jesus comes to us in the small moments; He speaks to us not in a loud voice but “a gentle whisper” that we, that I, often fail to hear.

Given all this, it isn’t a surprise that the Gadarenes fail to receive Christ. So focused are they on the large things of life, they miss the small occasions of divine grace and mercy that make up their lives and indeed each human life. Even the life of one possessed by the demons.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The smallest act of grace in your life is, well, you. Before God reveals His love to you in the grand sweep of your life or even the myriad events that make up that life, He reveals His love for you in a way that is so intimate that you easily overlook it.

You see God’s first word of love to you is you.

The most basic revelation of God’s love for you is you. God’s love for you was first revealed to you when He knitted you together in your mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:13-18).

The Gadarenes turn away from Christ because they don’t know this about themselves.

And just as with the Gadarenes, we still today turn away from Christ because we haven’t yet come to know that our lives, in all its details, are the first revelation of God’s love for us.

Like the Gadarenes, we turn away from Jesus not because of this or that element of His teaching or witness. No, people turn away from Jesus because they don’t yet know who they are. In not knowing that their life a sign of God’s love for them, they don’t know who they are.

Who are they? Who are we? For all our shortcomings and failures, we are the revelation of God’s personal and superabundant love in Jesus Christ for the whole human family.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory