The Boldness of Humility

Sunday, May 19 (OS May 6), 2019: 4th Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Paralytic; Righteous Job the Long-suffering (c. 2000-1500 B.C.); Martyrs Barbarus the Soldier, Bacchus, Callimachus, and Dionysius in Morea (362); Martyr Barbarus the former robber in Epirus (IX). Righteous Tabitha of Joppa (I). (moveable feast on the 4th Sunday after Pascha).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Following the biblical witness, the fathers of the Church saw bodily infirmity–blindness, deafness, or in the case of today’s readings paralysis–as symbolic of humanity’s fallen condition. The Venerable Bede writes that “anyone who embraces the unstable joys of the present is as through flattened upon his bed, devoid of energy” trapped as they are by the “sluggishness” of “worldly pleasures” (Commentary of Acts of the Apostles, 9.33).

It’s important to say that neither Bede nor any of the fathers were denying the goodness of Creation or the delights that are to be found in this life. Marriage, to take only one example, is a sacrament of the Church and according to St Paul a revelation of the love Christ has for the Church (see Ephesian 5:32).

No, the problem is not the goodness of Creation but the human hearts indifference to God. As in any relationship, indifference today becomes hostility tomorrow.

It is this hostility born of indifference that leads some among the Jews to condemn the paralytic for violating the law by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. They do this, St Augustine says, because to condemn the healing would have been to invite the rebuke they heard from Jesus at another time. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NJKV)

Instead of criticizing Jesus–and so have their hypocrisy exposed–“they addressed the man, … as if to say: Even if the healing could not be delayed why command the work?” Even so, the question exposes their hypocrisy. Augustine says that to ask this is to invite a response that testifies to the divinity of Christ: “Why should I not receive a command if I also received a cure from Him?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17:10)

For the person, indifferent and even hostile to the presence of God brings with it a heavy cost. Unaware of God’s presence in their lives means as well that they live unaware of His great love for them and for the dignity to which they are called in Jesus Christ.

The full implications of what has happened will take the rest of the paralytic’s life to understand. But while his understand is immature, his experience of God’s love for him makes him bold!

When confronted the man doesn’t conceal the miracle. He doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he had been cured “of his illness.” And when falsely condemned he did not ask “for pardon. Instead, he boldly confessed the cure. This is how he acted” and this is how we are called to act as well (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 37.2).

Both sin and love make us bold. But where the boldness of sin is fool hearted and rash, love’s boldness is courageous.

Look at St Peter.

At this point in Acts, he has already been arrested twice and beaten once. Stephen has been martyred, Saul is arresting and handing Christians over to the authorities, and “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

And yet, Chrysostom says, Peter walks about “like a general … inspecting the ranks.” Because of his great love for Jesus, Peter always

…goes about first. When an apostle had to be chosen, he was first; when the Jews had to be told that these were not drunk, he was first; when the lame man had to be healed, he was first; when the crowd had to be addressed, he was before the rest; when the rulers had to be addressed, he was the man; when Ananias had to be addressed, when healings were worked by the shadow, still it was he.

When “the situation is calm” the disciples “act in common.” But when “there was danger” Peter acts alone. In all of this he “did not seek a greater honor. When there was need to work miracles, he leaps forward, and here again he is the man to labor and toil” (Homilies on Acts of the Apostle, 21).

And when it is time for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, Peter once again takes the lead in following the path Paul has blazed.

In the Christian economy, evangelical boldness the fruit of humility. Peter like Jesus, “Who conquered persecutors [here] below and reigns over angels [in heaven] above spoke … in a humble voice,” (St Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 26.1) because the word he speaks is not his but God’s word to him for the life of the world (see, John 7:16, 12:49, 14:10).

To remain silent about the Gospel is not humility. We have all of us been given a word to speak; we are all of us in baptism called to be witnesses of the Resurrection and evangelists of the Gospel.

But a problem remains. If remaining silent when we are called to speak is not humility, how then are we to speak? In this as in all things, Jesus shows us the way.

Before He heal the paralytics Jesus asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus invites the man to cooperate with grace.

Jesus question reflects the humility of the Father Who never imposes Himself on us but woos us. In doing this He also makes clear “the cruelty of those … who were well” but who never lifted “their hand to help” the man but instead treated him “like an enemy” when he asked for help (Amphilochius of Iconium, Oration, 9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Every day, we meet those who ask for our help in coming to know Jesus Christ; every day we meet those who even if they do so poorly ask us about the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

Humility, to say nothing of love, demands we speak.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Sign of Contradiction

May 12 (O.S., April 29) 2019: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women; Sts. Myrrh-Bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Nine Martyrs at Cyzicus: Theognes, Rufus, Antipater, Theostichus, Artemas, Magnus, Theodotus, Thaumasius, and Philemon (3rd c.); St. Memnon the Wonderworker of Corfu (2nd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43–16:8

Christ is Risen!

As we’ve seen before, the authors of the New Testament are not afraid to air the Church’s dirty laundry. The weaknesses and moral failings of the Apostles and disciples are there to be seen by all. This is certainly the case in the conflict we hear about today.

In the early days of the Church, there was disagreement about whether or not the two groups of widows–those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek–were being treated the same. Whether it was actually the case or merely a perception, the Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows were being “were neglected in the daily distribution” of food.

If only in passing, it’s worth noting that though they spoke different languages, not only were both groups Christians, they were both ethnically Jewish. In any case, St Luke is silent as to the exact nature of the complaint; it is enough for him to note that there was a division in the Church.

This division was sufficiently serious that it distracted the Apostles from their primary mission of preaching the Gospel. Instead, they had to involve themselves in making peace between arguing factions in the Church.

Events like this frequently cause those outside the Church to say “See! You Christians are no better than anyone else!” Fair enough. The Church is as subject to the kinds of petty–and not so petty–divisions that we see in the world.

And why wouldn’t this be so?

After all, what is the Church but that part of the world that is struggling against the very same sins that afflict all humanity? Put another way, the difference between the Church and the world is that the former struggles against the sins that the latter embraces.

This similarity sometimes causes us to act unwisely and make common cause with the world. While there are times when we can work together with those outside the Church, we need to do so prudently. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Church is fundamentally a sign of contradiction to the world that the world can never embrace without thereby ceasing to be the world (compare, Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22).

Take, for example, what happens today in the Gospel.

Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. For all the glory of the Roman Empire, it was a brutal and cruel regime that ruled not only by instilling fear but by humiliating its enemies. In times of social unrest, one could walk along the fabled Roman roads and see mile after mile of crucified criminals and rebellious slaves.

As enemies of the State they were also denied one of the universal marks of respect in the ancient world. The crucified were not buried but disposed of like garbage. There were as humiliated in death as in their dying.

By their quiet acts of piety for their dead friend, Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing women stood in opposition to the Empire.

We shouldn’t think that the cruelty of the Roman Empire was a peculiarity of the times. While not always so dramatic in form, the world–and those who embrace the intentions and purposes of the world–are equally cruel.

Though sympathetic to the real virtues of the Roman Empire, St Augustine in The CIty of God is clear that the City of God and the City of Man are locked in competition for not only the human heart but also material resources and social authority.

To bring home to his readers the willingness of the City of Man–that is, the world–to act unjustly and even cruelly in its competition with the City of God, the Church, he quotes an exchange between Alexander the Great and an unnamed pirate.

In their conversation, the pirate tells Alexander, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply this. The size of their navies. That difference aside, they are in all other respects the same since both are willing to act savagely in pursuit of their goals.

And so back to Acts.

What is surprising is not that there is conflict in the Church. And while it might sadden us to see it, we ought not to be surprised or discouraged when now or then we glimpse pettiness our even cruelty in our Church leader, in our brothers or sisters in Christ, or in ourselves. Again, the Church is simply the world in the process of being redeemed. To not see serious sin in the members of the Church is like not seeing serious disease in a hospital. Both are built to heal, the latter the body, the former the soul.

No, the surprise in Acts is not the conflict, not the willingness of Christians to ape the empire. The surprise is not division but reconciliation. The surprise is not that Christians are afflicted with the same passions that lead to war in the world but that we struggle against them  (see James 4).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never lose sight of the dignity of our great calling in Jesus Christ to be a sign of contradiction to the world. To borrow from St Leo the Great:

…recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.

By our fidelity to our calling, we not only contradict the powers of this world, but we also offer those enslaved to these powers the possibility of true and lasting freedom in Christ Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love Casts Out Doubt

Sunday, May 5 (O.S., April 22), 2019: Antipascha; Sunday of St. Thomas; St. Theodore the Sykeote, Bishop of Anastasiopolis (613).; Apostles Nathaniel, Luke, and Clement. Martyrs Leonidas of Alexandria (202); St. Vitalis of the monastery of Abba Serid at Gaza (609-620).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

One of the best signs of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the willingness of the sacred authors to recount the moral failures of not just the apostles but all the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus and Judas betrays Him.

When the myrrh-bearing hear from the angel that Jesus is risen and are told to “tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7, NJKV), they instead run away in fear, saying “nothing to anyone” (v. 8).

Likewise in today’s Gospel, we see Peter and the disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” We need at this point to pause for a moment and consider more of the context–the timeline really–of what is happening.

Jesus appears to the disciples on Pascha, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” Earlier that day, He had appeared “to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). At first, she doesn’t recognize Jesus mistaking Him for the gardener. But when He says her name–”Mary!”–she immediately recognizes Him and hurries off to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen (see John 20:15-18).

Unfortunately, and this brings us to today’s Gospel, “they did not believe” Mary (Mark 16:11), her words “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Betrayers. Doubters, Cowards, Women. In the ancient world, none of these would have been considered credible witnesses because none could be honorable men. And yet, these are the witnesses that the Church offers us. Far from undermining the credibility of the Gospel, the weakness of the disciples highlights its power.

Turning now to the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostle, and even though “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” even though “the people held them in high honor” they were afraid to publicly follow the disciples. Like the disciples on Pascha, the people were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

Nevertheless, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The reason is because the disciples were eventually able to move beyond the crippling fear and they experienced on Pascha and so counteract the fear felt among the citizens of Jerusalem.

St John Chrysostom explains it this way (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 12): “Earth was becoming like heaven,” because of how the first Christians lived. It was their “boldness of speech,” the “wonders” they performed that cause the residence of Jerusalem to look on the followers of Jesus as they were angels.”

As for the disciples themselves, “They were unconcerned about ridicule, threats, perils.” Instead, “They were compassionate and beneficent. Some of them they helped with money, and some with words, and some with healing of their bodies and of their souls; they accomplished every kind of healing.”

How did the grace of God bring about this transformation in the disciples? How did fearful doubters become bold apostles?

Love.

Of all those first entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel, only one responded with obedience. It was only Mary Magdalene who did as she was told to do.

The reason, as St Mark highlights for us, is because of all the disciples of Jesus, only she knew evil and the power of the devil not simply as an external threat but an inner struggle. It was out of her that Jesus “had cast seven demons.” As Jesus tells us in another place, those “love much” who have been “forgiven much.” As for the one “to whom little is forgiven,” that is who repents only of minor sins leaving unmourned the more serious ones, “the same loves little.” (see Luke 7:47).

It was in her great love for Jesus that Mary found the courage to proclaim boldly the Gospel. This is important because, contrary to what we sometimes imagine, doubt is not a sin of the intellect but the will.

I doubt because I don’t love and I don’t love because I am afraid. I don’t trust God because I have not united myself to Him; I resist His will for my life, preferring my will to His. In its most extreme form, I prefer to fail of my terms to succeed on His.

But “perfect love drives out fear” and the “one who fears is not made perfect in love” (see 1 John 4:18). The apostles doubt, I doubt, because their love, my love, remains imperfect.

St John tells us that anyone who hates his neighbor is “a murder” (1 John 3:15) and that anyone who says he loves God but who hates his neighbor “is a liar: (1 John 4:20) and lives “in darkness” (1 John 2:11).

Jesus tells us what it means to love God perfectly when He says we are to love God with all that is in us and that we are to love our neighbor as our very self (see Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

The love of God is not an idea; much less is it a feeling. Rather, to love God is to unite our will to His. If I love God I will keep His commandments (see John 14:15). Love, in other words, is a matter of obedience.

And just as to love God is to be obedient to God, to love my neighbor means to want what God wants for him. I love you with a perfect love if I want for you all that God would give you.

To be sure, the will of God for me and for you is wider, deeper and broader than what we know. Nevertheless, we know what God doesn’t want. The Ten Commandments offer us a negative expression of God’s will for humanity.

And we know from the Scriptures and the fathers that God’s will for us is–in a positive sense–rooted in our participation in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4).

We come to share in the divine life through our participation in the sacraments of the Church. To share in God’s life means we must be baptized, confess our sins, receive Holy Communion. To these, we add daily prayer and the reading of Scripture and the keeping of the fasts as we are able.

Is there more to perfect love? Yes! But if we do at least these things, God will slowly reveal the fullness of His will for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The fearful, doubting disciples of Pascha we meet today will soon become bold witnesses for Christ through love! In these next few weeks, as we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we are preparing ourselves for a new outpouring of divine love into our hearts. We have this period of rest, in anticipation of the renewal of our witness to the world.

So get ready! There is more to come!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reason & Rejoicing

April 21 (O.S., April 8), 2019: 6th Sunday of Great Lent; Palm Sunday: Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Philippians 4:4-9
Gospel: John 12:1-18

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle tells us that we are to “rejoice always”! This is not a command to ignore injustice or the other manifestations of sin.

It is also not a command to adopt some kind of “positive thinking” or to stand before a mirror reciting self-affirmations like “Everyday, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

We get a sense of what St Paul means in the final verses of today’s reading: “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

But just as “rejoice always” doesn’t mean what we might at first think it means, the objects of our mediation are not simply those things that please us or to which we are attracted. The true, the noble, the just, the pure, the beautiful and the virtuous are all those things that manifest the will of God.

As we’ve seen before, the Scriptures and so the Church Fathers, have a deeper, richer and more expansive view of human reason. Today we tend to limit “true” to what is empirically verifiable because we limit what reason can know to sense data.

But the Scriptures have a more “catholic” view of reason. Human reason has the ability to grasp, even if not fully understand, the divine plan. We have the ability to see events in a larger context than how they affect us at the moment.

To see the truth of something is not to see it just in itself but within the context of God’s will for all creation. To know something means to see how it fits within the whole economy of salvation.

When St Paul then tells us to “rejoice always” he is commanding us to see our lives within the context of God’s salvific will. To do this, I must learn to see events not simply in terms of how they affect me but how they fit into God’s plan of salvation.

This has the practical effect of always challenging me to transcend, to go beyond, my own narrow perspective. Joy can’t find a home in a self-absorbed heart.

We need only look at the Gospel to see how joy is lost.

Today we commemorate Palm Sunday, the Triumphal Entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.

The children of Jerusalem greet Jesus with palms branches and songs. Rightly, they see Him as the One Who will liberate them from the tyranny of Rome. But in a few days, they will turn against Him. Why? Because their view of liberation is too narrow. They limit liberation to the political dimension. In their own way, they are as materialistic as any contemporary secular American.

For the Jews, the love they feel today will turn to hatred because their expectations are not met. And their expectations are frustrated because their vision is too narrow.

This is no different for us.

Disappointment can breed hatred. Whether it is my expectations for my own life–or for you–the experience of disappointment is an invitation to lay aside my own narrow views and see events within the context of God’s salvific will.

And not simply His will for me. This is why S Paul commands us to meditate on things true, noble, just, pure, beautiful and virtuous. I must cultivate a more catholic vision, that is, a vision of how God’s grace is at work in the lives of all men and women and in all creation.

By brothers and sisters in Christ! To “rejoice always,” to enter into the “joy of the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10), requires that we lay aside our narrow, everyday vision of life.

And its place?

In its place, we must open ourselves to the infinitely more expansive vision of God’s will for all humanity and all creation. We must be willing to see the myriad epiphanies of God’s grace that surround us.

We must be willing to see ourselves and those around us as loved by God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Just Talk to God

Sunday, April 14, 2019: 5th Sunday of Great Lent; Venerable Mary of the Egyptian.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14/Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45/Luke 7:36-50

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Unlike contemporary morality that tends to be guilt-based, the biblical moral vision is shame-based. While shame has a bad reputation for us today, in the Scriptures and so the fathers of the Church, shame is what I feel when, intentionally or not, I am unfaithful to the demands of my station in life.

A guilt-based moral system, on the other hand, is concerned with my own internal moral standards. In such a system, I don’t feel bad when I fail to meet the expectations of those around me–again this is the origin of shame. Instead, I feel guilty when I violate my own conscience.

While it’s tempting to pit one moral system against the other to live a morally and emotionally healthy life, I really need both.

A shame-based morality reminds us that we have a role to play in the community; we matter to those around us. Above all, we matter to God.

This, in turn, points us beyond societal norms and l toward our personal vocations. Each of us has been called by God to a unique way of life and task that only we can fulfill.

And so, I feel ashamed precisely when I fail to fulfill the obligations of my vocation (see Genesis 3:7).

Assumed here, however, is that I understand my vocation and it’s obligations. In broad strokes, this is what it means to have a rightly formed conscience. I must know what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ, a faithful husband, a faithful priest. And I need to be able to differentiate all these from what people tell me it means to be a Christian, a husband, or a priest.

But knowing isn’t enough. A vocation is not an intellectual exercise but a way of life.

And so I need to internalize what being Christian, a husband, and a priest. I simply can’t go through the motions. Christian, husband, and priest are not simply the roles I play. They express or should express, who I am.

This is why shame needs guilt! It isn’t just that fail to meet the standards of others–even God. In failing to be faithful to God, I have failed myself as well.

Put in a more positive light, I am only mostly fully myself when I am being faithful to the life to which God has called me and when I work to fulfill the tasks He has given me.

There is great power in knowing and being personally faithful to the demands of my vocation. To see this we need to look no further than to the saint who we commemorate today: St Mary of Egypt.

St Mary was as extravagant in her repentance as she was in her sin. The difference is this. While her sinful excesses brought her no peace, her severe asceticism did.

But the peace St Mary experienced came not from the severity of her asceticism; she didn’t experience peace because her asceticism was hard but because she was faithful to what God asked of her.

Mary’s peace came from freely embracing her ascetical vocation. It was her acceptance of the life to which God called her that gave her the strength to endure the trials she underwent in the desert.

Like Mary, we find peace neither in merely conforming to God’s will nor having the right values. True peace, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” that guards our “hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:7, NKJV) comes only when we are faithful to our personal vocations.

At this point, you might ask: How do I know the life to which God has called me? How, in other words, do I know what my vocation is?

A vocation begins in the sacraments–above all baptism. It is nourished in Holy Communion. And in those moments when we fail to be faithful, we are restored in Confession.

As indispensable as are the sacraments (and the whole of the liturgical and ascetical life of the Church for that matter) in helping us discern and live our vocation, they are not in and of themselves enough.

To know what God wants from me, to know what He wants for me, I must have a life of personal prayer.

By this I mean not only attending service, reading Scripture or saying the prayers in the prayerbook. As important as these all are, there must come a moment when, like Moses, I speak to God “as one man speaks to another” (compare, Exodus 33:11). To know my vocation, I must ask God to reveal to me His will for me.

And here’s the thing. Many of us are hesitant to ask. The reason is easy to understand. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Asking God what He wants from me, isn’t a matter of looking for some objective fact about my life. No, it means opening my heart to God. I can no more rely on simply on the formal prayer of the Church than a husband can limit his conversations with his wife to quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets!

I must, in other words, speak to Jesus Christ as my Friend; as Someone Who loves me and wants what is best for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the end of the Great Fast and begin our final journey through Holy Week to Pascha, we should each of us take some time to speak directly to God.

And when we do, we should ask Him simply and directly, “God what do want from me?”

We don’t need to worry about how it sounds. Our words might be awkward and stumbling. But God hears and receives our words with delight!

And He will answer! He will honor our request and answer our question if only we will ask!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory