Home to Bethlehem

The Acton Insitute’s Fr Robert Sirico has a beautiful reflection on Christmas. It is offered here in its entirety and without comment beyond my recommendation that you read it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

(Acton Institute) Although the word nostalgia can be used to express a bittersweet longing for some pleasant remembrance of one’s past, it is safe to say that this is the time of the year when it is virtually unavoidable to drift into a sustained sense of nostalgia and where its experience is most intense.  This is a time when our minds go back to a younger version of ourselves: to the sights and the sounds and the smells of our mothers’ kitchens, and the excitement and anticipation of opening gifts for Christmas.

I suspect, however, that there is an even deeper meaning to this palpable experience in Advent and Christmas. I recall feeling a deep sense of longing for something in the past one Christmas evening when I was about nine years old. Once all the relatives had gone their separate ways and my mother had stored the last morsels of the feasts and restored the remains of the day and had finally gotten off her feet, a wave of reflection swept over me. How much looking back can a nine year old do, after all?

Bethlehem might be described as our common home for which we each long.

What I realize now is that I was not, in fact, surveying the previous years of so short a life. My mind, our minds, go back much further, to a home, indeed an origin we recognize as if by nature, even when words escape the description. I refer, of course to that first Christmas.  Bethlehem might be described as our common home for which we each long. And Bethlehem is itself the restoration of God’s original intention in the creation of his world. What occurs in Bethlehem, or more specifically in the womb that “yon Virgin” is the healing of a primordial scar at the base of humankind.

It is the Christian contention that the ineffable God of the universe deigns to descend into the material world so as to reconcile it to himself by the incarnation of his Son.  The experience of this nostalgia, made acute by their concrete particularity, tells us something about ourselves and our origins, not unlike but more profound and explanatory: the fond recollection of the sweet thickness of that under-crust of your aunt’s cinnamon roll, where all the brown sugar has coagulated and almost hardened; or the simple yet evocative smell of percolated coffee in one of those old tin coffee pots; or the smell of my father’s Old Spice Christmas gift (his gift every year). A grandmother’s apron.

I’m sure any number of things could account for experiences of nostalgia, but undergirding them all is some concrete particularity in which the tangible nature of our memories and their associations with things touch upon our deepest senses and longings.  To my mind this is appropriate enough because the very feast day that we are celebrating has to do with the material world, or more precisely, with the divine breaking out of our material world, and in doing so, throwing back meaning upon the whole of the human endeavor.

The incarnation of God’s Son, we are taught, by the scriptures and reinforced in the art and music of the Christian tradition, tells us of a world that was broken but has been restored.  The world spoken of and to in this telling of the story is not just some cerebral concept, or an aggregate or ephemeral yearning, but a concrete reality. Sin, after all, affects not only our souls, but our society, indeed our whole world and all of its parts.

But so does redemption, so that the very substance of the physical might become the vehicle of salvation, whether it be the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of Communion, or the act of matrimonial love; God works his love through all of these.  So too the entirety of our world may become sanctified, indeed sacramentalized.

This could include our family feasts, our gift giving and even our work, if these are offered to God for his glory.  This God, Immanuel, is “with us” in the whole of it all: from the baby’s cry in the manger to our commerce and trade, even as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said in “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Lies We Tell Ourselves: #4 “It’s About Culture!”

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Message By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew On the 85th Anniversary of the Holodomor

 

(UOCUSA) Beloved children in the Lord: May God’s grace and peace be with you.

As every year, we are communicating with all of you with a heavy heart from the historic and martyric Mother Church of Constantinople while prayerfully commemorating the Holodomor of the Ukrainian People, the tragic and inhumane events of the years 1932-1933, when countless human beings lost their lives through deliberate and brutal famine.  This tragedy inscribes itself among other atrocities against humanity and God’s creation committed over the twentieth century, the most violent in history thus far.

As we pray for the repose of the victims’ souls and for the healing of this painful wound in the conscience of your blessed Nation, we remind all people of goodwill that the Church does not tolerate injustice or any type of force that undermines social cohesion.  Rather, it underscores the social teaching of the Christian Gospel and promotes diakonia and philanthropy. Orthodoxy’s responsibility is to serve as a positive challenge for contemporary humankind, a God-inspired perspective of life and an expression of authentic freedom.

When remembering the past and learning from its tragedies, we ought to move ahead into the future with compassion and forgiveness.  For, it is in the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, that we are spared from sorrow and suffering, while at the same time we find strength to forgive and love all people.  Our Ecumenical Patriarchate is strong because it has a sacrificial love and acts through humility and the Cross.  His story is filled with martyrdom and sacrifice for the world, for all peoples and for all nations.  The Church of Constantinople, as the Mother Church, is the incarnation of the free love of Christ, who does not crucify but is crucified, who sacrifices His soul for His friends – for all men.

For this reason, it is inconceivable that the Ecumenical Throne – which according to the Holy Canons is responsible for the unity and stability of Orthodoxy – would remain indifferent when an Orthodox people, such as the Ukrainian people, suffer and seek a solution to the ecclesiastical problems that have tormented them for centuries.  Therefore, we intervene by obligation – always on the basis of authentically ecclesiastical, truly universal and purely supra – national criteria – for the truth and tradition of the Church, the defense of canonical order and the identity of Orthodoxy, all for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, not for ourselves and not for demonstrating worldly strength and power.  By remaining indifferent, we would be left with no excuse before God and history.

This great responsibility of the Mother Church, the Holy and Great Church of Christ, certainly has no limits.  That is why, just as we have granted autocephaly to all local Churches, the Holy and Sacred Synod has similarly decided to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which is tormented in many ways, so that she, too, may join the plentitude of Orthodoxy in unity and internal peace.  Only the First Throne of Orthodoxy, the Church of Constantinople, holds this high responsibility according to the Holy and Sacred Canons.

May God grant rest to the souls of all the victims of the Holodomor, and may He grant all of you, dear children, patience in trials, as well as love and forgiveness for one another.  May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.

At the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the 24thof November, 2018

The fervent supplicant befoe God,

+BARTHOLOMEW

Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch

10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves

  On Tuesday night, I gave a talk in Grand Rapids, MI titled “10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves.” The talk was sponsored by the Alliance of Orthodox Christians Speaker Series, a non-profit lay Orthodox ministry. The video will be up soon. For now though, here are the 10 lies we as Orthodox Christians tell ourselves.   In Christ,   +Fr Gregory  
  1. “We’re the FASTEST growing religion in America!
  2. “We just need better PROGRAMS!”
  3. “The most loving thing I can do is tell the truth.”
  4. “It’s all about culture.”
  5. “God loves you and wants you to be happy!”
  6. “The Orthodox understanding of salvation is therapeutic, not legalistic.”
  7. “But we’re called to live a life of ‘interiorized monasticism!”
  8. “Well, all I really need to do is be obedient to my priest!
  9. “But my priest is my spiritual father!”
  10. “A personal relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t ORTHODOX it’s a PROTESTANT idea!”

How Easy To Be Merciful

November 4 (OS October 22), 2018: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 6. Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Abercius, bishop and wonderworker of Hierapolis (167). 7 Holy Youths (“7 Sleepers”) of Ephesus: Maximilian, Jamblichus, Martinian, Dionysius, Antoninus, Constantine (Hexakustodianos), and John (250). Martyrs Alexander the bishop, Heraclius, Anna, Elizabeth, Theodota and Glyceria, at Adrianopolis (2nd-3r dc.).

Epistle: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

For mercy to be merciful, it must be effective.

Speaking to the wealth Christians in his community, the Apostle James makes this very point when he takes them to task for not caring for the needs of their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ. Good intentions and good words need to be followed up with effective action:

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:15-17, NJKV).

This, however, isn’t simply a matter practicality or utility. Rather the need for mercy to be effective is rooted in the actions of God.

St Paul tells us that God doesn’t simply overlook our sins; He overcomes the power of sin and death in our lives (see, Romans 8:2) and as we hear this morning makes us “alive together with Christ.”

Mercy, in other words, is a matter of prudence. The merciful heart is first aware of the need and then acts to provide the good thing that is lacking.

Look at the rich man in the Gospel. He is aware of Lazarus’ need. And how could he not?  Lazarus “laid at his gate.”

The rich man is not condemned because he failed to lift Lazarus out of poverty. He is not condemned because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home and give him a seat at this table.

No, the rich man is condemned because he failed to give Lazarus “the crumbs which fell” from his table. He is condemned because he failed to show even the mercy of the dogs who “came to lick” Lazarus’ sores.

To say that our mercy must be effective doesn’t obligate us to great things. We are only called to do what he can, however little that might be.

Again, the rich man is not condemned for failing to lift Lazarus into the middle class. No, he is condemned for not easing, even if only temporarily, the sting of poverty.

What about us? How merciful is our mercy?

Relative not simply to the New Testament era but even within the lifetime of our grandparents and parents, we live in an unimaginably wealth age. Even within my lifetime, we have become so much wealthier.

When I an infant, I slept not in a crib but a dresser drawer. In the first year or so of their marriage, my parents didn’t own a refrigerator. They used a literal “icebox.” When I began elementary school my great-grandmother still cooked on a wood burning stove.

And now? Now all but the poorest of the human family now are richer than the rich man in the Gospel.

Prosperous as we are, what then are we to do?

Given all that, in principle, we could do, all the needs we could, in theory at least, meet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Our prosperity and the freedom it provides can paralyze us.

But the standard we hear in the Gospel is not that we must do great things but only that we do the small things we can do.

Our mercy, in other words, must not only be effective but humble. What might an effective but humble mercy look like?

Social scientists tell us that the most effective way for churches to help the poor is not so much by giving money or things. Rather, as communities rooted in the shared moral vision of the Gospel, churches have the unique ability to help not only the poor but all those on the margin of society. Churches do this by making room for them in their midst.

We help not primarily through material means but by inviting and making room for others here in our worship this morning. We help others by changing ourselves and our community by inviting and integrating others into our life together in Christ.

Let’s be clear.

We are not in the inner city. Given our location on a university campus, we are generally not confronted with the effects of generational poverty.

Based on where God has placed us, we are called to be merciful to those who for all their great talents and abilities, are often as lonely and isolated in their own way as was Lazarus in his. Not all poverty is material. Often it is social, moral and spiritual.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our primary task to open our hearts and community to those who don’t know the “kindness” of God. It is our task, our vocation as a community, to help others see that they too are the God’s “workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.”

That this our other Lazarus is a student, professor or staff member at a major research university doesn’t diminish the importance of what God has called us to do.

To do this effectively and humbly, all we must do is what Christ calls us to do. We make at least a little room in our lives for those we meet. What could be easier, simpler than this?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory