What is Freedom For?

Wednesday, April 04 (O.S., March 22), 2018: Great Wednesday; Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra († 363); Martyr Drosis the Daughter of the Emperor Trajan (104-117); Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople († 383); Martyrs Callinica and Basilissa of Rome; Venerable Martyr Euthymius of Constantinople; Hieromartyr Euthymius of Prodromou on Mt Athos († 1814).

Matins: John 12.17-50
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 2.3-3.3
Vespers: Exodus 2.11-22
Vespers: Job 2.1-10
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26.6-16

The choice before me is laid out in stark terms.

Like the Harlot, I can come “in tears” and cry out to God “In Your compassion and love for mankind, deliver me from the filth of my evil deeds!”

Alternatively, I can imitate “deceitful Judas” and allow my greed to draw me away “from intimate companionship with Christ.”

When, as Orthodox Christians, we emphasize the importance of human freedom (and all the rights and privileges that we have come to expect as Americans) our concern is in defending is the ability of the soul to imitate either the Harlot or Judas. Human freedom is not for us an end in itself. It is rather for something.

Immediately, freedom is for repentance. I must be free to examine myself, to know myself not simply in terms set by the culture but by Holy Tradition. Our freedom in the first instance is in the service of accurate self-knowledge.

As I grow to know myself, I am confronted with a choice.

Recognizing my vices as well as my virtues, what will I do? Will I struggle against my sins through the cultivation of virtue? Or will I, again like Judas, give myself over to despair?

A despairing soul will only infrequently commit suicide like Judas (Matthew 27:5). More often despair hides under the guise of another sin. Again, Judas is instructive.

The fallen apostle is mentioned nine times in today’s Matin service. In order, he is called “deceitful” and “burning with love of money” He is a man who “drunkenly runs” to betray his Friend (Kathisma 15).

He is called “envious,” “ignorant and evil.” A “miserable man,” a “traitor” blinded by “greedy avarice” into becoming a “traitor.” (Ode 9).

Judas is “scheming” and “enslaved to the Enemy” by his “terrible … slothfulness.” Twice we hear of “the wretchedness of Judas” (Praises).

Despair cloaks itself in all these seemingly lesser sins.

This, however, raises a question. If freedom is for repentance, what is repentance for? Again Judas is instructive.

Judas stands in bold contrast to the Harlot. While she spreads “out her hair” to dry the feet of Jesus that she has washed with her tears (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), Judas spreads “out his hands to lawless men.” What the Harlot does, she does “in order to receive forgiveness,” she is repentant. And Judas? He only puts out his hand “to receive some silver” (Matthew 26:14-16, Luke 22:1-6).

As freedom is for repentance, repentance is for forgiveness. And not just forgiveness in a formal, juridical sense. But, as we hear in the service, the forgiveness that “raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days” (Aposticha).

All of this is expressed in the Hymn of Kassiane that we sing toward the end of Matins:

..accept the fountain of my tears,
O You, Who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds!
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
O You, Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension!
Once Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy!”

God stands ready to accept our repentance. He stands ready to receive us who run to Him and extend to us His “immeasurable mercy.”

So, then, what is freedom for? It is so that we can receive the mercy of God and then offer that mercy to others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Respecting Human Freedom

Tuesday, April 03, (O.S., March 21), 2018: Great Tuesday;  Venerable James the Confessor and Bishop of Catania (8th-9th C); Venerable Seraphim Vyritsky († 1949); New Hieromartyr Priest Vladimir († 1931); Holy Hierarch Cyrill, Bishop of Catania (1st-2nd C); Holy Hierarch Thomas, Patriarch of Constantinople († 610); Venerable Serapion, Bishop of Tmuissa; Venerable Serapion of Neitria

Matins: Matthew 22:15-23:39
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1:21-2:1
Vespers: Exodus 2:5-10
Vespers: Job 1:13-22
Presanctified Liturgy: Matthew 24:36-26:2

Once again, the Church’s hymnography reminds me that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26):

Realizing the hour of reckoning, O my soul, and fear the cutting down of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), work diligently with the talent that has been given you O wretched one (Matthew 25:14-30). Watch and pray that we may not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ Matthew 25:1-13).

It isn’t enough to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, “for the demons do as such and tremble” (James 2:19). Salvation requires that I be a “profitable” servant, that I “hear the word of God and keep it,” and that I “do the works” God has given me to do.

This emphasis on tangible works is the necessary corrective to the tendency to confuse my thoughts and feelings about God and neighbor with the love “that seeks not its own reward” (1 Corinthians 13:5) and the “faith that moves mountains” (Matthew 21:21).

As we’ve seen throughout the Great Fast, so much of what Jesus says about salvation presupposes that we understand what it means to make a profit. For the fathers of the Church, while the meaning of Scripture is never limited to the literal (i.e., historical) meaning, this meaning can’t be ignored or violated.  We must understand the ordinary meaning of profit if we wish to understand Jesus’ word to us that we be “profitable servants.”

Profit is not, as in Marxism, the surplus value created by labor and stolen by owners. Besides being wrong economically, this view of profit would paint Jesus as an unjust business owner who exploits His workers. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, profit is only earned by the free collaboration of multiple parties. Yes, the worker invests his labor. But his investment is only possible because of the initial and ongoing investment of capital and expertise by the business owner.

These investments, however, are not profitable unless the worker and business owner together create a product or service of value to the consumer. Only then will the consumer exchange her money for what capital and labor together have created.

To be a “profitable” servant for Jesus presuppose the investment and ongoing presence of His grace in me (and indeed, everyone) and my willing collaboration with Him. Or, as St Paul says, we must be “co-labors” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9).

My obedience to divine grace, however, is not sufficient.

A “profitable” servant must also be of service to others. I must create value in the lives of neighbors. Just as in the marketplace, this means respecting their freedom. A profitable servant can’t compel others to accept his or her service. What is freely given, must be freely received (see, Matthew 10:5-8). This, in turn, requires that I offer my service to you freely (that is without coercion) that you freely received (or not) the offered service I would do for you.

The cooperation of divine and human freedom is at the heart of Holy Week. How these work together is the great mystery of salvation (Ephesians 5:32). But God respects and waits on human freedom. God waits for our response to His invitation  (Revelation 3:20).

The moral message of this week is similar. Just as God respects my freedom, I must likewise respect yours. Anything less is unworthy of divine grace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Our Two Freedoms

Monday, April 02 (O.S., March 20), 2018: Great Monday; Venerable Fathers slain at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas: John, Sergius, Patrick and others († 796); New Hieromartyr Deacon Basil († 1938); Martyr Photina (Svetlana), the Samaritan Woman, her sons, and those with her († c. 66); Holy Virgin Martyrs Alexandra, Claudia, Euphrasia, Matrona, Juliania, Euthymia and Theodosia († 310); St. Nicetas the Confessor the Archbishop of Apollonias in Bithynia (9th C); Hieromartyr Euphrosynus of Blue Jay Lake, Novgorod († 1612); New Martyr Miron of Crete; St. Cuthbert, Wonderworker of Britain († 687).

Matins: Matthew 21:18-43

At Matins for today we hear the following hymn:

Today let us add lamentation to lamentation!
Let our tears flow with those of Jacob, who weeps for
his celebrated and sober-minded son;
for though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave,
he preserved the freedom of his soul and was lord over
all Egypt.

Hearing this I might be tempted to think any number of things that are, at best, morally confused. At worse, I might end up of saying something that is truly evil.

The confusion is this: Because inner freedom–what the text refers to as the ‘freedom of soul’–is what matters, I might wrongly think that political or soul freedom is unimportant. “After all,” I might think (or worse, say), “even though Joseph was a slave, he ‘preserved the freedom of his soul’ and even became ‘lord over all Egypt.’”

As St Paul points out to the Church of Rome, I can’t do evil that “good may come” (3:8). The fact that, as the Apostle says a bit later, that God is able to bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28), doesn’t mean evil isn’t evil.

At the very least, evil is something I should avoid. If I can–or better, as much as I can–I should oppose evil. I should oppose evil not only in my own heart but in the world around me.

I must be faithful to the example of Jesus. When after suffering temptation in the desert, how does He begin His own ministry? Going to the synagogue he reads from the prophecy of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1, 2)

Jesus begins His own ministry by opposing–and so ending–the hold that moral evil and physical suffering have on us (Luke 4:16-21).

While moral freedom is more important than political freedom, the two freedoms are not opposed. While I can have the moral freedom without political freedom, I can’t have the latter without the former.

Ideally, though, a society should have both. And, in any case, Christians are called to work for both moral and political freedom. What we can never do, is sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: What God Wants From Us

April 1 (O.S., March 19), 2018: Sixth Sunday of the Great Lent: Palm Sunday, the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem; Martyrs Chrysanthus and Daria, and those with them at Rome: Claudius, Hilaria, Jason, Maurus, Diodorus presbyter, and Marianus deacon (283). Martyr Pancharius at Nicomedia (ca. 302).

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today’s readings are odd.

The epistle doesn’t mention at all our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. Instead, St Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” And, lest we miss what he means, he repeats himself and says again we are to rejoice.

He then goes on to explain to us what it means to rejoice.

We are to be gentle, to lay aside anxiety in favor of prayer, and with a thankful and peaceful heart ask God for what we need.

He concludes by encouraging us to reflect on all things that are true, noble, just, pure, and lovely. We are to concern ourselves not with human failure but with what is virtuous and praiseworthy.

Importantly, the Apostle doesn’t tell us to limit our mediation to those things which are specifically or explicitly Christian. No, whatever form it takes, if it is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely we are to reflect on it and allow it to shape our lives.

But, in all this, there is not one word about Jesus.

As for the Gospel, the events we are celebrating this morning are almost an afterthought. Unlike the Gospel at Matins (Matthew 21:1-11;15-17), most of the text is devoted to the events surrounding Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

As is so often the case, those around Jesus–even those closest to Him–misunderstand. The Apostle John says that the disciples–and he–“did not understand” what was happening.

Judas misunderstood because he was consumed by greed.

The chief priests misunderstood because they were consumed by jealousy.

Even the crowds came “not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.”

The only one who seems to have any sense of what is happening is Mary the sister of Lazarus. Mary knows that Jesus is going to die. And so she “took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

Like the disciples, I often misunderstand the will of God because, to return to today’s epistle, I give myself over to grumbling. Frankly, I have an almost unending list of complaints and disappointments. In my more lucid and honest moments, I realize how easy it is for me to find fault with others and myself. I hold on to injuries and resist forgiving those who have wronged me.

This is why I am forever misunderstanding what God asks of me.

Since St Paul sees fit to say what he did to the Church at Philippi, it seems likely that–for all my shortcomings–I’m really no different from any other Christian. We all need to be reminded to attend to the myriad signs of God’s grace and love for us. We all of us need to cultivate a sense not simply of gratitude but celebration.

And if we take St Paul’s counsel to heart, we must cast as wide a net as possible. We must thank God for whatever is true, noble, just, pure, or lovely.

Only in this way, to work backward through the text, we acquire a spirit of gentleness.

Only in this way, will we find the boldness to ask God for what we need.

Only in this way, will we fulfill the command to rejoice in the Lord always.

The crowds, the high priests, Judas and the disciples all of them had the opportunity to sit and eat and drink and talk with God. And all of them allowed that opportunity to slip through their fingers because they “did not understand.”

Instead, they preferred signs and wonders or power and wealth. All good things in themselves to be sure but not the point.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Each day, each moment, Christ comes ready to enter into our lives. He stands at the door to our hearts knocking. If we open our heart to Him, He will come in and dine with us (see Revelation 3:20).

What God wants from us is not palms or hymns. What He wants from us is simply this: He wants us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be A Good Wife

Friday, March 30 (O.S., March 17), 2018: Friday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Venerable Alexis the Man of God († 411); Venerable Macarius, Abbot of Kaliazin, wonderworker († 1483); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexander († 1919); New Hieromartyr Priest Victor († 1942); Martyr Marinus; Venerable Paul of Cyprus; St. Patrick, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland († 461).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 66:10-24
Vespers: Genesis 49:33-50:26
Vespers: Proverbs 31:8-31

Tomorrow is Lazarus Saturday and the beginning of Holy Week. So today is the last day of the Great Fast. Given where we are liturgically, today’s Old Testament readings the Church are odd.

Well, actually, not all the readings.

The selections from Isaiah and Genesis make sense. Once again, Isaiah reminds us of the impending judgment in which, to borrow from Jesus’ words in Matthew, God will separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32).

The reading for Genesis is likewise a sensible choice.

With the death of Jacob and Joseph, the patriarchal age comes to an end. There will soon arise “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, NKJV). His rule will bring a dark and tragic change. Sin’s hold over humanity will become institutionalized as the Hebrew children find themselves enslaved. It is from this, sin’s “anti-church,” that Jesus comes to save us.

But what are we to make the third reading? Why do we hear about “a good wife” who is “far more precious than jewels”?

Solomon’s description of the good wife isn’t limited to her moral virtues important though they are. No for the King whose “wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:30, NKJV), the good wife isn’t simply a morally good woman, she is a successful entrepreneur. She not only excels in managing the household but in business. Far from being a passive participant in her own life, “she girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong” through her domestic and commercial industry.

The Fathers see in the good wife a type of the Church. St Gregory Nazianzen alludes to this in his funeral oration for his sister Gorgonia.

Solomon … praises the woman who looks to her household and loves her husband, contrasting her with one who roams abroad, and is uncontrolled and dishonourable, and hunts for precious souls with wanton words and ways, while she manages well at home and bravely sets about her woman’s duties.

For marriage to be, as St Paul says, a revelation of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32) requires not simply virtuous and entrepreneurial women but men who are worthy husbands of such wives. Men who are worthy of women like those Solomon describes.

With His death on the Cross, the reign of sin and death comes to an end. Though composed of sinners, the Church is also “a city on a hill” and a “light to the nations” (Matthew 5:4). The Church is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and a “sign contradiction” (see Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22) to the kingdom of sin and death (Mark 1:14-15).

For the Church to fulfill her vocation requires that, like the good wife, Christians learn to be not only virtuous but practical. As we’ve seen throughout our mediations, wealth and power are blessings given to us by God for His glory and the salvation of the world. If we take seriously the “good wife” as a revelation of the Church, we must all–men and women–imitate both her virtue and her industry.

Having been freed from sin by Christ’s death and resurrection, fortified by the sacraments, and trained by the ascetical life, what Solomon presents as an ideal for some, is now a possibility for all.

Let us all of us then become a “good wife” by being a “good and faithful servant” who by our fidelity “over a few things” in the practical order, prove ourselves to be able to rule “over many things” and able to enter “into the joy of [our] Lord” (Matthew 25:23) in the Kingdom to come.

Kalo Pascha!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory