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

Faith & Reason, Charity & Prudence

Sunday, April 7 (OS March 25), 2019: 4th Sunday of Lent; Sunday of St John of the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the Feast of the Holy Annunciation of the Theotokos; Martyr Victoria

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18/6:1-20
Gospel: Luke 1:24-34/Mark 9:17-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The hymnography for the Feast of the Annunciation includes a conversation between the Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel.

In response to Gabriel’s announcement that she is to give birth to the Son of God, the Virgin Mary asks the angel as to how this is even possible: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

Though she doesn’t understand how God’s will for her is to be accomplished, in humility she accepts the divine will calling herself “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

The humility of her response, however, is not passive. Nor does it reflect a simplification of the complexity of God’s will for her life. Though she responds in a common-sense manner to the angel’s message—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?—the hymnography makes it clear that she is not naïve.

Immediately after raising the biological question, the hymnography tells us Mary turns to philosophy: “How shall I become the Mother of my Maker?’” How, in other words, will the creature conceive and contain in her womb the Creator?

Mary’s questions however are not merely speculative. She is motivated by a concern for the whole human family. She is aware that the last time an angel appeared to a virgin–the Serpent to Eve in the Garden–things ended badly for us.

As we reflect on the Virgin’s hesitancy we come to see that it reflects not a lack of faith on her part. Rather, she is moved by an abundance of charity. No matter how great the honor offered her, she doesn’t want to act impulsively; the reward is great but is great as well.

We can apply to Mary the Solomon’s description of the wise man:

The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident (Proverbs 14:15-16, NKJV).

Mary is no fool! She is wise and carefully thinks through the implications of her actions.

She reflects on the Angel’s greeting not only in light of Scripture but also science and philosophy. The Handmaiden of the Lord is obedient and charitable but also respectful of reason and what reason knows.

So what does all this mean for us?

In the Mother of God we see the harmony–the synergy–of faith and reason, of charity and prudence.

Faith without reason is mere fantasy even as reason without faith is idle speculation.

Likewise, charity needs prudence since without the ability to give practical expression to our concern for others we are left with mere sentimentality. As for prudence, without love it is cowardice.

When I violate the partnership between faith and reason or charity and prudence and I set the stage for violence. Violence not only in society but in the Church, the family and in our personal lives.

Sentimentality gives rise to violence because it demands recognition. For the one gripped by the passion of sentimentality, it isn’t enough that he feels happy or sad; others must join him in his feelings. And, if they don’t or won’t, they must be made to comply.

All this is so because once we break the inherent connection between faith and reason, between charity and prudence, we set ourselves adrift. We strip ourselves of everything except our current emotion or most recent thought or most pressing desire. We become slaves to our own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In other words, faith without reason, charity without prudence, is precisely that from which God comes to save us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We see in the Mother of God an icon of the faithful, loving and rational disciple of Christ. In her faith and reason, charity and prudence are not only in harmony with each other but also at the service of the Gospel.

She is as well the icon of the Christian professional, the Christian scholar, the Christian scientist.

We see in her what it means to give ourselves wholly to Christ not only for our own sake but for the salvation of the world. And so we see in her both our vocation as disciples and apostles of Christ but also as citizens of a Republic.

May God through the prayers of the Holy Theotokos grant us a life faithful reason, rational faith, charitable prudence and prudent charity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preparing for Joy

Sunday, March 17 (O.S., March 4), 2019: Triumph of Orthodoxy; St. Gerasimus of the Jordan (475). St. Julian, patriarch of Alexandria; (189); St. James the Faster of Phoenicia (Syria) (6th c.); Martyr Wenceslaus, prince of the Czechs (938); Blessed Basil (Basilko), prince of Rostov (1238).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

If our willingness to forgive others is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that God in Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and forgiven us our trespasses, then joy is the evidence of the sincerity of our forgiveness. To see this, we need to distinguish joy from its cousins pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is a bodily experience while happiness is a psychological one. For example, I get pleasure from eating ice cream and I am happy that I have eaten it.

Joy, however, is different. Joy is the conviction that no matter what happens to me, no matter what I suffer or how I fail, God will bring good out of this.

Joy says with the Apostle Paul, “we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV). That is to say,

…to those who have united themselves to the God Who has united Himself to them,

…to those who love their neighbor because they love God,

…to those who forgive because they have been forgiven,

…God brings good out of all they experience.

And the good that God brings is not simply for those of us who are believers. The good that God brings for us is not for us alone but for those around us.

We see this in the saints of the Old Testament who endured suffering as they waited for the Messiah. They hoped for the gift we received.

We see this as well in the saints of the New Testament who, like Andrew, having personally encountered Jesus were eager to share their new found joy with others.

Without joy, without the conviction that as Julian of Norwich says that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”  life becomes unbearable.

And life becomes unbearbale whether we fail or succeed.

If I fail, the absence of joy drives me to despair. How can what I have done be undone? How can my failures be made right?

If I succeed, the absence of joy drives me to anxiety. Will I succeed tomorrow? Will the things I’ve done today be undone tomorrow?

Faced with a joyless life I flee to a life of pleasure; I pursue happiness. Only to realize that happiness like pleasure is fleeting. Like an addict, if I pursues pleasure I quickly discover that what felt good yesterday, flees less good today. The same with happiness.

And so when my life is joyless, I soon give up trying to feel good. Since pleasure and happiness are fleeting, I instead work to avoid pain. But this too proves to be an illusion:

The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.ut this too proves to be an illusion (Psalm 90:10).

Where then is joy to be found? How then do I foster a life of joy?

We need–I need–to first realize that joy is not pleasure or happiness; it is neither bodily or psychological but spiritual and as such it is a gift from God. St Paul tells us that together with love, peace ,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

Of these, the only one that is at least partially within our power is self-control. To grow in joy, I must first master myself. This is the purpose of the ascetical of the Church.

Slowly, year after year, as I take on the Church’s proscribed ascetical disciplines, I grow in self-control. While never denying the fundamental goodness of pleasure and happiness, the Church’s ascetical tradition teaches me the limits of both.

But the Church’s offers more than simply a lesson of the limits of pleasure and happiness. From the moral tradition of the Church, I learn the virtuous ways to experience pleasure and happiness.

Ultimately though, I find–we find–the source of joy in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Personal prayer and ascetical effort good though they are are insufficient for the joyful life.

Likewise, as good as they are, the liturgical life of the Church–the daily cycle of service, the devotional services and even the Divine Liturgy itself–is insufficient.

We find joy in the sacraments; it is born in the waters of baptism, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion and restored by Holy Confession when we fall into sin.

The season of the Great Fast is nothing more or less than our preparation for joy!

Not simply the joy of Pascha, not simply the joy of the One Day, but of a life of joy!

During the Great Fast we intensify our prayer and ascetical efforts so that we can remove from our lives anything that quenches the Spirit. We abstain from evil, examine our lives carefully, attend closely to the Scriptures, so that we can recognize and “hold fast to that which is good” where ever we may find it (see, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us prepare ourselves for the joyful life that Christ stands ready to give us and, through us, to the world!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

Don’t Murder Love

Sunday, March 10 (O.S.: February 25), 2019: Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise (Forgiveness or Cheesefare Sunday).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slapping me on the shoulder, my friend Rabbi Joe once told me, “I like you, Fr Gregory! You think like a Jew! You forgive everything but forget nothing!”

I’m not exactly sure what Rabbi meant but I’ll defer to his judgment as to what it means to be Jewish. What I can say is that forgiveness is central to both Judaism and Christianity.

For Orthodox Christianity, forgiveness is the evidence of the truth of the Gospel that

Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!

Jesus tells us not only to forgive our enemies and love those who persecute us (see Matthew 5:44) but that we are to do so “seven times seventy time” (see Matthew 18:22).

And when He appears to His disciples after the Resurrection He grants them the power to “bind and loosen” (Matthew 18:18) the sins of others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

In all this, we should lose sight of the fact that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven by God.

For most of us, most of the time, the sins we forgive, like the sins for which we need forgiveness, are usually petty. We are all of us primarily perpetrators and victims not of great injustices but minor annoyances. We are slowly “nibbled to death by ducks” rather than quickly killed by the sword.

This is why in her wisdom, the Church asks us to begin the season of the Great Fast by participating in the Rite of Mutual Forgiveness. We have all of us sinned against each of us even if only in mostly minor ways.

There is a caution that is important here.

The formality of the rite–”Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives!”–is appropriate when the offense is minor and so easily forgiven and forgotten.

But if the offense is serious, if we were the victim or perpetrator of some great injustice, the formality of the rite is inappropriate. Simply saying “Forgive me a sinner!” would work against forgiveness and undermine reconciliation.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the words would not unreasonably be seen as a way of minimizing the harm and of forgetting the past without working to build–or rather, re-build, trust.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the Rite of Forgiveness erodes whatever trust is left between us. It says to the one I have harmed that I don’t take seriously the offense I’ve given and so I don’t take seriously the harm he has suffered.

As I said, the Rite of Forgiveness isn’t meant to undo “deadly sins” (see 1 John 5:17) but the myriad minor infractions we all of us commit and suffer daily. The latter can be easily forgiven, while the former requires not only that I go to Holy Confession but that I seek to make right personally and practically the wrong that I’ve done.

But today, today we approach each other with a generous, forgiving and repentant heart for the small offenses we have given and received.

But this doesn’t undermine what I said a moment ago. Our mutual forgiveness is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that the power of sin and death have been overcome (see Romans 8:2).

For all that any single offense is minor, in the aggregate, they are as deadly as any single serious sin.

The sad truth is that just as love between a husband and wife, to take only one example, can be killed by one instance of adultery, it can be ground down and destroyed by daily indifference. And like in marriage, infidelity in the spiritual life need not be dramatic to be deadly.

Thinking back almost 30 years later to my friend the late Rabbi Joe, I think what he meant to say was that, a good Jew (and so a good Christian), must always be ready to forgive but never at the expense of denying the harm we do to each other.

Without forgiveness, the harm we do by even the smallest offense is multiplied, eroding trust and affection until love is murdered. Not only is this is something we can never forget, it is something we need to remember.

Let me speaks now simply for myself.

I need to remember this.

I need to remember this not to justify holding grudges but as a reminder of my need to forgive.

I need to remember that even small offenses, over time, will kill love.

Above all, I need to actively seek and extend forgiveness not just for serious sins but also the myriad small and petty offenses of daily life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Joy of Judgment

Sunday, March 2 (OS., February 18) 2019: Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday); St. Leo the Great, pope of Rome (461). St. Agapitus, bishop of Synnada in Phrygia (4th c.). St. Flavian the Confessor, patriarch of Constantinople (449). St. Cosmas, monk, of Yakhromsk (1492).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church. Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Every year when we come to this Sunday, my attention is drawn to the kontakion for the feast. Every year we are reminded by the Church that there will come a day for all of us when “the books will be opened and all secrets disclosed.”

This day when the book of my life is opened and all my secrets are revealed is the Last Judgment. And, as both the Scriptures and the icon of the feast make clear, all of this will be public.

It isn’t just, in other words, that the book of my life and my secrets will be known by Jesus; He already knows me better than I know myself. No, on that Great and Last Day, the whole of my life–the virtuous and the vicious–will be laid out for the angels and all humanity to see.

From one perspective, the dread and anxiety that I, or really any of us, feel at the thought of standing naked before all creation is understandable. As we’ve talked about before, all of us have done things about which we are naturally and justly ashamed. This what St Paul means when he says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NJKV).

But if we are honest with ourselves, there is no real comfort in the universality of sin and shame. As will hear next week, after their transgression our First Parents “knew that they were naked” and in reaction “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings” to hid not from God but from each other (Genesis 3:7).

However understandable is the dread I experience at the prospect of the Last Judgment, my fear is itself the consequence of sin. Like Adam and Eve in the moments after the Fall, it is because I am still unrepentant that I fear being known not only by God but by you as well.

In a fallen world, we spend immense amounts of time, energy and wealth hiding not only from God and each other but from ourselves. We craft believable, but ultimately false, images of ourselves. We work so hard to remain unknown and unseen even by those to whom we are closest.

The tragedy of all this is that the only real consequence of hiding is that we are lonely.

Seen from this perspective, far from being something to fear the Last Judgment is something to be desired. Rather than flee from the Judgment which is to come, we should prepare for it with joyful anticipation. To know the judgment of God and is to know the fullness of His love!

The Last Judgment is the moment in which finally all the lies we tell ourselves and all the shame that cripple us melt away in the fire of God’s love. It is the moment in which, finally, we are known and loved for who we are and not who we pretend to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we are finally able to love others for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which the power and glory of God’s supra-abundant love are made clear for all to see.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we together with all creation are illumined by that love.

The Last Judgment is the moment in which we will come to know not only God but ourselves and each other.

If all this is true, why am I still afraid?

Because my love is still immature, still imperfect. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that we will be judged based on how we care–or don’t–for others. It isn’t enough to have faith since ”Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19).

St James is unstinting in his condemnation of what the philosopher Etienne Gilson calls “piety without technique.” The Apostle’s clarity is brutal the kind of faith that says to the poor, hungry and naked, “‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’” but doesn’t “give them the things which are needed for the body is the faith of demons. And so he says faith that “does not have works, is dead”  (James 2:16, 17).

We must be cautious here.

St Paul tells us our faith is not about what we eat or drink but about what we freely do out of love for Christ and our neighbor. A few chapters after today’s epistle, he reminds the Corinthians that while miracles have their place, what matters most is the wisdom that reveals the secrets of the human heart and moves the unbelievers to fall down on their faces to “worship God.” Our works must not only be practical but be inspired by the divine wisdom that transforms unbelievers into disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ who go on to “report that God is truly among you” (see 1 Corinthians 14:25).

All that we do–the sacraments, the services of the Church, our personal prayer, our asceticism and yes, our good deeds–have only one goal. We do all these things to strip away the lies and the shame that would kill love.

As these things fall away, we grow in wisdom and become a bit more who we will be revealed to be at the Last Judgment.

And on that Day?

On that Day, we will be clothed in Divine Glory as were Adam and Eve before the Fall.

On that Day, our beauty will be there for all creation to see.

On that day, we will thank God not only for the gift of our own lives but the lives of all humanity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we prepare to begin the Great Fast, let us not lose sight of the fact that we are getting ready not simply to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ but moving toward the Last Judgment, for that Great Day when “God will wipe away every tear” and when “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things” the lies and the shame of sin, will “have passed away.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory