Entering Into Freedom

Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.

Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.

But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.

This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.

So what does?

Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.

…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.

Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.

And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.

And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.

We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.

Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.

You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).

Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.

And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.

When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Two Great Paradoxes of Human Life

Wednesday, March 7 (OS 22 February) 2018: Wednesday of the Third Week of Lent; Finding of the relics of the Holy Martyrs at the Gate of Eugenius at Constantinople (395-423); New Hieromartyrs Priests Joseph and Vladimir, Deacon John and Martyr John (1918); New Hieromartyrs Priests Michael, John, Victor, John, Sergius, Andrew, Venerable Martyrs Sergius and Antipas, Venerable Martyr Parasceva, Martyrs Stephen and Nicholas, Martyrs Elizabeth, Irene, and Barbara (1938); New Martyr Andrew (1941); New Venerable Martyr Philaret (1942); Martyrs Maurice and the 70 warriors, including Photinus, Theodore, Philip, and others at Apamea in Syria († c. 305); Venerable Thalassius, Limnæus, and Baradatus, Hermits of Syria (5th C); Venerable Athanasius the Confessor of Constantinople († 821); Holy Hierarch Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome; Holy Hierarch Titus, Bishop of Bostra; Holy Hierarch Abilius, Bishop of Alexandria; Venerable Babylas the Jester; New Hieromartyr Michael Lisitsyn († 1918).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 10:12-20
Vespers: Genesis 7:6-9
Vespers: Proverbs 9:12-18

At the heart of the Gospel is the convergence of divine grace and human agency. I clearly do things. The challenge of the spiritual is to remember that what I do, I do not simply by my effort but by divine grace. There are two ways in which I can go wrong.

The first, as the Isaiah suggests, is that I can forget or deny the necessity of grace. My freedom is God’s gift to me. God’s grace is what makes my freedom possible.

King of Assyria forgets this. God doesn’t deny the king’s accomplishments. These are real. What is punished is his “arrogant boasting” and “haughty pride” that doesn’t thank–or even acknowledge–God’s role in securing the king’s victory.

The other temptation is that I so over-emphasize God’s grace that I fail to acknowledge my role in my life. Yes, my freedom, my creativity, and intelligence are God’s gifts to me but they are gifts given to me to use as I see fit within the limits of ser by God.

We aren’t passive participants in our own lives. This isn’t what God wills for us and it isn’t what He asks from us. I am a partner with God in my own life. A junior partner to be sure but a partner at the same.

To see this we need look no further than the story of Noah. God calls him to build the ark, gather the animals and, in today’s reading, he “and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood.”

God “commanded Noah” and Noah exercised his creativity and freedom in obeying God. Actually, Noah’s freedom and creativity are revealed by his obedience. It is not an exaggeration to say Noah becomes more fully himself through his obedience to God.

Noah’s obedience and the King of Assyria’s arrogance share something in common. Both are the exclusive property of the man who acts. “If you are wise,” Solomon says, “you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone bear it.”

Virtue and vice, obedience and disobedience, humility and pride, all of these are the responsibility of the individual. While for many people (Christian or not) “individual” has a bad connotation, it does nevertheless serve to highlight the awesome–and at times frightening–responsibility each of us has for our own life.

Like divine grace, the life of the community is essential to our lives. But even if at times it causes me difficulties to do so, I can’t surrender my freedom to the demands of the community. I must freely affirm my membership in the various communities to which I belong.

The first great paradox of human life is this. When I surrender my freedom to the community, I cease to be a member of that community. I become instead a mere appendage to an anonymous collective, a cog in the machine.

To the mystery of divine grace and human freedom, we can now add the mystery of human uniqueness. We are each of us created in the image of God. For all our similarities, no two images are exactly the same.

Owing to the often subtle differences in life circumstances and to the different choices we make, as we grow in our likeness to God, our personal uniqueness is accentuated not diminished or obscured.

The second paradox of our life now comes to light.

To become more my own person, I must become more God’s. It is only through evermore freely saying “Yes” to God that I am able to become more fully who He created me to be.

Far from devaluing or denying human agency and the importance of the individual, the fidelity to the Gospel makes both possible.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory