Be of Good Cheer Little Flock

Sunday, January 5 (OS December 22) 2020: 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, of the Holy Fathers; Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ; Holy Ten Martyrs of Crete (III): Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompeius, Agathopus, Basilides, and Evaristus (250); St. Niphon, bp. of Cyprus (IV); St. Paul, Bishop of Neo-Caesaria (IV); St. Nahum of Ochrid, enlightener of the Bulgarians (910); Nativity fast, wine and oil allowed

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Geneology of Christ according to St. LukeSometimes we think of Christmas as the end of the story. This is, in a certain sense, reasonable. The last almost 40 days have after all been a preparation to celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ.

In another sense though, Christmas is only the beginning. It is the opening movement in a series of events that will see the Child grow into a Man, preach the Gospel, “heal the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, … set at liberty those who are oppressed” and “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4 18, 19, NKJV).

And as the fathers are keenly aware and quick to point out, Christmas Day announces the eventual death of Christ on the Cross, His three days in the tomb, and His resurrection from the dead.

In a similar way, the events of Christmas Day lead to all the good things that today we take, if not for granted, then as natural. Think of all the great accomplishments of Western culture; not only art, philosophy, and literature, but science, politics and economic development. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in spite of all our failures and enduring sinfulness, these are all the fruit of Christmas.

One can see this not simply in the great Christian cathedrals or lives and writings of the fathers and the saints. We can see this not only in art or liturgy but around us today here in Madison.

A great university, a vibrant (if frequently contentious) tradition of political involvement and philanthropic concern. All of these are at the fruit of the Christmas, the result of generations of men and women who united themselves to Christ in baptism, nourished themselves in Holy Communion and followed Him as His disciples and evangelists.

There is nothing good around us today, that doesn’t owe its existence in large part to the Gospel.

To be sure, this debt is often overlooked or when it isn’t actively denied. But for all that, the roots of not just Western culture or America but Madison are firmly planted in the Gospel.

As I mentioned a week or so ago, we live in politically and culturally contentious times. Whether this is more or less than at other times is an interesting question but rather beside the point. Whatever times we live are always marked by conflict, by the knee jerk willingness of partisans on each side to think the other side is if not actively evil, then benighted or simply foolish.

In this, our time is no different than the time into which Jesus was born. That time, like our time,  was disfigured by violence and contempt for others.

It is into that world, which is our world still today, that Jesus comes and preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of humanity with God and so with itself.

And like those times, our own times can seem overwhelming. Like the disciples in the early hours of Pascha, we are tempted to hide if not from “fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19) then, well, pick the person or group you fear most and so love least.

But now, as then, Jesus comes to stand in our midst, granting us His peace, breathing upon us the Holy Spirit and sending us out to proclaim the Gospel (John 20:21-23). Because you see, whether it is Christmas or Pascha, the Annunciation or Pentecost, the Gift, and the Call, are the same.

We are given not a word about Christ or even a share in His life. We are given at Christmas and every day, Christ Himself. And having received Him, He tells us what He told the disciples. “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Look around you.

Everything you see is the fruit of not just of Christmas but of that “little flock.” All around us we see the fruit of those in the Old Testament who lived in hope for His coming,p and those in the New Testament and throughout the history of the Church down to this day and in this place who in faith followed Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are that little flock not because we are few but because the Church always seems small in the face of human sinfulness. To us today, Jesus says as He did to Israel, never despair, never give up hope.

And He says to us today, as He did His disciples, do not be afraid, rather be “of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Spiritual Reading & Gratitude

Sunday, December 31 (December 18, OS): 30th Sunday after Pentecost: Sunday before Nativity, of the Holy Fathers; Martyr Sebastian at Rome and his companions (287); St. Modestus, archbishop of Jerusalem (4th c.). Ven. Florus, Bishop of Amisus (7th c.); Ven. Michael the Confessor at Constantinople (845).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrew 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

By divine grace, the broken men and women we hear about in today’s Gospel are all fit together as part of what St Augustine calls the divine catechesis. From Adam onward, Augustine says, God was slowly leading and purifying humanity until in the person of the Theotokos we are able to say “Yes” to Him and undo the disobedience of our First Parents.

As He has done from the beginning, God continues to for broken people together. Where once this was done to prepare humanity to receive His Son, now we are fit together as members of the Church. Once the Father fit broken people together to receive Christ. Today, He not only fits them together to become members Christ but to become alter Christus, or “another Christ.”

Having been joined to Christ’s Body the Church through Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion, we are called by the Father to share in the Son’s work of reconciling humanity to God and so overcoming the power of sin and death in their lives and our own.

The practical question before us is this: How do we, personally, fulfill our great calling?

We have the sacraments, the worship of the Church and the ascetical disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor. These are–or at least should be–a part of every Christian’s life. But I want to focus this morning not on these but on another discipline much loved by the fathers of the Church. Spiritual reading.

When Augustine first meets St Ambrose, he is quite impressed that the bishop of Milan is sitting at his desk reading the Scriptures. The practice in the ancient world was not to read the Bible but to listen to it being read. But Ambrose doesn’t listen to Scripture, he reads it. Astonishing as this is to Augustine, he is even more impressed that Ambrose is reading silently. He is concentrating s intensely on the task at hand that he is reading without moving his lips!

The regular, even daily, reading of Scripture is the foundation of all spiritual reading. It’s also something that is often neglected. St John Chrysostom tells his listeners “to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures” because “it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved without continually taking advantage of spiritual reading” of the Bible.

He goes on to say that

Reading the Scriptures is a great means of security against sinning. The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss; to know nothing of the divine laws is a great betrayal of salvation. This has given birth to heresies, this has introduced a corrupt way of life, this has put down the things above. For it is impossible, impossible for anyone to depart without benefit if he reads continually with attention (On Wealth and Poverty, Saint Vladimir Press, pg. 58-60).

Together with the Scriptures, we can also read the Church Fathers. Their works are the biblical commentaries of the Orthodox Church. In their words, we discover not only the meaning of Scripture but also how it can apply to our lives.

With Scripture and the fathers, we can also add philosophy as well as the findings of the sciences. Again, this is something that the fathers recommend to us. Reflecting on the place of “pagan,” that is “secular” learning, St Basil the Great says “Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so, the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely” (“Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” III).

Basil expands this to include not only philosophy and the sciences but also the great myths and poetry of the ancient world. In these, we find examples of both the virtues that lead to salvation and the vices that keep us from the Kingdom of Heaven. He goes so far as to say that when reading pagan literature we should we should “receive gladly those passages in which they praise virtue or condemn vice” (“Address,” IV).

Key to profitable spiritual reading, as St Basil suggests, is gratitude. I need to read with a grateful heart. To the grateful heart examples of vice are as profitable as virtue. The latter gives me examples to emulate, the former to avoid.

As I read with gratitude, my tendency to prefer my own judgment to the judgment of God will wane. This, in turn, will make it possible for me to recognize myself, my failures and successes, my vices and virtues, in what I read.

And slowly I begin to see how, like the ancestors of Christ, God has fit my brokenness into His plan of salvation not only for me but all humanity.

And, if I am inclined to do so, this growth in self-knowledge and understanding allows me to grow in a gracious and appreciative knowledge and understand others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!  Spiritual reading helps us cultivate the habit of gratitude to God for even the smallest hint of His grace. Yes, like all humanity we are broken. Through spiritual reading, however, we learn to be open to the traces of grace not only in the things we read but in our lives and the lives of those we meet daily.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory