Being Responsible

April 29 (O.S., April 16), 2018: Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralyzed Man. Righteous Tabitha (1st c.); Translation of the relics of Martyr Abramius of Bulgaria (1230). Virgin-martyrs Agape, Irene, and Chionia in Illyria (304). Martyrs Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista (Calisa), Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth (258).

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Before Jesus heals the paralytic He asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?”

On one level, this would seem to be an unnecessary question. The man is at the pool of Bethesda in the hope of being made whole. There is, however, a deeper meaning to Jesus’ question.

God respects our freedom; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. While “God created us without us,” says St Augustine, “He did not will to save us without us.”

This means Hell isn’t so much a punishment for sin but a sign of God’s great respect for our freedom. Out of His great love for me, God allows me to turn my back on Him even if this results in my condemnation.

Divine love is as different as can be from mere human sentimentality that seeks to alleviate suffering by violating the freedom of the person. For God, the human person is not an object of His love but a subject.

This means that God waits patiently for our free response to Him. He Who is our Friend desires that we should freely choose to be His friend (see John 15:15). And so Jesus asks the paralytic: “Do you want to be made well?”

Just as the question reveals to us something about God–that He respects our freedom–the man’s answer reveals something about our predicament as fallen human beings. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Hearing the same Gospel readings year after year can cause us to miss important points in the text. In this case, we might overlook the fact that the man’s paralysis is not absolute. He can move, if slowly and no doubt painfully.

Rather than taking his limitations into account–say by staying closer to the pool or asking for assistance–the man blames others for his inability to get to the pool. However understandable, the man doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his life.

When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made whole, He is asking the man if he wants to be responsible for his own life. And his willingness to be responsible for himself is in important.

A paralytic, after all, can live by begging. But an able-bodied man? He must work for a living. Being made whole means that he will now have to take care of himself. No more blaming others for what his situation.

The hymnography of the Church draws a parallel between our spiritual state and the man’s paralysis. Like the paralytic, I have reasons for not accepting responsibility for my decisions. And, just like the paralytic, my reasons are, to me at least, reasonable.

They are however only excuses.

In ways subtle and not so subtle, I want to want to hold other people responsible for my situation. Like Adam, I want to blame someone else for my sins. First, I’ll blame you; ultimately, I’ll blame God (see Genesis 3:12).

At some point, becoming an adult–to say nothing of becoming a saint–requires that I stop blaming others for my decision and accept responsibility for my own life. This, psychologically, is the essence of repentance.

Spiritually, repentance means more than just accepting responsibility for my life. The repentant heart is one that sees the whole of life as a gift to be received with gratitude from the hand of an All-loving God.

In the first flush of grace, this is easy.

But as we see toward the end of today’s Gospel, obedience to God will eventually put me in conflict with others. Obedience to God means conflict with those who prefer their own will to the will of God. “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, said to him who was cured, It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”

Even if I (mostly) avoid such conflict, being responsible for my own life means accepting the fact that my life unfolds in unexpected ways. Accepting with gratitude this life with all its successes and failures, its joys and disappointments, is the beginning of wisdom.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be wise!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Conflict With the World

Sunday, April 22 (O.S., April 9), 2018: Third Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Martyr Eupsychius (362). Martyrs Desan bishop, Mariabus presbyter, Abdiesus, and 270 other martyrs in Persia (362). Hieromartyr Bademus (Vadym), archimandrite of Persia (376).

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Given our history, it isn’t surprising that sometimes Orthodox Christians forget that there is a certain, necessary and inescapable tension and even conflict between the Church and the World. If at times, the City of God (the Church) and the City of Man (the World) can work collaboratively, this doesn’t mean that fundamentally the two cities aren’t in competition with each other.

We compete with the World for the human heart, for material resources, and space in the public square. Though we might sometimes shy away from thinking of the City of Man as in competition with the Church, if we are faithful to Christ we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with those around us. Or as the Apostle James bluntly puts it “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

Today’s commemoration of the Myrrh-bearing Women and the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus is an example of the tension between the City of God and the City of Man.

Jesus was put to death by crucifixion because the Roman Empire saw Him as a threat to their power and so the civil order. The Jewish authorities make exactly this charge against Jesus to force Pilate’s hand “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).

This means that to be a friend of Jesus was to be–at least potentially–an enemy of Caesar and against all that the Empire represented. This is the political and cultural context within which Joseph of Arimathea “taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Joseph isn’t simply risking the bad opinion of the other members of “the council,” of the Sanhedrin, of the ruling authority of the Jews.

As potentially harmful as this would be, by his actions Joseph also risks being labeled an opponent of Caesar. In asking for the body of Jesus, Joseph makes himself vulnerable to the charge of insurrection. This means that, like Jesus, Joseph could end his life on a cross.

Courageous though Joseph, and for that matter Nicodemus are, they are not the liturgical focus for the third Sunday after Pascha. That honor belongs to the Myrrh-bearing women “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome.”

Early on that first Pascha morning these women first “bought spices” and then went to Jesus’ tomb “so that they might go and anoint” His body. What Joseph and Nicodemus do privately in the presence of Pilate, these women do publicly. Before they go to the tomb, the women, known disciples of Jesus, go to the marketplace to buy what they need for his burial.

By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make clear their friendship with Jesus. By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make themselves the object of gossip. And in a small community, gossip can be deadly.

Like Joseph, doing this places the women at odds with Rome and the Sanhedrin. Doing this in the marketplace, however, places them at odds with their families and their friends, their neighbors and the whole community.

None of this, I should emphasize, was chosen by the women. They intend to do what too many Christians today seem dead set on doing.

They didn’t intend to give offense. They didn’t intend to set themselves at odds with the Jewish community and the Roman Empire.

All they wanted to do was mourn the loss of someone they loved.

Love for Jesus moves the Myrrh-bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to challenge both civil and religious authority. They don’t engage in revolution but they do remind both Jewish and Roman authorities that they too must be obedient to God. Real though their power is, neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin has the final word. This final word, as we soon see in the Gospel, belongs to Jesus.

Coming to the Tomb, the women find it empty.

Well, not exactly empty.

…entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

So overwhelming is the message that the women flee “from the tomb.” Initially, at least, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Soon though the same love that gave them the courage to proclaim their love for Jesus in the marketplace, will turn Mary Magdalene into the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her joy at the Resurrection will overwhelm her grief, her love will banish her fear, and she will tell the disciples that “Christ is Risen!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Whenever we can, however we can, we should live peacefully with others. We should be eager to cooperate with other Christians as well as those of good will in whatever projects that alleviate suffering, foster a more just society or lead to a more peaceful world.

But what we can never forget is that there will be times when our love for Jesus Christ, our faith in Him as Lord and God and our witness to His Resurrection, will put us at odds with even those who are–in every other way–like a second self to us. Unpleasant, or worse, that these moments might be, they are not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world and for those who, in the moment, make themselves opponents of the Gospel.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Love Sustains and Strengths Faith in Christ

Sunday, April 15 (O.S., April 2), 2018: Antipascha; Second Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of St. Thomas; Ven. Titus the Wonderworker (9th c.). Martyrs Amphianus and Edesius of Lycia (306). Martyr Polycarp of Alexandria (4th c.).

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

From the beginning, doubt has traveled alongside the proclamation of the Gospel. Take the response of the disciples in the final moments before Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

We read in today’s Matin’s Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) that when the disciples saw, for what would be the last time, their once-dead Friend now clearly very much alive again “they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (v. 17). Even though they had spent 40 days with the Risen Lord Jesus and even though they worshipped Him as “Lord and God” (see John 20:28), some still struggled with doubt.

While the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead is often met with great joy by those closest to Him, some will respond with disbelief.

Look at Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus “had cast seven demons.” Though initially overcome with amazement and fear on that first Pascha morning, she quickly gets control of herself and goes to the other disciples “as they mourned and wept” and tells them that Jesus is alive. But, as St Mark says the apostles “did not believe” her (Mark 16:9-11). Or, as St Luke bluntly states, the Good News of the Resurrection seems to St Peter and the other apostles seems “an idle tale.” Mary and the other women are simply not believed (Luke 24:11).

Seen in the light of these events today’s Gospel is neither a surprise nor a scandal. We shouldn’t imagine that the apostles and disciples had an easier time of believing because they were witnesses to the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was not simply a new thing, it was unheard of. Yes, the disciples eventually became witnesses–even to the point of death–but for all of them, faith in the resurrection only came over time. Even when standing before the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, faith can be a struggle.

In the tradition of the Church, doubt isn’t fundamentally a matter of intellectual uncertainty. If it were, then proclaiming the Gospel would be simply a matter of presenting solid evidence in a logically and compelling fashion.

We think of doubt as intellectual uncertainty because we have confused the Church with the school room or the law court. This though makes faith in Jesus Christ not a gift of divine grace to be received with a humble and thankful heart but the work of human reason; not the work of God but of the skilled debaters of this age (see 1 Corinthians 1:20).

To say that faith is not the work of human reason doesn’t make faith in Jesus Christ unreasonable. Look at St Thomas in today’s Gospel. When his fellow disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord,” he demands a very particular kind of proof. He will not believe, he says “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side.”

Thomas demands not biblical citations or philosophical arguments but empirical validation. He will only believe when the evidence of his senses confirms the Resurrection. In this, the Apostle Thomas is one of the first Christian scientists.

It’s worth noting that when Jesus again appears to the disciples–this time with Thomas among them–He doesn’t dismiss Thomas’s call for empirical evidence. Instead, Jesus freely offers it. This is why the icon for today’s feast is called in Greek, “The Touching of Thomas” and in The Slavonic “The Belief of Thomas.”

Thomas asks for and receives from Jesus the evidence he needs to believe.

The first lesson here for us is clear. Contrary to what we often hear, science and the Gospel are not opposed. Far from being the enemy of faith, science can support the Gospel and even lead us to faith. Yes, as St Thomas and the other disciples find out, the glory of the Resurrection transcends what empirical science can know; Jesus walks through locked doors; St Peter’s shadow, as we read in Acts, restores the sick to health.

To say that science supports and can even lead to faith in Jesus Christ is very different from saying that faith is dependent on human reason. While Jesus is willing to provide the evidence Thomas needs, our Lord immediately follows this with a caution: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The Apostle Thomas asks for a particular kind of evidence–in this case empirical–because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. In fairness, as we’ve seen and will see again next week, Thomas is not unique in this. Again, on that first Pascha morning, the apostles doubted the Myrrhbearing Women even as the women doubted the testimony of the angel.

Why didn’t Thomas trust his fellow apostles?

The answer is easy enough. He didn’t believe them because he knew them! St Peter denied Jesus three times. Except for John, all the apostles abandoned Jesus.

But even John’s witness was lacking. In the days leading up to Holy Week, he and his brother James try to promote themselves over the other disciples asking Jesus to allow them to sit at His right and left hands when He comes in glory (see Mark 10:35-37).

The very presence of the apostles in the upper room reflects their lack of faith. They were there, behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19).

So what does this all mean for us as Orthodox Christians as we gather together to pray in a small room on the campus of a sometimes aggressively secular university campus?

First, we must keep in mind that human reason and science are not the enemies of the Christian faith. This is so even when, as often happens, they are misused. As St Paul reminds us whatever is true, just as whatever is noble, … just, … pure, … lovely, … of good report,” virtuous or “praiseworthy” all these can and often do strengthen us in our faith even as they can lead those outside the Church to faith in Jesus Christ (see Philippians 4:8).

Second, I must attend to the moral integrity of my witness. By my actions, I can be a bridge to Christ or a wall that obscures Him. Am I a credible witness to divine love, mercy, and forgiveness or do my actions bear witness to some other god, a god of my own creation?

Third and for now last, what of the quality of our life as a community? Tertullian in his defense of the Gospel writes “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead” the pagans to recognize Christians as followers of Jesus. “See how they love one another,” he says the pagans say. For while the pagans “are animated by mutual hatred” Christians are “are ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our love for each other and for those outside the walls of the church this morning that leads others to faith in Jesus Christ. This mutual love also sustains and strengths our faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Archpastoral Paschal Letter 2018

To the Beloved-of-God Pastors, Venerable Monastics,
and all the Faithful Children of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the Diaspora and in Ukraine
 
“It is the day of Resurrection, let us be illumined O people! Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha; for Christ God has led us from death unto life, and from earth to heaven, as we sing a song of victory.” (Paschal Canon)
 
Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers!  Dear Brothers and Sisters!
 
Christ is Risen!
 
Today the visible and invisible worlds rejoice, today human voices unite themselves with the voices of the Holy Angels who glorify the Saviour of the world, Christ, risen from the dead.  BHis Resurrection, Christ opened to us the path to eternal and blessed life.  He, as the Sun of Righteousness, shines His Divine Radiance upon the entire universe, pouring out the rays of His salvific light on all who with faith and love approach Him.
 
St. Gregory the Theologian, in his paschal sermon, declares: “Pascha – this is the feast of feasts and the festival of festivals, which outshines all other solemnities as much as the sun outshines the stars.” 
 
The entire Orthodox world has just recently experienced the events of Passion week.  All we Orthodox Christians have spiritually experienced the derision and suffering which Christ experienced during the final days of His earthly life.  One of His disciples betrayed Him; though innocent, He was condemned, scourged, spat upon, mocked, and crucified upon the Cross.  It seemed that death, hatred, and evil had triumphed.  Some believed that the Saviour would have no followers, for He was no longer among the living.
 
But we see that Christ, through His Resurrection, was victorious over the enemy of the human race, He destroyed the gates of hell, “by death He trampled down death,” and opened to us the doors of the Heavenly Kingdom.  
 
By His Resurrection, Christ showed forth His Divinity and offered us the promise of our own future resurrection.
 
The Resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our faith, and faith is that which is most important and necessary in the life of every person.  The faith of the apostles was strengthened by the Resurrection of Christ, which was renewed in them by the Holy Spirit and gave them the strength and inspiration to preach the word of God and to establish the Church of Christ on earth.
 
The holy apostles speak of the Resurrection of Christ not only as an event in the earthly life of the Saviour but as an event in the life of each of us who receive the good news of Pascha: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (Rm. 8:11).
 
Through His death on the Cross, Christ accomplished the cleansing of the sins of the entire human race.  The Resurrection of the Saviour has granted eternal life to each of us.  But faith in the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ is, by itself, insufficient.  A deep unity with God in all aspects of our life is absolutely necessary.  The Holy Apostle Paul teaches us: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rm. 6: 5-6).
 
Our earthly life, and our attitude towards God and neighbour, should bear the seal of an unbreakable unity with the Lord God.  St. John the Theologian says: “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him” (Jn. 12:26).
 
Observing the actual state of things in the world we see the spiritual and moral decay of humanity.  Hatred and wickedness rule in the world, which leads to murder and war.  The contemporary person runs after material values, ignoring the spiritual. So let us not forget about our youth and children – let us call them to their natal Church and to God.  For they are our future.  May the Risen Christ help all of us to conquer sin and enter onto the path of salvation.
 
During this year we will mark the 100th anniversary of our Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada and in the USA.  Let us prayerfully remember all the founders, benefactors, and builders of our temples and strive to continue their work for the benefit of the Holy Church.
 
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
 
The Holy Evangelist John the Theologian writes that the first words of Christ the Saviour to His disciples after His Resurrection from the dead were “Peace be to you” (Jn. 20:19). We should receive these words with special feeling today because it is exactly peace and concord which the contemporary world needs.  “When we lose peace, we then become enemies of those who heard from Christ ‘Peace be to you,” says St. John Chrysostom.
 
And so let us strive to protect this peace, and in our prayers to ask the Risen Christ that He would rule in Ukraine, in our communities, families, and most importantly in the souls of each one of us.  During this magnificent feast of the Holy Pascha of the Lord, we prayerfully beseech the Christ the Risen Saviour and our God, that He would bless our Ukrainian nation and grant it unity, peace, spiritual and economic growth.
 
May the Risen Christ strengthen our faith, fill our hearts with spiritual joy, and increase love, that we would be able to enjoy the joy of the bright Paschal days in complete fullness.  
 
May the Blessing of the Risen Christ be with all of you!
 
Truly, Christ is Risen!