The Wise Are Like God

Tuesday, March 20 (O.S., March 7), 2018: Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent; the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste († c.320): Cyrion, Candidus, Domnus, Hesychius, Iraclius, Smaragdus, Eunoicus, Valentus, Vivian, Claudius, Priskus, Theodulus, Eutichius, John, Xanthus, Ilian, Sisinius, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Dometian, Gaius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyrill, Sakerdonus, Nicholas, Valerius, Philoctimon, Seberian, Chudionus, Aglaius, and Meliton; Hieromartyrs Basil, Ephraim, Eugene, Elpidius, Agathodorus, Aetherius, and Kapiton of Cherson (4th C); New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1930); New Venerable Martyrs Nilus, Matrona, Mary, Eudocia, Catherine, Antonina, Nadezhda, Xenia and Anna († 1938); Venerable Paul the Simple (4th C); Holy Hierarchs Nestor and Arcadius, Bishops of Tremethus in Cyprus; Venerable Emilian, in the world Victorinus, of Italy; St. Paul the Confessor the Bishop of Plusias (9th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 40:18-31
Vespers: Genesis 15:1-15
Vespers: Proverbs 15:7-19

The reading from Isaiah begins with a challenge. God asks humanity “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with Him?” God answers His own question by calling humanity to account for our idolatry: “The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.”

God quickly points out the inherent weakness of the idol. Some are covered with gold and held in place with “silver chains.” Others are made of “wood that will not rot” by skilled craftsman who carefully places the idol in its niche so that it “will not move.”

The irony here is clear. It is human ingenuity and skill that protects from damage and rot the idol crafted to protect the worshipper.

Unlike the idol, “the work of human hands” (see Psalm 115:4 and 135:15), the Lord doesn’t need my protect. God creates the earth and rules over it as its absolute Lord.

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

God has no equal and His will “is unsearchable.” While even the young grow “faint and … weary” God is mighty and “strong in power.” What strength we have, we have as God’s gift.

It is this God Who makes a covenant with Abram, promising that he will be a great nation.

In the ancient near east, when a covenant was made, both parties would walk between the split animals calling on themselves a curse if they failed to live up to their side of the bargain. When the covenant is made between only God and Abram, only passes between the animals (Genesis 15:7). God takes on Himself the whole penalty for any violation of His agreement with Abram.

The Creator of Heaven and Earth doesn’t just make a covenant with us. In Jesus Christ, He willingly bears the cost of our violation of the agreement.

God’s willingness to suffer a curse that I bring on myself by my own folly and sin is central to the Gospel. Understanding this helps us see a depth of meaning in Solomon’s extended praise of wisdom in Proverbs.

The wisdom of the wise isn’t passive but dynamic. God the Creator of the “all things visible and invisible” (Creed) takes on Himself the sins of the world and so brings about reconciliation. In imitation of God, the wise man by his wisdom brings peace not only to himself but to others.

Beginning with himself, the wise man reconciles humanity to God. This is why the wise man “pursues righteousness” and, unlike the fool, loves reproof. In stark contrast to both God and the wise man, the fool is “hot-tempered” and “stirs up strife.”

As we’ve seen throughout our reflections of Proverbs, wisdom doesn’t just bring peace; it also brings prosperity. In part, as we read today, this happens because the wise man is content with however much or little he has. “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”

For Solomon, however, detachment from wealth and power is very different from rejecting or disparaging wealth and power. Wisdom is found, as the reading from Isaiah suggests, in understand what wealth and power can and can’t do.

The paradox is this: I become like God the more I realize I am not like Him.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Repentance the Gift Condemns Me

Monday, March 19 (O.S., March 6), 2018: Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent; 42 Martyrs of Ammoria in Phrygia († c. 845): Theodore, Constantine, Aetius, Theophilus, Basoes, Callistus, and others; ; Hieromartyr Conon and his son Conon of Iconium († 270-275); Venerable Arcadius of Cyprus (4th C); Venerable Abraham of Bulgaria; Holy Hierarchs Evagrius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople; Holy Hierarch Taranius, Bishop of Antioch; Venerable Fridolinus, Abbot of Sakingena; Martyr Gregorisus; Venerable Job, in Schema Joshua, of Anzer († 1720); Finding of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Holy Empress Helen in Jerusalem (326); Icons of the Mother of God: “Chenstokhov” (1st C), “Blessed Heaven” (14th C) and “Shestokovskoy” (18th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 37:33-38:6
Vespers: Genesis 13:12-18
Vespers: Proverbs 14:27-15:4

Reading the passage from Isaiah quickly, we might overlook the fact that–in both cases–God is merciful. Both kings suffer. The King of Assyria is defeated in battle, Hezekiah suffers a debilitating and–but for God’s intervention–fatal disease. The difference in outcomes between the two rulers is straightforward. Hezekiah repents, the Assyrian king doesn’t.

Repentance requires more than I’m sorry for my sins. This, after all, can be motivated as much by being disappointed with myself as easily as it can an awareness that I’ve strayed from God’s will. Often the sorrow I feel is more the former than the latter.

While sorrow is the opening moment of repentance, in the full sense I need to move past my distress. Repentance requires not bad feelings but a change of heart (metanoia). Not grief for my failure, but obedience to the will of God.

We have an example of obedience in Abraham.

God promises the patriarch that He will give him “the land of Canaan.” Abram (as Abraham is still called), we receive from God all the land he can see from where he stands. “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants forever.”

To this promise, God adds that Abram’s descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.”

At God’s command, Abram walks “the length and breadth of the land.” Eventually, he comes to “the oaks of Mamre” pitches his tent and worships God.

The metanoia God seeks from me isn’t simply sorrow for my sin, it isn’t even obedience. What God seeks from me is my willingness to still myself and, like Abram, worship Him.

Material wealth, political power and military prowess, these are celebrated by the Old Testament as God’s blessings. The coming of Christ doesn’t undo any of this or any of the other blessings God bestows on His Israel.

What Christ does, is make available to us the wisdom without which material and social blessings become traps. As Solomon says

The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing, but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity. Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding, but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.

It isn’t that the King of Assyria was a sinner and Hezekiah wasn’t. It isn’t that one man regretted and the other didn’t. It is rather that, like Abram, one man worshipped God and made God’s will his own.

Without the wisdom that comes from the “fear of the LORD” the blessings God give us remain fallow. Separated from a living awareness of God’s gifts as exactly that, His gifts to me, I begin to think of God’s blessings as my own achievements.

As gratitude withers, prides grows until “passion makes the bones rot.” and I become the man who “oppresses the poor” and “insults God.”

But Christians who reject or minimize material and social blessings are equally misguided. These are given to us so that we can share in God’s redemptive work. Like the man who uses them for his own selfish ends, the Christian who turns his back of these blessings–or condemns those to whom God has given them–and becomes one “who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Challenge of a Life Without Shame

Friday, March 16 (O.S., March 3), 2018: Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent; Martyrs Eutropius, Cleonicus and Basiliscus of Amasea († c. 308); New Venerable Martyr Martha and Martyr Michael († 1938); Venerable Virgin Piama († 337); Sts. Zeno and Zoilus; Icon of the Mother of God of Volokolamsk (1572).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 29:13-23
Vespers: Genesis 12:1-7
Vespers: Proverbs 14:15-26

My words and deeds often don’t align because, as the reading from Isaiah suggests, I am often ashamed of myself.

It may be that I have shameful thoughts or done shameful deeds. Just as likely, however, I may be ashamed of the Gospel. Or maybe, I don’t want to behave in such a way that makes clear that I am a Christian. I can be ashamed of goodness as easily as wickedness.

Shame is insidious. It twists and distorts my heart, my relationships with God and neighbor. The great challenge in overcoming shame is that it rarely travels along a clean, straight line. Rather shame mixes everything together, it’s a jumble of sharp edges that cut and dull edges that bludgeon.

The prophet Isaiah summarizes the experience when he says to shame, “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay; that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?”

Yes, a life free from shame is desirable. Accustomed as I am to shame’s many burdens and limitations, however, the offer of liberation is unsettling, frightening even. I may not like shame, but at least it’s familiar.

This is why, as in Genesis, the spiritual life is often described as a journey to a strange land. I may not like shame but it at least as the “virtue” of familiarity. In a fallen world, shame is my native land, my “father’s house.”

When I hear the offer of salvation not simply as the promise of heaven at the end of my life but as freedom from shame in this life, like Abram I’m not sure I want to make the journey.

Freedom from shame not only means traveling to a strange (emotionally and spiritually) land. It also means becoming a new person–Abram becomes Abraham–who has new and rather intimidating responsibilities.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.

What if, shame insinuates, I’m not up for the challenge? I’ve failed before, why do I think I won’t fail again? Maybe I’d be better off staying where I am.

To this Solomon responds the “simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going. A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool throws off restraint and is careless.”

Hearing the offer of salvation, I need to look carefully not only at where I’m going but where I am. And where I am isn’t good. Yes, I need to be cautious and not run headlong into the future. I need to do this though not because God can’t be trusted but because in those first few moments of the journey I’m still unsure of myself.

Accustomed as I am to shame, I will at first find my new freedom in Christ intoxicating. Being still unsure of what God wants for me, and from me, I can become quick-tempered, acting too quickly and so “foolishly.” If I’m not cautious, shame can again trap me causing me to be arrogant or to express myself with an unwise zeal.

I need to give myself time to adjust to this new life, this new journey. I need to acquire “discretion” and prudence. In a word, I need to grow in wisdom.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Contracts, Folly and Wisdom

Thursday, March 15 (O.S., March 2), 2018: Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent; Icon of the Mother of God ‘She who Reigns’ (1917); Hieromartyr Theodotus, Bishop of Cyrenia († c. 326); St. Arsenius the Bishop of Tver († 1409); Martyr Euthalia of Sicily († 257); Martyr Troadius of Neocæsarea (3rd C); Venerable Agathon of Egypt (5th C); 440 Martyrs slain by the Lombards in Sicily († 579); Venerable Sabbas, Barsonuphius, Sabbatius, and Euphrosinus of Tver.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 28:14-22
Vespers: Genesis 10:32-11:9
Vespers: Proverbs 13:19-14:6

Contracts are essential not only to civil society but also our life in Christ. In Jesus Christ, God makes a covenant–a contract–with us. At baptism, God incorporates us into His Body the Church. He seals this new relationship in chrismation; in Holy Communion, we receive a foretaste of the life to come.

The other sacraments build on this baptismal covenant.

Each sacrament renews and strengthens the promise that binds God to us and us to God and each other. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the sacred contract between God and His People is the archetype for all other civil contracts. God’s covenant with His People is the standard against which all other contracts and promises we make between ourselves are judged.

All of this helps us understand the horror that opens today’s reading from Isaiah.

The rulers of Jerusalem made a contract, “a covenant with death.” Rather than looking to God for their salvation. They make a contract with (Hades or Hell), so that “when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us.”

As the next few verses make clear, this covenant with death is made of “lies” and “falsehood.” In effect, the rulers made a self-defeating promise that undermines even the possibility of fidelity.

God in His mercy annuls the agreement with death.

In the short-term, this means that the people will be overwhelmed with scourges; they “will be beaten down” by them. This is a severe mercy. The severity doesn’t reflect any “divine” malice but how far morally and spiritually the people have strayed from God. The way back to God and to their own vocations is far, the journey arduous.

The journey back to communion with God is long because the people have become not just strangers to Him but the enemies of the justice and righteousness with which God builds His Kingdom.Once again, humanity has come to the plains of Babel.

Like men we read about in Genesis, the rulers of Jerusalem have conspired with death to frustrate the will of God. The fact that this is impossible and self-defeating doesn’t factor into the decision either at Babel or Jerusalem. Against all the evidence of God’s goodness and patience, they are hell-bent on asserting their own will over the will of God.

Isaiah’s warning to Jerusalem and the divisions in the human family that result from Babel are all still applicable today. We are all of us just as prone to make false promises in a vain attempt to subvert the will of God.

Solomon reminds us–reminds me–that “Wisdom builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down. He who walks in uprightness fears the LORD, but he who is devious in his ways despises him.” It is folly to despise God and to seek to overturn His will for me. Instead, it is in my best interest to discern the will of God and pursue it to the best of my abilities. “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding.”

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