Sunday, February 7, 2016

Two kinds of enemies

On Matt 6:14-21
Cheesefare Sunday

There are two kinds of enemies we must keep in mind as we fast. There are the enemies we must forgive – and there are the enemies we must destroy.

First, there is the enemy we must love and forgive. Today our Lord Jesus teaches us how to fast, and he begins his teaching with talk of forgiveness. A true fast must begin with forgiveness. We Byzantines take this literally – tonight we begin our Great Fast with Forgiveness Vespers, confessing and forgiving all the wrongs that we have done.  

Just before our Lord teaches us how to fast, he teaches us how to pray (Matt 6:5-13). He teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray many times daily – and in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And today he elaborates on the meaning of this prayer, saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but” – and this is a terrifying conjunction – “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).

Our Father’s forgiveness is not exactly unconditional – though he makes it always available to us, and no sin of ours can cut us off irredeemably from his mercy. But Jesus himself reveals the condition of our Father’s forgiveness – that is, we must forgive others. We must put aside all our enmity and hate and resentment over wrongs.

St Maximus the Confessor writes, “Strive as hard as you can to love everyone. If you cannot yet do this, at least do not hate anybody. But even this is beyond your power unless you scorn worldly things.”[i] Fasting rightly will teach us scorn of worldly things, which will help us put aside our hate for others. This is necessary because we are not to be an enemy to anyone.

Just because you have an enemy, doesn’t mean that you have to be an enemy. There is probably someone who hates you and opposes the good that you are and the good that you do – a person who makes himself your enemy.

We will have enemies, whether or not we create them by our own evil doing. Jesus assures us that if we follow him, we will be hated, as he has been hated (cf. Matt 10:22; John 15:18). Christ himself has enemies and so, if we become like Christ, we will be like him also in this. Furthermore, he commands us to love our enemies, which presupposes that we will have enemies to love (cf. Matt 5:44).

So, how do I stop being an enemy of my enemies? I forgive and seek reconciliation. I make restitution for any wrongs. If my enemy will not reconcile with me, I can still remain open to the one whose heart is closed to me. I can love and forgive the one who hates and hurts me. I can pray for those who persecute me. All this in imitation of the supreme example of Christ Jesus on the cross, who cries out, “Father forgive them.” And really, it is this cross that gives us the power to forgive. Only in Christ and in his cross can we truly offer forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn’t something entirely within our own power. When the Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone,” they have a point (though they fail to see that they are making their point to God himself). But if you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t forgive someone because they have hurt you so deeply or because their crime is so heinous, in a way, you’re right. That is, you can’t forgive them of your own individual power, by your own unaided will. You can’t do it, but Christ can, and in Christ, you can forgive.

Forgiveness is a grace – a participation in the life of God. As they say, to forgive is divine. Only by the grace of God can we find the power to forgive, to release those whose crimes against us have bound them to death, to abandon them utterly to God’s good graces, to seek every good on their behalf.

The process of theosis – our dynamic ascent into ever greater union with God – precedes forgiveness, accompanies forgiveness, and results from forgiveness. In forgiving, we become more like God, who forgives. We are forgiven as we forgive. Forgiving and being forgiven are one action of God in us.

As we enter the Great Fast, let this be our approach and God’s approach in us and between us toward all. Let us invoke blessings and not curses upon our enemies.

St. John Chrysostom points out that “praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of law.”[ii] Yet, anyone who prays the psalms will soon notice that they are filled with curses against enemies. So what does this mean for us?

It means that there is another kind of enemy – one with whom we must never be reconciled. In another place, St. John Chrysostom says, “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”[iii]

As an exorcist of demons, Jesus teaches us who our enemies really are. Our enemies are not each other or other parties or other nations, but the demons and the evil that is in our own hearts. It is toward these enemies that we must direct the curses of the psalms and it is against these enemies that we must strive by our fasting.

Just as our fast is entered and sustained in the spirit of forgiveness and patience with others’ faults, so it is also an act of war against our true enemies – the devil and his demons and our own passions. How shall we wage this war?

St. John the Dwarf writes,

“If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemy, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak and can be conquered thereby.”

We begin the fast by forgiving our pretended enemies – our neighbors and fellow humans – so that then, free from the distraction of focusing our energies on waging a campaign against them, we can turn that power instead against our true enemies: the demons and our own passions.

Against these enemies, let us pray with the Psalmist,

      O Lord, plead my cause against my foes;
fight those who fight me.
Take up your buckler and shield; arise to help me.
Take up the javelin and the spear against those who pursue me.
       O Lord, say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
Let those who seek my life be shamed and disgraced.
Let those who plan evil against me be routed in confusion.
Let them be like chaff before the wind;
let God’s angel scatter them.
Let their path be slippery and dark;
let God’s angel pursue them.
They have hidden a net for me wantonly;
they have dug a pit.
Let ruin fall upon them and take them by surprise.
Let them be caught in the net they have hidden;
let them fall into their pit.
But my soul shall be joyful in the Lord and rejoice in his salvation (Psalm 34:1-9).

[i] Fourth Century on Love, 82
[ii] Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethren, 10.
[iii] Homily 20

Sunday, January 24, 2016

God loves us

Prodigal Son 
from the Eadwine psalter
circa 1150
illumination on parchment

Our father – the one in the heavens – gives to us everything. All that we have. All that we are. Our life. Our freedom. Our being. And, he loves us. He is love – with us.

Sometimes we think – maybe – well, what’s so great about that? I don’t have much. I don’t have as much as some of my neighbors do. Sure, they have something to be grateful for – but not me. And so we show God our face of ingratitude.

Do you know that look? If you have children, you probably know that look. Because you know what’s it’s like to give everything to someone – for all that you have to be theirs. And you know what’s it’s like for them to take it all – and to take it for granted.

But you also know, that when they do that, it does not lessen your love for them. It does not quell in you the warmth of your affection for them – not one degree.

When a child says to me, “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead,” it does hurt, but I know that they do not know what they are saying and so I forgive them – though sometimes, in my fallenness, it takes a moment. And I go right on loving them and providing for their needs and also, as I am able, for their wants.  

Some of us know something about what it means to be a loving father or mother, though none know so well nor love so well as God, our father, who is in the heavens. All of us, however, are children of a loving father – the one in the heavens. And so all of us – believe it or not – know something about being loved.

My friend Ian Gerdon wrote recently that, “all humans are brought into existence with two names: Amati (which mean Beloved) and Amandi (which means Ought-to-be-loved).” We are beloved by God and we ought to be loved by humans. We are created by love himself, out of his love, for loving, and being loved. While our first name – which is Beloved – describes our true condition and the ground of our being, our second name – which is Ought-to-be-loved – describes how we all should respond to that reality in ourselves and in our neighbor. God loves us and he calls us to love ourselves and one another.

Sadly, we do not always love one another. And, we are not always loved by others. And, we do not always love ourselves.

When we feel unloved, it is always because some human has not loved us as they ought to have. Sometimes that human is another and sometimes that human is myself – but the defect or deficit in love is always on the human side and never the divine. 

God’s love never fails. When we feel unloved, God loves us. When we think that God does not love us, God loves us. When we do not love God, God loves us. When we say to God like ungrateful children, “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead,” God loves us. But we humans do fail to love. And our failings and the failings of our neighbors can cloud our vision.

Our neighbors’ and our own unloving thoughts and actions sometimes keep us from seeing that God our father loves us, that he is with us. We fail to see all that he has given us. And so we covet after persons, positions, and things that are not given to us, but given instead to others. Ingratitude and covetousness are ubiquitous and pernicious. To covet nothing that is our neighbors’ is a kind of freedom that few of us know.

We are too often like the ungrateful younger son who says to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” In the usual course of things, of course, a son receives his inheritance only after his father has died. So, by asking for it while his father yet lives, the younger son is in effect saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” This is supreme ingratitude. It is a failure to see that the father already shares everything with his sons. They are with him always, and all that he has is theirs.

But that is not enough for the younger son. Really, he just seems to want his father out of the picture. Perhaps he mistakes his father’s loving presence for some kind of oppression or limitation on his freedom. As it turns out, taking his inheritance and leaving is not gain for the younger son, it is loss. Though he thinks it will be to his benefit, it is in fact his undoing. He does not know what is good for him as well as his father does. While he briefly increases his possessions and pleasures, for that he loses the loving presence of his father, and a continual sharing in his abundance. His ingratitude leads to the loss even of what he has.

And the elder son is ungrateful, too. The two sons are not as different as we might suppose. The younger son is overt in his ingratitude – taking his inheritance and leaving. But the elder son’s ingratitude becomes clear when he refuses to go into the house to celebrate the return of his brother and when he bitterly says to his father, “you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends.”

The loving father leaves neither son alone in their ingratitude. When the younger son comes in sight of his house, his father runs out to meet him. And when the elder son will not come into the house to the feast, his father goes out to invite him in. The father goes out to them both.

How like these two sons we are!

Being with our father – the one in the heavens – is worth far more than anything we can gain from the world. But all of us are at times like the younger son. We turn away from our father and go into the world to try there to sate our passions. Hopefully, we have learned from this that such squander brings us nothing but emptiness and ruin. And that it is only in the presence of our loving heavenly father that we can find peace or rest. So let us who have turned to the razzle dazzle of covetous worldliness now turn back again to our father. He will run out to meet us.

Or sometimes we are like the elder son. We have always remained partly in our father’s presence – say, by coming often to church – but all the while we try to hide in our hearts our ingratitude and petty jealousies. Let us let go of all of that. Our father will come out and entreat us to come in to the feast.

Indeed, he is even now inviting us into the feast. An antidote to the poison of our ingratitude is available in this Divine Liturgy: the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. Ingratitude, then, is anti-Eucharist. And so, let us give thanks to our father for all he has given us, above all for his loving presence in our lives, and approach holy communion with grateful hearts. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A reality to which we must respond

Sunday after Theophany

Christ is born! Christ is baptized! Christ is risen! Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today we are at a great convergence. It is the Sunday after Theophany, and so we are still remembering Christ’s baptism. And yet, according to one reckoning, it is also still the season of Christmas until the feast of the Encounter on February the 2nd, forty days after his birth. Meanwhile, today would be the first day leading into the Triodion – the Sunday of Zacchaeus – were it not for certain liturgical peculiarities due to Pascha being so early this year. There is no Sunday of Zacchaeus this year, but I think it’s still worth noting that the Great Fast is already right around the corner.

Time, the order of things, chronology, chronos is muddled, it seems. Simultaneous. Converged. It is as if all salvation history is happening at once. The first forty days of Christ’s newborn life is converged today with the forty days he fasted in the desert just after his baptism by John – which is a forty days that inspires our forthcoming Great Fast in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus – the point of it all, the cause of our joy, our only hope.

Today’s gospel occurs immediately after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John in the Jordan. Jesus hears of John’s arrest and withdraws to Galilee, not out of fear, but to fulfill prophecy – and to there call forth the men that would be his apostles.

It is at this time that Jesus begins to preach. “Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the first words of his preaching and with them, he pays homage to John, his baptizer, the greatest of the prophets, his forerunner, who made straight his way. Jesus’ first kerygmatic words directly quote the preaching of John, who went before him to prepare his way.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." These words are especially suitable today – on this day of convergence. What’s going on in the church calendar today reflects the timelessness of deeper reality. As does the imminence of the coming kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Jesus says this, as did John before him. But didn’t these preachers live and preach about 2000 years ago? How could the coming kingdom have been imminent then? Aren’t we still waiting for the kingdom? Don’t we pray, with every Our Father, “Thy kingdom come”?  We do, and our King is coming. But he has also already come. He is both already and not yet come. It is as if time is muddled. Simultaneous. Converged. It is as if all salvation history happens at once. God’s time is not like our time.

When John preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he preaches as one waiting for the coming king. When Jesus preaches the same thing, it is the very king who is preaching. The kingdom is indeed at hand when Jesus says that it is at hand – for he is the king and the kingdom is in his hands.

He is already come. He is in our midst whenever we gather in his name. He is now reigning in the hearts of those of us who believe.

We must not become like some of the fundamentalist prophecy enthusiasts of our era, obsessed with doomsday calculations and bible codes and what not. That, I think, is to miss the point.

In the Gospel of Luke, “the Pharisees [ask Jesus] when the kingdom of God [is] coming – [and] he answer[s] them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" – or – it is “within you all” (Luke 17: 20-21).

God is to reign in our hearts. And we must make our hearts a suitable palace for our king. Origen observes that “The kingdom of heaven is not in a place but in disposition. For it is within us. John preaches the coming of that kingdom of heaven, which Christ the King will deliver up to God, even the Father” (Fragment 74). 

This is the reality to which Christ calls our attention with this – his first sermon – one sentence in length, but infinite in meaning. The kingdom of heaven is reality – not mere perception. Our perception, in fact, often misses it. We often fail to see that “The LORD is king for ever and ever; [and that] the nations shall perish from his land.” (Psalm 10:16). We often think that it is our worldly kingdoms or republics that are of primary importance and that deserve our most devoted attention.

But no, the truth is that the Lord is king and his kingship is over all the earth (cf. Psalm 22:28). In 2007, there was an effort in Poland to declare Jesus the king of Poland. Well, Jesus is king, but it is not by our fiat. He does not rule by the consent of the governed. Rather, the governed have being by the word of God, who is Christ, our king. The king of kings and lord of lords.

The kingdom of heaven is the world we are actually living in. It is the world that God so loved. It is the world we often cannot see because our vision is so clouded by sin. The kingdom of heaven is among us. It is imminent. The reign of God is in our hearts.

And this is a reality to which we must respond with repentance. If we do not repent, we cannot know the truth of God’s sovereign presence in our lives. He is present whether we know it or not. Repentance is how we come to know it. He is with us, and we must understand this and submit to him, for he is with us. Repentance – metanoia – is a turning toward the Lord and away from our consuming passions.

Away from gluttony and toward self-control.
Away from lust and toward desire for God.
Away from greed and the love of money and toward compassion for the poor.
Away from anger and toward goodwill and love for all. 
Away from dejection and toward joy.
Away from sloth and despondency and toward patience, perseverance, and thanksgiving
Away from vainglory and toward doing good in secret and contrite prayer
Away from pride and toward judging no one and regarding no one as beneath us.

These are the eight passions outlined by St. John Cassian, (whose leap day feast we incidentally get to celebrate this year on Feb. 29th) and their opposite virtues, which St. John of Damascus describes (On Virtues and Vices). Studying these can help us make a beginning of repentance. 

The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Therefore, let us repent.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sweet tinged with bitter

Christ is born!

The joy of our feasting is always tinged with a bit of sorrow. There’s always a bit of bitter mixed in the with the sweet – like a clove of garlic dipped in honey at our holy supper on Christmas Eve – or like the chrin we make for our baskets on Pascha – horseradish and beets, maybe with a bit of sugar. When St. Nicholas visits in some cultures he always leaves both goodies and a switch – because no child can be reduced to either naughty or nice – every child is good and yet also inclined to evil.

I think we can relate to these symbols, which express the paradox of our condition. God does not force us to stop hurting ourselves and each other, but out of the evil we bring into the world by our sins, he brings a greater good – like actually a greater good. Our attempts to do harm not only fail, ultimately (though they may succeed temporally) – they fail spectacularly. The greatest evil anyone ever tried to do, I believe, was kill Jesus. And out of that murder, death itself is defeated – the cross becomes the tree of life. God’s good will is always done in the end. It’s pointless to keep sinning – which really is trying to be what we are not and to do what we are not made to do. So let’s knock it off, shall we? And submit ourselves to the good Lord. “That this whole day be perfect, holy, peaceful, and without sin, let us beseech the Lord.”

As we pray at the Lamp-lighting Psalms of Vespers, “the wicked fall into the traps they have set.” Our sinful designs cannot succeed against the designs of God. The very effort we use in sinning, God turns toward some good. “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.” Allowing our vain and pointless efforts to unmake the goodness he has created for us, he uses these efforts instead and even against our vain, sinful, and corrupted wills, to build his kingdom. Though we suffer and cause to suffer, through our suffering, he brings healing. Though we die, in Christ we live forever.
And so, while we yet feast, we remember that the struggle is not done. The light of Christ is shining – but he is shining in the darkness – like the star shining over Bethlehem in the night.

Today we hear of sorrow coming quickly on the heels of joy. Joy came to the holy family by the birth of their new baby, who is our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. But Herod does not share their joy. He does not rejoice at the news that the true king of Israel is born. And so, vainly, he tries to do him in – by ordering the indiscriminate massacre of the babies in those environs. These are holy innocents whom we will commemorate on Tuesday. This tragedy is a sign – pointing back to Moses, through whom God delivered Israel, and forward to our deliverance from sin and death in Christ.

Of course Herod’s efforts are vain. Of course he fails. Sin is always vain. Sin always fails. When it seems that sin holds sway, be patient. It will fail. In this case, our Father did not mean for his Son to die in this way or at this time and so an angel visits Joseph in a dream to warn him to escape into Egypt. Another Joseph once narrowly escaped murder by being forced into Egypt – Joseph, the son of Jacob. These things are all connected – both to what has gone before and to what is yet to come.

Our Lord’s incarnation, his conception, his birth, his baptism, his ministry all point toward his ultimate sacrifice, death, and resurrection for our salvation. The sacrifice of the holy innocents in the gospel today points to this – to the kind of death he would die. He is hunted and despised by some of his own people from the moment of his birth. Already the prophetic gifts of the Magi pointed to this also – Gold was for the King, frankincense for the Priest. Myrrh, however, was used to anoint the dead and so signifies that this little child was not only the priest but also the sacrifice.

 Our Lady of Perpetual HelpByzantine, 13th or 14th century
The icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help, which we venerate in our annual pilgrimage to Uniontown, beautifully illustrates the infant Christ’s premonition of his passion as angels display to him the cross and the instruments of his torture and death. He clutches his mother’s hand for comfort.

Even the date of Christmas, in a labyrinthine way, is connected to the passion of Christ. There was a common belief in the early Church that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date – which may be one reason we make such a big deal now when the Annuciation falls on Good Friday. The date of Jesus’ death, about which the gospels give much more information that his birth, was worked out by some to be March 25th, therefore this was reckoned to be also the date of his conception, therefore his nativity was reckoned nine months later: December 25th – this is one of the theories anyway, that the date for this festival of Christ’s birth is actually derived from the date of his death. The connection between his birth and death was keenly understood. Christ’s conception and his birth come with the promise of our salvation through his death and resurrection.

And so we reflect on this, even as we continue to celebrate his birth. He was not born into a world in which there was no pain and he did not choose to simply erase our pain, but to enter into it himself, to join us in it, even to use it as a means of sanctification.  

St. John Chrysostom writes about today’s gospel, “Even as He came in swaddling clothes we see a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. So do not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles. Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is consistent with the ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of labor Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. They both were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive.”

In Christ, God is now inside our troubles and our pain and our sacrifice. "God is with us, understand all you nations, and submit yourselves for God is with us."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Our deliverer is coming

For eighteen years, a woman was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. For eighteen years, she endured a spirit of infirmity. For eighteen years, she was in bondage to this suffering and torment.

Until the Lord Jesus came into her life.

Do we have something to learn from this woman? I think we do. I think we have patience to learn from her.

The Philip’s Fast in which we find ourselves is a particularly poignant liturgical moment for us to reflect upon patience and hope. We are waiting for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. As Israel prepared for the coming Messiah, so we are preparing for the second coming of our Lord. As the bent over and infirm daughter of Abraham waited for her healer with patience and hope, so we are waiting for our healer and deliverer. Just like her, we don’t know when he is coming, but we know that he is coming. So let us wait – with patience and with an expectant hope and not give ourselves over to despair when things are difficult. If we wait for the Lord, we do not wait in vain.

Through Isaiah, the Lord God comforted his people with the knowledge that “those who wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Is 40:31). If you can't even stand upright, it is hard to believe that one day you will fly – that you “shall mount up with wings like eagles.” But against all doubt and all despair believe it, and wait upon the Lord. No matter what you or your loved ones are suffering, be assured that your healer is coming. No matter what chains bind you or what bars enclose you, your deliverer is coming. His coming is as sure as the rising of the sun.

My soul is waiting for the Lord.  I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
                        and Israel on the Lord (Psalm 129).

God’s time is not like our time. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan – who is Lewis’ figure of Christ – tells the children he’ll be back “soon” and they ask him, “what do you call soon?” And he says, “I call all time soon.” With that in mind, I tell you Christ is coming soon.

But you know, what is soon to us is not necessarily soon to the Lord. Israel endured 40 years wandering in the wilderness before they could enter the Promised Land. And before that, they endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt before the Lord sent them Moses, their deliverer. But he is always coming. Our deliverer is coming. And when he comes, may he find us waiting for him.

When the Lord Jesus comes, where does he find the woman in today’s gospel? She is bent-over and infirm. Does he therefore find her hiding and waiting for death? No, he finds her in the synagogue where he is preaching. He finds her among the people who gather to hear the word of the Lord. This daughter of Abraham comes to the synagogue and there meets the Lord Jesus, who takes away her infirmity and looses her from her bondage. 

Let us all imitate this woman in this. If we are at all able, let us come often to the house of the Lord to worship him and to hear his word, even if to come we must overcome difficulties to do so. When the Lord comes, may he find us here worshipping him and listening to his word. And one day soon, he will take away our infirmities and free us from our bondage.

It is meaningful what the Lord says to the woman, I think. He says, “Woman, you are loosed” – “you are released” – “you are set free.” He doesn’t just say to her, “you are healed,” because he recognizes that the woman has been afflicted and oppressed for many years by this infirmity. Her spine has been tied up in knots and Jesus now unties those cords. But this bodily affliction has also weighed heavily upon her spirit and the Lord is offering her not only healingof body, but also freedom and deliverance from a spirit of infirmity. We are body and spirit – never one without the other.

The woman is bent over in body, but she’s not bowed down by despair. In the face of her suffering, she has not cursed God and given up hope, as Job’s wife would recommend and as many do. No, she carries on. She comes again to the synagogue. She does not give up on God even when, after eighteen years, it may have felt like God had abandoned her to that torment forever.

It may have felt that way, but we know that isn’t true. She didn’t know that morning, when she struggled for the six-thousandth time to get up and go out, that this was the day the Lord would deliver her. But she did know, I think, that her deliverer was coming. It is the same with us. We can’t know the day or the hour of our deliverance, whether it will be in this age or in the age to come, but we do know that it is coming. And so, each day, let us rise up and prepare for the Lord’s coming into our lives.

We can know that the Lord wants to be with us – that our sufferings and afflictions and difficulties – the evil and the death that we contend with daily – is not the will of the Lord. “God did not make death” (Wisdom). It wasn’t the Lord who bent this woman. The spirit of infirmity is not the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord who frees us, not ties us down. It is the Lord who heals us, not afflicts us. Jesus tells us who this spirit of infirmity is: it is Satan. St. Cyril of Alexandria affirms: “The accursed Satan is the cause of disease in human bodies.” Let us not attribute to God the things of Satan. God wants us well, as Jesus makes clear today.

Soon, to begin the anaphora, I will say to all, “Let us stand aright; let us stand in awe; let us be attentive to offer the holy Anaphora in peace.” The liturgy reveals the will of God for us. He wills that we stand aright in his presence. And here in his presence is a woman who for eighteen years has not been able to stand aright. If she were here among us, I would still say “Let us stand aright,” because that is in fact very like what the Lord did say to her: “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.’ And he lays his hands upon her, and immediately she is made straight.” She is able to stand aright. This is what the Lord wills for her and for us. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Who is my neighbor

There’s an infamous story about Kitty Genovese who, in 1964, was knifed in her neighborhood in Queens. She screamed for help. And more than a dozen heard her cries. Yet no one did anything to help or to intervene. Reports have often exaggerated the details of this event, but the fact remains that at least one witness knew she was stabbed and yet did nothing. Not until she was attacked yet again by the same man did someone else call the police. And by then it was too late.

You see, Jesus’ parable today is not so far-fetched. People really act this way sometimes. The priest and the Levite witness the suffering of a fellow man and yet do nothing to intervene. This happens in incidents that grab headlines and it happens in our daily lives.

I hope not many of us have had to witness such atrocities. Those of us who have, I hope, have done something to intervene. But for all of us, it isn’t difficult to find human suffering. Even if our suffering is not so great, we all do suffer and we all, daily, encounter the suffering of others. If we read the news, it will mostly be about suffering. The news from Paris this week tells of great suffering. May God be with them and defend us all. At work, we may witness spiteful and petty cruelties between coworkers. In our families, we may deal with illnesses and addictions. Downtown and in our neighborhood, we may encounter homelessness and addiction.

In my experience, everywhere we go, we see suffering. And wherever we recognize the suffering of another, we may take that recognition, I believe, as a calling from God to be an instrument of God’s healing and help. To be a neighbor.

What we should do in each given situation requires discernment, but we can trust that God has put us in the situation for his purposes. Each and every time. There is nothing random or arbitrary about the situations we find ourselves in, though it may seem that way. In truth, God has put us there. And it’s not to bring harm or callousness, but to bring healing and compassion. If you are witnessing human suffering, God is calling upon you to be a neighbor to the one who suffers.

The lawyer, desiring to justify himself, asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The witness of Kitty Genovese’s attack must have had the same question. He must have thought, "oh she is someone else’s neighbor. Someone else’s problem. Not mine. It’s nothing to do with me. Leave me out of it." When in fact, each witness is given an opportunity by God – not by random chance or accident (which does not exist) but by God, who personally knows and loves every victim, every witness, and every sinner. 

Russian Icon of the Good Samaritan
When the man is stripped and beaten by robbers, God sends him a priest. God calls upon this priest to intervene for good, to help, to show mercy, to be a priest. To the priest, God gives the first opportunity to act as God’s instrument of healing. But the priest passes him by on the other side. He passes by the robbed and beaten man – and he passes by the calling of God in that moment – and he passes by the image of God lying in the dirt. So when the priest fails to do his will, God sends a Levite. And when the Levite fails, God sends a Samaritan, who acts in every way as an image of Christ to the robbed and beaten victim.

Now Samaritans and Jews would ordinarily have nothing to do with one another – they were enemies – but this Samaritan gives no consideration to that. He sees past that tribal acrimony to his common humanity with this bruised and battered Jew from Jerusalem he finds lying in the road.

Our common humanity has its grounding both in the earth we’re made out of and in the breath of life – the ruach – the spirit that God breathes into our nostrils. We are all of us earth with God breathed in – and no human divisions can surmount that common identity.

Our neighbors are not only those with whom we have certain kinds of kinship. Not only our family members and friends. Not only our coreligionists. If we were to assist only those who share our faith, we would thereby prove the enemies and critics of faith correct. They say that faithful religious people are the cause conflict and violence. This becomes true if we fail to live our faith truly.

Neighborliness is not due only to the groups in which we find ourselves. Not only to the born, the young, the healthy, and the free but also to the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned and enslaved. Not only to Americans, but also to the French and to Syrians and Iraqis and all the people of all the nations of the world. Not only to Christians, but also to Muslims and Jews and Pagans and atheists. Not only to the moral, the innocent, and the orthodox, but also to the immoral, the guilty, and the heretical. Also to sinners. Sinners and hypocrites like us.

How often, desiring to justify ourselves, we say, “Well maybe I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so. At least I don’t want to do this or that evil. Ugh, how can a person even be tempted by that sin? I’m so far above that.”  Believe me, our own sins are no better. St. Mark the Ascetic writes that “the devil makes small sins seem smaller in our eyes, for otherwise he can’t lead us to greater evil.”[i] The very fact that our own sins look so innocent to us reveals the depth of our depravity.  How much we stand in need of the cross and of the Lord’s forgiveness and his great mercy, available to us all in the holy mystery of repentance.   

We enter today into the Philip’s Fast, which is a season of repentance. This is an especially good time of year for us to identify with all the other sinners in the world, to stop thinking ourselves better than others, to repent, to confess our own sins rather than listing the sins of others, to fast and to give to the poor, to pray for peace on earth, to be a neighbor to all.

So be a neighbor to all people, not because all people are equally right, or because there any truth the relativistic nonsense that “your truth is true for you but not for me,” but because being right is never a person’s deepest identity. Our deepest identity is that which God creates in us – his own image. Therefore, we must never allow our differences with other people – even when they’re in the wrong – to justify any hatred or indifference toward them.

In today’s epistle to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “There is… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, there is one God who is father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Eph 4:5-6). That is our relationship with all others. Always bear this in mind. It makes us neighbors of all people, even our enemies. For all people are called by the one God to the true faith and to baptism, never to death and destruction. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes and as we sing each Pascha, "Let us call brethren even those who hate us."

[i] “On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts” No. 94,

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Compassion for Demons

Demons cry out to Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. They beg him not to cast them into the abyss, but rather to allow them to enter a nearby herd of swine.

The Miracle of the Gadarene Swine
about 1000
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum

Remember, these are demons, like the one to whom the priest says before baptisms,
“I adjure you, most evil, unclean, foul, abominable and alien spirit, by the power of Jesus Christ…, Depart! Acknowledge the futility of your power, which had no authority even over swine. Remember the One who ordered you, in accordance with your own request, to enter the herd of swine” (Second Exorcism).
These are such as have no right to ask anything of the Lord. They are altogether evil and rebellious, and yet they ask. Because they also cannot do anything without the Lord’s permission. They cannot even lead a pig. In Genesis, the Lord gives dominion to us humans over all the beasts (1:28). Strikingly, the demons have no share in this. In presence of Jesus, a Legion of demons is utterly powerless, even over pigs. So perhaps it is not so surprising to hear them begging the Lord for something. Though their effrontery remains staggering.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the Lord grants their petition. They beg him for permission to enter the swine, and he gives them leave (8:32). He doesn’t have to do this, you realize. He could have said to them at this time, again as the priest does before baptisms, “go back to your own Tartarus until the great day of the judgement that has been prepared”(First Exorcism). But the demons beg to be spared from this abyss and he does spare them – at least for now.

The Lord taught his disciples, “Ask and it will be given you” (Luke 11:9). Does this teaching apply even to the unfaithful demons? For a moment here anyway, it seems so.

Why? Does Jesus love even the demons?

We could point to many passages – for example, in the cursing Psalms – that proclaim God’s hatred for the wicked and for his enemies. But I believe the fathers were right to interpret these passages allegorically. The enemy that God hates and that we should hate is certainly not our neighbors or our fellow creatures, but sin and death, temptations and all the thoughts which deceive or distract us from the love of God.

On the other hand, it is also true that the fathers also allegorize the cursed and hated enemies in the Psalms as demons. Meanwhile, God is love and has taught us to love even our enemies. And surely the demons are his enemies. And surely he loves his enemies. I certainly hope so, because every time I sin, I make myself like a demon and an enemy of God. 

One of the last things Father Sid told me before he died was that we must have compassion for the demons. I found the idea then and now both repellent and difficult, but I’m not sure he was wrong. One could understand Jesus’ permission to enter the swine as compassionate.

This should give us hope, I think. If the Lord hears the petitions even of the demons of hell, then surely he will hear us, even when we cry out to him from the depths of our despair. 
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness:  for this we revere you” (Ps 130:1-4).
When the Lord hears us, has mercy on us, and grants our petitions, we must do good with the good he gives us. This is not what the demons do. When their petition is granted, what do the demons then do? Do they seek the good of the pigs entrusted to their care? Do they lead the pigs to slop? Hardly. As you know, they rushed the herd into the lake and drowned them. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
“Wicked demons are cruel, mischievous, hurtful and treacherous to those who are in their power. The fact clearly proves this, because they hurried the swine over a precipice and drowned them in the waters” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 44).  
When the demons possessed a man, they used their power to hurt the man, and when they possessed the swine, they used their power to hurt the swine. They are utterly petty and hurtful and destructive. They take even the smallest opportunity to do what harm they can. You and I become ever more like these demons when we return again and again to our sins the way that a sow, having been washed, returns to her wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

Yet, every time we repent, the Lord forgives us. He shows us mercy. He spares us from the abyss. Every time we cry out to him, he hears us. Every time the Lord forgives us, we have the opportunity, by the grace of God, to become like the good and kind and loving and merciful men and women that God created us to be.

Maybe Jesus was even giving the demons an opportunity. He does not at this time condemn them to the abyss. If this is an opportunity for them, they immediately squander it. Jesus does not condemn the demons. They condemn themselves. Throwing the swine over the precipice, they cast themselves into the abyss.

This is how damnation works, I believe. God does not damn the sinful and wicked, they damn themselves by their impenitence. God does not desire the death of sinners, but rather that we repent and live. There are no penitents among the damned. There are only those who reject God absolutely – who would rather wallow in their hurtful sins than love God and their neighbors.

In hell, we know, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (e.g. Matt 13:42; Luke 13:28). What might not be clear about this is that all that tooth gnashing is probably not penitent lamentation. The word here can refer to snarling and growling as in anger. The word often communicates “hate, desire for destruction of the other” (TDNT, as quoted by Randal Rauser). So hell is peopled by the hateful, not by victims of some spiteful God. Our God is a loving God who desires our repentance. Let us repent then, and believe the gospel.

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