Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ten Thousand Talents

Today in a parable, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a God’s eye view of sin and forgiveness (Matt 18:23-35).

An official owed his king ten thousand talents. The king is the Lord. You and I are the servant. His debt represents our sinfulness. So when Jesus describes this debt, he is actually describing our sinfulness, which concerns us personally and is worth considering carefully.

There are different estimates as to the actual value of ten thousand talents. We know that a talent was the largest unit of money at the time. It was worth about six thousand denarii, which was a day’s pay. So a talent was more than 15 years of pay. Even if a day’s pay was equivalent to less than half of the current minimum wage in Indiana, ten thousand talents would be worth more than a one and a half billion dollars. So we are talking about a huge amount. Imagine the burden of a debt like that. It is an impossibly large sum – more than a laborer could make in two thousand lifetimes. 

It will help us to understand Jesus’ rhetoric a bit further if we also consider the word here for ten thousand – it’s μυρίος, which is the largest Greek numeral – and as such, it is sometimes used rhetorically and less technically to mean “countless” or “innumerable” – it’s where we get the word myriad. So the servant’s debt to his master is the largest numeral of the largest unit of money. In other words, it’s as big as it can be – that’s the point, I think.

And it’s also possible that Jesus is making an allusion – because this isn’t the first time that the sum of ten thousand talents is mentioned in scripture. In the book of Esther, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, feeling himself insulted by Mordecai, offers to the Persian King Ahasuerus – also known as Xerxes – ten thousand talents of silver if he will agree to destroy all Jews (Esther 3:9).

Haman was indebted to his king ten thousand talents, just like the official in today’s parable. And for what? – for seeking “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews”(Esther 3:13) – the people of God. So this sum of ten thousand talents here is blood money. The debt of the servant in today’s parable represents our sin. And the consequence of our sin is death – and that death is born by the true messiah of the Jews – Jesus the Christ.

By our sins, we participate in the failed attempt to destroy Jesus, just as Haman, by his debt of ten thousand talents, participates in a failed attempt to destroy all Jews. In both cases, the Lord triumphs over sin and death. Through Esther, he delivers the Jews from oppression in Persia. And he raises Jesus from the dead. So there are meaningful parallels here. This enormous debt is an image of sin and death. 

It is fitting that Jesus describes all our sinfulness with a parable about money – because the love of money is the root of all evil. But we mustn’t think that if our sins don’t involve money that this isn’t about us – we must not leave this comfortably in the abstract.

We should feel invited to place ourselves in this parable as the servant, to examine our own consciences, and to discover our own sins against God and against our fellow servants. Sins perish in the light and thrive in the darkness – so we must name them and confess them.
I cannot judge you. You and God alone know which sins trouble your hearts – and I can only know my own sins. We must all bring our sins to God in holy confession, as the servant did at first – falling on his knees and begging for the patience and kindness of the Lord. When we do, we will receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

When the extent of his debt is revealed, the servant stupidly asks for more time to pay back his king – it should be clear to us that this is a sum no servant could ever repay. This, I think, is how it must sound to the Lord if we ever say that we’ll make it up to him by being good people for the rest of our lives. That won’t make it up to him! That is good and necessary, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. Nothing we do can ever earn our reunion with God. We are utterly and absolutely dependent upon his grace. Apart from the energies of God, there is no theosis. We do not partake of the divine nature by our own power, but by the power of God, with which we cooperate. We must make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue, but we must never think that our efforts can succeed unaided (cf. 1 Pet 1:4-5). They spring from, are supported by, and succeed in and only in the life of God, freely and gratuitously given by God.

So the king does not give his servant more time to pay him back, which would be impossible – no, he forgives the debt completely! He gives more than the servant asks for. The Lord is gracious and we depend upon his grace.

We must realize that our sin is like a debt too large for us to ever repay, and, having received the forgiveness of that debt, let us turn from our sin, repent, and sin no more. We should allow this seemingly inexcusable, impossible forgiveness and lovingkindness to prick our hearts so that we do not remain inert and insensible to our “natural wickedness.”[i] With all our hearts, let us turn away from the evils to which we have become habituated and enslaved.

This turning, this repentance, this conversion, this μετάνοια begins, as our Lord demonstrates in this parable, with forgiveness. Not only with being forgiven, but also with forgiving others.

Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or, a more literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer is “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” which closely ties the prayer to today’s parable of debts. So as we forgive, we will be forgiven. And if we are to have any hope for ourselves we must have the hope for others that forgiveness expresses.

After receiving the forgiveness of such an enormous amount, the servant should quickly and easily have followed his king’s example when a fellow servant begged for patience regarding a comparably small debt – a hundred denarii – a tiny fraction of what he had been forgiven.

The wrongs we suffer from our fellow servants – which really are wrongs – sometimes terrible wrongs – are nonetheless small when you compare them to the weight of our sins against the Lord. So forgive others, as the Lord forgives you. Do not nurse hurt feelings or brood on wrongs. Do not let resentments grow in your hearts like weeds growing ever deeper roots. For, according to the measure with which you measure, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2). If you would be forgiven, you must forgive. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t ask for it. But especially those who do.

In light of the great blessing and forgiveness shown him, the unmerciful servant’s unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant who begs for patience is inexcusable. It is so offensive to his king that he rescinds his earlier forgiveness, and turns the servant over to the jailers till he should pay all his debt, which, according our holy fathers Apollinaris and John Chrysostom, is another way of saying “forever,” because the debt is immeasurable and is more than he could ever repay.

The king’s action here reveals something about forgiveness I believe we should notice. You often hear the expression, “forgive and forget” – and this maxim is often held up as a Christian ideal. You should know first of all that this phrase is nowhere in scripture. And when the Lord says to Isaiah that he will not remember sins (43:25; cf. Heb 8:12), I don’t think we should understand this to be a blank space in God’s omniscience. I think it means rather poetically that he puts aside the sins he has forgiven and does not cause us to suffer their full consequence. He still knows what we have done, for he knows everything. And the king in today’s parable demonstrates this. Remember that the king is Jesus’ own image of God. Yet, after he has forgiven the servant’s debt, he clearly still knows its amount – because after the servant is unmerciful the king turns him over to the jailers after all – till he should pay it back. When justice demands it, the king is able to remember the debt.

We should actually find comfort in this because, even if we are unable to forget a wrong completely, this does not mean we cannot forgive. Forgiveness is possible, even when forgetting is impossible.

And thank God, because if we do not forgive, the king will turn us over to the jailers forever. Apollinaris writes that these jailers represent “the angels entrusted with our punishment.” Still worse than this punishment is another: Jesus says, “So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” As Chrysostom points out, Jesus does not say “’your father’ [or ‘our father’] but ‘my father.’ For it is not proper for God to be called the Father of one so who is so wicked and malicious.”[ii]  The greater punishment is to lose our familial relationship with God, gained by our baptism and our faith. It is a rejection of both to condemn our brothers and sisters – to damn instead of to bless – to have an unforgiving heart – to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies.

So we must remember our own sins and forgive others their sins against us. Then, as we forgive, our heavenly Father will forgive our sins against him, which are far greater. So let us imitate “the indescribable love of God” and forgive everything.  

[i] cf. Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 61.1
[ii] Ibid 61.4

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Solitude and seclusion are good, when we are to pray to God."

Jesus was a man among the people. He is God become man and come to save us. And so he dwelt among us – he spent time among us – he was present to us. This is an important model of ministry – but every bit as important is something that he does in today’s gospel.
 Christ feeding the multitude
Coptic Icon

After much time among the people – teaching, preaching, and feeding the five thousand – Jesus dismisses the crowds. He dismisses them and goes by himself up the mountain to pray. He even sends away his closest disciples – telling them to go before him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There is much to learn from this, I believe.

Some of us like to be always among people – or at least among friends. These extroverts are inspired and energized by the company of others. And they quickly get lonely and long for companionship if left alone. Others of us prefer to be alone. More introverted, these find energy and inspiration in times of solitude. And they are emotionally drained by being too much around people.

But whether we’re introverted or extroverted, and whether we consequently seek God more readily in silence or in our neighbors, I think we must learn from Jesus the need for both of these aspects of our lives. He teaches us that when we pray, we ought to go into our inner chamber, shut the door, and pray in secret so as not to make a show of our prayer (Matt 6:5-6). He also teaches us that whatsoever we do to the least of his brethren that we do unto him (Matt 25:40, 45), which means that serving others, attending to their needs, and spending time with them is also a means of prayer – of communing with Christ our God. And Jesus models both of these behaviors himself – both ministering to the people and taking his leave of them to spend time in undistracted prayer with his father.

I believe it is important for us to imitate Christ in both of these ways.

Even if we prefer to be alone, we should also devote some of our time to working out God’s mercies among his people – feeding the hungry, consoling those who grieve, visiting the sick, defending the faith, and in all those countless ways God has given us to love one another – face to face and heart to heart with one another – with the image of God in each other person.  

And, on the other hand, times of solitude with God are also essential, even if we prefer the company of the crowd or our friends and even if we get uneasy when we’re alone – when anxieties soar & restless thoughts and passions disturb us – even waking us up in the middle of the night.

About such times, my mother used to say that if you wake up in the middle of the night it is because the Lord wants you to pray. My father therefore, who woke in the middle of most nights with anxiety, would pray, “What are you doing, Lord, waking me up in the middle of the night?”

The Lord’s purposes are not always easily discernable and it is good, I believe, to be frank with him. The middle of the night can be a good time to be alone with God. Sometimes he just wants to be with us.

I once heard a story of a young man who, after some time away, returned to his father’s house to borrow some money. His father greeted him joyfully and quickly agreed to give him the desired sum. ‘But first,” he said, “come in and sit with me and talk for a while.” And so the son came in and they went to the sitting room and sat and spoke with each other for a while. After some time had passed, the son again brought up the question of money. The father said, “Yes, yes, of course, but now it’s time for dinner. First, let us eat together.” And so the son agrees and they go into dinner together and they eat and drink and talk. An after dinner, the father suggests that it is getting late and that perhaps the son would like to stay for the night. At this point, the son becomes irritated and says to his father, “why do you keep delaying? Why don’t you give me the money as you agreed?” The father answers, “My son, of course I will give you the money and whatever else you desire, but I love you and it has been so good to see you and to be with you, and I don’t want you to go.”

Sometimes God just wants to be with us. Don’t go to the Lord our Father only when you need something, but make time every day simply to be with him – to dwell consciously in his loving presence.

Even if it is difficult for us, we must devote some time daily, I believe, to being alone with God. We must find some moment of silence in which the still small voice of the Lord may be heard over the din of the thousands and millions and billions of distractions that plaguily vie for our attention, especially in our ever noisier technological world with the endless beeping of our “distraction machines”[i] which call for attention and away from attending to the one thing that matters – to the voice of God, which, as was read at the recent Vespers for St. Elias,  came to Elias upon the mountain not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire, but as a still small voice (1Kings 19:11-12).

To hear this voice, both Elias and Jesus went up the mountain alone to pray. The Lord wishes to speak to each of us also and we too must seek a quiet place if we are to hear him. I assure you, none of us are better than Jesus, nor even Elias, his second forerunner. None of us are above this need.

“For what purpose does [Jesus] go up … the mountain?” John Chrysostom asks. “To teach us that solitude and seclusion are good, when we are to pray to God.… We find [Jesus] continually withdrawing into the wilderness. There he often spends the whole night in prayer. This teaches us earnestly to seek such quietness in our prayers as the time and place may afford. For the wilderness is the mother of silence; it is a calm and a harbor, delivering us from all turmoil.”[ii]

Speaking of turmoil, what is happening while Jesus is alone praying on the mountain? All night, his disciples row against the wind in toil and turmoil in the sea. Then, in the fourth watch of the night – that is, just before dawn – Christ returns from his time alone with his father and he walks on the stormy water to the disciples.

Jesus walks on water
ink and pigments on laid paper
by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (Egyptian, active ca. 1684)
Walters manuscript W.592
I don’t think his walking on water is unrelated to his time alone with his father on the mountain. The mountain is like heaven and the sea is like the world. We must spend some time on the mountain if we are to weather the storms of the sea – if we are to be able to rise above the waters of this life forever threatening to drown our faith, our hope, our love for God and one another in so much evil and emptiness. Only by going occasionally to the mountain to pray alone can we keep the faith needed to walk on water.

If Jesus needs periodically to pray alone, so much more do we need to do the same. To maintain connection to God in the midst of this sea of distraction and turmoil, to know inner peace even as strife rages all about us, seems impossible. It is like walking on the windswept water of the sea.  

In Christ, all things are possible.

[i] Tim Wu, “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain,” The New Yorker.
[ii] John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50.1.”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jesus Opens Our Eyes

Today Jesus asks the two blind men, “Do you believe I can do this?” (Matt 9:28)

Christ healing the two blind men
Mosaic  in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century
Do what exactly? Heal them of their blindness? Well, yes and no. The blind men do not exactly and directly ask for sight or for healing. Rather, they follow Jesus, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” So Jesus is not only asking them “Do you believe I can heal you?” but also, “Do you believe I can have mercy on you?”

They do believe and, according to their faith, Jesus opens their eyes. This is marvelous and extraordinary just on the face of it, but the more we meditate on this exchange and this miracle, the more profound we realize it is. Scripture is like this – with layers upon layers of revelation from the Holy Spirit to us, his Church.

Maximus the Confessor
mosaic in Nea Moni, 11th century
When Jesus asks the blind men if they believe that he is able to have mercy on them – he is not asking them if, in their opinion, he can do this. His words are stronger than that. He is asking them if they have faith in him. In English, the word “belief” can connote either faith or opinion, which is unfortunate because faith and opinion are almost antonyms. St. Maximus the Confessor rightly teaches that “faith is a true knowledge[i] – a gift of knowledge of the truth – which is not only an intellectual assent to authentic dogmatic propositions, but also relationship with him who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – Jesus Christ our Lord (Luke 14:6). To have faith is to know the Lord, who is the truth and love himself – whereas to have an opinion is merely to regard an idea as probable – not certain and not known. So, again, Jesus is not asking these blind men merely what they think of him or who he is in their opinion – he is asking them about their faith – about who they know him to be and they confess their faith that he is the one who can have mercy on them in their blindness.

I ask you, who is it that can open the eyes of the blind and give voice to the dumb? It is the Messiah and the Lord. Because the blind men had faith in this Son of David, as they professed, I believe that they know this too. Though they call him son of David, for that is who he is, they know that they ask for mercy from the Son of God – for that is who he is.

What drove Jesus to ask the two blind men about their faith? Well, first they followed him, crying aloud for mercy. They followed him for quite some time, it would seem, as he walked from the house of a ruler to his own house. This in and of itself is a marvel: though they were blind, they were able to follow Jesus to his house. They could not see him, but yet they went wherever he went. Now, maybe they had help, or maybe they were following him by sound, or maybe they simply knew the way to his house – the Gospel doesn’t say – but regardless, I think it is a good image of faith that, though blind, they could still follow Christ. They could see him, not with the eyes of the body, but with the eyes of faith. According to their faith, they could see already.

And all the while as they were following him, they were crying out, “Have mercy on us, son of David!” This kind of prayerful petition ought to seem familiar to us in the Byzantine Church – for here is one of the roots of the Jesus Prayer. I hope you all know the Jesus Prayer and pray it daily:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

We can hear in this, I think, an echo of the blind men’s prayer: “Son of David, have mercy on us.” But it is also similar in the way that they prayed it – crying and saying their prayer while following after Jesus. The words here – κράζοντες καὶ λέγοντες – are present participles which describe continuous, ongoing action. In other words, they did not cry out their prayer only once, but continuously and repeatedly as they followed Jesus. In our hesychast tradition, under the guidance of our spiritual fathers and mothers, we pray the Jesus prayer so frequently that the prayer becomes a part of our very breathing – and of the beating of our hearts  so that we can aspire to pray unceasingly, as Paul teaches us (1 Thess 5:17). Again and again in peace we pray to the Lord for mercy – as did these two blind men before us.

Their way of prayer also evokes to me the uncomfortable parable of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke (18:1-8). Not once does the widow plead for justice, but repeatedly. Not once do the blind men cry out for mercy but they cry aloud continuously.

It seems sometimes like we have to nag the Lord, that we have to bend his ear, or that we have to keep after him. Of course, this is only how it seems to us from our limited human perspective. Repetition, I think, helps to simulate the eternal for us temporal creatures. And it helps us forgetful creatures to remember – in this case – our creator. Anyone memorizing lines for a play or multiplication tables for a math test knows the necessity of repetition for a human mind. If we humans are to remember God, we must often repeat our prayer to him and our calling upon his holy name. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

It is only after the widow has often plead for justice that the judge gives her what is good and right and it is only after the blind men have followed Jesus quite a way calling out for mercy and followed him even into his house that he asks them if they have faith. Only after they have demonstrated faithfulness to some extent are they asked if they have faith. We must be persistent. We must persevere in the faith even when we get no answer to our prayer the first time or the second time or the seventh time we pray. Pray again! Do not lose heart. Keep following after Jesus with a pure heart – not just in the hope of some material reward, mind you, but in the hope of mercy – of healing, eternal life, and union with God.
The physical blindness of these two men has also for us, I believe, a spiritual meaning. We are the blind men – until we through faith receive the grace and mercy of the Lord, for which we must continually cry out. Our vision of all things is darkened until we see them in the light of Christ.

Only in the light of Christ is it possible to see things as they really are.

Only in the light of Christ can we understand the true meaning of the Torah and the prophets.

Only in the light of Christ can we see and love our enemies as images of God.

Only in the light of Christ can we find any meaning in our suffering because without Christ and his cross, all suffering is meaningless. Only in Christ and in his cross can suffering become a means of union with God – because only in Christ and in his cross does the impassible God suffer.

Only in the light of Christ can we see that for us death is but falling asleep in the Lord and that the great dawn of resurrection is coming.

And so, without the light of Christ, we are blind. And, according to our faith, Christ will open our eyes.

[i] Maximus the Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 1:9; 130.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

On New Martyrdom

From the beginning, our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to a radical way of life – to a life rooted in the Gospel and striking – as with an axe – at the roots of evil in our hearts. Not always to ease and to comfort – but first to the cross. Our resurrection to eternal life where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning is attained only through suffering, and death, and the cross. “Take up your cross and follow me” Jesus teaches. And for most of us this possible only as a metaphor. But for many of those to whom he first spoke these words they were terribly, literally true. Andrew was crucified, and Peter, and Philip. They were literally crucified – bound or nailed to crosses and left to die in agony and ignominy.

Amazingly, this did not end at the close of the apostolic age. It is a kind of martyrdom suffered even in recent times. Tomorrow we commemorate the apostle Peter, who died this way, and the day after that we commemorate Fr. Zenon Kovalyk who, in 1941, was tortured and murdered in a mock crucifixion against a wall in a prison in Lviv. Fr. Zenon preached according to his conscience. Even when he had been warned that his sermons were likely to provoke the Bolsheviks, he preached on. And for that they arrested him and locked him in a prison that, poignantly, had formerly been a monastery. And not long after, they crucified him. So, the events of the apostolic age are not so remote from our age as we might imagine. Fr. Zenon of the twentieth century, like Peter of the first, knows fully what Jesus means when he says to take up the cross.

For centuries the early Church endured terrible, periodic persecutions. For their faith, the martyrs suffered unspeakable tortures and deaths. And their blood was the wellspring of the Church. From their blood sprouted new life all the time – conversions to Christ left and right. Those who witnessed the martyrs’ courage – how easily, how blithely, they gave up this passing life in exchange for the life that lasts in Christ Jesus – how – almost nonchalantly – they turned themselves over to wild beasts, to the torturers, to fire, to freezing, to drowning, to crucifixion in order to gain the one thing that matters then as now – union with God in Christ Jesus – even in his death. Those who witnessed this were so moved that in more than one instance, they too gave themselves over to Christ and joined the martyrs in death. That is a great purpose of martyrdom – to give witness. The word “martyr” means “witness.” There is no greater evangelism – no better way to testify the good news that Christ is risen and by death has trampled death  than the small account the martyrs give death. For what is it to suffer death if there is in Christ a resurrection to eternal life? The martyrs are like the merchant who sells all he has in order to go and buy the pearl of great price. They know that he who does not take up his cross and follow Christ is not worthy of Christ (Matt 10:38).

Eventually, through the witness of the early martyrs, so many came into the Church that the persecutions became less frequent and Christianity became the religion of the empire. And so it was no longer quite so courageous to claim faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, in many cases, it became socially or politically advantageous to profess Christianity, and there were many insincere conversions. The toleration of Christianity came as a mixed blessing, therefore. And still, Christ was calling his people to a radical way of life – to a renunciation of the things of this world – but this could no longer be commonly expressed by the red martyrdom of blood.

And so there was the rise of monasticism. Beginning, in many ways, with St. Anthony the Great, men and women in significant numbers began to go to the desert and to live ascetical lives devoted to the Lord. Though yet alive on earth, they lived as though they had already died. And so there is a connection between martyrdom and monasticism. Both are radical, both a kind of death, both are eschatological – they give witness to the life of the coming kingdom of God.  

The Church was so long allied with state power that many, at least in the West, which was somewhat more insulated from Islamic persecutions, must have thought that the age of Christian martyrs was gone. But in the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ would spill more Christian blood than had been spilled in all the centuries before. And just as martyrdom had centuries before led to monasticism, so would monasticism for many now lead to martyrdom.

A case in point is to be found in the Byantine Catholic Church. Today we commemorate two holy and venerable new martyrs, Fr Severian Baranyk and Fr Yakym Senkivskyi. These holy men both embraced a monastic life in the Basilian monastery in Drohobych. And for both, their monasticism would lead to their martyrdom in 1941.

For a long time before this, the Church was relatively comfortable and free from persecution in Ukraine and in that part of the world. But the radical commitment to Christ lived on, among other places, in the monasteries, where it is still always possible to give up your whole life to Christ as a witness to his gospel.

Here in the monastery the courage of the martyrs was lying in wait for the enemy to come and to crucify. The people of Christ had not abandoned Christ’s message. Still they clung to his cross and to their own. And so when the enemy came, they were ready.

Frs. Severian and Yakym would exchange their cells in Drohobych monastery for cells in Drohobych prison. They, together with the many other martyrs of our Church  commemorated this week, such as Fr. Zenon, about whom I’ve spoken, serve as models for us of the greatest love, of radical commitment to Christ and to His Church in the face of adversity from the worldly powers that be.

Before they died for Christ, they lived for him. Fr. Severian, Hegumen of the monastery in Drohobych, was known for his habitual joy and for his work with the young people and orphans. Fr. Yakym, Proto-Hegumen of the same monastery, had devoted himself first to theology and then to many years of pastoral work. He was gifted and he ministered both to scholars and to laborers, both to young and to old, with warmth and humility.  These two really ordinary and holy men of God were arrested on the same day in June of 1941 and taken to the prison in Drohobych. Fr. Severian was tortured to death. His body was broken and on his chest the cross was cut . Fr. Yakym was boiled to death in a cauldron.

One might expect that, in the face of such atrocities, the Christians would learn not to stick out their necks. Not so. As soon as Frs. Severian and Yakym were arrested, a Fr. Vitaliy Bairak was appointed Hegumen of Drohobych Monastery. And he bravely stepped up to the post only to face the same consequence four years later. He was arrested and beaten to death in prison. Just as in the age of the early martyrs, the courage of the martyrs inspired others to join them.

There are lessons for us in all of this. It is essential that we establish, support, and maintain monastic life in our Churches. It provides for us a model and preparation for martyrdom even when we are not enduring persecutions of such magnitude. I hope and pray that we do not face tortures and slaughters as did the many new martyrs we celebrate this week, but we must always be prepared even for that. To this end, the ascetic practices of monastic life can and must be incorporated in our own lives to a certain extent, such as by our participation in th fasts - including the Apostles' Fast, which we are not concluding. We must maintain the spirit of willingness even to die for Christ, because unless we take up our cross and follow him, we will not be worthy of him. Unless we go even to death in Christ, we cannot ultimately live in Christ.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Relative Worth of Flowers to Gold

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matt 6:28-29)

Jesus’ immediate message with these words is clear enough, I think. Stop worrying! Rest in the Lord. Who of you by worrying can add to your life? (6:27) Food, clothing, shelter – to say nothing of comfort, television, and fast cars – all these are in the Lord’s gift. Really, it is the Lord who provides for us in any case. We are all, each of us, everywhere, and at all times in the hands of the Lord – no matter how much control we feign to have over our lives. So, let go. Trust. Be at peace. This is simple. And it is difficult.

But if we are not familiar with Scripture, I think we miss some of Jesus’ meaning.

The glory with which Solomon was clothed was nothing to sneeze at. According to the first book of Kings, “The weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold” (1 Kings 10:14). That is almost fifty thousand pounds of gold. In today’s terms, he brought in almost four hundred forty million dollars a year – just in gold. He had so much gold, that with the excess, he had hundreds of shields made of beaten gold. Besides the gold, he was wealthy in silver, precious stones, ivory, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, mules, apes, and peacocks (1 Kings 10: 10, 22, 25).

Solomon upon this Throne
from  frontispiece to the Song of Songs 
in the Tripartite Mahzor manuscript, 1320
He sat upon “a great ivory throne… overlaid with the finest gold.... At the back of the throne was a calf’s head."  There were twelve lions arrayed on each end of six steps leading up to the throne. "The like of it was never made in any kingdom. All king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold… none were of silver, [because silver] was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon. King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (1 Kings 10:18-21, 23).

I think it is important to bear all this in mind when we hear Jesus say that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed so gloriously as is… a lily.  Clearly, not as the world judges glory does Jesus judge glory. Now a lily is wonderful. It’s my favorite flower, and flowers are indeed glorious creatures of God. Regarding these, Jerome waxes poetic:
“For, in sooth, what regal purple, what silk, what web of divers colours from the loom, may vie with flowers? What work of man has the red blush of the rose? the pure white of the lily? How the Tyrian dye yields to the violet, sight alone and not words can express.” 
Such poetry may do little, however, to convince worldly men of the relative worth of flowers to gold. After all, they reason, a small bit of gold buys many flowers. Yet the Lord Jesus – by calling flowers more gloriously clothed than Solomon – has disparaged gold, and silver, and precious stones. He accounts material wealth of little worth, which hearkens back to an earlier point in his sermon: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).

Now what is mammon? Some of the Fathers suggest that mammon is a name of a demon of greed or even of “the Devil, who is the lord of money.” But the word mammon simply means riches, treasure, wealth, or possessions. It is money – sometimes in a personified sense: the almighty dollar, the golden calf. We cannot serve God and money. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad in and of itself to have wealth – but it means that we must not live our lives with money as our master. The acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself must never become the purpose of our daily labors. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10).

Notice that Jesus does not say that we can serve mammon, provided that we serve God first. He says that we can’t serve God and mammon – we can’t serve mammon at all if we are to serve God. On the contrary, our mammon is to be put into the service of God – and not just some of it – but all of it. Not just ten percent of it. As a friend of mine says, ten percent is a bad tip. One hundred percent of our money belongs to God.

The discipline of tithing is good and important, but we misunderstand if we think that it means that a tenth of our money belongs to God and we get to keep the rest to do with as we please. All of our money is for God. All of it. None of our goods are ours alone. We are the stewards and not the masters of what God has given us – and it is all to be used for the glory of his name.

I don’t believe this means that it is wrong to spend money moderately on entertainments, for example. I think it’s okay to go to the movies or to eat out or to buy art, because I believe that God wants us to enjoy the life he has given us and that this too can give glory to God, if by this means we take delight in God’s creation and if we also remember to give him thanks for every good thing. But I do believe that we need to be conscious of how we use what God has given us and always prayerfully seek God’s intentions for whatever wealth we have.

We must ask, Is God calling me to embrace poverty or to give all that I have to the poor and needy? He does that, you know. Or, how is he calling me to use my wealth? Whatever we have, he is to thank for it and he has his purpose for it. Serve God and not mammon and then you shall have nothing to fear.

The Lord’s point about anxiety – that we ought not to worry about food or clothing or the like – and his point about money – that we cannot be devoted both to money and to God – are intimately bound up together. When we worry, what do we most often worry about? Well, speaking for myself, I worry about money – and I don’t think I’m alone. The way out is to give it all to God – to remember that it is all his anyway and to seek to use all that we’ve been given for the glory of God and not our own glory apart from God – for the glory of God’s creatures who utterly depend on him is greater by far than the glory of any amassed human wealth.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Power of the Word

from the Bedford Hours, Paris, 1414-1423

At one time, the whole earth had one language and few words. And at this time on a plain in the land of Shinar men made bricks and mortar, with which they made to build themselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, so as to make a name for themselves.

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have one language; and nothing will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another." So the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel (Gen 11:1-9).

Now some believe this story is just an etiology – an explanation of why there are so many languages – plain and simple – and that there is nothing else to it. But I believe it means something more for us – and that it has much to do with today’s feast of Pentecost. Today’s Kontakion refers to Babel when we sing, “When the high most descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations.”

The people of Babel were greatly powerful. Nothing would have been impossible for them  the Lord himself says so. They were so powerful because they had the power of the word – they all spoke one language. Remember that it was by the power of the word that God created the heavens and the earth. And now what did humans propose to do with the power of the word that God had given them? (Remember that they could have done anything – nothing would be impossible for them.) They sought not to give glory to God but to make a name for themselves. They sought to build a vain thing. By the word, God created the heavens and the earth, and by the word, the people in Shinar tried to reach the heavens from the earth with their tower to give glory to themselves and to equate themselves with God. 

This tower of Babel brings to my mind the secular humanism growing ever more prevalent in our time, which glorifies humans and regards humanity apart from God as the highest good. This tower is not the way for man to enter heaven – by an act of vanity and hubris – by a work bent on self-glorification rather than the glory of God. And so the Lord removed from among the people the power of the word he had given them.

But not forever. The word comes back to earth from heaven in a new and better way when the word becomes flesh and dwells among us. And this time the power of the word would bring human nature from earth to heaven in the proper way – not by seeking to make a name for himself, but by the supreme act of self-sacrificial love and for the glory of God his Father.  The Word of God who is God does not lift humanity up to heaven by building a tower to human glory apart from God, but becomes human and unites the earthly with the heavenly in himself by laying down his life for us, rising from the dead, and ascending up in glory. 

The Word is first lifted up from the earth not in a tower but on a cross. Then, not content to unite only the living with God, the word descends into the place of the dead, and then, (forty days ago) rises from dead, and then (ten days ago) ascends in glory - finally bringing our human nature to the right hand of the Father in heaven. But even this does not complete his salvific work for us. 

Speaking of his coming ascension, the Lord Jesus says to his disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away. If I do not go away, the Paraklete – the Comforter – will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…. [and] When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16: 7, 13)

The Lord says it is better for him to go away, but it doesn’t feel that way, does it? Don’t many of us long to live in the time of Jesus, to see him face to face, and to hear his voice?

We feel a sense of loss – a kind of sadness on Ascension Thursday. Our Lord has left us staring at the sky. But he says that it is better for him to go so that the Spirit can come. This is hard for us to believe: that this age in which we live – which is the age of the Church  the Pentecostal age – the enspirited age – is somehow better than the time of Christ. How often we long to be with Jesus in the flesh. But this is because we have so little faith that we are with him in the flesh  that the Spirit makes him present to us in the flesh in the Eucharist and in our neighbor. We don’t always believe what Jesus said: that whatever we do to the least of his brethren, that we do unto him. If we did, we would see how it can be that this – even this vale of tears – is the better time: the time of the Lord. We would see that the Lord is with us. He has not abandoned us. He has sent us his Holy Spirit. 

12th century cloisonne enamel on gold
The State Museum of Fine Arts of Georgia
This is what happened on Pentecost: We were given again the power of the word. The Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles like tongues of fire, which represent the gift of the ability to speak and preach in many tongues so that all the people from all the nations, who had been scattered at Babel, could hear in their own tongues the Gospel that the Word has become flesh, was crucified, died and was buried, rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. In this way, the Lord lifted the curse of Babel. He restored to his people the power of the word – and with that, nothing shall be impossible for us. "When the Most High descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations. When He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity." 

The Lord lifts curses in unexpected ways – not in the way we would. He doesn’t simply reverse the bad things in our lives. He brings us through them to a still greater good. He doesn’t restore to us the immortal life of the Garden of Eden. No, he gives a better way to live forever through death and resurrection in union with him.  

And he doesn’t restore to the world a single language so that we could all understand each other. No, this was not a restoration to one language, but an inspiration of many. This was a calling not merely to civic unity, but to spiritual unity. The Most High doesn’t just restore us – he brings us to a new and better life. The diverse tongues given at Pentecost are still better than the universal language enjoyed before Babel. In their manifold variety, they more fully express the majesty of God. With many voices it is possible to make harmony. 

This reminds me of the many rites and traditions through which the Holy Spirit has revealed the Gospel to the many cultures of the world. The Holy Spirit does not inspire a monolithic church, but a church rich and full of various complementary gifts. Not to all are all gifts given, but to each his or her own gift, for the glory of God.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On the Man Born Blind

Healing of the man born blind
from Codex Egberti, Fol 50, between  980 and 993 A.D.
Jesus spit upon the ground, made mud, and spread the mud on the eyes of a man born blind (John 9). How peculiar! – even, by today’s customs, vaguely disgusting. And also in Jesus’ time and place, spitting was not considered a complementary act. In the Torah, spitting on someone is a mark of shame (Num 12:14; Deut 25:9) and in Job spitting signifies derision and disdain (17:6, 30:10). But Jesus is not bound by our etiquette. He who will heal on the Sabbath will surely go against the grain in a lesser matter.

Still, why would Jesus do this? It’s not the expected reaction to seeing a blind man. Jesus doesn’t even speak to the man first, He just sees the blind man, speaks with his disciples about him then immediately spits on the ground and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. If one of us were to try this, we would likely be accosted or arrested for abusing the disabled – (unless and until, I suppose, we had thus restored sight to blind). Seemingly, this is not the only way that Jesus could heal this man. Often, he heals by his word alone. For example, according to Luke, a blind man near Jericho calls out to Jesus, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And they speak. And Jesus says to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." And immediately he receives his sight and follows him, glorifying God” (Luke 18:38, 42-43a). In this account, Jesus does not touch the man at all. Rather, He heals by the creative power of his word. Jesus says “be healed” and we are healed.

This calls to my mind the creation of the world, because God creates by the power of his word. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1). God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. And everything of which he says “let it be” has being – by the power of his word. He says, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” And, by the power of his word, God thus creates humanity, male and female, in his image, which the blind cannot see.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus Christ is the word present at creation. And through him the Father creates. As we say in the creed, “I believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ… through whom all things are made.”

So, God creates by his word, and he recreates by his word.

Giving sight to a man born blind is not simply an act of healing, it is an act of creation! – because it is the giving of a new gift – not the restoration of a lost gift. We might say that Jesus creates sight for the man born blind rather than that he “heals” him. Jesus is our creator and our re-creator. He makes all things and he makes all things new – as he does today for the man born blind, so he does for us.  

But for the man born blind, he doesn’t create simply by the power of the word, does he? No, first he spits upon the ground, makes mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes and sends him to wash in the pool named Siloam, which means “sent,” or, “one who is sent”.

This also recalls the creation of man, which is at least one reason why Jesus uses mud. Remember that our father Adam is made of the earth. His name means “dust man.” In Genesis 2, “The Lord God formed a man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” We are earth with God breathed in. Which quickly becomes clear when we die – because when that breath leaves us, a bit of earth is all that remains. As the Lord says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Our bodies are earth mixed with water. So the mud that Jesus makes reflects his process of creation. It is earth mixed with the living water from the mouth of God, used to create sight for the man born blind.

Ambrose writes of this miracle, “The only reason for his mixing clay with the spittle and smearing it on the eyes of the blind man was to remind you that he who restored the man to health by anointing his eyes with clay is the very one who fashioned the first man out of clay” (Letter 80. 1-5: PL 16, 1326-1327). So, by this action, he shows himself to be our creator as well as our healer.

We owe our lives to Jesus. He creates us! And he sustains us in being. When we are broken, he restores us. When we sin and by his grace we repent, he forgives us. When we fall, he lifts us up. When we are sick, he heals us. When we die, he raises us from the dead.

His means of creation and recreation and healing are manifold. He is the source of our lives and he is in our lives at every step – notably punctuated by the holy mysteries.

There is something strongly sacramental about Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. In the sacraments, God works through his creatures – through men and women, through oil and water, through bread and wine – through these his simple creations, God unites us to himself. We are healed. We partake of the divine nature. Though the sacraments do not limit God and he can reach out to us at any time, through anyone, by any means. As, for example, he reached out to the man born blind through spit, through mud, and through the water of Siloam. Ambrose says that this action symbolizes baptism.

The water of the pool, the cleansing and the healing that it brings, especially evokes baptism. Have you noticed all the water in the gospels of the Paschal Sundays? This is no accident. The Paralytic Man was healed by the water of the sheep pool. The Samaritan woman receives the living water by the well of Jacob. And today, Jesus gives sight to the Man born blind through water of Siloam. All of these images evoke Baptism.

Ambrose writes of today’s Gospel, “this clay that is our flesh can receive the light of eternal life through the sacrament of baptism. You, too, should come to Siloam, that is, to him who was sent by the Father (as he says in the gospel, My teaching is not my own, it comes from him who sent me). Let Christ wash you and you will then see” (ibid.). 

We are recreated and united to Christ – through whom we are created – by baptism. We must not forget that even the unbaptized are his creatures. He is the creator of the cosmos. He creates every person. He creates our families and our friends, he also creates our enemies. I think we sometimes forget this - and that his creation is very good. But then, by baptism, he recreates us. That which sin damaged in us is restored – that is we no more shall die – though we die, we shall live, for Christ is risen!  

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