Seeing Angels: The Love of Strangers 

38787120371_94aa941a60_w

Let brotherly love continue.  Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.  Remember the prisoners as if chained with them – those who are mistreated – since you yourselves are in the body also.  (Hebrews 13:1-3) 

From the desert fathers, we find this edifying story: 

Abba Agathon once went into the city to sell a few wares and, on the way, he found a cripple. ‘Where are you going?’ the cripple said to him.  Abba Agathon told him: ‘to the city to sell [my] wares.’  He said to him: ‘Of your charity, take me there.’  He brought him to the city, carrying him, and [the cripple] said to him: “Put me there where you sell the wares,’ and he did so.  When he had sold some wares, the cripple said to him: ‘How much did you sell them for?’ ‘For so much,’ he said.  ‘Buy me a little cake,’ [the cripple] said to him and he bought him one.  Then he sold some more wares and the cripple said: ‘How much for this?’ and he said: ‘So much.’  ‘Buy such and such,’ the other said and he bought it.  When he had sold all his wares and wanted to come back, the cripple said to him: ‘Are you going?’ ‘Yes,’ he said to him and he said: ‘Of your charity, take me to where you found me.’  He brought him to his place, carrying him.  Then he said to him: ‘Agathon, you are blessed by the lord in heaven and on earth.’  When [Agathon] raised his eyes he saw no one, for it was an angel of the Lord come to put him to the test.”   (GIVE ME A WORD, pp 59-60) 

47926726987_ea51e8ca42_w

God’s Grace and Peace Be With You

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:2) 

5875726446_8ea8bb056c_w

The above words are the common greeting from St Paul to those reading or hearing his epistles. He is reminding each of his listeners of God’s blessings and grace so that they in turn might have the abundant joy which Christ has promised to His followers. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). If we consciously remember the blessings and grace of God, we will also remember that though we are sinners God loves us and wishes to save us.  Writing in the 5th Century, St Mark the Ascetic, a disciple of St John Chrysostom, says of the person who truly hears St Paul’s greetings that he or she will think about God and …  

“’… will say to himself: ‘Though I have done nothing good and have committed many sins before Him, living in uncleanness of the flesh and indulging in many other vices, yet He did not deal with me according to my sins, or reward me according to my iniquities (cf. Ps 103:10), but gave me all these gifts of grace for my salvation.

3776381258_1f02e4b27e_w

If, then, from now onwards I give myself completely to His service, living in all purity and acquiring the virtues, how many holy and spiritual gifts will He not grant me, strengthening me in every good work, guiding and leading me aright.’ If a man always thinks in this way and does not forget God’s blessings, he encourages and urges himself on to the practice of every virtue and of every righteous work, always ready, always eager to do the will of God.”  (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 1, pp 148-149)

When The Failure to Be Charitable is Theft 

49978736376_556a82faf2_w

But this I say: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.” Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.  (2 Corinthians 9:6-11) 

44379883725_a77969020d_w

God sends blessings to us so that we can share with those less fortunate or in need.  The blessings we receive are actually the “seeds” God provides us to become spiritually fruitful. 

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

5096763138_3435941b81_w

The blessings we receive should result both in our giving thanks to God and in our being charitable to others – this is the purpose for which God sends us these blessings. Thus, the blessings also come with responsibility, for if we don’t use the blessings for what God intends, we will answer to God at the judgment for having wasted the seed that God so generously gave us.  And as St John Chrysostom notes below, to fail to share or to fail in charity is in God’s judgment the same as stealing from the poor.  Chrysostom uses Christ’s parable of the impoverished Lazarus and the nameless rich man to illustrate his point. 

“Just as, when God expelled Adam from paradise, he settled him opposite the garden in order that the continual sight might renew his suffering and give him a clearer awareness of his fall from the good, so also He settled the rich man opposite Lazarus in order that he might see the good of which he had deprived himself. ‘I sent,’ he says, ‘the poor man Lazarus to your gate to teach you virtue and to receive your love; you ignored this benefit and declined to use his assistance toward your salvation. Hereafter you shall use him to bring yourself a greater punishment and retribution.’

6995562377_33d2035923_w

From the poor man we learn that all who suffer curse and injustice among us will stand before us in that other life. Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his own wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen other’s goods, when he is surrounded by those whom he has wronged? In that world there is no need of witnesses, accusers, evidence, or proof; the deeds themselves just as we have done them appear before our eyes.

26260838900_38e4d4cc8f_w

‘See the man,’ He says, ‘and his works; indeed this also is theft, not to share one’s possessions.’” (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 43) 

Different Bodies, Different Glories

All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men,

6610275955_be682b1052_w

another flesh of animals,

4585250569_3a3e7d18ea_w

another of fish,

19282322113_1cdd903d80_w

and another of birds.

39789142541_e56d065f5b_w

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies;

48988136156_986c490301_w

but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

51486523297_e441904a6a_w

There is one glory of the sun,

51060417132_3e9020d35b_w

another glory of the moon,

49865535752_d6fe3e9197_w

and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.  (1 Corinthians 15:39-41)

See the source image

(NASA Hubble Space Photo)

Praying at All Times 

48100259101_13ffec6e25_w

Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints… (Ephesians 6:18) 

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev comments:

We need to pray continuously. It isn’t enough to pray from time to time, only when we need something from God; we should be always praying morning, evening, and over the course of the day and our entire life. And at the center of our prayer shouldn’t be anything specific that we’re asking for from God, but God himself, because the main content of prayer is always our encounter with God, the possibility of discovering him for ourselves. 

We should pray not only for ourselves, but also for others; not only for our relatives and friends, but for our enemies. We should pray to God not as isolated individuals, but as people who represent a portion of humanity, addressing God not only on our own behalf, but also on behalf of one human family, for God is the heavenly Father of each one of us.”   (PRAYER: ENCOUNTER WITH THE LIVING GOD, p 134) 

6047670429_1c7b419c9e_w

Christ Comes to Save Not Destroy Humans 

4970289989_c7771081b4_w

Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Jesus to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village.  (Luke 9:51-56) 

4550022895_7a1f714995_w

The desire to send those we don’t like to hell has been with Christians from the time of Christ as can be seen in the above Gospel lesson.  The Lord Jesus rebukes His disciples for gleefully wishing those who were not receptive to the Gospel to be condemned to a hellish, fiery death and annihilation.  That is not the spirit of Christ the Savior.  Nevertheless, the New Testament does speak of judgment and hell.  St Basil the Great expresses his belief: 

“I believe that the fire prepared in punishment for the devil and his angels [Mt 25:41] is divided by the voice of the Lord [cf. Ps 28:7], in order that, since there are two capacities in fire, the burning and the illuminating, the fierce and punitive part of the fire may wait for those who deserve to burn, while its illuminating and radiant part may be allotted for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing.”   (quoted in ST GREGORY OF NYSSA’S CATECHETICAL DISCOURSE, p 57) 

8186040883_56389b5f80_w

Basil accepts an idea that other Fathers also embraced – everyone will be exposed to God’s judging fire, but for those who love God they will experience this fire as light and illumination.  It is only those who ‘deserve’ punishment who will experience the fire as pain and suffering.  Christ’s words to His disciples above give us some sense that condemning sinners to hell is not the desire of the God who is love.  God continues to do everything to bring everyone in communion with the Holy Trinity.  Some may choose to reject this love forever but that love remains eternal.

5875725144_3b9e417ba0_w

Christian Marriage 

50283758212_c43bc6ab8c_w

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:25-33) 

51176223971_5fa221d76d_w

Orthodox scholar and priest, Fr Alkiviadis Calivas comments on Christian marriage: 

“There is more to marriage than the place and the form by which it is to be solemnized, important as these things are.  These issues tend to shift the focus from the content of Christian marriage—which is the real concern—to external forms.  A Christian marriage is not made just by some obligatory external rites.

21912949170_8319b9a863_w

Having made the point, I must stress also that the form or rite of marriage is indeed important.  But not because it legitimizes and sanctions relationships.  For the rite is not instrumental but sacramental. It both preserves as well as celebrates and communicates a particular vision and understanding of marriage. Through the rite the ideals, values, and virtues of Christian marriage are celebrated, the grace of God is made manifest, and the couple is called to begin to realize a specific vocation and mission. A marriage in the Lord draws its identity first and foremost from the Kingdom of God, and not simply from the physiological, psychological, and sociological functions of the marital bond.”  (ESSAYS IN THEOLOGY AND LITURGY, p 105)

Let Us Give Thanks to the Lord!

giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …  (Ephesians 5:20) 

51346593903_a71b555fa3_w

Thankfulness- gratitude – is to be a normal virtue in the hearts and minds of all Christians. So much so that we are to be full of thanks and gratitude, no matter what else may be happening in our lives.  See for example Acts 5, especially verse :41, in which the apostles rejoice that they were counted worthy to suffer on account of Christ.  Thankfulness, however, must be cultivated and intentionally practiced in our lives for it does not seem to occur automatically in us (as parents know, constantly reminding their children to say ‘thank you’). As Orthodox we have the Divine Liturgy to cultivate and promote a thankful attitude, for the Liturgy is Eucharistic, and eucharist is a Greek word for thanksgiving.  Every time we assemble for the Liturgy, we are assembling to give thanks to the Lord. Probably all Orthodox would benefit from reminding themselves each Sunday morning they are going to give thanks to the Lord, rather than just thinking about going to church. 

51347111099_eaa6b38c35_w

“The fathers teach without variation: through partaking of the eucharistic gifts, we become what we are. A modern proverb says, ‘You are what you eat.’ This is nowhere more true than in the Divine Liturgy, where we become the Body of Christ because we eat the Body of Christ. St Augustine said so in the fourth century: ‘The Lord will impart His Body and His blood which was shed for the remission of sins.  If you have received well, you are that which you have received’ (Sermon 227). ‘It is your mystery which is laid on the table of the Lord’ (Sermon 272). There is an unbreakable sacramental connection between the gifts we offer and ourselves as the offerers of the gifts.  For when Christians receive the transformed gifts in Holy Communion, they receive Christ, the King of all.  He enters them, transforming them, incorporating them into Himself, so that they assembled multitude becomes again His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1 Cor 10:17; Eph 1:23) (Lawrence Farley, LET US ATTEND, p 56) 

48139967977_77899fabbc_w

We become the Body of Christ through the Eucharist, but we should also become thankful for the entire Liturgy is our thanksgiving to God. And in this thanksgiving, we don’t celebrate our blessings and ignore the problems of others, for we pray for the poor and needy, and are taught to be as generous in giving blessings to them as God is to us. 

“’How can one celebrate the Eucharist on the altar, with precious ornaments and golden chalices, and neglect the Body of Christ at the church door: the poor one?’ (St John Chrysostom).”   (Boris Bobrinskoy, THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER, p 28) 

33610492278_5a54508357_w

The thankful and gracious attitude cultivated through our spiritual lives should overflow in charity towards those in need.  Thus, the Liturgy is not our escape from the problems of the world, but training in how to live our lives in the world – with thanksgiving and charity for all. 

Practice Makes Perfect 

51487952519_e2923c49d9_w

Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32)

7976400775_9c6ef4404e_w

St Paul’s words above to the Christian community at Ephesus is a good description of what behavior it takes to be a Christian. What are some reasons we fail to live up to this description of being a Christian? Fr John Behr notes that for some of the early Christian writers, sin is the main reason we fail:  “As there are two causes of sin, weakness and ignorance, so the life of the Christian has two aspects, training and instruction” (ASCETICISM AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN IRENAEUS AND CLEMENT, p 159).  Just as any skilled job requires training, so too we need to be instructed in how to live the Christian life in a fallen world and we must practice imitating the saints. Practice makes perfect, they say, and so we have consciously to put into practice our faith.  Good deeds happen because we choose to love the other rather than serve the self.   As people talk about ‘muscle memory’ – in which we repeat an action so much it becomes virtually habitual and we become near perfect in accomplishing the act – so too, even if good deeds or virtuous actions do not come automatically to us at first, if we practice them enough, they can become our default mode in dealing with others.  We are after all called disciples, which means we agree to be trained by the Master.

5478197001_ee85573595_w

St John Chrysostom comments further:

“Nothing is more frigid than a Christian who is indifferent to the salvation of others.  Indeed I wonder if such a person can be a true Christian. To become a disciple of Christ is to obey his law of love; and obedience to the law brings joy beyond measure and description. Love means to want the best for others, sharing with them the joy of love. So the Christian feels compelled to speak to others about the law of love, and the joy of obeying this law.  Of course, many people are shy about speaking to others; in their case actions motivated by love will be a most eloquent testimony. But those who are not shy will surely want to express their joy at every opportunity. There is no need to use fine words or elegant phrases; even the most uneducated people can convey joyful love by the spirit which accompanies their words. Even slaves have been known to convert their masters and mistresses by the sincerity of their speech.”   (ON LIVING SIMPLY, p 25)

4263449411_c91dd0aec3_w

St Nina of Georgia, Equal to the Apostles

The Prophet Hosea 

Today in the Orthodox Church we honor the memory of the Prophet Hosea.  Orthodox scholar Eugen Pentiuc points out that God’s words to the Prophet Hosea is that God is merciful and uses His judgment to teach and correct, not to destroy:

“As Hosea who, at God’s command, receives back his adulterous wife (chapters 2 and 3), likewise Yahweh is willing utterly to forgive his faithless people.  Jerome interprets: ‘Whenever he wanted to carry out his harsh and even cruel sentence, parental compassion prevailed, and he softens the severity of judgment with fatherly love.  . . .  It displeased me to blot my people out for good; for that reason I will not act according to the passion of my anger, nor will be charged entirely from my compassion in order to ruin Ephraim. For I do not smite to destroy for good, but rather to correct.  My cruelty is an opportunity for penitence and piety.  For “I am God and not man.”’ Whereas a man punishes to destroy, God reproaches to emend.”  (LONG-SUFFERING LOVE: A COMMENTARY ON HOSEA, p 30)

4446992684_72e88e98fa_w

Pentiuc’s comments are very similar to those expressed by St John Chrysostom who explains that God has no desire to punish us even though we might deserve it.  God, according to Chrysostom, uses His anger to warn us about judgment and hell precisely so that we would choose not to go there. God’s ‘anger’ and ‘threats’ are meant to correct and guide us, not to inflict pain and suffering on us.

“Enemies, at any rate, and those intent on inflicting punishment not only give no clue but even conceal their purpose while mounting attack lest those due to be punished get to know of it and escape.  This is not God’s way, however – quite the opposite: he gives notice, allows a delay, instills fear by word, and does everything to avoid inflicting what he threatens. . . . You see, while soldiers are armed for the purpose of meting out punishment, God on the contrary does not act that way; instead, his intention is to bring us to our senses through fear and to stay the hand of retribution. . . .

8516233338_16d1436edf_w

For fathers, too, when they do not wish to punish their children, put on a fit of anger; and in like manner God himself, not wishing to punish, heightens fear through his words.  He says he is also preparing hell so as not to cast us into hell; this is surely the reason also why many statements about retribution occur in the Gospels, more than those about the kingdom.  Since, you see, in the case of less perceptive people the promise of good things is not so conducive to virtue as the fear of painful things…”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, pp 137-138)