Stragedy – the end result of a bad strategy.
In the Gospel lesson of Luke 13:10-17, our Lord Jesus Christ performs an act of mercy to a woman without demanding anything from her – neither repentance nor faith. An opponent of Christ finds this as an appropriate occasion not to rejoice or give thanks to God, but rather to criticize the woman, though they carefully avoid criticizing Christ. God shows mercy, the religious zealots criticize the recipient of God’s compassion. How jealously we react to the blessings others receive, especially when we have judged that they aren’t worthy of such blessings. Christ reminds us to treat our fellow human beings better than we treat the animals that serve us or our pets. St. Luke writes:
Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound-think of it-for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.
In the time of St Gregory Palamas (14th Century) this particular Gospel lesson was read as part of the pre-Nativity season on the 3rd Sunday before Christmas. This is unlike the Slavic Orthodox tradition in which the same Gospel is read on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost whenever that occurs. It is a good example of the variations we readily find in Orthodox Tradition, and also shows us that Orthodox liturgical tradition changes over time. According to the Orthodox typikon of his day, by November 21 the Church is singing hymns of the Nativity of Christ – already proclaiming “Christ is born!” weeks before Christmas arrives.
So the footnotes in the collection of St. Gregory’s sermons explains:
“Note that the theme of the third Sunday before Christmas is an extension of the first and second. By this time, however, the Christmas fast had already begun (on 15 November); the singing of the Christmas Canon, ‘Christ is born, glorify Him’, would have been introduced on the feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies (21 November); and also the Kontakion of the forefeast, ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to the Pre-eternal Word’, would have been sung from the leave taking of the feast of the Entry (that is, from 25 November) onwards. But it is in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday before Christmas (Luke 13:10-17) that, in reference to the Crippled Woman who was Healed by Christ, we heard the words, ‘daughter of Abraham’, which refer to Christ’s own lineage, ‘according to the flesh’, and signal the beginning of the theme of the forefeast for Christmas: the commemoration of Christ’s ancestors and, by extension, all the righteous of the Old Dispensation.” ( The Homilies, p 633)
St Gregory Palamas (d. 1439) reminds us that sometimes experiences we do not like are in fact both necessary and helpful for our spiritual growth. We don’t want to suffer, and yet we can benefit from suffering. Forget suffering – let’s be honest, most of us hate inconvenience. We become enraged and wrathful when we experience the slightest inconvenience even when any real suffering is almost non-existent. The tiniest wrinkle in our planned experience of the universe causes us to fly into a rage. Palamas reminds us that many fruit bearing plants will not give us any fruit if there is no cold winter and hibernation. The dead of winter is necessary for the abundance of the fruits of the earth. We, however, completely ignore the benefits to the planet and to all living things of winter cold as soon as the temperature drops to any temperature we hate.
“Then in truth you will be poor in spirit and will gain dominion over the passions and clearly be called blessed by Him who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
How, indeed, can those not be called blessed who have absolutely no truck with material wealth and place all their trust in Him? Who wish to please only Him? Who with humility and the other virtues live in His presence? Let us, then, also become poor in spirit by being humble, by submitting our unregenerate self to hardship and by shedding all possessions, so that the kingdom of God may be ours, and we may fulfill our blessed aspirations by inheriting the kingdom of heaven. The Lord has left us certain synoptic statements that express in a succinct manner the Gospel of our salvation, and one of these statements is the beatitude of which we have been speaking. By including so many virtues in that single phrase and excluding so many vices, the Lord has conferred His blessing on all those who through these virtues and through repentance prune the aspect of their souls that is vulnerable to passion.
But this is not all; for in that phrase He also includes many other things, analogous not to pruning but rather to the activity of cold, ice, snow, frost and the violence of the wind – in a word, to the hardship that plants undergo in winter and summer by being exposed to the cold and heat, yet without which nothing upon earth can ever bear fruit.
What are these things? The various trials and temptations that afflict us and that we must gladly endure if we are to yield fruit to the Husbandman of our souls. If we were to feel sorry for earthly plants and build a wall around them and put a roof over them and not allow them to suffer such hardships, then although we may prune and otherwise tend them assiduously, they will bear no fruit. On the contrary, we must let them endure everything, for then, after the winter’s hardship, in springtime they will bud, blossom, adorn themselves with leaves and, covered with this bountiful foliage, they will produce young fruit. This fruit, as the sun’s rays grow stronger, will thrive, mature and become ready for harvesting and eating.
Similarly, if we do not courageously bear the burden of trial and temptation – even though we may practice all the other virtues – we will never yield fruit worthy of the divine wine-press and the eternal granaries. For it is through patient endurance of afflictions deliberately entered into and those that are unsought, whether they come upon us from without or assault us from within, that we become perfect. What happens naturally to plants as a result of the farmer’s care and the changing seasons happens, if we so choose, to us, Christ’s spiritual branches (cf. John 15:5), when as creatures possessing free-will we are obedient to Him, the Husbandman of souls.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 45781-45888)
Praise the LORD from the earth …
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
St Basil the Great (d. 379) gave a sermon that is a wonderful meditation for those of us celebrating Thanksgiving Day today.
“In more fortunate circumstances will we speak the words of David, What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
He has called us into being out of nothing; he has endowed us with reason, bestowed on us skills to help us preserve life; he has caused food to grow from the ground and has made beasts subject to us.
For our sake it rains, the sun shines, there are mountains and plains, and he has prepared for us places of shelter in the mountains even up to the highest peak.
The rivers flow for our use, springs bubble up, the sea is open to us for trade, the mines for treasure. All that we enjoy, bestowed on us in all creation, we have around us through the rich and marvelous good of the creator.
But why limit examples to these small things? It was for our sake that God himself came to walk among humankind. For the sake of the corruptible flesh the Word became flesh and lived among us. The creator tarried for the sake of the ingrates; the sun of righteousness to those who sit in the shadows; the impassible went to the cross, life in death, light in the underworld, resurrection for the sake of those who had died, the adoption of the Holy Spirit, the promised allotment of God’s grace, the promises of crowns.
In short: everything beyond number, upon which fits the Prophet’s utterance: What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
And these are not things our great Benefactor has simply given, but rather given back, as part of a grand cycle of giving. The thanks we render to him, he regards as so many good deeds, and holds us accountable. These assets that are given to you, advance them to the Benefactor by your alms through the hands of the poor, and although he has received his own property, so it is a perfect thanks, as if you have given from your own goods.
What shall I return to the Lord, for all his bounty to me?
I cannot let go of this saying of the Prophet, which sums up so well our present circumstances, as he sees his poverty and the deserving countergift of the Lord. Yet such magnanimous charity is nothing compared to the greater promises: the delights of paradise, the grandeur of heaven, angelic honor, the vision of God, the greatest good of all, honor, whatever each reasonable being desires, which portion we shall share after we put off the desires of the flesh.” (On Fasting and Feasts, pp 118-119)
I wish everyone a Blessed Thanksgiving Day!
Oh, give thanks to the LORD!
Call upon His name;
Make known His deeds among the peoples!
Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him;
Talk of all His wondrous works!
Glory in His holy name;
Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the LORD!
Seek the LORD and His strength;
Seek His face evermore!
Remember His marvelous works which He has done,
. . . . .
Sing to the LORD, all the earth;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all peoples.
For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised;
He is also to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before Him;
Strength and gladness are in His place.
Give to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
Give to the LORD glory and strength.
Give to the LORD the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come before Him.
Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth.
The world also is firmly established,
It shall not be moved.
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
And let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns.”
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness;
Let the field rejoice, and all that is in it.
Then the trees of the woods shall rejoice before the LORD,
For He is coming to judge the earth.
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
And say, “Save us, O God of our salvation;
Gather us together, and deliver us from the nations,
To give thanks to Your holy name,
To triumph in Your praise.”
Blessed be the LORD God of Israel
From everlasting to everlasting!
And all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD.
(1 Chronicles 16:8-36)
St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) writes about the importance of being grateful to God for every blessing we receive. His words are most appropriate for us to consider during our Thanksgiving Holiday.
“Thus we should all give thanks to God, as it is said: ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thess. 5:18). Closely linked to this phrase is another of St Paul’s injunctions: ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), that is, be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things.
When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you;
when you see the sky,
the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator;
when you put on clothing,
acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life.
In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St Paul commends (cf. 1 Thess. 5:15). For as St Dorotheos explains, remembrance of God rejoices the soul; and he adduces David as witness: ‘I remembered God, and rejoiced’ (cf. Ps. 77:3. LXX). (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28921-41)
Seeking to know the incomprehensible, the Virgin cried to the ministering spirit: “Tell me, how can a son be born from a chaste womb?”
And in fear, the Angel answered, crying out:
Rejoice, initiate of God’s secret counsel!
Rejoice, faith in that which must be guarded by silence!
Rejoice, prelude of Christ’s miracles!
Rejoice, crown of his teachings!
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down!
Rejoice, bridge which conveys men from earth to heaven!
Rejoice, wonder of angels, blazed abroad!
Rejoice, wound of demons bewailed afar!
Rejoice, for ineffably you bore the Light!
Rejoice, for you revealed your secret to none!
Rejoice, wisdom surpassing the knowledge of the wise!
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of the faithful!
Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!
(Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc. 2374-82)
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) offers us some spiritual wisdom for the Nativity Lenten season. Chrysostom acknowledges it is counter intuitive, but those who hurt and offend us actually benefit us on our journey to the kingdom. How is this possible? If we forgive them and are reconciled to them, Chrysostom says God forgives our sins simultaneously. It is those who offend us who give us opportunity to practice the virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness. Thus, he says, they become our benefactors as they are giving us opportunity to practice the Gospel commandments. The people who offend us give us the chance to behave like God. Chrysostom thinks we ought to be grateful for the opportunities their bad behavior affords us!
“Consequently, I beseech you, let us keep this in mind and no longer bear to hold a grudge against those who have done us an injury or otherwise wronged us in some way, nor be badly disposed towards them; instead, let up consider of how much kindness and confidence for us with the Lord they prove to be instruments, and before all else the fact that reconciliation with those who injure us turns out to be a discharge of our sins. Thus let us show all enthusiasm and effort, and out of consideration of the gain accruing from this let us display as much care of those who injure us as if they were really our benefactors. In other words, if we look at things in the cold light of reason, those kindly disposed towards us and those anxious to serve our every need will not succeed in benefiting us a service of those others, which will render us deserving of favor from above and will lighten the load of our sins. Consider, dearly beloved, how important is this virtuous behavior to judge from the rewards promised by the God of all things to those who practice it.
He said, remember, ‘Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you,’ since these directions were very demanding and aspiring to the very summit of perfection, he added, ‘so that you may be like your Father in heaven, because he makes his sun rise on good and evil, and sends rain on just and unjust.’ (Matthew 5:44-45) Do you see whom that person resembles – as far as is humanly possible – who not only takes no vengeance on those who harm him, but even shows zeal in praying for them? Accordingly, let us not deprive ourselves through indifference of such gifts and rewards surpassing all description, but rather evince enthusiasm for this kind of virtue by every means and, by disciplining our thinking, respond to God’s command.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 180-181)
Orthodox biblical professor Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos offers us a meditation which is appropriate both for Thanksgiving Week and also as we continue to witness the massive refugee crisis in the Mideast and Europe.
“Meditation – There are many tests to our faith in the world. Not all of them are caused by external aggression against us emotionally, physically, economically, socially or politically. Many times our faith is tested when we can do something for people, especially the poor and needy, and we do not help except in a token way. The poor are the Lord’s burden on the Christian conscience but also the Lord’s blessing when we truly help them with gifts, lending and other non-patronizing ways so that they can live and stand on their own strength as much as possible.
Here are the words of the Lord: ‘If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother…You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.’ (Dt. 15:7, 10 RSV).
Lord our God, who sent to us the heavenly Bread,
food for the whole world,
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Redeemer and Benefactor to become poor
so that we may become rich,
be pleased to accept our prayer at this moment.
In Your Goodness and love for humanity,
remember all the poor and needy of the world,
in our cities and neighborhoods, open our
hearts to be more sensitive to their needs,
and give us the power of faith to help them
according to the blessing and gifts that You have
granted to each of us. For You are the source
of all sustenance and Your name is glorified,
of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
now and forever. Amen.
– Adapted Prayer of the Preparation of the Gifts (Prothesis)”
(A Year of the Lord: Liturgical Bible Studies, pp 114-115)
“If a tree is known by its fruit, and a good tree brings forth good fruit (cf. Matt. 7:17, Luke 6:43-44), how could she who is the Mother of Goodness itself, who gave birth to that Beauty which has no beginning, not be incomparably more excellent and beautiful than anything good on earth and in heaven?
The power who made all things fair, the co-sempiternal, express Image of Goodness, the pre-eternal, supraessential and supremely good Word of the Father most high, wished in His ineffable love and compassion for mankind to put on our image, in order to recall our human nature, which had been dragged down into the inmost recesses of Hades, to renew it after it had grown old, and to raise it up beyond the heavenly heights to His kingdom and divinity. He united His person with our humanity, and, since it was necessary for Him to assume flesh that was both new and our own, in order to renew us by means of what was ours, He also had to be carried in the womb and brought forth as we are, then nurtured after birth and brought up as was appropriate. Becoming like us in all respects for our sake, He found the Ever-Virgin, whom we extol and whose mysterious Entry into the Holy of Holies we celebrate today, to be a most suitable handmaid in every way, able to bestow on Him an undefiled nature from her own. God determined before all ages that she should be for the salvation and restoration of our race, and chose her from all mankind down through the ages, not simply among ordinary folk, but from all the elect of every age, who were admired and renowned for their piety and understanding, and who were both beneficial to all and well-pleasing to God in their ways, words and deeds.” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp 407-408)
“But the Virgin, by conceiving the Word within her body, ‘deified the human race and made earth a heaven.’ The Word ‘became the Son of Man, sharing in mortality, to turn human beings into sons of God and make them partakers of divine immortality.’ How believers appropriate this within the ecclesial community is illustrated typologically. The incarnate Word gave us baptism as a sacrament and type of his burial and resurrection to deify both the soul and body. His transfiguration opened the eyes of his disciples, showing them that human nature has been deified by union with the Word of God.
We must imitate him in his earthly life to become partakers of his resurrection and fellow-heirs with Christ. Through fasting and night vigils we are ‘renewed and deified’ in our inner being. This transformation of our human nature, first in the representative humanity of Christ and then in our own person through the life of faith, is thoroughly traditional and patristic.” (Norman Russel in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 50, #4, p 377-378)