Entering Into Great Lent

[Sermon Notes for 26 February 2017    The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise]

The spiritual life is a sojourn, that is not just a metaphor.  In the Church we have opportunities to experience the spiritual life as a sojourn.  A sojourn requires time and movement – we move from one place to another over time.  Things around us change, and we change in this process as well.  This is what makes repentance and forgiveness possible.   We are journeying to the Kingdom of God, to the eschaton, to heaven, to God’s Paradise.

Great Lent is a journey to Pascha – to the celebration of the Resurrection.  But it is movement not to the past, but forward to the eschaton.  The past  – the events of the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – are part of this sojourn, but only because they are eternal events.  We are not trying to get back to the empty tomb of Christ, for there the women who discovered it did not know what sense to make of it, even when the angel explained it, and the disciples didn’t believe the women.  [We sing “Christ IS risen…”  not “Christ was risen…”]   Going back to that time and moment cannot help us.  It is only in light of Pentecost – God’s sending His Holy Spirit upon the Church and the world – that we make sense of the empty tomb and resurrection of Christ.

Tradition is not a backwards looking frame of reference – it is always geared to move ahead to the eschaton.  We are not going to find Christ in the past.  The entire New Testament is geared toward the Risen Lord, toward His Kingdom, His glory, His triumph.

Blessed is the kingdom.…”  That is how we start the Divine Liturgy and Matins – it is declaring the blessedness of that Kingdom which is to come, which is breaking into this world, and yet not fully realized here.  We start our services by declaring the blessedness of our destination.

In the Epistle, St. Paul speakings about “knowing the time”.  He is not talking about clock time, but rather a much broader sense of era the world is in.  The fulfillment of Christ in His Kingdom is arriving.  We need to use the time to prepare ourselves, to be ready for its arrival.  Great Lent is that season in which we prepare for the coming of Christ in His Kingdom.

Romans 13:11-14:4
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.

We are to use this time, this season of Great Lent to for our sojourn.  Walk properly.  Sojourn correctly – in an Orthodox manner!   St Paul sets up some pairing that we are to reject:

revelry and drunkenness,

lewdness and lust,

strife and envy.

We put on Christ is baptism – how are we to live clothed in Christ?

Lent is to help learn the proper moderation in living.  Drunkenness is not OK.  Pornography is not OK.  Anger and Antagonism are not OK.  If these things are present in our life, we need to repent!  As St. Paul exhorts:  “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).  The sins for which we need to repent are not all found in the Ten Commandments.

10commadments

We are to practice a sobriety in Lent – but not just for the duration of the 40 days of Lent.  We are practicing in Lent in order to live this lifestyle always.  It is not OK to get drunk on Pascha night!

We are not aiming to get through Lent so that we can return to drunkenness and revelry, lewdness and lust, strife and envy come Pascha.

Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.

Lenten fasting is not the time to pay attention to what others are eating or not eating.  We are not to criticize anyone based upon what they eat.  That is no basis for any evaluation of anybody.

Lenten foods are a return to the foods God provided in the delightful luxuries of  Paradise.  We claim we want to reach this Paradise.  Our Lenten journey is taking us there.  So, what did they eat in Paradise?

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  (Genesis 1:29)

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden…”  (Genesis 2:16)

Fruits, greens, vegetables are the foods of Paradise.

So what do we love more?  – God’s Paradise and its leaves and fruits and nuts or this fallen world and its steaks, lamb, ham and salmon?  Do we really long for the Kingdom of God or are we hoping Lent we pass by quickly so that we can return to things of this world which we love so much?

Are we willing to trade the things of this world which we love and lust after for the things of Paradise?   If so, we need to show it in our lives and to live for paradise rather than for this world.

Lent is a testing.  It is sifting us to see which of us loves God more than the things of this world.  It turns out we love the things of this world – the food, the sex, the entertainment, our money, wealth, shopping, drinking, prosperity and our possessions.  We want to sit with the rich man not dream about crumbs like Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), no matter what the consequences of eating from the rich man’s table might be.

Pascha night is not mostly about ham, lamb and fine cheeses.

It is about the Kingdom of God, and the fact that this world is passing away.  Are we headed toward that Kingdom, or are we in pursuit of receding worldliness?  Do we live for this world or for the Kingdom?  Are we willing to abandon the good things of earth which is passing away for life in Paradise?

Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The spirit of the fast is not found in what we eat or don’t eat.  But where our treasure is.

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Obedience to God’s Will

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

As we begin Great Lent, we know the goal of any self denial, fasting, asceticism is to allow ourselves to set aside our own will so that we can come to recognize and do the will of God.   It is not so much that fasting is doing the will of God, but in practicing control over our own desires, we can come to realize there is in the universe another will essential to our existence – the will of God. We can actually know the will of God and do it.   But that happens only when we dial down the volume of our own verbose will so that we can become aware of God’s will, and then pursue it.

“But is the human ego (or self) something other than the human soul? In fact, the ego is nothing other than the soul. Here, two states are possible. First, the soul might be totally subject to God, and the human ego would then not be independent, that is it would not have an existence independent of God – the ego’s will would then be God’s will and its desire his desire. In this case, the human ego would be well prepared for perpetual existence with God and in God. It would be dead to itself and alive to God.

Or, the soul might not be subject to God, choosing freely to be independent of his will, following its own passions and desires. In this case the human ego would be alive to itself and dead to God. It becomes a being independent of him, but in fact it cannot exist except in evil, based on materialistic delusion. This independence from God, this existence in sin, is only transient. So the ego that is dependent of God becomes a perishable ego.

However, departure of the ego from God’s will is only induced by the deception of the devil, like the deception of the serpent to Eve in paradise: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).

Is there any means, then, by which we can mortify the human ego to itself that it may live to God? Yes. But the only means is total submission to the will of God…

Take heed then and open your ears: Either count yourself as nothing in word and deed and make up your mind to surrender yourself to God with all your might–and you will then gladly be released from your ego by the grace of God; or, you will be delivered to discipline until you are set free from our ego in spite of yourself. So if you wish to opt for the easier way, take that of voluntary submission. Count yourself from now on as nothing, and follow the path of grace wherever the Spirit may wish to lead you.

Know for certain that submission to God and total surrender to his will and divine plan are a free gift of grace. It thus demands, besides prayer and supplication, a trusting faith to receive this gift. This should be coupled with a longing springing from one’s heart that God may not deliver us to discipline for our folly, nor abandon us to our own wisdom. For this reason, we should have an extremely resolute will to renounce our own self at all times, and in all works. This should not be done ostentatiously before people but within our conscience. Blessed is the man who can discover his own weakness and ignorance and confess them before God to the last day of his life.

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, pp. 122-123)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24)

Returning to the Beautiful Paradise Lost

St. Ephrem the Syrian used poetry as the venue for expressing theology. He wrote many brilliant, beautiful poems.  Since today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, it is good for us to consider what was lost by humanity when we exited Paradise in order to pursue our own way to divinity.  St. Ephrem writes:

Paradise surrounds the limbs

with its many delights:

the eyes, with its handiwork,

the hearing, with its sounds,

the mouth and the nostrils,

with its tastes and scents.

Blessed is that person who has gathered for himself

the company of all

who have kept vigil and fasted;

they, in return for their fasts,

shall delight to graze

upon its luxurious pastures.

At least in the words above, Ephrem gives Paradise a very physical dimension.   Humans used all their senses to delight in the ecstasy of the Garden of Eden.  Or perhaps, he is telling us that spiritual joy is not without a physical dimension.  God gave us our bodies to enjoy His creation and as the means by which we can know Him and communicate with Him.  We don’t escape the body to encounter God.  We are the Church of the Incarnation – God took on human flesh!

We also are reminded that this world is not Paradise.  What perhaps is more challenging for many of us is to think that in Paradise humans did not enjoy gourmet foods, steaks, lobster, spices, sauces, deserts, cuisines, chefs and restaurants.  They ate plants which is the only food God gave them in Paradise!

Ephrem uses an unusual phrase claiming those who keep the fast on earth will enter Paradise and  shall delight to graze upon its luxurious pastures”.  Most of us might imagine a paschal banquet with roast lamb, or glazed ham or steak or fine cheeses and cheesecakes.  Will we delight to graze on its pastures?  Or do we really love this earth without God more than Paradise with God?

Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,

it enriched me as I meditated upon it;

I forgot my poor estate,

for it had made me drunk with its fragrance.

I became as though no longer my old self,

for it renewed me with all its varied nature.

I swam around

in its magnificent waves;

and in the place that, burning like a furnace,

had made Adam naked,

I became so inebriated

that I forgot all my sins there

St. Ephrem in totally enthralled by Paradise.  He is swept up into its glorious beauty and just thinking about it changes his life.  Adam and Eve through sin lost their place in the Garden of Delight, and became stripped of all its beauty and mystery.  Ephrem is made drunk by its magnificent waves.  He is made giddy and was able to forget his sins because of what God made Paradise to be.

Although I was not sufficient

for all the waves of its beauty,

Paradise took me up and cast me

into a sea still greater;

in its fair beauty I beheld those who are far more beautiful than it,

and I reflected:

if Paradise be so glorious,

how much more glorious should Adam be,

who is in the image [ Gen 1:27 ] of its Planter,

and how much fairer the Cross,

upon which the Son of its Lord rode.

Paradise it turns out is not a destination, but rather a bridge to even greater glory.  Our growth in Paradise is not limited, we never peak, we never plateau, but ever grow in glory, from one degree to another says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 3:18).   However wonderful Paradise is, humans were created for even greater glory!  Thus when we sing of the Theotokos that she is more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, we are acknowledging that she does attain to the level of glory that God intended for all humans.  God intended humans to be more glorious than Paradise.

It was not Paradise

that gave rise to the creation of mankind;

rather, it was for Adam alone

that Paradise had been planted,

for to its buds Adam’s heart is superior,

to its fruits his words,

because rational speech has more savor

than the produce of Paradise;

truth in mankind

surpasses its plants,

and love is likewise more comely

than its sweet scents.

(Hymns on Paradise, “Hymn VI,” pp.109-111)

Paradise was created by God to serve humans.  Humans were not created to serve the glories of the Garden.  In what ways are humans superior to the wonders of Paradise?  The human heart is more glorious than the blessed buds of the trees in Paradise, human rational speech exceeds in splendor the produce of Paradise, human capacity for truth surpasses all the God given plants of the Garden.  Finally, human love is more beautiful than the sweetest scents of the Garden.  Humanity is the glory of God, not Paradise.  We may marvel over what Paradise was and is to be, but humanity is more glorious in the eyes of God than Paradise will ever be.

Humanities expulsion from Paradise is an epic tragedy.  Not because we lost our place there, but because we dehumanized ourselves!  We became less than human, we became inhuman, and this was the greatest loss the universe ever experienced.

The incarnation – God taking flesh from the Theotokos is the beginning of the restoration not only of humanity but of the universe itself.

 

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)

Show Mercy to the Unfortunate

Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  (Galatians 6:1)

St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin.  Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them.  Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with.  For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them.  If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them.  Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin.  St. Basil writes:

“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.”   (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)

A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control:  poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control).    Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.

For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control.  Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth.  In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy.  His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy.  He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way.  Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy.   Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones.  My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy.  We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us.  We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us.  Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day.  In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires.  In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us.  Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science.  In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another.    The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.

 

Preparing for Great Lent: The Temptation of Pride

She also said: “Just as treasure is found to be lacking once it is exposed, so virtue disappears when it becomes known and is noised abroad. And just as wax is melted before a fire, so too does the soul disintegrate and lose its vigor from being praised.” (Syncletica, Give Me a Word:The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 306)

“A man who outwardly fulfills all the commandments, but retains pride, contempt and malice in his heart will still remain far from God. God cannot be “bought off” by fasting or sacrifices, because-as the psalm tells us – “the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit” (meaning grief for one’s sins), but “a broken and contrite heart God will not despise” and will not reject.”   (Fr. Alexander Men, Awake to Life: Sermons from the Paschal Cycle, p 7)

A Misty Fog

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“It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. . . . and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.  (Jeremiah 51:15-16)

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The Prophet Jeremiah tells us that it is the same God who created the universe who makes fog appear on earth.   Yesterday morning was one of the foggiest days I’ve seen for a long time – perhaps a sign that God the Creator is still at work on earth.  A combination of a warm winter day with lots of moisture in the ground produced the dense misty fog.  It made it a difficult drive – for one could only see about half a block ahead.

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It did remind me of the second creation account in the book of Genesis where a mist came up from the earth just before God created the first human.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground— then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.  (Genesis 2:4-7)

In the Wisdom of Sirach, there is an interesting interpretation of the above Genesis passage, for the mist turns out to be Wisdom who says:

“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
(Sirach 24:3)

You can see all the photos I took in the morning fog at Foggy Morning 2-20-2017.  The weather pattern may repeat itself again later this week so we may have more heavy, dense fog.  It would be great if it were the Wisdom of God.

Sunday of the Last Judgment (2017)

Sermon notes for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Epistle:  1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2

But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

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But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

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1]  In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly.  Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian.  It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another.  But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community.  One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us.  Those who are really concerned about food and fasting:  these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework.  They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly.  They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations.  They read the labels on every product.  St. Paul would consider them weak in faith.  Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them.  This is what love requires.  Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ.  I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules.  Love tells me don’t wound their conscience.  I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor.  Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.

8271152404_c41179af30_n2]  The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own.  This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish.  So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns.  This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions.  We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?”  If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor.  If the child  in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child?   If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor?  When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor.  I should always be thinking about the other.

3]  This is very hard to live in real life.  It is an ideal that is very had to live up to.  So often we fail, then what?  Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.

Gospel:  Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

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 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  

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Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1]  Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ.  They are surprised that He judges them this way.  “When did we do that?” they ask.  They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy.  They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed.  Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ.     Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing.  When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not.   It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ.  If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.

2]  The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news.  Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ.  Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day.  This Gospel lesson if full of hope!  I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

5399225597_15118792c0_n3]  The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice –  First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just.  Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage).  This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge.  Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly.   We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment.  The third level is divine justice.  Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy.  God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed.  As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments.  The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved?  In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!

When is the Right Time for Prayer?

In the text of the The Apostolic Tradition (3rd Century AD), we find the following teachings about when to pray.

If you are at home, pray at the third hour [i.e., 9:00 a.m.] and bless God. But, if you are elsewhere then, pray to God in your heart. For at that hour Christ was seen fixed to the wood. Hence even in the Old Testament the law ordered that the bread of proposition should be offered at the third hour as a type of the body and blood of Christ; and the immolation of the irrational lamb is a type of the perfect Lamb. For Christ is the shepherd, and he is also the bread that came down from heaven [see John 6:41].

Pray likewise at the sixth hour [i.e., noon]. For when Christ was fixed to the wood of the cross the day was broken and there was a great darkness [see Matthew 27:45]. So let a powerful prayer be offered at that hour in imitation of the voice of him who prayed and caused darkness to overshadow all creation because of the unbelieving Jews.

Let a great prayer and a great blessing be offered also at the ninth hour [i,e., 3:00 p.m] to imitate the manner in which the soul of the righteous praises God, who does not lie, who remembers his holy ones and has sent his Word to glorify them. At that hour Christ, pierced in his side, poured forth blood and water [see John 19:34] and, illuminating the rest of the day, brought it to evening. And so, when he began to fall asleep, while causing the following day to begin, he imaged the resurrection.

Pray as well before your body rests on its bed. But toward midnight, rise up, wash your hands and pray…It is necessary to pray at that hour. For the ancients who have recounted the tradition to us told us that at that hour the entire creation rests for a moment in order to praise the Lord: the stars, the trees, the waters stop for a short space of time, and the whole army of angels who serve him praises God at that hour along with the souls of the righteous. That is why those who believe should hasten to pray then. And the Savior bears witness to this when he says, “Behold, a cry is heard in the middle of the might of one saying, Behold, the bridegroom is coming; rise up to meet him” [Matthew 25:6]. And he continues, “Watch,therefore, for you do not know the hour when he is coming” [Matthew 25:13].

And at cockcrow rise up and pray once more. For at that hour, at cockcrow, the children of Israel denied Christ [see Matthew 26:74-75 par.], whom we know by faith. In the hope of eternal light at the resurrection of the dead,our eyes are turned toward that day.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, 175-176)