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)

Lost Innocence

A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee  (Luke 18:10-14) .   There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content.   The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human.  Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.

Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil.  This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve.  The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves.  They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation.  So the first hymn says:

I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;

then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.

But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity.   Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all.  God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.

The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation.  In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17).  She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.

You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;

the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,

for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,

and bring mortal men up to heaven.

Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament.  God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself.  This promise turns out to be the Theotokos.  In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.

Zacchaeus is Us Not Them

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 19:1-10
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Sermon notes January 2017

  • Jesus in Luke 18:31-34 had just/ already told the disciples they were headed to Jerusalem where He will be killed by the Gentiles.  In 19:1, Jesus seems to be passing through Jericho, he wasn’t planning to stop as He is headed to Jerusalem and his destiny on the cross.  Yet His sojourn is suddenly disrupted by His encounter with Zacchaeus:  for today I must stay at your house.  This is a surprise in the narrative.  Even as God’s plans are unfolding, they can be put on hold for the sake of one person!   Jesus’ own plans can be disrupted by an encounter with someone, even a sinner!  There is a message here:  It is never “too late” to seek Christ, never a waste of time, just to be curious about Him.  Even if you are merely curious, a real encounter with Him will change your life!  Zacchaeus wasn’t seeking an audience with Christ, he was just curious and just wanted to see Him.  Seeking Christ is rewarding, even for the sinner, the lost, the one cut off from God’s people, the one who chooses to be cut off from God’s people.

  • I am really struck by vs 7, “But when they saw it, they all complained…” The sudden appearance of the “they” is startling, even jarring to me.  So far the story has been about Jesus, His disciples and then Zacchaeus.  There has been no “us and them” or “we and they” in the narrative, except perhaps Jesus predicting His death at the hands of the Gentiles (Luke 18:31ff).   But suddenly there is a “they”, “them”, “not us”.   Zacchaeus though Jewish is portrayed as the outcast, the outsider, a sinner, not one of us, not a real Jew suffering at the hands of the Romans, but a collaborator – a tax collector for the Romans (the Gentiles who Jesus prophesied are about to kill Him!) .  But Jesus sees him also is a son of Abraham.  Now, suddenly, the “they” “the others” are those complaining about Zacchaeus even though they are Jews, they are not part of us, but are “them.”   The Gospel lesson is about reclamation and restoration, but also about taking sides.    Zacchaeus is restored to us, to the people of God.  But the crowd, the Jews, are no longer seen as the people of God.  “They” have suddenly rejected the way of the Messiah.  They, the crowd, like His miracles and promises, but they don’t want people like Zacchaeus to be restored to fellowship, they want Zacchaeus to be judged and rejected, as they have already done.  The crowd claims to be not like Zacchaeus because He is a sinner, but Jesus says He is a son of Abraham, even though lost, but the very thing Christ came to seek.  The people have not understood the coming of the Messiah, the promise of His restoration of Israel.  They assume He is coming to mightily overthrow their enemies, He is there to save sinners, to work with the fallen.  This is Christ’s idea of restoration, but it is an idea many aren’t interested in.  The crowd often likes that Jesus rejects the Pharisees as the Pharisees are too elitist and maximalist, but neither do they want sinners – those less than themselves, those not worthy of themselves – being restored to their number.  They want to be proven “right” to be proven worthy, especially to the Pharisees.  Of course God sees them as chosen, despite what the Pharisees might say, but they don’t want to have those they deem to be sinners included in their number!
  • Christ tells us in Matthew 25 to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Christ’s message is not just for Jews, but in this Gospel lesson, he is reaching out to a lost sheep to restore the person.  But we Gentiles were not part of the House of Israel, we are not being restored, but are being grafted in new.  There are some who need restoration, being brought back into the fold, but others have to be added new for the first time.  We are not the restored, but truly sinners made new.  Christ is not embarrassed to be embraced by sinners, by strangers, by outcast.  We “Gentiles’ suddenly find ourselves being included not because we are righteous, but rather because, as St. Paul notes in today’s epistle, God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”    God is the Savior of everyone, even of us, not because we are righteous but because of God’s love for us as our Creator.  We too should be careful  who we deem unworthy of being part of God’s people – we should welcome all who seek Christ even if we think they are unsavable sinners.
Prodigal son returns
Prodigal son returns
  • Today’s Epistle gives us some idea about how we are to live as a result of being called by Christ into the flock, the Church, into His body:

1 Timothy 4:9-16
My Son Timothy,
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1] We are to be an example to believers – to one another:  in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”   What do each of these things mean?  How do we do it?  We are lead by example, we should be wanting people to pay attention to our lives and lifestyles.  The things we say and do are to be examples to our fellow Christians, our fellow parishioners, our family and neighbors and coworkers.   In purity – even what is in our hearts is to be an example, it is not good enough to have external behavior for we must internally in our hearts be converted so our very thoughts and feelings are an example to others!

2]  We are to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.     We are to study, attend adult education, be life long learners in the faith.  We have an obligation as Orthodox to this.

3]  “the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”   Note God is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe, but God is the Savior of everyone.  This is the key verse which connects the Epistle to today’s Gospel.  God is the Savior of everyone, including Zacchaeus, including sinners, including people we judge unworthy of the Gospel.  No one is unworthy of the Gospel, even those who collaborate with the enemies of God.  No one is outside God’s salvation.  Christ is Savior especially to those of us who believe, but He is also Savior to all people.

The Apostle Timothy from Among the Seventy

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Apostle Timothy from Among the 70.  The Orthodox Church does accept that in our Scriptures we have letters from St. Paul to Timothy.  St. Paul writes to his spiritual son:

My Son, Timothy…

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.

Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.

(1 Timothy 6:6-16)

Following Christ: Living Beyond Ritual

“We became Christians by the grace of God; let us take care to have true Christianity within ourselves. We were baptized in the one Tri-hypostatic God and have received the gift of holiness and justification; let us take care to guard this heavenly treasure to the end.

We believe in Jesus Christ crucified ; let us take care to follow Him with faith, and having each one taken up on his cross let us go after Him. We confess and call upon the heavenly God; let us take care to please Him with a heavenly character.

We hear the word of God; let us take care and live just as it teaches us. ‘We await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come’; let us take care to conduct ourselves in this world worthily of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come; and having turned away from the vanities of this world, let us strive only for everlasting blessedness.

We approach the holy and heavenly table of the Mysteries of Christ; let us take care that this heavenly and life-creating Bread brings life, sanctification, illumination, renewal, joy and spiritual consolation.”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, pp 57-58)

The River Jordan and Paradise

The prayers for the Great Blessing of water entreat God to make the blessing of the Jordan be present in the water in the church font.  In the Vespers service for Theophany, 13 Old Testament Readings are proclaimed.  Four of these reading make reference to the River Jordan:

Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17 (the ark causes the Jordan to stop flowing, so Israel can cross to the promised land on dry ground);

4[2] Kings 2:6-14 (Elisha parts the Jordan after receiving Elijah’s mantle when he ascended into heaven);

4[2] Kings 5:9-14 (Naaman is cured by washing three times in the Jordan);

Genesis 32:1-10 (Jacob reminds God that he became a rich man after crossing the Jordan).

The Jordan River has a virtual mythical quality for Israel, and takes on a mystical purpose and meaning.  Crossing the Jordan is associated with the saving acts of God on earth – with movement that brings one closer to God and God’s Kingdom.   St. Gregory the Theologian reflects on the mystical meaning of the Jordan River.

St. Gregory then comes back to the Jordan:

‘Alone among all rivers, the Jordan received the first-fruits of sanctification and blessing, and has shed the grace of baptism over the whole world, as from a source. And these things are signs of that regeneration which is effected by Baptism’.

This is a very striking definition of a type, that it is an act truly accomplished, and signifying some future action. St Gregory then alludes to the Jordan in its relation to Paradise:

‘The Jordan is glorified because it regenerates men and makes them fit for God’s Paradise’.”

(Jean Danielou, From Shadows to Reality,p 275)

The Jordan is involved in several epiphanies of God, but in Christ’s baptism there is the Theophany of the Holy Trinity. It is Christ’s baptism that gives meaning and power to all baptisms done in Christ.  The Jordan has a mystical quality that is transferred to all who participate in it.

Revealing Christ at Theophany

All the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church celebrate the incarnation of God.  thus they affirm the Trinitarian Theology of ancient Christianity, and contemplate the mystery which God revealed in Jesus Christ.  We can look at three hymns from Matins of the Prefeast of Theophany   (January 2) –

You are a rushing torrent, who fashioned the sea and the wellsprings.

How do You come to the waters?

Why do you seek cleansing?

For You are the washing and purification

of those who sing hymns to You, O Christ, forever!

The above hymn, addressed to Christ, accepts the truth proclaimed in the Nicene Creed that all things were made by Christ at creation as recorded in Genesis 1.  The hymn marvels that the One who created water, the sea, wellsprings, now is immersed in water.  The hymn ponders the incongruity and divine mystery of the Holy, Pure and Sinless God accepting baptism which was associated with the cleansing away of sin.  The incarnation, indeed, turns creation upside down!

 

Seeking to dry up the streams of the enemy’s malice,

to drain the sea of the passions

and to pour out cleansing and remission upon the faithful, Master,

You come to be baptized in the streams of the Jordan.

The second hymn uses metaphorical imagery to further contemplate the full meaning of the Baptism of Christ.  Christ is immersed in the waters of the Jordan, but now the streams of water are no longer merely part of material creation.  They now are metaphorically transformed into “the enemy’s malice” as well as “the sea of passions.”  God became human in Christ in order to overcome the evil of Satan as well as human sin and passion.  The hymn reminds us that a literal reading of the text limits the meaning of the events and the power of God.  Whenever God interacts with creation, an entire new meaning and depth is added to the material world.  In Christ and in His every deed, heaven and earth are united together.  God and humanity have their proper relationship restored in Christ.

Creator of the hours and years,

in Your loving-kindness, You have come under time!

You shone forth timelessly from the unoriginate Father

and have come to wash away in the streams of the Jordan

the transgressions committed throughout all ages!

It is not only the material that is renewed in Christ – time also is transformed.  The space-time continuum mean energy and mass, space and time all belong to the same one reality – the created cosmos.  Christ heals and restores everything in the created order including time.  So the hymn marvels that the One who created time enters into time.  The Timeless One  enters into the present moment giving it eternal meaning.  Thus in the worship of the Orthodox Church we enter into the “eternal now” at every Feast and during every Liturgy.  

Christmas: Becoming Truly Human

When we did the Vespers of Christmas on Friday evening (December 23), the very first hymn from the “Lord I call upon You…” verses really caught my ear as it seemed to capture so many of the theological lessons of the Feast of the Nativity.

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord,
as we sing of this present mystery:
the wall that divided God from man has been destroyed;

[In Ephesians 2:13-16, St. Paul refers to the “dividing wall”: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.   But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” (Emphasis is mine and not in the text)  

2nd Temple

 For St. Paul, we Gentiles especially were separated from God – we did not have the Law and we fell under the power the demons whom we spiritually served.  But Jesus Christ ended that separation and we in Christ have been made part of God’s people.  Certainly if one studies the layout of Herod’s Jerusalem temple, we get the visible, physical sense that there was a wall (several!) separating the Gentiles from God.  St. Paul says, and the hymn certainly picks up this theme, that any “wall” which had separated us from God is abolished.  Whatever wall had been built to divide Gentiles from Jews or humanity from God is destroyed by Jesus Christ.  In its place, we have been built into a living temple.   So new construction took place – the dividing wall was demolished and now we are built as the walls of the temple – nothing separates us from God for God abides in us His temple.  In St. Paul’s day, he would have known of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Christ Himself replaces that demolished temple.  Christmas celebrates the removal of all walls and divisions between God and humanity!   We have access to God, to God’s Kingdom, to heaven where God abides. (Sadly, at times in Orthodox thinking the “dividing wall” gets rebuilt and seems to be preferred – iconostases and doors and curtains are built some say to make us feel our exile from God.  Laity are separated from clergy by such walls.  We recreate walls separating Orthodox from Jews and non-Orthodox Christians.  Men and women are separated, as are monks from the rest of the laity.  We would do well to consider what our Nativity hymns tell us about the complete elimination of such walls.)   Almost all of our Feasts of Christ and the Theotokos have in one form or another a theme of the dividing wall being torn down  – heaven is opened to us, the Holy of Holies is opened to us, Paradise is opened to us.  God is united to humanity, heaven and earth are joined together.  If theosis is true, there are no walls separating us from God, nor would any baptized Christian be separated from any other.]

the flaming sword withdraws from Eden’s gate;
the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life;

[In Genesis 3:24, as a result of the sinful disobedience of Adam and Eve, God expels them from Paradise and creates the dividing which prevents our immediate return to Paradise.  “God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”   According to our theology, in Christ the gate to Eden is opened to us again – the Cherubim no longer prevent us from accessing the Tree of Life.  Christ’s cross is the Tree of Life and all baptized believers have complete access to Paradise and eternal life.  No walls of any kind separate us from God, the Holy of Holies , Paradise or Heaven.  Neither should we rebuild what God destroyed!]

and I, who had been cast out through my disobedience,
now feast on the delights of Paradise:
for today the Father’s perfect Image,
marked with the stamp of His eternity,
has taken the form of a servant.

[Christmas is the “today” on which “I” and every “Adam” and every Christian experiences the Paradise which had been denied us because of sin.  The Law just ended up building a bigger wall between humanity and God, since humans proved incapable of keeping the Law.  It is the Word of God becoming incarnate, taking on human flesh, in Jesus Christ which unites us to Heaven.  It is not our doing – we can’t attain Heaven by perfectly keeping Torah or Tradition.  It is not a matter of our trying harder – pray more, fast stricter, repent more deeply, attend more and longer services.  It is Christ in His person who heals and saves us.  We are gifted with salvation – we put on Christ in baptism and thus receive union with God.  We continue to experience that salvation in and through the sacramental and liturgical life which inspires us to the moral life.  Nothing separates us from God, there is no more exile.]

Without undergoing change He is born from an unwedded mother;
He was true God, and He remains the same,
but through His love for mankind,
He has become what He never was: true man.
Come, O faithful, let us cry to Him:
“O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

[As the early Christians said it, “God became human so that humans might become God.”  The first part of this is the Nativity of Christ!  The incarnation makes theosis possible.  The Theotokos is the true sign of this salvation.  God became that which is “not God” – God became human to lift humanity up to union with divinity.  This is what God has wished and worked for throughout history since the time of the sin of Eve and Adam.]

Being Christian at Christmas

Christmas, and the Christmas season, are kept by all kinds of people in America, not just Christians.  It has been co-opted from a Holy Day into a holiday.  America has made Christmas part of its secular winter holiday.  So, how can Christians be distinguished from all of those who keep Christmas as a civil holiday?  We can look to history to see how Christians did it in the past.  Historian Judith Herrin gives us a description of Christians in the old Roman Empire – there too Christians were surrounded by people of all kinds of beliefs including a variety of pagan religions, and there too winter holidays, a solstice, a birth of the sun, was a major feast as the days stopped growing shorter and began to lengthen.

“Unlike their contemporaries, the followers of Jesus were confident that death was not the end: they would rise again into a heaven of peace and light. This belief motivated them to behave in a correct Christian fashion, avoiding sin and encouraging faith, hope and charity, so that God would judge them worthy of eternal life in the next world. It set them apart from the Jews, polytheist and members of other cults that flourished in the early centuries A.D.” (Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, p 33)

Charity: Imitate God

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:17-21

maximus“Christ also taught us to give to all who ask of us: ‘Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again’ (Luke 6:30). Note that no mention is made concerning the recipient’s worthiness. Much like the Old Testament passages quoted previously, these words have no qualifications or moral criteria attached to them. Christ tells to give, when asked. St. Maximus the Confessor offers a similar teaching: He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and unjust, when providing for men’s bodily needs. He gives equally to all according to their need, even though he prefers the virtuous man to the bad man because of the probity of his intention.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, p 91)