St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Forefathers

As we Orthodox get near to the Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, we are reminded about all of those faithful men and women who came before Christ – both looking for the promise’s fulfillment and witnessing to the coming of the Messiah.  We commemorate the forefathers and ancestors of Christ on the two respective Sundays before the Feast of Christmas.

The Church Fathers saw in these predecessors of Jesus not just saints, prophets, and martyrs, but models of virtuous living.  St. Gregory of Nyssa for example describes the virtues he saw in the various people found in the Scriptures – the people we remember on the Sundays before the Nativity.  In the foreward to the English Translation of Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Fr. John Meyendorff writes:

Each Old Testament worthy became for Gregory the model of a virtue. Thus he says: “Scripture teaches us that Noah was righteous, Abraham faithful, Moses meek, Daniel wise, Joseph chaste, Job blameless, and David great-souled.” In his panegyric on Meletius, Gregory declares that he possessed the gentleness of David, the understanding of Solomon, the goodness of Moses, the scrupulousness of Samuel, the chastity of Joseph, the wisdom of Daniel, and the zeal of Elijah.

Abraham is described in Against Eunomius in terms very similar to those applied to Moses. Abraham surpassed his countrymen in their own wisdom, the philosophy of the Chaldaeans. The migration of Abraham was no mere spatial journey: He stretched his human capacity in order to attain to God. Making each new discovery a stepping stone to another, he ever “strained ahead for what was still to come” (Phil. 313, the text verse of The Life of Moses). He left all sense and perception behind and arrived by faith at the knowledge that God is greater and more sublime than any token by which he may be known. (p. 20)

For us, in the Sundays before Christmas we evoke the names of Christ’s ancestors and forefathers so that we can remember the virtues they modeled in order to imitate their holiness.

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Socially Acceptable Political Correctness and The End of Time

“Here is another image of the human situation.

We are locked in a car (our body), rushing furiously down a hill (time), through fog (ignorance), unable to see ahead, over rocks and pits (wretchedness). The doors are welded shut, the steering works only a little, and the brakes are nonexistent. Our only certainty is that all the cars sooner or later fall over the edge of the cliff (death).

So what do we do? We erect billboards at the edge of the cliff, so that we do not have to look at the abyss. The billboards are called ‘civilization’.

Our ‘solution’ is the biggest part of our problem.”

(Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 145)

Peace as Well-Being

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.   (Philippians 4:4-8; emphases not in original text)

It has been noted that St. Paul speaks fairly frequently about peace and reconciliation in his various epistles.  Surprisingly, therefore, not many scholars focus on Paul as an advocate for peace.  It certainly has been noted that peace – shalom – is a very important theological concept throughout the Old Testament.

Biblical Scholar Michael Gorman writes:

For our purposes, we will define shalom — a word that appears 238 times in the Bible (Old Testament) — rather generally. First, negatively, shalom is the resolution and cessation — and henceforth the absence — of chaos, conflict, oppression, and broken relations. Second, positively, shalom is the establishment, and henceforth the presence, of wholeness, reconciliation, goodness, justice, and the flourishing of creation — “physical and spiritual wellbeing.”   (Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, Kindle  3735-3741)

If we think about shalom meaning “physical and spiritual wellbeing”, we come to understand that Christ healing people was not merely a medical miracle, it was giving the person the shalom God promises His people.  Too many Christians put way too much emphasis on the miracle/magic of Christ’s healing people, and fail to see that miracles are signs of God’s peace.  The healing is not the most important thing that happens.  Rather, the one who is healed participates in the shalom of God – participates not only in God’s promises, but participates in God!  The healing part of the miracle is the least significant part of what is being given and revealed.  Yet, Christians ignore what the miracle points to and continue to want only magic in their lives.  Consider the Gospel lesson of  Luke 13:10-17 –

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.

The woman who is healed immediately praises God.  She is experiencing shalom, physical and spiritual well-being.  She is reconciled to God.  Her relationship with God is restored – something she could not experience in her diseased state.  Yes, diseased includes being dis-eased.  She could never have peace while in her suffering state.

The woman’s healing, her shalom, reveals the dis-ease of the synagogue ruler.  He is truly diseased.  He cannot rejoice in the woman’s healing or experience the peace of God.  He is incapable of seeing God in the miracle.  God gives shalom to those who are ready to receive it.  The woman was ready, but the synagogue ruler clearly was not.

Miracles are not given as some divine magic allowing a person to pursue their own interests.  A miracle of God restores a person to a proper relationship with God, it gives peace, shalom to the person.  It is the peace of God which we each should be seeking in our lives.  A miracle which does not bring a person into peace with God is a failed miracle.

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.   (Ephesians 4:1-6; emphases not in the original text)

Never Repay Evil with Evil

Another brother asked him: “what is the meaning of ‘Never repay evil with evil’?” [cf. Rom 12.17].

Abba Poemen said to him: “This passion works in four ways: first, in the heart; second, in the sight; third, in the tongue; fourth, in not doing evil in response to evil.

If you can purge your heart, it does not come to the sight.

If it comes to the sight, take care not to speak of it.

If you do speak of it, quickly prevent yourself from rendering evil for evil.”   (Give me a Word, p. 233)

The Desert Fathers did not hold to a “one-size fits all” spirituality.  They were realistic about the capabilities of different people and allowed for the fact that no everyone would be perfect in following Christ.  They did not have a total “black and white” viewpoint of people or of sin.  They recognized rather that in spiritual warfare, sometimes one gets only a partial victory.  They did not think that if you fail on one point that everything is lost.  As in the words above, they saw the battle for the heart as a war of inches, difficult battles with sometimes small victories, a war of attrition in which gains and loses might occur on small levels.  One might even suffer some defeats, but one would keep fighting against sin and evil wherever one could.

Created in God’s Image for the Sake of Virtue

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.    (Romans 14:17-21)

In the Church, we are in the season of the Nativity Fast.  In our culture, we are in the midst of the Christmas holiday rush.   St. John Chrysostom offers us some thoughts about being Christian in a secular world – what important things do we need to remember to remain faithful to Christ?  Can fasting help us be more Christ-like?  Does eating make us more godly?

“So let us not grow tired until we reach the end; this, after all, was why we were made, not to eat and drink and wear clothes, but to avoid evil and choose virtue by adopting the divine value system. For proof, in fact, that we were not made for eating and drinking but for other far greater and better things, listen to God himself explaining the reason why he made the human being: at the time of its creation he spoke this way, “Let us make the human being in our image and likeness” [Genesis 1:26]. 

Now, we become like God not by eating and drinking and wearing clothes – but by practising righteousness, giving evidence of lovingkindness, being good and kind, showing mercy to the neighbor, pursuing every virtue;

eating and drinking we have in common with the nature of brute beast, and in that regard we are no better than they. But what is the basis of our superiority?

Being made in God’s image and likeness.”   

(Old Testament Homilies, pp. 13-14)

The Incarnation: Light Overcomes Darkness

“The union of Christ’s full divinity and humanity is the touchstone of the Orthodox understanding of salvation. The Church fathers widely exploit this biblical teaching of the incarnation as sharing and participation in the very life of God. According to Athanasius, if the problem was the guilt of sin, forgiveness could have been granted from heaven upon repentance of transgressions. But the problem was the power of corruption and death that ruled the world and held humanity captive. The incarnation was necessary not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for the rescue of humanity from the corruptive powers of darkness. This rescue was shown decisively by the resurrection of Christ. To use the language of the Gospel of John, the incarnation is an invasion of light and life into the realm of darkness and death.

The incarnation provides the basis for the redemption from sin as a universal power, and liberation of life from the forces of evil. It is life confronting and overcoming death. The victory is decisively achieved through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, viewed as one movement of the Son’s return to the Father, which John’s Gospel calls the ‘hour of glory’ (John 12:23-24; 17:1-5).”

(Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures, p. 8)

Through the Prayers of the Theotokos

“‘She is the leaven of our new creation, the root of the true vine whose branches we have become, by virtue of the germination proper to baptism. She is the point of arrival of the reconciliation of God with men, on which occasion the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven; peace on earth and good will toward men” (Lk 2:14).

For this reason the recollection of the Virgin wakes up our souls, making them consider how, by his intervention, we have been called from such a great irreconcilable enmity, from a situation of war, so to speak, to such a great peace, to divine familiarity, to a marvelous association.’ (Severus of Antioch)

This role of Mary continues even in the time of the Church, seeing that she intercedes before God on our behalf. Our author is certainly convinced of this, since he exhorts his audience to take advantage of her intercession:

‘We implore her who is the birthgiver of God and pray her to intercede for us, she who is honored by all the saints.'” 

(Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 315)

Revealing Sins in Confession for Healing

St. John of Kronstadt comments on the sacrament of Confession:

Bear the sufferings and painful smarts of the operation so that you may regain your health afterwards. It means that at confession you must declare all your shameful deeds to your confessor, without concealment, though to do so may be painful, shameful, ignominious, and humiliating. Otherwise the wound will remain unhealed, will ache and be painful, will undermine your spiritual health, and remain as a leaven for other spiritual infirmities, or sinful habits and passions. A priest is a spiritual physician. Show him your wounds, without being ashamed, sincerely, openly, with son-like trust and confidence; for the confessor is your spiritual father, who should love you more than your own father and mother; for Christ’s love is higher than any carnal, natural love. He must give an answer to God for you. Why has our life become so impure, so full of passions and sinful habits? Because a great many conceal their spiritual wounds and sores, owing to which they ache and become inflamed; and it is impossible to apply any remedy to them.”  (My Life in Christ, p. 170)

Unmercenary Healers

Chrysostom on Charity at Christmas

Today, I stand before you to make a just, useful, and suitable intercession. I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles. In other words, just as I was passing through the marketplace and the narrow lanes, hastening to your assembly, I saw in the middle of the streets many outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gouged-out eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds, especially exposing those body parts that, because of their stored-up rottenness, they should be concealing. I thought it the worst inhumanity not to appeal to your love on their behalf, especially now that the season forces us to return to this topic.

…but during the season of winter, the battle against them is mighty from all quarters, and the siege is twice as great–the famine that devours the viscera from within and the frost that freezes and deadens the flesh from without.

Therefore, they need more nourishment, a heavier garment, a shelter, a bed, shoes, and many other things. And, indeed, what is altogether grievous, they cannot find work easily, since the season of year does not allow it. Therefore, their need of the bare necessities is much greater, and besides, work passes them by, because no one hires the wretched, or summons them to service. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, p. 131 & 132)

Keeping Christmas: Being Bad or Good

Sermon notes 12/3/2017 – preparing for Christmas

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Focus on one idea from the Gospel lesson:  Luke 18:18-27
Jesus tells the rich ruler: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the rich man heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich

While we tend to assume that the rich man became sorrowful because he was being asked to give up his wealth, but his grief arises immediately after Jesus tells the rich man to follow Him.

All of us who are at the Liturgy have received the invitation from Christ to follow Him.  This is for us the very meaning of Christmas, it is time for us to follow Christ.  And just like with the rich man, it is possible that the thought of following Him might cause us grief because we too might not want to have to give anything up.  Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon/money, yet many American Christians think that we can.  We want prosperity in this world – at no spiritual cost – AND we want the Kingdom of God in the afterlife.  We imagine we can pursue all that this world has to offer now, and then, only much later in life should we think about the Kingdom of God, because we will in any case still inherit the Kingdom no matter how we lived on earth.  But the rich man in today’s Gospel realized he had to choose between the two and he wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice.

We can think about St. Paul’s comments in Ephesians 5:1-21 to get a sense of what St. Paul thought following Christ meant.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

St. Paul uses the phrase “to walk” several times in this passage.  To follow Christ is to walk with Him.  We are to walk in love, walk in light and walk in wisdom.  We are to imitate Christ who taught us:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

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Christmas means to imitate Christ.

But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

According to historians, there were pagans in the First Century who really admired the Jews and the Christians for their morality, especially their sexual morality.  There was plenty of sexual freedom in the Roman Empire, especially for those who had money.   They could have whatever sex they could afford.  And yet, some were attracted to the restraint and purity of Jews and Christians.  Sexual freedom and license did not give the philosophers the ideal human.    Some Hellenic Philosophers called for sexual restraint as a way to a more spiritual life.  These folk were attracted to Christianity.   Sexual license did not lead to human fulfillment.   People admired the Christians because their morality was stricter than societal norms.  People didn’t say: “Look at those Christians, they sin more than we do, let’s join them.”  Rather, they looked at the Christians and noted their self restraint and willingness to sacrifice and deny the self, and they were attracted to the self denial and self giving.  They saw the Christians who were willing to die for the faith, to die in order to preserve their moral purity.  AND Christianity grew.

Kristin LIn Sigrid Undset’s wonderful trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter (for which she won the Nobel Prize), the young Kristin leads a sheltered Christian lifestyle in rural 14th Century Norway.  As a teenager she wants to break tradition and choose her own path in life.  She is sent to a convent where, wanting to justify her own (mis-)behavior, she ceases to see the Gospel as establishing a norm of behavior and instead begins to compare herself to the sinners living around her.  She is able to justify more and more of her own misbehavior by comparing herself to others (“I’m not as bad as some…”) while ceasing to compare herself to Christ, the Virgin or the Saints.  As her standard of comparison falls, so does her own morality.   She feels ever more justified in judging others while justifying herself, losing completely any foundation for moral thinking.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

St. Paul teaches us to follow Christ, means to follow a standard in moral behavior, especially sexual behavior.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

St. Paul teaches that being a Christian means not only seeing the Light, but becoming the Light.  Jesus said to His disciples: “You are the light of the world…”  (Matthew 5:14).

St. Paul doesn’t say, “once you were in darkness…”  but rather “once you were darkness“.  Being a Christian means moving away from darkness in any and all of its forms, and moving into the Light and all its manifestations.  To follow Christ is not merely to see the Light, but to participate in it, to become the light.

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To follow Christ is a transformation from darkness to light, to live the morally pure life.

Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.

Christ is going to give us light – we can receive it from Him.  First we have to awaken.  It is not the Light which awakens us, but rather once we spiritually and morally wake up, only then can we receive the Light.

The days are evil – St. Paul writes this in the 1st Century.  Believers have always felt this way about the world we are trying to navigate through.  Evil times are not something new.  The world is not becoming evil, evil has been with us since the beginning of Christianity.  But we are not to despair because of this, but rather are to make “the most of the time“!

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

Folly is a sin.   We need to be mindful of that.

Drunkenness may be socially acceptable and popular entertainment, it may be the most common way to deal with stress or to celebrate success.  It is not approved behavior for the Christian.

Christmas means walking with Christ, which means walking in the Light, being the Light, instead of cursing the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”   (John 1:5)

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And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  (John 3:19)

I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.  (John 12:46)