Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

True Orthodoxy

A meditation for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

“In the course of my own winding, pilgrim’s, road to Orthodoxy it was the tangible sense of beauty that served as a constant allure. It was the radiant kindness of a few luminous souls, several of them bishops and priests, that made flesh for me what I had been searching for, not so much the zealotry that many were eager to offer me as their witness to the truth. Years later I came across a saying of St Symeon the New Theologian to the effect that a candle can only be lit from the flame of another living candle, and it struck me as exactly apposite.

When Truth is a living person, we can no longer try to make it synonymous with mere accuracy. What is at stake is more a question of authenticity. Orthodoxy is often approached by those outside it as a system of doctrines. But it is far more than this, and this is why a book of systematic theology does not quite capture reality. Orthodoxy is the living mystery of Christ’s presence in the world: a resurrectional power of life. It cannot be understood, except by being fully lived out; just as Christ himself cannot be pinned down, alaysed, digested, or dismissed, by the clever of this world, whom he seems often to baffle deliberately. His message is alive in the world today as much as when he first preached it.

The Orthodox Church is, essentially, his community of disciples trying to grow into his image and likeness, by their mystical assimilation to the Master who abides among them.”

(Fr. John A. McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. XI)

Going to Confession

In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.

Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that is happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment. Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace.

As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness. But it is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with concrete sins. People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession.

Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with publicans and harlots. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. Blind Bartimaeus was asked by Jesus: What do you want me to do for you? Before confession we must have a clear answer to this question. In confession we, too, receive the forgiveness of the particular sins which are here brought to light, and by this very token the forgiveness of all our sins, known and unknown.”

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, pp 138-141)

There is a lot to digest in the quote above, but for us Orthodox, this week, we might pay attention especially to the last paragraph as we prepare for our own confessions.  We should have an answer for the last question when we come to Christ in our own confession – Christ asks us, “what do you want me to do for you?”  What do I need from Christ at the end of my confession?  What do I want from Christ as I confess my sins?    If the answer is “nothing, I’m just fulfilling my obligation”, then we will receive nothing for sure.   Do we want forgiveness of our sins?  Do we want healing of our souls?  Do we want to be cleansed of our sins?  Do we want Christ to abide in our hearts?  Do we want  to be able to forgive others?   Do we want to move in a new direction in life?  Do we want to move toward the Kingdom of God?  Do we want to be able to love others as Christ loves us?

The Dangers of Discipleship

At the same time, he [Jesus] emphasizes from the start the controversial nature of this mission, which would be fulfilled in spite of the longstanding laws of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds, which would provoke anger, rejection, and malice, and which would be the cause of family strife. He does not behave at all as a Jewish rabbi of his time would, who probably would promise his disciples various blessings, predict success in other undertakings, and teach them how to achieve it. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He does not promise his disciples success, happiness in their personal life, material prosperity, or spiritual comfort. He does not promise them acceptance from their compatriots, the Gentiles, or even their close relatives.

We can only guess what sort of reaction such predictions elicited from the disciples. As John Chrysostom writes:

For indeed we have great cause to marvel, how they did not straightway dart away from Him on hearing these things, apt as they were to be startled at every sound, and such as had never gone further than that lake, around which they used to fish; and how they did not reflect, and say to themselves, “And wither after all this are we to flee? The courts of justice against us, the kings against us, the governors, the synagogues of the Jews, the nations of the Gentiles, the rulers and the ruled.”

(Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 425)

The Spirituality of the Body


While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.   (Luke 24:36-43)

in the The Lenten Triodion  we read:

But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way, ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace.

Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended to be. (p. 24)

Renouncing the Passions

The patristic tradition, as well as contemporary psychology, has identified the restraints to perfect love. From an Orthodox perspective, if love is union with God, and the pursuit of love is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit then those things that separate us from God – sin, the passions, death, and the devil all represent restraints to perfect love.

Our own self centered, egocentric orientation, our fallen nature represent the biggest restraints to love. “When we speak of all the passions together, we call them ‘the world.’ So when Christians speak of renouncing the world, they mean renouncing the passions.”

(Philip Mamalakis, “The Spiritual Life and How to be Married in it,” Raising Lazarus, p. 223)

Empathy for the Sinner

If, during service, your brother does anything irregularly, or somewhat negligently, do not become irritated, either inwardly or outwardly with him, but be generously indulgent to his fault, remembering that during your life you yourself commit many, many faults, that you yourself are a man with all infirmities, that God is longsuffering and most merciful, and that he forgives you and all of us our iniquities an innumerable multitude of times. Remember the words of the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us..”

These words should always remind us that we ourselves at all times are great trespassers, great sinners before God, and that, remembering this, we should be humble in the depths of our hearts, and not be very severe to the faults of our brethren, weak like ourselves; that as we do not judge ourselves severely, we must not judge others severely, for our brethren are – our members just like ourselves. Irritability of temper proceeds from want of self-knowledge, from pride, and also from fact that we do not consider the great corruption of our nature, and know but little the meek and humble Jesus.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p. 118)

Zacchaeus (2019)

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.”   (Luke 19:1-10)

The Gospel lesson of the tax collector Zacchaeus, at least in the Slavic Orthodox tradition, is always the last Sunday Gospel lesson of the Lucan Gospel cycle of readings (basically autumn into winter).  As such, in the Slavic Orthodox tradition it also foretells the coming of Great Lent for with this Gospel we bring the old year to a close and will now move into the Pre-Lenten Sunday Gospel cycles – known in Orthodoxy as the beginning of the Triodion.   [Non-Slavic Orthodox tradition proclaims the Gospel of the Canaanite woman before the Lenten Triodion begins.  In Orthodoxy variation in practice is quite normal on so many levels.  Orthodoxy is not a monolith with all Orthodox always doing all the same things.  This has for many centuries been the accepted practice and received Tradition of the Church.  What is being done in one Orthodox parish or tradition differs from what is being done in another parish or tradition.    This is not seen as dividing the Church or breaking the unity of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”]

In past years in my sermons I often joined the chorus of those who trampled on Zacchaeus as a sinner who has a miraculous conversion in his encounter with Christ.  It is how the story is often interpreted and because in Slavic Orthodox tradition it is the precursor to Great Lent, a theme of a sinner who repents is often read into the story.  But there is another possible interpretation of this Gospel lesson.  If one pays close attention to the text, one sees that the Jewish crowd certainly reacts to Zacchaeus as if he is a terrible sinner.  They smell the stench of sin on him and are repulsed by the fact that Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.   But note what Zacchaeus says to Jesus when Jesus is in his home:

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.”

Usually this is interpreted that Zacchaeus has a change of heart, a conversion, and the text is saying “from this moment I wlll give and I will restore.”

But in the Greek text Zacchaeus speaks in the present tense – not I will begin doing this, but he states what he is doing.  Zacchaeus says he gives half his income to the poor.  The crowd has wrongfully presumes Zacchaeus is filthy rich, greedy and dishonest because he is a tax collector.  They have judged him harshly without knowing the facts.  The crowd is guilty of judgmentalism and presumption.  Christ shows the crowd, “you are guilty of misjudging this man.”  You are guilty of sin, not him.

The Gospel lesson is thus not so much about repentance but about reconciliation. Zacchaeus was doing the right thing all along, but in secret.   The people misjudged him because they saw him as rich and a tax collector, so presumed he was dishonest.  But what Christ shows the people is that Zacchaeus is a good man, a true son of Abraham.  Christ offers reconciliation between Zacchaeus and the Jewish crowd.    Zacchaeus was lost because the people had wrongly rejected him, not because he was a sinner.  Christ is thus not converting him from sinner to saint, but revealing the diamond that was hidden beneath the dirt the people had dumped on him.  Christ shows the people, he really is more righteous than you who judge and reject him.

It reminds me of a story I read long ago about a hardworking blacksmith in a town whom the people loved because he was known to be so generous in giving charity despite just being a working class person.  There also was a rich man who lived on a well-manicured property on a hill above the blacksmith’s shop.  This rich man was hated by the townspeople because they thought him miserly – he didn’t associate with people and was not known to ever give in charity.  The rich man died and no one attended the funeral just to spite him.  The blacksmith simultaneously stopped giving generously in charity.  People confronted him about why his behavior changed.   He replied, “Did you really think for all these years that I was giving my money in charity?  I’m not rich, I never had that kind of money to give.  The rich man gave me the money and asked me to distribute it but to never tell anyone its source.  I did as he asked for all these years.  When he died I no longer had any money to give, for I’m poor like you.”  Everyone in the town was amazed by this revelation and shamed by how they had treated the rich man as they realized how badly they had misjudged their benefactor.

For his part, Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because he wants to see a rabbi who is teaching what he (Zacchaues) is doing all along.  Zacchaeus understands Jesus’ message is different from what is often being taught by other rabbis.  Zacchaeus wants to get a glimpse of someone who teaches the way of humility.  Zacchaeus is practicing what Jesus teaches:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:1-4 – this is the Gospel we will read on Meatfare Saturday, right before Great Lent begins)

Zacchaeus is living the life that Jesus taught, and Jesus reveals this to the crowd.  He reveals to the crowd how their sinful presumptuousness has caused them to misjudge Zacchaeus.  It is the crowd which has caused Zacchaeus to become separated from the people of God and to become lost, not Zacchaeus’ own behavior.  Jesus offers reconciliation to all if they will have it, if they will lay aside their presumptions.  (As we say in Psalm 19:13: “Above all, free your servant from presumption; do not let it sway me!  Then shall I be blameless free of grave sin.”)

Please note also in the prayer from the blessing of a home, we mention Zacchaeus:

O God our Savior, the True Light Who was baptized in the Jordan by the Prophet John, and Who was willing to enter the house of Zacchaeus, bringing salvation to him and his household, do You, the same Lord, keep safe from harm those of us who dwell herein; grant us Your blessing, purification and bodily health, and all of our petitions which are for salvation and life everlasting; for You are blessed, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your All-holy and Good, and Life-creating Spirit. Amen.

In blessing the home, we bring Christ who is our Salvation into our homes, just like Christ came into the home of Zacchaeus and reconciled him and his family to the people of God.  The prayer for the blessing of a home does not mention people repenting as a result of the house blessing, but rather acknowledges the blessing of having Christ present in the home.  The prayer assumes that the people in the home being blessed want Christ to be there, just as Zacchaeus wanted Christ to come into his home.  And hopefully for the same reason – because those in the home are already practicing righteousness just like Zacchaeus!

Two final thoughts about Zacchaeus who is recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church:

First, Zacchaeus had a strong desire to see Christ, and though he had a very public position, he was willing to risk embarrassment and humiliation just to see Christ (he had no knowledge that Christ would speak to him or want to come to his house).  We who are Christ’s own disciples and family are on the other hand sometimes embarrassed to tell others we are Christian, or even to make the sign of the cross or say a prayer before a meal.  We are embarrassed to speak against abortion or racism or against pornography or dirty jokes.  We can learn St Zacchaeus’ boldness and courage to live for godly values and to stand against evil in the world.  We can pray, fast and given in charity in secret as Jesus taught.  But we can also quietly without making a show or trying to draw attention to ourselves, do the good and right things even with our friends watching us.

Second, Zacchaeus publicly admitted he was a sinner.  When Christ was in his house, he didn’t proclaim himself as sinless and perfect, rather he acknowledged that if he defrauded anyone, he then tried to make it right to them.  He publicly repented of his sins – not mistakes but the wrong things he chose to do.  Just think about our public officials today when – even when proof is offered of their misdeeds, they tend to deny, obfuscate, cover up, go on the attack.   They lack honesty, integrity, humility and courage – all traits which Zacchaeus demonstrated.  We should think about Zacchaeus as we prepare for our own confessions.  When we stand in the presence of Christ we can admit to our sins.  Christ wants to be in our presence, in our homes, in our lives and Christ does not stay away from us because He knows we are sinners.  Rather, as He himself said, He came to seek and save the sinner.  He came to seek and save all of those who have become separated from the people of God.   In confession, we invite Christ to come under the roof of our heart and to live with us.

Replacing Vices with Virtues

 

“As the other passions come to birth, we must curb them and make our minds tranquil; we must banish anger, passion, grudges, enmity, malice, evil desires, all licentiousness, all the works of the flesh, which, according to St. Paul, are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, drunkenness and carousingings.

It is fitting, therefore, to force out of our souls all these vices and to be eager to acquire the fruit of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, modesty and continence. If we shall thus purify our minds by constantly chanting the lessons of piety, we shall henceforth be able, by preparing ourselves beforehand, to make ourselves worthy to receive His gift, great as it is, and to guard the good things which are given.

(St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p. 36)

Music: Harmony With God

St. John Climacus, remarked that true beauty is never profane:  ‘When we hear singing,’ he said, ‘let us be moved with love towards God; for those who love God are touched with a holy joy, a divine emotion and a tenderness which brings them to tears when they listen to beautiful harmony, whether the songs are profane or spiritual’ (The Ladder, 15th step).”  (Olivier Clement, On Human Being, p. 105-106)

As we rejoice in the “Akathist: Glory to God for All Things” –

In the wondrous blending of sounds, it is Your call we hear.

In the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music,

in the glory of the works of great composers, You lead us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels.

All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards You and make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!