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)

Compassion & Empathy For Others

“A person who, by such love, draws near to the image and likeness of God, will rejoice in the good because of the joy of the good itself. Possessing the same feeling of patience and gentleness, he will not be angered by the faults of sinners, but rather, sympathizing with and co-suffering with their infirmities, he will ask for mercy on them. For he remembers that he was long opposed by the impulses arising from similar passions until he was saved by the mercy of the Lord.”   (St. John Cassian, found in Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 139)

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.

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

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)

One Lord, One Church, One Eucharist

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.   (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:

As St. Ignatius insisted, “Take care to participate in one Eucharist: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union in His blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop.” The repetition of the word “one” is deliberate and striking: “one Eucharist…one flesh…one cup…one altar…one bishop.” Such is St. Ignatius’ understanding of the Church and its unity: the Church is local, an assembly of all the faithful in the same place (epi to avto); the Church is Eucharistic, a gathering around the same altar to share in a single loaf and a single cup; and the Church is hierarchicalit is not simply any kind of Eucharistic meeting, but it is that Eucharistic meeting which is convened under the presidency of the one local bishop.

Church unity, as the Bishop of Antioch envisages it, is not merely a theoretical ideal but a practical reality, established and made visible through participation of each local community in the Holy Mysteries. Despite the central role exercised by the bishop, unity is not something imposed from outside by power of jurisdiction, but it is created from within through the act of receiving communion. The Church is above all else a Eucharistic organism which becomes itself when celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper “until He comes again” (I Cor 11:26).   (The Inner Kingdom, p. 17)

The Rich Ruler Considers the Value of Poverty

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.   (1 Timothy 6:6-11)

In Luke 18:18-27, we are given a record of a conversation between a wealthy man who also had some political influence and Jesus Christ.  It is a rare Gospel lesson in that it does directly mention the man’s inner, emotional reaction to a teaching of Christ.

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “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 he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

In Luke’s version of this story, we are told that the rich man became very sorrowful when told to give away his wealth.  We are not told whether he ever acted upon what Jesus told him.  The man in Luke’s Gospel is not referenced again.  We can surmise based on the other Gospel versions of the narrative (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31) that the man walked away from Christ grieving.  Mark additionally notes that Jesus  actually loved the man for keeping the commandments and spoke to him out of love for him.  Be that as it may, the man still walks away from Christ.  Luke, however, does not have the man walk away from Christ.  Whatever the man’s inner grief was in thinking about giving up his wealth, we aren’t told what he actually did.   Did this rich man actually think about the value of poverty or the spiritual bankruptcy of wealth?  Luke does not tell us.  It is possible the man grieved but then did what Christ directed him to do.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann at one point in his writings considers the phrase from this Gospel lesson, “It is difficult for the rich…”

“It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty!–there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something–that is ugliness–but in being content with what there is.”   (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 50)

The rich ruler of the Gospel lesson was not sure he could be content with having nothing.  His contentment was based on his wealth.  His spiritual dilemma was that in being told to give away his possessions, he thought this was giving away his contentment and his self worth.  Without his wealth, he couldn’t see himself as having any value.