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)

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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)

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.

The Incarnation, Christmas, The Nativity

Through the years as I was blogging, I sometimes gathered all the posts related to a particular theme from a given year into a PDF.  If you are interested in finding quotes from the Fathers or other Orthodox authors related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas or the incarnation, you might want to glance through the PDFs listed below.  These are posts I used either during the Nativity Fast (Advent) period or following the Feast of the Nativity itself.

Twelve Quotes for Christmas

2010 Christmas Blogs

2011 Christmas Blogs

2012 Christmas Blogs

2013 Christmas Blogs

2014 Christmas Blogs

2015 Christmas Blogs

2016 Christmas Blogs

St. Cyprian’s Images of the Church

Finally, again in Cyprian, the Church is the virgin-bride who lives not for the pleasure of this world, but only for Christ. “The bride of Christ cannot be defiled; she is incorrupt and chaste. She knows but one home; in chaste modesty she guards the sanctity of one couch.”

Indeed, Cyprian piles image upon image in his search to impress the importance of unity on his readers. The Church, he says, is like the sun, whose rays are many but whose light is one.

It is like a tree with many branches but with a single strength surging through one root. 

It is like a source from which flow many streams, which nevertheless maintain a unity because of their unique beginning.

It may be compared to Christ’s seamless garment, which was not divided at his death; or to the house in which the Jews ate the paschal lamb, which was not permitted to be eaten outside; or to a dove, which keeps to one cote and which is faithful to its mate.

To the early Christians, therefore, the unity of the Church had to do with nothing less than the content of the faith itself, namely, with what had been derived from Scripture and what had been handed down by the apostles or by the fathers assembled in the synod. (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99 & 100)

What Was Christ’s Love Like?

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-9)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:35-39)

St. Maria of Paris writes:

What was Christ’s love like?  Did it withhold anything? Did it observe or measure its own spiritual gifts? What did it regret? Where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s divinity was incarnate fully and to the end in his spit-upon, battered, humiliated and crucified humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — has become for the world a symbol of self-denying love. And at no time nor place — neither from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, nor in the miracles he performed — did Christ ever give any occasion to think that he did not sacrifice himself wholly and entirely for the salvation of the world, that there was in him something held back, some “holy of holies” which he did not want to offer or should not have offered.

He offered his own “holy of holies,” his own divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely wherein lies his divine and perfect love in all its fullness. (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, pp. 179-180)

Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

Images of the Church: The Crowd Around Jesus

In the Scriptures and in Tradition there are many images of the Church –  Body of Christ, a living temple, a holy nation, a local community, a flock, , vine and branches, a revelation, a bride, a gathering of the saints, a hospital for sick sinners, a household, a family, the Kingdom of God.       In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:41-56 – synagogue ruler Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood) , the church – the assembly of those who are following Christ is envisioned as a large crowd of people.   And not a passive crowd at that but a jostling, pushing and shoving throng.   This one is perhaps my favorite image of the Church.

The Athonite Monk Archimandrite Amilianos offers a vision of the local church which is a family gathering big enough to include everyone in the world (see The Church is God’s House for Prayer).  His vision of the Church goes way beyond any legalistic “member in good standing” way of viewing Christianity.  His vision certainly incorporates the Eucharistic offering: “Again we offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world…”   This certainly encompasses everyone in a crowd of people, not just the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but “all mankind” – the entirety of the human race.

Who is in this crowd, following Jesus?               His apostles, his disciples, the sick, miracle seekers, the curious, Pharisees, synagogue attendees and synagogue leaders, men and women, those who love Christ and those who hate Him, friends and enemies, those seeking the Kingdom of God and those seeking to entrap Christ in this world.   People whose names we know (Peter, James and John for example) and the unknown.  Rich people, rulers and beggars as well.  Let’s consider the Gospel Lesson:

 And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.

The rulers of the synagogues were frequently in the Gospel among those who opposed Jesus because He didn’t keep their rules about the Sabbath.  They are sometimes his most vocal critics, and yet they are in the crowd following Christ where He goes.  Not everyone in the church community has to agree with what I think or with what most of us think.  The Church community is big enough even to consist of people who disagree with most of us or find most of us disagreeable.

And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Those looking for miracles.  Desperate for help from any source. Those who loved their children.  Those who are distraught and despairing and running out of hope.  Those who socially outranked Jesus and His followers.  Those who represent groups we criticize – for the synagogue leaders like the Pharisees are among those Jesus criticizes most frequently.

But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.

The socially unacceptable.  The outcast. The forsaken.  Social diseased.  The despised.  Strangers.  Foreigners.  Immigrants.   Those whose lives do not matter.  But also those with means and money – this women had spent her fortune on doctors.  Those with hope and some kind of faith even if the faith is only for some self-serving end.

And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

The disciples are there too.  Those who think they understand Jesus but don’t.  Those who don’t understand Jesus but who follow Him anyway.  The crowd – the great unwashed masses.  The constantly needy.  The dependent.

Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”    

There are also in the crowd the timid, introverts, those who wish they could disappear.  The shy and retiring.  But also those who like to be the center of attention, the extroverts and expressives.  Those commanding attention, and those who are willing to be commanded.

 While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.”

Those who serve others.  Those who have more important things to do in life – those on a mission.  The doubters.  Those who don’t really believe in Him.  Those who want to remain respectable.  Those who are there merely because it is their job to be there. These are the aids and spokespeople for those with power and prestige.

But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

Unbelievers.  The incredulous.  The scientists.  The realist.  The skeptical.  The Jaded. Scorners. Those who see believers as naïve and ready to be deceived.  The Pessimist.  The Cynic.  The sarcastic.  The know-it-all.  The presumptious.

 But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Parents and children.  Families and neighbors.  Brothers and sisters.

And today, we the Church are asked to be the same, followers of Christ, one and all, no matter what the reason or attraction, we assemble to be around Christ to   have Christ in our midst.  We need to be something to all the people of the world, not just a motley crowd, but visibly to be the Body of Christ – to make the One present whom the world is seeking.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Corinthians 9:19)

No one person can do that, but together as the Body of Christ, the parish community can become all things to all people.   We have friends, neighbors, family who might be looking for something from Christ, we are to be those who make Christ present to them.  We are to encourage them to look for Christ and to follow Him.  There may be women seeking help from God, or people with sick children, or the needy or the lost.

 

There may be people that some of us don’t want to minister to and don’t want in our midst, but others in the Church community will be able to be Christ to them.  That is the real image of the Church.

We, the Church – all of us together – are responsible for making Christ present, for giving the crowd, the world an opportunity to be with Christ.

The Tree at the Heart of Creation

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)