Counsels on Confession

The person who possesses knowledge and knows the truth confesses to God not by reminding himself of things he has done, but by patiently enduring what happens to him.  (St. Mark the MonkCounsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 2664-2666)

As we move into the Nativity Fast, it is a good time for us to examine our consciences to see what is in our hearts, and to know of what we need to repent in order to follow Christ.  For basically repentance is removing all those obstacles from our hearts and lives that prevent us from being faithful disciples of Christ.  Confession occurs not just when we go to the sacrament, but daily when we admit our faults and failures to our Lord.  As St Mark the Monk notes above confession occurs daily when we realize that much of what happens to us is the result of our own choices and because we live in a fallen world.  When we recognize the effects of the Fall on our daily lives, we are admitting that the power of sin in the world is noticeable – both in how we behave and how others behave toward us.  The fact that life is not fair, that sin abounds, tells us this is the world of the Fall.  There is a reality that the only person we can change in the world is our self.   [This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice.  It does mean that we must never cease struggling against the sin which is in our own hearts.]

St. Basil  the Great rejected any idea of predestination or pre-determination based on the inescapable power of original sin.  If everything is predetermined by original sin or by genetic makeup then indeed even efforts for justice, correction and reform are worthless since we would only be struggling against an all-powerful fate over which we can never win.  We are to wrestle with those parts of our self over which we actually have control – the only sins we commit occur in those things over which we have control.  Some in the Patristic age thought even doing something once did not constitute sin.  It is sin only if we repeat the action knowing it is wrong – doing it once is a mistake, repeating it is sin.   As St. Basil notes, it really doesn’t do any good for legislators to pass laws forbidding something over which a person has no control anyway.  St. Basil is speaking rhetorically, for he believes people do make choice, at least some.  Not everything we do is predetermined in us.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

For St Basil the failure of predestination thinking is that it tells us nothing matters.  Not only can we incapable of  resisting sin – we also are incapable of change so repentance is impossible. Predestination means even goodness and success will only happen by fate, so no use trying to do good either.  No use planting crops or working hard since fate determines everything including whether there is food to eat.  Might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens.  But at this point even many predestination believers can see that it does matter if you try – there is food to eat only because people work hard to make it so.  There are roads, bridges, stores, internet and electricity only because people make the effort to make it happen.  Everything is not just unfolding by fate, people are making decisions and acting on them.  What we do matters and changes the course of human history.  The same is true about our behavior good and bad.

It is because our behavior matters and does affect both others as well as our self, that the examination of conscience and the confession of sins is important.  We are by nature relational beings, we need to consider how our behavior, thoughts and even our attitude is a reflection of whether or not we are guided by the Gospel commandment to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34).  Admitting our sins, faults and foibles is not failure but rather how we show that we recognize Christ’s lordship over our daily lives.  Confession is acknowledgment of reality, of what is in our hearts, as shameful as it might be, as reluctant as we are to admit it.

Do not conceal your sin because of the idea that you must not scandalize your neighbor. Of course this injunction must not be adhered to blindly. It will depend on the nature of one’s sinfulness.”   ( St.  John Climacus, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle Loc. 1624-25)

St John Climacus recognizes that admitting one’s sins is a good thing, and yet it has to be practiced with wisdom and discretion.  Just a fear of scandalizing others is not in itself justification for concealing one’s sin (note he said sin, he didn’t say every thought that comes into your head, just your sins.  The behavioral sin might be obvious to others, but we don’t need to discuss with everyone every errant idea that passes through our minds).  However, as he also notes, he is not putting down an unbreakable rule – one has to use wisdom in knowing when to openly admit to one’s sins.  There are some things we do which it is not wise to tell everyone.  We need to confess those to our father confessors, to those who are better prepared to deal with humans as fallen sinners.  If we are honest to our self about our sins, we recognize also how our sins impact our lives and the lives of those around us – especially the ones we love.  Instead of becoming bitter for sin or blaming others regarding sin, when we recognize its power in our life, we can make an effort to correct it and to find the better way to love others or at least to own it and repent of it.

 

Samaritans Good and Bad

Luke’s inclusion of several narratives about Samaritans demonstrates also his interconnection with peace and justice, as God’s gospel way in Jesus Christ to overcome enmity and evil. The lawyer by seeking to justify himself draws forth Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In the face of God’s love commands, the lawyer seeks self-justification. In contrast, Jesus’ parable shows love compassionately aiding not only an unknown neighbor, but a known enemy – and the hands of love are those of a Samaritan! The narrative shifts from the question, “who is the neighbor whom I am commanded to love?” to another, “am I a loving neighbor even to the enemy?”

To be such a neighbor ensures one of eternal life, and it does not test with evil intent the Teacher of truth and life. The Good Samaritan story climaxes Luke’s first segment in his Journey Narrative, which is thus framed by the Samaritan theme, for in 9:54 the disciples wanted to rain fire down upon a Samaritan village because of its rejection of the journeying prophet Jesus (cf. 2 Kgs. 1:10, 12). But Jesus rebuked them (9:55), thus expelling their evil desire.

(Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, pp. 143-144)

Christ with Everyone

I shall not be jealous, my Son, that You are both with me

and with everyone. Be God

to the one who confesses You, and be Lord

to the one who serves You, and be brother

to the one who loves You so that You might save all.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, p. 149)

St Ephrem writes that God the Father recognize that Christ is with every human being.  The Father wishes His Son to save all.   St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22
that he has “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”   It isn’t God’s wish that only some be saved (see for example Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people”  (Titus 2:11).

Jesus: The Word of God

“The all-too-frequent pitfalls of speculating on the nature of God helped make the option of saying nothing a desirable one. Within the heart of the Godhead itself some early Christian writers had discovered a profound silence, that of the Father, from out of which the Word, the second person of the Trinity, was spoken. Ignatius of Antioch was a pioneer in this respect. Writing at the very beginning of the second century, he says, ‘There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word, coming forth from silence, who in all things was pleasing to the one who sent him.

Two and a half centuries later the idea was still alive in the poetry of Ephrem the Syrian:

‘Glory to the One who came to us by his First-Born.

Glory to that Silent One who spoke by means of his Voice.'”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 44-45)

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
Selah

that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Selah

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.

May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The Seed, The Sower and The Expectant Mother

The Lord spoke this parable:  “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”

And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.”   (Luke 8:5-15)

Seeds are not magical dust that bring about some magical change in the soil itself. Rather, seeds are the potential life of any species that must interact with the conditions around them to produce life.  Seeds are thus relational things, just like us humans, and in fact like all things on earth.  The seeds are dependent on other forces to move them through the world to a place where they might germinate, grow and bear fruit.  Those forces can be things like animals or humans, or wind or water, but seeds have no ability to propel themselves.  They are dependent on these other forces.   And the seeds cannot germinate, grow and bear fruit unless they have proper soil conditions, sufficient water, nutrients, air and sunlight.  Seeds are very dependent on the conditions around them to succeed in their purpose.

So it is fascinating that our Lord Jesus  in explaining His parable says that “The seed is the word of God.”  For Christ is acknowledging that the Word of God needs something in this world to carry it out into the world, and needs the conditions of the world to germinate, grow and bear fruit.   The Word of God is not a physical seed but a spiritual one.  Still, it needs to be in relationship with other things in creation to accomplish its mission.  In fact, God has entrusted to the Christian people the mission of planting the Word of God in our own hearts as well as in the hearts of others.  We are responsible for transporting those seeds, and planting them and nurturing them so that the Word of God can bear fruit.   Just as God could not become human without Mary to be His mother, so too God’s Word will bring forth fruit in creation only if we are willing to be the good soil in which this can happen.

And according to Christ’s teaching, we don’t have to pray that God will give us more seeds.  It is not the lack of seed which is even a problem for us.  When it comes to the Word of God, it is not the quantity of seed which brings about the abundant harvest.

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”  (Luke 13:18-19)

For even if we accept but one grain of seed and keep it in our hearts, it will bear fruit for God – both spiritual and physical.  For God cares not just about our souls but always also about our bodies and the world we live in.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off.”   (Isaiah 55:10-13)

What God’s seed needs is good soil, and it is in that good soil that the seed will come to fruition and bring about an abundant harvest.  But again it is not the quantity of seed which is important, for even one seed of God’s Word if it takes root in our hearts will yield an abundance of the fruits of the earth.

Christ’s explanation of the parable of the sower ends (vs 15) with Him comparing the good soil to “a noble and good heart” or a heart which is filled with beauty.  That kind of heart keeps the Word of God and then bears fruit “with patience.”   We have to cultivate our hearts to be good, beautiful, worthy, fine, noble.  And we have to cultivate in ourselves the patience of the good farmer or the successful gardener.

In Christ’s parable, it is not even the case that the good soil gets the most seed, for Christ has it that some seed fell on the good soil and some on the path and some on the rocky soil and some among the weeds.  The sower is generous is freely distributing the seed to all types of soil.  He does not withhold the good seed from the unproductive soil.  God gives rain and sunshine even to the wicked (Matthew 5:45; Luke 6:35-36).

Note also it is not the sower who gives growth to the seed.  The sower’s job is simply to spread the seed broadly over all the soil types.   The ability for the seed to come to fruition and bring an abundant harvest lies, at least in Christ’s parable, in the soil.  And as Christ explains, the different soil types represent us, the people.  It is the intimate relationship between the seed and the soil which is critical.  God has marvelously adjusted the seed and the soil which receives the seed to work together to bring forth the abundant harvest.  Without the seed, the soil cannot spontaneously produce crops, but also without the proper soil, the seed will fail to germinate and produce a viable plant.   God has created a marvelous world in which His Word and we who receive it work together to bring forth a wonderful harvest for God.

And the seed itself when it produces a plant produces more seed.  In effect God’s Word multiplies in us so that we have seed to give to others.  That seed is our deeds, our stewardship, our generosity, all the ways in which we give to the Church and to others.  As we heard last week in the Epistle:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God. (2 Corinthians 9:10-12)

The divine seed, the Word of God, grows in us and allows us to bear fruit – to ourselves create seeds which we then can distribute.  God wants us to be so fruitful, and our faithfulness in the parish community, our giving in Church in part of the fruit which we bear for God.

Or sometimes the seed remains dormant in us prepared for growth, despite our choices and behavior.  This gives each of us and the entire world great hope.  No matter how bad the soil of our heart, or no matter how bad another person appears to us, as long as we are alive or as long as that other person lives, there is in him or her or in us that seed and hope of salvation.  The parable of the sower is a parable of hope for ourselves and for the entire world.  Even poor soil can be amended to become bring forth a crop.  Maybe not as rich a crop as other soil, but it can produce a blessing.

Knowing that the divine seed, the Word of God, is implanted in our hearts, minds and souls, is good reason for us to meditate on what it will take for that seed to gestate in us and produce fruit.  A good mother when she is pregnant takes precious care of that fertilized seed that is implanted in her womb.  She often organizes her life around and in relationship to the seed she bears within her, even though this seed is just a tiny part of her life.  So all of us can learn from the pregnant mother how to care for the seed of God in each of us.

Motherhood is more than something we remember on Mother’s Day.  And the sanctity of human life is more than something we call to mind when we hear Roe V Wade.  Both motherhood and the unborn child are good images for us to understand our relationship to the Word of God.

Sometimes we think that the Church is completely patriarchal, but the image given to us about the Word of God as divine seed being implanted in us means we are to love like a mom so that we can bring forth the good fruit of God.  We each must be a loving pregnant woman, nurturing God’s seed implanted in our lives, in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, in our homes, in our families.   Indeed, in this sense, Mary, the Mother of God, becomes the very image of what each of us must be to fulfill the good promises of Christ’s Gospel commandments.  In this sense every mom becomes for us an image of what we are to be as Christians, living in God’s world, receiving God’s Word in our hearts.  Here is a case where only the image of a pregnant woman can help us understand the Gospel.

Jesus Opens Heaven to Us

The way by which the man Jesus ascended – from earth to heaven, from humanity to Divinity – is opened up to everyone after his resurrection. Deification is perceived dynamically, as an ascent of the human being, together with the whole created world, to divine glory, holiness and light.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, p. 57)