And when they (Joseph and Mary) saw him (Jesus) they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.  (Luke 2:48-52)

“The parents assigned to each of us: God caused us to be loved by our parents for this reason, that we might have mentors in virtue. You see, he does not make fathers only for having children but also for instructing them properly, nor cause mothers to give birth to children but also to nourish them properly. The truth of this, that it is not nature but virtue that makes parents, the parents themselves would admit to us.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies Vol 1, p. 71)

The Talent for Serving God

In Homily Two [John Chrysostom] adverts to the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30), from which the appropriate lesson for an Antiochene is that we must all make our own contribution if we are to win God’s favor:

“What is looked for by God even among human beings, you see, is not whether we come up with little or much, but making an offering that is in no way less than the ability we have.”

(Robert C. Hill, :St, John Chrysostom as Biblical Commentator,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 2003, pp. 317-318)

St. John Chrysostom says it is not how much you start with that matters, it is what you do with what God gives you.  We need not be jealous of what others have or even what they do with what they are given.  We can be grateful for what we have and for what God gives others as well.  Anthony de Mello offers the following story:

“Here is the Good News proclaimed by our Lord Jesus Christ:

Jesus began to teach in parables.   He said:

The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity.

The older responded to the call generously, though he had to wrench his heart from his family and the girl he loved and dreamed of marrying. He eventually went off to a distant land where he spent himself in the service of the poorest of the poor. A persecution arose in that country and he was arrested, falsely accused, tortured and put to death.

And the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand talents’ worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents’ worth of reward. Enter in the joy of your Lord.”

The younger boy’s response to the call was less than generous. He decided to ignore it and go ahead and marry the girl he loved. He enjoyed a happy married life, his business prospered and he became famous and rich. Occasionally he would give alms to the poor.

And when it was his turn to die, the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have given me ten talents’ worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents’ worth of reward. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

The older boy was surprised when he heard that his brother was to get the same reward as he. And he was pleased. He said, “Lord, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you.”

(The Song of the Bird, pp. 117-118)

The Blessing of Wind

In January, we bless water in the Church as part of our celebration of the Theophany of the Lord.   All of creation was given to us by God to be a blessing for us.  We acknowledge those blessings in the many & varied prayer services of the ChurchSt. John Chrysostom  reminds us that the wind is also a blessing from God.

“Truly the winds are also for you–for we are going back again to the beginning of our discourse–to fan worn-out bodies, to purge away the defilement from mud and the heaviness caused by smoke and furnaces and other exhalations,

to attenuate the heat of the sun’s rays, to relieve the stifling heat, to make seeds grow, to strengthen plants, to travel together with you at sea and to be servants of agriculture for you on land–in the first place, conveying ships more swiftly than arrows and making the voyage easy and convenient,

and in the second place, clearing off the threshing floor with you, separating the chaff from the grain, and lightening the hardship of the work–to make the air light and gentle for you, to give you delight in different ways–first whistling pleasantly and gently, and then softly striking the plants and shaking the leaves of the trees–to make your sleep in spring and in summer more pleasant and more delightful than honey.

They also act on the surface of the sea and on the waters of the rivers, and lift up their surface in the same way as with the trees, thus providing you with a great deal of enjoyment from seeing it and, more importantly, also rendering you a great service.

And in fact, the winds are useful to waters in another way: not allowing them to stagnate and go bad, but rather, continually setting them in motion and stirring them up, rendering them fresh and at their best and more suitable as sustenance for creatures that swim in them.” 

(On the Providence of God, pp. 65-66)

Flies, Bees and Seeing One’s Own Sin

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) writes:

“Let us not bite and chew others’ wounds; let us not imitate flies, but emulate bees: flies settle on wounds, bees fly onto flowers.

Hence it is the latter who form honeycombs, whereas the former carry diseases to the bodies they alight on; they are loathed, while the bees are desirable and welcome. Let us, therefore, have our soul fly over the meadow of the virtue of holy people, and constantly stimulate the fragrance of their good deeds instead of biting the wounds of the neighbor.

If, however, we should see some people doing the latter, let us silence them, stopping their mouths with the fear of punishment, reminding them of their kinship with their brethren. But if they do not respond to any of this, let us refer to them as flies in the hope that the reproach of this name may make them desist from their wicked occupation, so that they may rid themselves of this evil pursuit and devote all their time to studying their own vices.” (Old Testament Homilies: Vol. 3, Translated by Robert Charles Hill, p 51)

Charity at Christmas

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, some of the church fathers saw the giving of charity as a financial transaction which put God in debt to us  (see for example my blog: Christmas: Give a Coat, Receive Immortality).  No doubt the imagery was used as an incentive to get people to give to charity.  The idea was based on interpreting particular passages of the Gospel.  Below is a quote from St. John Chrysostom in which he portrays giving your goods to charity as a way to transfer them to heaven.  When you arrive in heaven, you will be able to reclaim your goods which will have been safely put there by those who received the charity.  St. John uses the imagery to say the best way to keep your wealth and goods and guarantee its safety until you reach heaven is to give it to the poor.

“How will our eyes bear to look upon the Judge if we have so neglected this simple command? I mean, surely I’m not recommending you to throw all your possessions away. Make the most of every time of prosperity, satisfy every need, and what is over and above put to good use by distributing to those who are hungry or frozen with the cold, and so send it ahead to your homeland by their hand so as to take advantage of it there before long.

Note that Chrysostom approves of people making use of whatever possessions they may have to satisfy their needs (not our wants and desires!).   If the times are prosperous, enjoy them to meet your needs.  It is what is beyond your needs that he advocates should be shared with the poor.

These people, you see, will be in a particular position to help you in transferring your goods there so that when you arrive you may find everything arranged to your advantage and you may enjoy greater credit there, seeing your riches multiplied by your agents – or, rather, by God’s loving kindness. After all, the transaction involves no problems, does it? It causes no worry or concern, does it? You have no need of carriers for the transfer, or of guards or anything else like that; no brigand or robber infests that route to prey upon the cargo you send. Instead, whatever you put into the hands of the poor, you put into safe custody, God’s own hand. This hand, of course, is proof against harm and provides protection for your goods, and when you arrive in your homeland, in addition to the restoration of your goods he will commend and reward you, and establish you in complete comfort and enjoyment.

Chrysostom is using imagery in a most playful yet serious way.  When you have property, goods, wealth, you end up worrying about protecting it.  You worry about keeping things safe, about protecting things.  Chrysostom says you can lay aside all those worries if you give things to the poor, because it is the same as putting your goods into God’s hands and God will safely deliver the goods to your storage in heaven.  You won’t need security or guards to protect your goods – you put them in God’s hands and God will protect them.

Don’t squander your wealth on your self – use it to benefit others.  This is his “you can have your cake and eat it too” argument.  Give from your prosperity to the poor now and then enjoy the prosperity in the world to come.

Accordingly, let us, I beseech you, pour out savings to provide for the poor, and sow seed in good time for the purpose of reaping a harvest at the proper season and not having vain regrets later through putting off the present opportunity. I mean, surely the loving Lord has not blessed you with greater benefits for this reason, that you should squander what has been given you only on your own needs and secrete the rest in safes and chests? It was not for that purpose, but rather that in accordance with the apostolic exhortation your surplus should be used to meet the needs of others. Perhaps your enjoyment extends even beyond what is needful and you spend much money on delicacies, clothing and other sorts of luxurious living, and your generosity extends even to servants and animals, whereas the poor person asks you for none of these things except to assuage his hunger and provide him with his pressing needs and daily bread so as to survive and not perish.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 48-49)


Keeping the Dormition Fast

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that keeping a fast is not mostly about diet – it is about how we live.  It is about turning away from sin with all our soul, heart, mind and strength.  It is doing good works with our entire bodies – eyes, mouth, ears, hands and feet.    We can keep the fast he describes even if we feel we can’t keep the prescribed dietary regulations.  In fact St. John’s attitude in this quote seems to challenge any thought that fasting is mostly about dietary regulations.  Chrysostom wants to see some change in behavior before he is willing to recognize a person is fasting.   He wants to know that the person is living according to Gospel commandments, otherwise the fasting is not really accomplishing the purpose of a fast. The true fast is fasting from sin not just from food.  That is what we should be concentrating on during every fasting season.  Instead of producing more Lenten recipes, we should be practicing overcoming sin in our lives and living virtuous lives.

“Do You Fast?

Give me proof of it by your works.

If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye,

and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and

all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.

Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare

at that which is sinful…..

Let the ear fast…by not listening to evil talk

and gossip…

Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from birds and

fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?”

(Daily Readings From the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, Edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, p 37)

Celebrating the Death of Death

“We celebrate the death of death, the destruction of Hades, the beginning of another, eternal life…

John Chrysostom says:

‘What does ‘creation was subjected to futility’ mean? It means that it became susceptible to corruption. Because of whom and why? Because of you, O man. For since you received a corruptible body susceptible to passions, the world became cursed…But it…will be freed from the slavery of corruption, that is, it will not be corruptible any more, but will conform to the beauty of your body.’

Creation will become incorruptible when man becomes incorruptible, but man’s hope in incorruption is based on Christ. He died and was buried but did not undergo decay, opening the path of incorruption to all mankind and therefore to all creation. Christ’s redemption of man has significance for the fate of the whole created world.” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp 197-198)

Take From Me the Spirit of Idle Talk

Throughout the Great Lenten season, we Orthodox pray that God will take from us the spirit of idle talk.  We also pray that God will set a guard before our mouths.  We are asking God to help us control our talking for we know through our words we often wound others, cause grief rather than bring peace to others, entice others to join in evil thoughts, gossip about others to their detriment.  We need Gods help to control out tongues so that our words can build up others and heal others and encourage others and support others.  St. John Chrysostom tells us that God has put within each of us the ability to reason and we are to use that reason to control our mouths and our talking.

Aware of this the inspired author also said, Set a guard on my mouth, Lord, and a door for encircling my lips. Now, what other guard is there than reason looming ominously, holding in its hands the fire destined to incinerate those idly using the mouth? Place this doorkeeper and guard that threatens your conscious, and it will never open this door at the wrong time, but only at the right time and for profit and goods beyond counting. Hence someone said, ‘Always remember your last end, and you will never sin:’ do you see how this person installed the faculty of reason? I presented it as even more ominous, however, speaking of it as having hands. If this happens, nothing evil will be generated in the mind. Along with this bring to the fore as well the one who says, ‘On the day of judgment you will give an account for every idle word.’

Consider that death also came on the scene: if the woman had not said it to the serpent what she said, if she had not heeded his words, she would have sustained no harm, she would not have given anything to her husband, he would not have eaten. I say this, blaming not tongue and mouth – perish the thought – but untimely use of them, which happens because of negligence in reasoning.”

(St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, pp 285-286)

Lent: Time to Shake Off Life’s Irritations

Just yesterday we Orthodox were called by Christ to forgive one another as part of Forgiveness Sunday and our preparation for entering into Great Lent .   Lent is a season of repentance.   Forgiveness is the basis for repentance in the Christian experience, according to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean that we will never be annoyed by them or that we will always be free of anger or irritation.  And it doesn’t mean that we have to like everyone or accept the behavior of everyone else.   Forgiveness though is part of an inner peace that we strive to attain as disciples of Christ.  On this, the first day of Great Lent, we can think about some advice from St. John Chrysostom on how to deal with life’s irritations.

“So I beseech you: with a view to being able to bear without difficultly the effort which virtue involves, let us give evidence of great love of God, and by devoting our attention in that direction let us not be deflected by any of this life’s concerns in our course towards that goal. Instead, let us keep in mind the constant enjoyment of future blessing and thus bear without distress the hardships of the present life:

let insult not disturb us,

nor poverty oppress us,

nor bodily ailment sap the energy of our soul’s purpose,

nor scorn and derision on the part of the majority render us listless in practicing virtue.

Let us rather shake off all these irritations like dust, adopt a noble and elevated attitude, and thus take a stance of great fortitude to all problems. As we recommended to your good selves yesterday, let us with all zeal be reconciled with our enemies and dispel the remaining passions from our soul:

should untimely desire beset us,

let us ward it off;

should choler (i.e., irascibility) arouse our anger,

let us suppress its upsurge with the singing of spiritual exhortations and thus show in its true light the ruin that passion brings.

‘A man of quick temper,’ Scripture says, remember, ‘is not honorable;’ and again, ‘The person who is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to the hell of fire.’ Should desire for money unbalance our thinking, let us be quick to shun this noxious ailment and expel it for what it is – the root of all evils. Let us be zealous in correcting each of the passions that beset us, so that by avoiding harmful ways and practicing those that are good we may on that dread day be judged worthy of God’s loving kindness, thanks to the grace and mercy of his only-begotten Son, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages. Amen.”   (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 196-197)

Three Hierarchs: Apis mellifera

On January 30 we Orthodox celebrate the Synaxis of the Three Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Sts Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.   At Matins that morning I especially enjoyed one of the hymns which used a favorite imagery of mine: honey bees (Apis mellifera = bees honey-bearing).

The Three Holy Hierarchs are imaged as being like those wonderful honey bearers.  Maybe its the coldness of winter, but I thought it a good time to share the warmth of the hymn.

Like bees hovering over the meadow of the scriptures,

You embraced the wonderful pollen of their flowers.

Together you have produced for all the faithful

The honey of your teachings for their complete delight.

Therefore as we each enjoy this, we cry out with gladness:

Blessed ones, even after death, be advocates for us who praise you!