Fasting: To Cleanse the Heart

“I beg and entreat that each one of you reckon up in his conscience the results of his fasting. If he discovers that he has gained much, let him reckon it to his hard work; but if he has gained nothing, let him use the remaining time to gain goods through diligent fasting. As long as the festival lasts, let us not leave before we have exerted ourselves and acquired great gain, so we will not leave with empty hands. In this way we shall not forsake the reward of fasting, since we have endured the toil of fasting. For it is possible to endure even the toil of fasting and not receive the reward of fasting. How? When we abstain from food but do not abstain from sins; when we do not eat meat but devour the homes of the poor; when we do not get drunk from wine but become intoxicated by wicked desire; when we continue without food for the entire day but pass all of it a wonton spectacles. Recognize that we can endure the toil of fasting but not receive the recompense of fasting, when we attend the theaters of lawlessness.

What does the divine law say? “You have heard that God said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery!’ But I say to you that everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you seen an adulterer perform? Have you seen a sin fulfilled? And worse yet, the adulterer who is not convicted and condemned by a human court for his adultery is held accountable by the divine tribunal, whose retributions are eternal. Everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Fasting eradicates not only the disease but also the root of the disease, and the root of adultery is wonton desire. For this reason, Scripture punishes not only the adultery but also the desire, the mother of adultery.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 70 & 73)

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Imitating Christ: One OF Us

That a Christian is one who both follows Christ and imitates Him seems pretty straightforward.  Jesus Himself told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  (John 13:13-17)

Today in American English we often hear the “you” of these commandments in the singular.  We are so attuned to individualism that we assume this is a command for each off us to keep individually, and yet the command is spoken in the plural and means that all of us together are to love one another.  Christ is an example to each of us personally, but then calls us to act communally as brothers and sisters.  We as parish are to serve all.  Christ gives an example to each of us, and together, communally, collectively, as a body, as a parish we are to fulfill the commandment together.

In this same discourse but a minute later Christ goes on to say:

“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)

Again he addresses himself to each of us personally but calls us to love together, collectively and communally.  We are to be recognized as disciples not just an individual disciple.  We are recognized as disciples in community.  The parish is essential for our identity and witness.  In the parish community we can and are to fulfill the commandment that we together do what Christ commanded us to do.  This is very much what the early church understood about being Christian and discipleship:  one Christian, or a Christian alone, is no Christian.  Only in community can we love as Christ commanded us to do.  Of course we each have to contribute to this communal behavior, but it is always each of us have to work together to love as Christ exemplified and commanded us to do.

The plural “you” – we, us – is also in St. Paul’s exhortation:

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  (Rom. 15:7)

Christ welcomes us and receives us.  It is as one of us that we live our Christian life.

“Let us commend our selves, and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

Who Can Be a Christian?

What does it take to be a Christian?  Follow the law of Love, says St. Nicholas Cabasilas:  “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)

“The ‘law of Love’ is the basis of his spirituality as [Cabasilas] writes in the sixth book of The Life in Christ.

‘This law demands no arduous nor afflicting work, nor loss of money; it does not involve shame, nor any dishonour, nor anything worse; it puts no obstacle in the pursuit of any art or profession.

The general keeps the power to command,

the labourer can work the ground,

the artisan can carry on with his occupation. There is no reason to retire into solitude, to eat unusual food, to be inadequately clothed, or endanger one’s health, or to resort to any other special endeavour;

it suffices to give oneself wholly to meditation and to remain always within oneself without depriving the world of one’s talents.'”  (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Life in Christ, p. 290)

Do You Unite Yourself to Christ? Have You United Yourself to Christ?

In 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, St. Paul writes:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The Word of God became incarnate as a human to unite earth to heaven and reunite humanity to divinity.  Christ by becoming incarnate makes the salvation of the human race possible because He unites us to the Holy Trinity.  This union of God and humanity already occurred in history.

For us Christians – our response to the incarnation – life consists mostly of removing from our own lives all and any of the obstacles to our union with God.  Repentance, prayer, self denial, virtue, worship, participating in the sacraments, charity, forgiveness – all are the ways in which we remove from our selves those things which prevent us from experiencing God’s love and the life in God.  God became incarnate to unite humanity to divinity. Salvation consists of our union with God – our accepting that union which God offers us in Jesus Christ.

In God’s plan for salvation, Mary, the mother of Jesus is the person in whom all obstacles to the union of God and humans are removed.   God finds the way to unite God’s own self to us and this reunion occurs within the Theotokos.  She is the person in whom salvation takes place.  God’s plan for salvation is to unite humanity to God’s divinity, and this begins within Mary’s womb at the incarnation.  God cannot unite Himself to humanity without a human person to whom God can be united.

We respond to God’s salvation – the restoration of communion between God and ourselves by embracing the Gospel.  Baptism is part of the process by which we remove all obstacles to our union with God – by which we remove all obstacles to salvation.   1]  First,  the person hears the Gospel and moves towards God, to embrace God’s love and to be embraced  by it.  The person goes through catechism, to prepare themselves for union with God.  They prepare themselves to lay aside those things which separate them from God, and they embrace all those words, actions and thoughts which make union with God possible.  2]  Then the  catechumen comes to confession and renounces their sins and repents of them – renounces all of their behaviors and thoughts which had separated them from God.  Repentance is a stage in the process of turning away from those things which separate us from God in order that we might experience God’s embrace of us.  3] When the catechumen is ready for baptism, they come to church, and at the door of the church they renounce Satan and all his angels and all his service and all his pride.  They reject everything in the world that separates them from God.  This is the exorcism – expelling the darkness and all those thoughts and deeds which had in fact separated us from God.    4]   Then before they are baptized, they remove their clothes, again removing anything which separates them from God – all that they have clothed themselves in from the world is left behind.  And their clothes do symbolize all that they have taken on themselves from the world.  They show in leaving behind those clothes that they are ready to embrace a new life.

5]  Then in the baptismal font, they are washed of their sins, not so much a physical washing but a spiritual one, again cleansing them of anything which separates them from God , and making them capable of being united to Christ and of receiving the Holy Spirit.   Everything in their life which separated them from God is now left behind – the way of the world in their discarded clothing and their sins in the baptismal font.  Now God enters into them and they put on Christ – clothe themselves in Christ.  Nothing comes between them and God.  They are purified and sanctified and are holy and wholly united to God.  6]  It is no longer they who live but Christ who lives in them.  They now are chrismated, receiving the Holy Spirit as gift, the Spirit of God who comes to abide in the newly baptized Christian.

When we hear the Gospel we realize that just living a better life is not sufficient for salvation.  If it were, then Christ would not have been needed.  The Jews already had God’s law,  if simply keeping Torah was enough for God to unite Himself to humanity, Christ was not needed.  The Gospel itself tells us something more is needed by humanity than simply doing more good deeds.  So in Luke 6:31-36, Jesus teaches us:

And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Just doing good is not even all that special – even sinners know how to be good, especially when that behavior benefits them.   God, for His part, loves expecting nothing in return.  God gives rain and sunshine and all manners of blessing to the entire world, not as a response to us humans or as a reaction to us but purely because God is love.  If we want to live in communion with God, we need to lay aside all those behaviors and thoughts which separate us from God, and to behave as God does – being merciful and generous and kind.  We need to work on remaining fully united to Christ Jesus our Lord.

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

If You Wish to Be Perfect

Within the Gospel lesson, Matthew 19:16-26 , Jesus challenges a man who thinks he is pretty close to being perfect in keeping all of God’s commandments with these words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 

Jesus tells the man that perfection cannot be found in the Commandments, in keeping Torah.  For that which leads to perfection is not commanded by the Torah or God at all.  Perfection lies in love, loving as God loves, in loving one’s neighbor while abandoning personal wealth and property, in following Christ.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza comments:

“The commandments were given to all Christians and it is understood that every Christian observes them; this is, as it were, the tribute appointed to be paid to the King. Anyone who says, ‘I will not pay tribute,’ will he escape punishment? There are, however, in the world great and illustrious men who not only pay the appointed tribute, but also offer gifts and they are thought worthy of great honor, great benefits and esteem.

So also the Holy Fathers not only kept the commandments but also offered gifts to God. These gifts are virginity and poverty.  These are not commanded but freely given. Nowhere is it written, you shall not take a wife or ‘Sell your property!’ He did not choose to do so when the lawyer approached him saying, ‘Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He replied, ‘You know the Commandments. Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, etc. When the answer came, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth,’ he added, ‘If you want to be perfect, sell your property and give the money to the poor,’ etc. See, he did not say ‘sell your property as a commandment, but as a counsel. This is clear from the condition imposed, ‘if you wish to be perfect.’ (Discourses & Sayings, p. 84).

A Call to Christian Service: Imitate Paul

“At the heart of Paul‘s message in the letter is his appeal to the Philippians to imitate him (Philippians 3:17), which we must read in light of his depiction of himself as being in humble and humiliating circumstances. He opens the letter by noting that he and his co-worker Timothy are ‘slaves’ of Christ, then points out that he is also a prisoner. Thus, Paul’s basis for his assurance is not arrogance or a feeling of success. Rather, his confidence emerges from the fact that in his own situation, God has used what seems to be a bad situation for a greater purpose: although Paul is in prison, the gospel has spread (Philippians 1:12-14); although some preach from impure motives, Christ is still proclaimed (1:15-18); although death seems preferable, life is necessary, but Christ is honored in either case (1:19-26). What seems to be a lowly and dangerous situation Paul upholds as an experience to be used for the greater glory of God. Paul intentionally interprets as positive circumstances that seem to indicated a loss of status: imprisonment, dissension with others, the threat of death. He reaffirms his role in God’s greater purpose in order to underscore his own character, which allows him to speak to the Philippians as he does.

He calls them to be like him- not to aspire to greatness, but rather to unity (humility) and service (Philippians 2:1-14). Instead of competing for honor, he directs them to pursue a vision that continues and strengthens a value that already exists in the community: mutuality.”  (Richard S. Ascough, Passionate Visionary, p. 38)

Be An Example

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Matthew 23:8-12)

“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘I am living with some brothers. Do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The elder said to him, ‘No. Do your own work first, and if they want to survive they will provide what is needed themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves who want me to be in charge of them.’ The elder said to him, ‘No. You must become their example, not their legislator.’”

An example like that does not draw attention to himself. Only those who wish will follow.

“A young man came to see an old ascetic to be instructed in the way of perfection. But the old man said not a word to him.

The other asked him the reason for his silence. ‘Am I your superior to give you orders? Do what you see me doing if you like.’ From then on the young man imitated the ascetic in everything and learned the meaning of silence.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 145-146).

 

Testing the Patience of the Lord

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?

How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.    (Matthew 16:5-12)

O Lord, though we wish to be Your disciples, and wish we could be just like Your Apostles, help us so that we will not imitate their wooden literalism!  How often they misunderstood You!  Open our hearts and minds to Your Gospel teachings.  We have the advantage that the Apostles did not have – we clearly know who You are, and we already know the lessons they had to learn.  You have revealed to us Your teachings through them.  We see their mistakes and what they learned from those errors and lessons. Their lack of perception becomes for us a lesson in enlightenment, and yet, how we are just like them in not understanding Your love.

Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!  You gathered us into the Church through your preaching.  We have you as examples of discipleship to emulate.  We have learned both from your correct teachings and your mistakes.  Ask God to take away from us the blindness of failing to see the deeper lessons He intended for you and us.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will heal our hard hearts, our stiff necks, our darkened minds, our failure to bend the knee, our closed hands, our eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, and our mouths that fail to give thanks or speak the truth.

Lord, forgive us when we don’t want to understand but instead want rules and regulations because we don’t want to love others as you love us.   We fear judgment and so want to bury the talents you give to us because we too often think you are a harsh judge rather than a loving God.   Do not abandon us to our blindness and desire for an easy way.  Let Your light shine even into the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Stay with us until we understand You!

The Need for Christ

The Gospel of the Centurion with the sick servant in Matthew 8:5-13 presents us with a man who has a need or a problem which he cannot resolve by himself.  Even though he is a Roman centurion, a commanding officer in a Roman legion, he has come to recognize the limits of his powers – he cannot heal his servant nor command anyone, not even a doctor to heal his servant.  He doesn’t have that kind of power within his command.  He is in Israel as part of the conquering Roman army, an army that no doubt gave the impression of invincibility to many.  Yet, the Centurion who could do many things as a commanding officer and as part of the powerful Roman army, and who has all the power to order his men to do his bidding, still faced his own powerlessness when it came to bring health to his servant.  He apparently cared a great deal about this servant.  All the military might of the Roman Empire could not heal the servant, nor could all the gods of the polytheistic Empire.  So the Centurion was in need feeling helpless, and it was this need which caused him to pay attention to the claimed Messiah of the conquered and subjugated Jewish people.  He apparently had heard that Jesus did have the power to heal, and so in his own impotence, he came begging to Christ to make up the power which he was personally lacking.  He was feeling the limits of his power, but he understood command.

I believe it was Metropolitan Anthony Bloom who said, “God can save the sinner that you are, not the saint that you pretend to be.”

We approach Christ in our need, not in our strength.  The centurion was able to be honest about his limits and failures; he understood pretending could never create reality.

Metropolitan Anthony’s aphorism has to be thought of with what Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).

It is only when we are completely honest about ourselves, and can admit to our faults and our sins that we come to see why we need Christ in our lives.  If we want to pretend that we aren’t really sinners, then of course we see no need for Christ to call us, let alone save us.

Like the Centurion we have to recognize our own powerlessness over certain aspects of our lives.  It is not possible for us to be sinless and perfectly holy on our own.  We can try to be or even pretend to be perfect in terms of following Tradition, or rubrics and rituals, or in morality or dogma.  We will still find ourselves in need of God’s mercies and love.  Without His love, our moral or ritual or dogmatic perfection are nothing, as St. Paul writes In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 –

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

If I realize I don’t have that love, I realize my need, just like the Centurion.  I need Christ in my life.  Alone, I don’t have even the resources of the Centurion, and I know I cannot accomplish all that I wish in life.

The singer William Bell has a song, “The Three of Me” which begins with these words:

Last night I had a dream
And there were three of me
There was the man I was the man I am
And the man I want to be

It is easy for us to imagine the song being a love song or a repentant lover.  He regrets things he said and did and wants his beloved to know that he is no longer that man who did those things.  But he also realizes he is not yet the man he could be or wants to be.  He is better than he was, he has changed, and yet he realizes he has a long way to go before he can become the man he wants to be.

Our relationship to Christ might be described in a similar way – it is about love.  We who have repented realize there is a person there, the man or woman we used to be and we desired to leave that place and no longer to be that person.  We present ourselves to Christ as the man or woman we now are, admitting our past errors and offering to Christ a changed person.  And we realize that despite the changes we have made, we still fall short, we are not yet that person we want to be.  We are called to strive for that holiness in our lives (Luke 13:24 – “Strive to enter by the narrow door…“).  That is what it means to be a Christian in this world.  We still have needs and are in need of Christ and the Holy Spirit in our lives to keep us on the path to holiness.

In the Liturgy today as always, in a short while I will say the words: “Holy things are for the holy ones.”

The Holy Things are the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ which are given as gift.  Who are the holy ones for whom these gifts are given?

You, all of you who are here at the Liturgy.

But what is the next line of the Liturgy which immediately follows the words,  “Holy things are for the holy ones”?

What is the next immediate thing we say?

“One is holy, one is lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.”

Our holiness does not come to us through our keeping ascetic practices, nor through observing rubics perfectly, nor through faultless moral living or correct dogma.  As important as those things may be, our holiness comes through our relationship with Jesus Christ. Holiness, being a Christian is not something we attain alone.  It can only be attained in relationship to Jesus Christ our Lord.  And through Him with His Body, the Church and all other Christians.

As the early Christians taught and believed: “One Christian is no Christian.” [see also my blog Me and Jesus Alone].

We cannot be a Christian alone.  We need Jesus Christ.  That is what the Centurion in today’s Gospel lesson realized.  It is what every sinner realizes when he or she comes to faith.

It is that relationship with Christ and with all those men, women and children who believe in Him that we must develop.  Seek Him.  Believe in Him.  Pray to Him.  Hope in Him.  Rejoice in Him.  It is our relationship to Him that brings us into relationship with the divine life, with eternity with the God our Father.  It is Christ that heals all that is lacking in ourselves.