Seeing, Nay Seeking, Christ in Others

Two poems related to themes found in Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).  The first poem, untitled, is by St Maria Sobtskova.

I searched for singers and for prophets

who wait by the ladder to heaven,

see signs of the mysterious end,

sing songs beyond our comprehension.

And I found people who were restless, orphaned, poor,

drunk, despairing, useless,

lost whichever way they went,

homeless, naked, lacking bread.

There are no prophecies. Only life

continuously acts as a prophet.

The end approaches, days grow shorter.

You took a servant’s form. Hosanna.

(Pearl of Great Price, p. 51-52)

For St. Maria, if we seek Christ or the holy ones who follow Him, we might be surprised whom we find or in whom we find Him, the Lord God who makes Himself a servant and washes the feet of the least of His brothers and sisters.

In the second poem, “DE Way T’ings Come”, American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar writing poetically in an English dialect he sometimes used puzzles over how unlike the Good Samaritan we can be – working to feed those who are well fed  and avoiding those in need.

De way t’ings happen, huhuh, chile,

Dis worl’ ‘s done puzzled me one w’ile;

I ‘s mighty skeered I ‘ll fall in doubt,

I des’ won’t try to reason out

De reason why folks strive an’ plan

A dinnah fu’ a full-fed man,

An’ shet de do’ an’ cross de street

F’om one dat raaly needs to eat.

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar,  Kindle Location 5587-5591)

(For the poetically and dialectically challenged, the poem’s last lines are:  I just won’t try to reason out the reason why folks strive and plan a dinner for a full-fed man, and shut the door and cross the street from one that really needs to eat.)

 

The Eucharist and Christmas

“In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod,

God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  ‘This is my body, which is broken for you‘ – shed to the end.  

In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.”  (St. Maria of Parish, Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 78)

 

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)

Christ Who Lives in Me

St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians (2:16-20) –  

We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,  knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. “But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.  For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

“’Christification’ …is based on the words, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20) The image of God, the icon of Christ, which truly is my real and authentic essence or being, is the only measure of all things, the only path or way which is given to me. Each movement of my soul, each approach to God, to other people, to the world, is determined by the suitability of that act for reflecting the image of God which is within me.” (St Maria of Paris)

Love for humanity alone or in general, while an ideal of the Enlightenment and love of the modern era, leads us into the blind alley, as she calls it of a humanism that is at once anti-Christian, impersonal, theoretical, and, in the end, not humane. But equally, as we have also seen, the flight into religiosity of various forms, the attempt to place the love for God above that for neighbor, to play Martha off against Mary, destroys love, both for God and for the neighbor.

The two loves are but one love. To attempt to “Christify” the world is not impose upon it something external, but to deal with it in its own terms – as God’s creation, out of love, as the constant object of God’s love, God’s becoming part of it, living in it, dying and rising – “for the life of the world.” To “Christify” means to be the world’s beloved, the philanthropos or “Lover of mankind,” as the Eastern Church liturgy repeatedly names God. As scripture scholar James Kugel points out, an image of God we have lost is that of a God who does not so much sit on his throne in his heavens, waiting for our obeisance, but the God who descends and walks among us, often completely unnoticed, seeking us out in love.

(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law Politics, & Human Nature, p. 675)

Keeping Lent Strictly

Some of the most well known Orthodox saints were courageously outspoken against abuses within the Church as well as abuses by Orthodox civil rulers or hierarchs.  St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for example is sent into exile where he dies because of his criticisms of clergy as well as of the Empress.  St. Maria of Paris (d. 1945)  is a more contemporary saint who was troubled by what she saw in the Church of her day as the strict adherence to external ritualism while not having one’s heart changed by the Gospel.  Her stinging criticisms of Russian Orthodox Church life were intended to awaken Church members to live their Christian lives and not reduce Orthodoxy to mindless ritualism.  She refers to the example of Jesus Christ Himself who challenged the Pharisees of His day by declaring Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, not a slave to Sabbath rules. St. Maria says:

“‘We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated the Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be the slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man…Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have here a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifest in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules, and prohibitions–a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man?’

Likewise, [St. Maria Skobtsova] considers the ascetic mentality dominant in traditional monasticism, namely the conviction that everything one does is done out of obedience–to God, to the superior, to the monastic rule. The purpose for all of this is the salvation of one’s own soul, becoming “perfect even as your Father in heaven.” Once more, something is not right in such a vision, for

‘The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels–this is a kind of huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ–I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put virtues into practice and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love–and we must love.’

But where is there any recognition of the other, the neighbor who is being fed, clothed, or visited? Rather than self-renouncing, self-giving love that embraces the other, this “strange and fearsome holiness” pursues all kinds of works of love because it is the rule, because God or the superior orders it, because it is necessary for the salvation of my soul.”

(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity, p. 666).

We can live the Gospel by living a life of love – through acts of generous giving to others, to those in need, to our neighbors or to strangers, we can curb our own desires and serve others.  We turn our self denial into the service of others.  This is an ascetic act which everyone is capable of doing.  We don’t need to leave the world in order to follow Christ.  We can use Great Lent as a time to increase our service to others and thus deny ourselves.

Religious Freedom

“Freedom obliges, freedom calls for sacrificial self-giving, freedom determines one’s honesty and strictness with oneself and one’s path. And if we want to be strict and honest, worthy of the freedom given us, we must first of all test our own attitude toward our spiritual world. We have no right to wax tender hearted over all our past indiscriminately – much of that past is far loftier and purer than we are, but much of it is sinful and criminal. We should aspire to the lofty and combat the sinful. […] And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There instead of lukewarm you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed, instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.’

Lady Freedom

It is to this foolishness, this folly in Christ, that our freedom calls us. Freedom calls us, contrary to the whole world, contrary not only to the pagans but to many who style themselves Christians, to undertake the Church’s work in what is precisely the most difficult way. And we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”

(Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, pp 114-115)

 

St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris

Today on the Orthodox calendar we remember the repose of two relatively modern saints whose lives have touched mine.  Both St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow and Apostle to the Americas (1879) and St Maria Skobtsova of Paris (1945) died on March 31.  St. Maria died at the hands of the Nazis in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Jim Forest who has written a short biography of her,“Mother Maria of Paris: Saint of the Open Door”, says of her that “She was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy.”

St. Maria’s writings are, I think, important for all of us who are not monastics about how to keep Lent.  For those of us living in the world, since we have the world’s goods it is most appropriate for us to keep Great Lent by remembering Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) which we proclaim at the Liturgy one week before Lent begins.  Perhaps more than emphasizing food fasting, we ought to be thinking about the scriptural teachings on fasting from Isaiah 58 in which God tells us the kind of fast acceptable to Him, and from Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment.  In both of the scriptural teachings, the emphasis is on charity towards others, not obeying rituals and rules.

mercytoChrist

St Maria writes:

“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

 

 

The Spiritual Miser

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.

Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.

So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’

But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.  So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.  Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

St. Mother Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945) writes:

“Spiritual egocentrism replaces the goal of true asceticism. It cuts off such a person from the universe and makes him into a spiritual miser – and then this miserliness quickly begins to develop and grow, because he begins to notice that the more he acquires, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of the spiritual life, whereby everything that is not distributed, everything that is saved, everything that is not lovingly given away somehow degenerates, becomes corrupt, is consumed in flames.

The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who will lend it at interest. Further accumulation makes one more and more empty. It leads to dryness, to spiritual numbness, to the complete degeneration and destruction of one’s spiritual essence. A unique process of self-poisoning by spiritual values takes place.”

(Essential Writings, pp 172-173)

The Beauty of Christ And the Deformed

 

St. Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945AD) understood well that the beauty and truth of the Orthodox Liturgy comes alive in believers when they show love and compassion to the poor and needy.   She discerned correctly that if Christ was confined to the church building and liturgical services, the lives of believers would remain untouched by divinity.  And she recognized the temptation in Orthodoxy to keep the doors of the church closed in order to preserve the antiquity and protect the pure museum quality of the liturgical pomp and church accouterments.   She wrote:

“The eyes of love will perhaps be able to see how Christ Himself departs, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary that is protected by a splendid iconostasis. The singing will continue to resound, clouds of incense will still rise, the faithful will be overcome by the ecstatic beauty of the services. But Christ will go out on to the church steps and mingle with the crowd: the poor, the lepers, the desperate, the embittered, the holy fools. Christ will go out into the streets, the prisons, the hospitals, the low haunts and dives. Again and again Christ lays down his soul for his friends. What are our beauty and our ugliness in comparison with Christ, His eternal truth and eternal beauty? Or is it not the reverse? Does He not see in our ugliness, in our impoverished lives, in our festering sores, in our crippled souls – does He not see there His own divine image and a reflection of his eternal glory and eternal beauty? And so He will return to the churches and bring with Him all those whom He has summoned to the wedding feast, has gathered from the highways, the poor and the maimed, prostitutes and sinners.

mercytoChristThe most terrible thing is that it may well be that the guardians of beauty, those who study and understand the world’s beauty, will not comprehend Christ’s beauty, and will not let Him into the church because behind Him there will follow a crowd of people deformed by sin, by ugliness, drunkenness, depravity, and hate. Then their chant will fade away in the air, the smell of incense will disperse, and Someone will say to them: ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ ”

(Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p 161)

Evangelism by Example

St. Maria Skobtsova

Evangelism by personal exemplary behavior is a daunting idea.  There is of course the fact that a lot of people may ignore, misinterpret or ridicule our behavior.  Too few Christians have patience for that.  Then of course due to our own sinful natures there is the risk that we might fail in our example and be bad witnesses.   The media is full of such stories as they love to point out Christian hypocrisy and people seem to be natural voyeurs when it comes to watching others fall.   Easier it is to try to legislate behavior and to force people to “behave” whether they want to or not.  Christians also at times seem to think that preaching sermons or handing out scripture is evangelism; neither of those methods demands absolute exemplary behavior on the part of the preacher or distributor of scriptures.  Distributing bibles can be done in totally impersonal ways.  The preacher can have a public and private life which are quite different.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) thought the main Christian duty was simply to live the Christian life, to be virtuous.  This for him was the main form of evangelism, and this from a man who was acclaimed as one of the greatest preachers in church history.  His personal life seems to have been saintly as well.   We don’t need more people to proclaim the Gospel as if it is some law to be imposed on non-believers.  We need more Christians to live the Gospel so that others might see our commitment to God as well as contemplate the outcome of our lives.  We need to behave as if we ourselves really believe Christ and the Gospel.

“I am not warning against our mingling with other peoples, but recommending that we adhere to our own ways of virtue and when mingling with them we attract them to religion, and through a life of good works we may become the occasion of instruction for them. The reason, after all, that the common Lord of all permitted good people and wicked to mingle together, the religious and the irreligious, was that the evil might profit from the good and those still imprisoned in impiety might be guided to religion. Nothing, you see, is so anxiously sought by God as the soul’s salvation. Accordingly, let us not neglect it, I beseech you, neither our own nor our neighbors’, our own by managing our affairs in the way pleasing to God; our neighbors’, by being so conspicuous that without our saying a word those espying us may have sufficient instruction.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, p 398)