Show Mercy to the Unfortunate

Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  (Galatians 6:1)

St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin.  Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them.  Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with.  For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them.  If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them.  Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin.  St. Basil writes:

“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.”   (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)

A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control:  poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control).    Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.

For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control.  Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth.  In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy.  His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy.  He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way.  Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy.   Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones.  My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy.  We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us.  We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us.  Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day.  In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires.  In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us.  Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science.  In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another.    The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.

 

Rejoicing and Weeping and the Last Judgment

One week before Great Lent begins, the Sunday Gospel lesson in the Orthodox church is Matthew 25:31-46, the Last Judgment.  In this surprising parable of Jesus, the final judgment of all humans by God is not based upon sins we have committed or avoided, nor upon whether or not we fasted during Lent, nor on how often we attended church or kept a spiritual discipline, nor on whether we kept the Ten Commandments, but rather God’s final judgment of us is based solely on whether or not we have loved the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The only question to be asked at the Last Judgment is whether or not we showed mercy and charity to those to whom we could have done so.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for 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.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) comments:

“Listen and be glad, all of you who are poor and needy, for in this you are God’s brethren.  Even if you are poor and lowly against your will, with patience and thanksgiving voluntarily turn it to your own good.  Listen, all you who are rich, and long for blessed poverty, that you may become more truly heirs and brethren of Christ than whose who are involuntarily poor, for of His own free will He made Himself poor for our sake.  Listen and groan, all you who overlook your suffering brethren, or rather, Christ’s brethren, and do not give the poor a share of your abundant food, shelter, clothing and care as appropriate, nor offer your surplus to meet their need.  Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of this passion.  While many shiver and go without, I am well fed and clothed.  But more grievously to be mourned over are those who have treasures in excess of their daily needs, who hold on to them and even strive to increase them.  They have been commanded to love their neighbors as themselves and have not even loved them as dust, for what are gold and silver, which they loved more than their brethren, other than dust?

But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have.  If we prefer not to empty out all we possess for the love of God, let us at least not callously hold on to everything for ourselves.  Let us do something, then humble ourselves before God and obtain forgiveness from Him for what we have failed to do.  For His love for mankind makes up for our omissions, that we may never hear the horrifying voice: ‘Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed’ (Matt. 25:41).  How great a horror!  Be ye removed from life, cast out of paradise, deprived of light.’” (Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, pp 30-31)

Why a Fast Free Week Before Lent?

In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11).  The Synaxarion says the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline.  It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have got off track.  It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly.  We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God.  It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins.  Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality.    But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them.    Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice.  If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic!  To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom.  Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives.  The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.

“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)

Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…

So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”

Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds  us that we like everyone else is human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him.  We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride.  The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.

The Virtue of Sexual Purity

St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 that foods are relatively unimportant.  We are permitted to eat most anything, but we shouldn’t be enslaved to anything.  But more important than food is sexual purity because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – your body will be raised by Christ at the resurrection.  Therefore you need now to keep your body pure so that it can be raised from the dead – can be united with the Holy Spirit and with Christ.  But if you practice sexual immorality – something you do with your body – you make your body unfit for the resurrection from the dead.  You have killed your body through sin.  We aren’t trying to escape the body because it is unimportant, rather we are trying to make it holy through a Christian way of life.

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them.

Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Biblical Scholar Michael Gorman comments:

“The first topic of the countercultural life addressed by Paul is sexuality, specifically abstention from any kind of “sexual immorality” (NIV; NAB, “immoraility”; Gk. pornea, which includes but is broader than NRSV’s “fornication”). Paul’s basic point is that the call of God is to be different from the Gentiles “who do not know god” (4:5) by being pure rather than lustful (4:5, 7). Here Paul continues the general biblical and Jewish tradition of criticizing pagan sexual immorality and stressing that one of the primary distinctives of those in covenant relationship with God is sexual holiness (see Lev. 18:1-3, 24-30). Jews claimed to be, and were known as, those who did not engage in such pagan practices as sex outside marriage, homosexual relations, abortion, infanticide, and the exposure of unwanted newborns. The earliest believers in Jesus followed suit, and Paul follows the Levitical example in treating this matter with the utmost gravity (4:6, 8). (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p 158)

The Stages of Sin and Repentance

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The Gospel lesson of Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father, has become in the Orthodox Church the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, used to help prepare us for keeping the season of Great Lent.   Below is the text of the Gospel Lesson itself interspersed with comments from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware taken from The Lenten Triodion (p 46).

Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. 

“The parable of the Prodigal forms and exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger.” 

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father.

“Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go…’ (Luke 15:18).” 

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But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

“To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.” 

Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”

 

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Interestingly in the parable, the older brother of the Prodigal plays as big a role as the Prodigal himself – at least in terms of the length of the text.  One can repent and seek reconciliation with our merciful and forgiving God.  Sin however is never just between the sinner and God, for it affects all of one’s relationships.  God may forgive, but we may find those around us unable or unwilling to be reconciled with us.  Repentance involves a tremendous amount of energy, working on our relationships, and learning to deal with how others judge us for what we have done.  Even the Father could not force his elder son to be reconciled to the younger brother and prodigal.  We can find our way back to God, but still find ourselves estranged from community.  This is because our sins cut us off from our brothers and sisters and cut into our relationship with them.   Repentance, our confession of sins, needs to acknowledge all of those whom we have hurt through our shallow, selfish and self-centered sinfulness.  We need to acknowledge not just that our sins cut us off from God, but that they also showed a callous disregard for our friends and family.  We are the cause of their hurt.  Our sins may have damaged permanently our relationships on earth, and we must humbly accept the consequence of that.  It may not be until the Kingdom comes that we find ourselves having in heaven the relationships we desired on earth when we repented.

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Historical Note on Memorial Saturdays

“Saturday of Meatfare week is dedicated to the memory of ‘our fathers and brothers, all the Orthodox Christians who fell asleep throughout the ages.’ This is a universal commemoration of all the  dead, which we shall find again on the Saturday before Pentecost. Thus we find such a commemoration and the beginning and the end of the moveable cycle.

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The first indication of this universal commemoration of the dead on Saturday of Meatfare week appears in the Typikon of the Great Church (9th-10th century). It is possible that it was instituted in connection with the commemoration on Meatfare Sunday of the last judgement. The Typicon St. Alexios the Studite (11th century) describes an ordo of the office very similar to what we celebrate today.

Bishop Afanasii (Sakharov) believed that, during these two days, the Church prayed in a more intense way for the repose of all the dead, familiar and stranger, known and unknown, of every age and circumstance, of all times and all peoples, of all who have died since the beginning of the world. According to him, this is the reason the Church put aside the commemoration of saints from the Menaion, in order to dedicate itself fully to prayer for the dead. Indeed, in contrast with other Saturdays, when the commemoration of the of the dead follows the glorification of all the saints, here the memorial of the dead takes up the entire focus of the liturgical celebration…

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These rubrics reflect an ancient practice, attested to by Canon 51 of the Council of Laodicea [363-364AD], which instructs that the memory of the martyrs should not be celebrated during the forty days of Lent, but on Saturdays and Sundays. Theodore Balsamon (c. 1140-c. 1195), the great Byzantine canonist, already considered that this canon concerning the commemoration of martyrs applied equally to the commemoration of the dead.

(Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, pp 147-148, 186)

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Give to the Lord What is Yours

“St. Ambrose emphasizes that we must learn from St. Peter to confess our own unworthiness to be in the presence of the Lord. ‘You must also say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ so that the Lord may respond to you, ‘Fear not.’ Confess your sins to the Lord, for He forgives. Do not be afraid of giving the Lord what is yours, since He granted to you what is His.’ In becoming man, the Son of God has given to men the power to become the sons of God (John 1:12) and to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), in the divine life.”

(Archbishop Dmitri, The Miracles of Christ, p 52)

 

Antiquity Alone Does Not Confirm Truth or Tradition

The Orthodox Church prides itself on faithfulness to Tradition.  We often boast about how old some of our liturgical practices are.  Yet, even in the ancient Church they recognized that the age of a practice does not guarantee its correctness.  St. Vincent of Lerins (d. 445AD)  famously defined Tradition as “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”  But he already in the  5th Century said that just because practices come down to us from antiquity doesn’t prove they were right in the first place.  There are ancient sins which continue to be commonly practiced and there are ancient heresies which people tenaciously hang on to.  Georges Florovsky writes:
However, “antiquity” by itself is not yet an adequate proof of the true faith. Archaic formulas can be utterly misleading. Vincent himself was well aware of that. Old customs as such do not guarantee the truth…
12th Century Byzantine Icon
12th Century Byzantine Icon
Thus, “tradition” in the Church is not merely the continuity of human memory, or the permanence  of rites and habits. Ultimately, “tradition” is the continuity of divine assistance, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not bound by “the letter.” She is constantly moved forth by “the spirit.” The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which “spake through the Prophets,” which guided the Apostles, which illumined the Evangelists, is still abiding in the Church, and guides her into the fuller understanding of the divine truth, from glory to glory.  (Aspects of Church History, pp. 15-16
12th Century French Icon
12th Century French Icon

“Let Us Depart in Peace”

As the Divine Liturgy is coming to its conclusion, the Priest says, “Let Us Depart in Peace.”   Like in so many other things he says in the Liturgy, the priest is speaking to the congregation, not to God.  It is a continued part of the dialogue between the priest and the people as they speak antiphonally on the way.    The words echo those of St. Simeon the God Receiver who came into the Jerusalem Temple at the very moment the 40 day old Jesus was brought there by His parents.  He saw the salvation of God and was ready to depart.  So too all who have participated in the Liturgy and received Holy Communion have seen the salvation of God and are ready to depart, not from the world, but into it.

  In the book, The Living God (p. 92) we find this explanation:

“Then the priest sends us out into the world, just as Christ sent His apostles: “Let us depart in peace.” We Christians, as communicants, become responsible for radiating the presence of God in the world. Through grace, God grants us the light which shone from the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us ask Him to teach us to transmit this divine Light to mankind and to the whole earth: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15).

Humility: The Foundation for Being Christian

“Cultivating humility also means that we will begin to stop measuring ourselves continually against others—a problem ancient Christians had, too, judging by the many times it is mentioned in the literature:

Abba Poemen said that a brother who lived with some other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, “What ought I to do?” The old man said to him, “Keep silence and do not always be comparing yourself to others.” (Apoth., Poemon 79, p. 178)

Having humility will mean that we will have no particular desire to do better than others, and we will not care if someone else does better than we. Pride hurts, but humility takes the fear out of a lot of introspection, making us courageous and strong.

           Having the old virtue of humility also makes us patient with ourselves when we do find the things we probably will see in ourselves. We will be able to accept it as true that the passions, feelings, attitudes, obsessions, and certain kinds of behavior do not go away all at once simply because we have identified them.  Humility reminds us that the process of becoming free of our passions is often a long one, and that is all right. Humility allows us to follow another common piece of advice in the early monastic literature: do not try to do everything at once; take on only one passion at a time. Learning to love is a slow business.

           Humility, finally, will enable us to hear what others tell us and will help us cultivate within ourselves a continuous attitude of listening to the world around us, to friends, to those who are not so friendly, to what we encounter in prayer and worship. Humility makes us receptive of all that comes to us that might bring us to love of God and each other. Humility is the only possible attitude out of which we can ever speak a word of truth to another person without doing terrible harm to ourselves and the other. After all, what we are about is never ever executing God’s righteous judgement on another person or ourselves.”   (Roberta C, Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 83-84)