09 October 2016
In this life, everything is hidden under its opposite. That is a great mystery, and yet it is true. And if we learned the lesson, it would revolutionize the way we live. The sorrows we face could be tokens of mercy; the joys we experience could be calls to repent and return.
In today’s epistle, St. Paul draws a remarkable contrast: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
On the one side he puts the way that things seem. We seem to be imposters, unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful, poor and having nothing. On the other side he puts the way things really are. We are true, well known, live, are not killed, are always rejoicing, making many rich and possessing everything ourselves.
We Orthodox have a category of saint, the holy fool, who embodies these words of St. Paul. St. Basil the Blessed, St. Ksenia of Peterburg, St. Andrew of Constantinople—all these were given the grace of Christ to live their lives as homeless, sometimes naked, always disconnected from the ‘normal’ life around them but profoundly connected to the life of the living Christ. If you’ve seen the movie Ostrov—The Island—you’ve seen a depiction of a holy fool.
It doesn’t matter to me which side of the political spectrum you stand on: liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican or Libertarian—every Orthodox Christian must see that if any time and place called for a holy fool to arise, ours is surely it. Look where we have gotten with our much-vaunted reason and education!
We have completely lost the human person. Women are treated as objects. The unborn are ripped from the womb and left to die. The poor are dishonored and disrespected. We identify ourselves with our greed and desires, and enshrine them in law. We are caught between slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” We talk, but don’t listen; we give advice, but don’t take it; instead of works of mercy to the poor, we give words on social justice about the poor. We try to make the rest of the world in our image, and do not deal with the problems at home. When Scripture pronounces God’s harshest judgment, it does so in these words: “And so God gave them up to their own desires.” Are we not there, friends? Are we not there?
This is no time for nostrums, or pious pronouncements. Nothing can save us now but repentance. We must give up trying to look respectable. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.”
With repentance there is hope, even in the midst of death. As we carry the corpse of western culture out to the cemetery…as we see its promise end in silence…perhaps we shall encounter Christ again, as did the widow in today’s Gospel. He raised up Russia after 70 years of atheist Bolshevism. He can do the same for us.
So let us live in repentance, dear brothers and sisters of Christ. Let us stop measuring with the world’s measure, and learn to measure all things by the wood of the cross—the only truly straight edge. Let us embrace, as we are able, the foolishness of him who foolishly gave himself utterly and completely to ungrateful slaves. Let us embrace, to the degree we can, the weakness and shame and scandal of the Cross. For as our Bishop reminded us a few weeks ago, there can be no resurrection Sunday without first knowing the pain of Great and Holy Friday.
13 June 2016
Here’s a scary thought: Prayer reveals who we are. It’s the most characteristically personal activity. Consider the Pharisee and the Publican.
The Pharisee, we’re told, prays to himself. He was a self-made man, full of his own deeds, with no room for God or for others. “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men; for I fast twice a week, and pay tithes of all I owe…not like that publican.”
The Publican stood afar off and didn’t lift his eyes to heaven. He saw nothing wrong that anyone else had done. He merely opens the depths of his broken heart to the merciful and man-loving God: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He alone went home justified by God.
But in both cases, prayer revealed the person.
What do my prayers reveal about me?
Consider all that I do in the course of a day.
I eat. I drink. I sleep. I feel pain and pleasure. All these reveal that I am an animal; for I share all these with the animals.
I think. I plot. I plan. I read and write. All these reveal that I am rational, like all other people and like the angels.
But none of these reveal who I am; they only show what I am. Prayer alone reveals my person. Prayer alone shows who I am.
Am I so busy pursuing animal appetites and worldly concerns that I forget to pray? When I was a little boy and sat down to lunch, I sometime started to dig in without praying. My grandma would stop me, saying, “Essen, nicht fressen”—“Eat like a human, not like an animal.”
Prayer is that most personal activity, because I open myself up before the Three-Person God. I open to him the depths of my being, and seek the depths of his. I bring before him all those other persons he has brought into my life, and offer my requests for them, and give thanks for them. To put it simply, in prayer I relate to God personally. That is why, when we pray, we begin with “Our Father.” Not just “Creator God,” which would make me just a creation. Not “My Father,” as if I stand apart from others, but Our Father. Here I include all those dear to me and not so dear, all my fellow Christians…indeed, every man and woman and child for whom Christ died and rose again.
Today’s Gospel is the high-priestly prayer of Christ—the real “Lord’s Prayer.” And it’s precious to us, because it reveals to us Who He is.
He begins by calling God “Father.” He doesn’t say, like we do, “Our Father,” but simply, “Father.”
And in so doing, he reveals himself the only Son of God, one in essence with the Father, as our Nicene Fathers confessed. He is the Father’s Son.
What is it, after all, to be Son? What does that word mean?
A son is the same nature as his father. Canine fathers produce canine sons. Human fathers produce human sons.
A son is a different person from his father. I am what my father was, but I am most certainly not who he was.
A son is, in some sense, from his father…in a way that the father is not from the son.
What about space and time? My son is younger than I am. He occupies a different place than I do.
But space and time are features of the created order. God is not a creature. So those don’t apply in him. From all eternity, the Father begot the Son; they are co-eternal. And when the Son became enfleshed, he did not leave the Father.
He is also our Savior. Even though his Person is divine, the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, that divine Person willed to join himself to our created nature. Without ceasing to be God, he became man, that through his life and death and rising we might share the divine life. Just as he is one in essence with the Father according to his divinity, he is one in essence with us according to his humanity. Begotten eternally of his Father without mother, he was born in time of a Mother, without father.
So he prays, “I have revealed your name to those you gave me.” In the ancient world, to know a thing’s name was to have access to it…to know it. When Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, he revealed his name to the angel. But the angel did not reveal his name back. But Christ has revealed God’s name to us; and so we have access to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. And this, my friends, is to have salvation: to share the life of the Holy Trinity.
He keeps and preserves us, too. “Holy Father,” he says, “keep them in thy name.” You see, the cares and pleasures of our body, and the worries and delights of our rational soul, can work to draw us away from that saving name. So the Son asks the Father to keep us in the name; and the Father answers the prayer of the Son by sending forth the Holy Spirit, who prays in us with groans too deep for words…who intercedes for us according to the divine will.
And so we need not fear. For the Son intercedes for us with the Father. And soon we will celebrate that great day when He poured out the Spirit from the Father upon his waiting disciples. What can we say in response? What can we do? What else, but to walk through this life in prayer and praise and thanksgiving to the only true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
26 March 2016
Whose tongue is adequate to speak of what we celebrate today? Whose mind can understand the power and riches and wisdom of God? For today, the One who is begotten from eternity of his Father without mother, is conceived in time of his Mother without Father. Today the one who covers himself with light as a garment, hides himself in the womb of the Virgin. Today the Word through whom all things came to be, creates a new wonder in heaven and on earth, by taking flesh of his most pure mother.
Woman has two perfect states which are opposite each other: the state of virginity, and the state of motherhood. Scripture praises them both: for the virgin can dedicate herself completely to prayer, and yet salvation is found in childbearing. But never before now have both these perfections been combined in a single woman, as they are in Mary, virgin mother and birthgiver of God. She is the glory of virgins and the praise of mothers.
Our first mother Eve, whose name means “life,” brought death to all her descendants when she listened to the Tempter’s voice and ate the fruit and gave it to her husband. But today the second Eve gives herself wholly over to the will of God, and thereby brings life to all by conceiving the Word in her womb by the action of the Holy Spirit. When Gabriel announces to her that she will bear God in the flesh, she answers, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Our first father Adam, when he ate the forbidden fruit, marred the image of God in us and destroyed the likeness by one act of rebellion. But today the second Adam, the Son who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, restores the image of God for us by taking on our humanity. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
How shall we respond to the news we celebrate today? Once when our Lord was teaching, someone from the crowd called out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” The Lord Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” When he said this, he was not speaking ill of his Mother; he was highlighting what true blessedness is, and opening the door for you and me to share it. Mary is blessed because she heard God’s word through Gabriel, and kept it by cherishing it and acting according to it.
Mary teaches us to hear the word of God: to participate in liturgy, and reading the Scripture…to give our attention to the mercy and promises of God. And she teaches us to keep it: not to receive it in vain, but to let it shape our daily life and relationships with each other. We cannot give birth to God. That belongs to Mary alone. But to hear God’s word and keep it belongs to us all.
When my wife and I were in Romania this past summer, we traveled to the town of Sibiel and saw the museum of glass icons. It isn’t easy to paint a normal icon; but glass iconography is even tougher. For the layers of paint must be put down in opposite order, on the back of the pane of glass; and the image must be done in reverse, so that when the light shines through it looks like a standard icon.
Something like that happened at the feast we celebrate today. God reversed the normal order of things to accomplish his holy will. What is impossible for us, is possible with God. And just as the rays of the sun shine through the glass icons of Sibiel, so we, with Mary and all the saints, come to see the light of the the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ his Son.