Thursday, November 15, 2018

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas



Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a meditation from a few years back - and one that is also in my new book in a slightly different form - that I do not overly hesitate to send yet again, because the issues presented here for us to think hard about ("meditate"), are certainly with us today and are far from being resolved: "There is nothing new under the sun." I hope everyone is prepared to make a real effort to embrace the forty-day Nativity Fast on a level that works for you and your family and that commits us to the life of the Church in a meaningful manner. If we are not prepared, perhaps what you read here will alert you to the Season we are now entering. 

~ Fr. Steven

______________

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Today, November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today.  This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. 

Because of that tension between the two, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. And to be an ascetic is not to be a fanatic, but to follow the words of Christ who taught us to practice "self-denial" (MK. 8:34). It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!  From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.   

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.  Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness – combined with sharing - of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?  I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us  the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days. In such a way, these forty days will result in a meaningful journey toward the mystery of the Incarnation rather than in an exhaustive excursion toward a vapid winter holiday. The choice is ours to make.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Image of a True Disciple: The Gadarene Demoniac


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


One of the most challenging narratives in the Gospels has to be the healing of the Gadarene demoniac (Mk. 5:1-20; MATT. 8:28-34; LK. 8:26-39). This dramatic event which reveals the power of Christ over the demons will appear to the 21st c. mind as either archaic or even primitive. We may listen with respect and sing "Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!" upon the completion of the reading, but "wrapping our minds" around such a narrative may leave us baffled if not shaking our heads.
 
The spectacle of a man possessed by many demons, homeless and naked, living among the tombs, chained so as to contain his self-destructive behavior is, to state the obvious, not exactly a sight that we encounter with any regularity. (Although we should acknowledge that behind the walls of certain institutions, we could witness to this day some horrible scenes of irrational and frightening behavior from profoundly troubled and suffering human beings). Add to this a herd of swine blindly rushing over a steep bank and into a lake to be drowned, and we must further recognize the strangeness of this event. This is all-together not a part of our world!

Yet, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narrated event, which does appear in three of the Gospels, though with different emphases and details - in fact there are two demoniacs in St. Matthew's telling of the story! It is always instructive to compare the written account of a particular event or body of teaching when found in more than one Gospel. This will cure us of the illusion of a wooden literalism as we will discover how the four evangelists will present their gathered material from the ministry of Jesus in somewhat different forms. 

As to the Gadarene demoniac, here was an event within the ministry of Christ that must have left a very strong impression upon the early Church as it was shaping its oral traditions into written traditions that would eventually come together in the canonical Gospels. This event was a powerful confirmation of the Lord's encounter and conflict with, and victory over, the "evil one." The final and ultimate consequence of that victory will be revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

Whatever our immediate reaction to this passage - proclaimed yesterday during the Liturgy from the Gospel According to St. Luke (8:26-39) - I believe that we can recognize behind the dramatic details the disintegration of a human personality under the influence of the evil one, and the reintegration of the same man's personhood when healed by Christ. Here was a man that was losing his identity to a process that was undermining the integrity of his humanity and leading to physical harm and psychic fragmentation. 
 
I am not in the process of offering a psychological analysis of the Gadarene demoniac because, 1) I am ill-equipped to do so; and 2) I do not believe that we can "reduce" his horrible condition to psychological analysis. We are dealing with the mysterious presence of personified evil and the horrific effects of that demonic presence which we accept as an essential element of the authentic Gospel Tradition. 

The final detail that indicates this possessed man's loss of personhood is revealed in the dialogue between himself and Jesus:

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. (8:30)

To be named in the Bible is to receive a definite and irreducible identity as a person. It is to be "someone" created in the "image and likeness of God." It is the role of the evil one to be a force of disintegration. The "legion" inhabiting the man reveals the loss of his uniqueness, and the fragmentation of his personality. Such a distorted personality can no longer have a "home," which is indicative of our relational capacity as human beings, as it is indicative of stability and a "groundedness" in everyday reality. The poor man is driven into the desert, biblically the abode of demons. 

Once again, we may stress the dramatic quality of this presentation of a person driven to such a state, but would we argue against this very presentation as false when we think of the level of distortion that accompanies any form of an "alliance" with evil -whether "voluntary or involuntary?" Does anyone remain whole and well-balanced under the influence of evil? Or do we rather not experience or witness a drift toward the "abyss"?

Then we hear a splendid description of the man when he is healed by Christ! For we hear the following once the demons left him and entered into the herd of swine and self-destructed (the ultimate end of all personal manifestations of evil?):

Then the people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (8:35)

"Sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind." This is clearly one of the most beautiful descriptions of a Christian who remains as a true disciple of the Master. This is the baptized person who is clothed in a "garment of salvation" and who is reoriented toward Christ, the "Sun of Righteousness." 

The image here is of total reintegration, of the establishment of a relationship with Christ that restores integrity and wholeness to human life. Also an image of peacefulness and contentment. Our goal in life is to "get our mind right" which describes repentance or that "change of mind" that heals all internal divisions of the mind and heart as it restores our relationship with others. 

Jesus commands the man "to return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you" (8:39). We, too, have been freed from the evil one "and all his angels and all his pride" in baptism. In our own way, perhaps we too can also proclaim just how much Jesus has done for us (cf. 8:39).
 
 
 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Radical Critique of Selfishness


Lazarus and the Rich Man
Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”  (LK. 8:14)


There is an interior connection between the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31), heard on Sunday at the Divine Liturgy.  For the “rich man” of the parable is the embodiment of a person who has been “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” as described in the Parable of the Sower.  
 
Brushing aside the teaching of the Torah, and the Jewish emphasis on charity as one of the great acts of true piety, the rich man remained coldly indifferent to poor Lazarus who was clearly visible at his very gate.  Preoccupied with fine linen and sumptuous feasting (v. 19), the rich man was scarcely prepared in his heart to alleviate the sufferings of Lazarus, sufferings that were exemplified by the dogs that licked his sores (v. 20).  
 
Such indifference is frightening when seen in the light of the many scriptural admonitions that chastise the neglect of the poor: “He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard;” or encourage his care: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (PROV. 21:13; 19:17)  And the severity of the consequences of such neglect of the poor is vividly described in the parable’s “reversal of fortune,” with the rich man languishing in Hades, unable to be relieved of his torment there. The contrast of his fate and that of Lazarus being carried into the “bosom of Abraham” by a heavenly escort is striking. (v. 22-23)

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was delivered with the Pharisees in mind, for right before Jesus proclaimed the parable, we hear this unflattering description of the Pharisees:  “The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him.  But he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God’.” (LK. 16:14-15)  
 
Whatever or whoever may have prompted the words of the Lord during his ministry, our concern now is with our own attitude and treatment of the poor.  To think or believe otherwise is to fail to “hear” the parable as it is proclaimed today for our chastisement or encouragement. The words of the Lord – the “Gospel truth” – cannot be properly assessed within the narrow limits of any political allegiances – Democrat or Republican; nor even of a wider-scoped ideology – liberal or conservative.  The Gospel transcends these categories as something far greater and infinitely more demanding of our allegiance.  
 
At a time when neither political parties nor even political ideologies existed or had any real impact on the prevailing cultural or social assumptions of the time, St. John Chrysostom (+407) delivered a series of brilliant homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  (These seven homilies now exist in English translation under the title on Wealth and Poverty).  With his impressive knowledge of the Scriptures; his unmatched rhetorical skills; but most importantly his profound zeal for the moral and ethical teaching of the Gospel; St. John offered a radical critique of selfishness and a radical exhortation to overcome such selfishness for the sake of the poor.  Challenging conventional notions of what theft is, he famously expanded its definition by meditating deeply on the parable at hand:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation.  What is this testimony?  Accusing the  Jews by the prophet, God says, ‘The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.’ (MAL. 3:8-10)  Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. 
He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth.  And elsewhere the Scripture says, ‘Deprive not the poor of his living.’ (SIR. 4:1)  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  
By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more; not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need … 
If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you … For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.   
(On Wealth and Poverty, homily two)

This is a radical teaching, though again not based on any particular social or political philosophy.  For St. John the “true philosophy” was adherence to the Gospel.  St. John is primarily concerned with uncovering the meaning and implications of what we discover in the Scriptures.  If that is challenging to the point of seeming “impossible’” or of least taking us way out of our “comfort zones,” then rather than “soft-pedaling” the Gospel message, St. John would continue in the hope of inspiring us to strengthen our efforts and to put on “the mind of Christ.”
 
 
 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke - Commemorated on October 18


Dear Parish Faithful,

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Thoephilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”  (LK. 1:1-4)

 
 
That, of course, is the well-known introduction by St. Luke the Evangelist to the third of the canonical Gospels that he compiled with great care and a determination to present the “truth” of the ministry and then the death and resurrection of Christ.  And it is the holy apostle and evangelist Luke whose Gospel we are now reading on Sunday morning at the Liturgy .  From the Menologion, or calendar of the year providing a brief account of the saints and feasts of the Church, we read this succinct entry about St. Luke:
 
This Apostle was an Antiochean, a physician by trade, and a disciple and companion of Paul.  He wrote his Gospel in Greek after Matthew and Mark, after which he wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and dedicated both works to Theophilus, who, according to some, was Governor of Achaia (i.e. Greece).  He lived some eighty-six years and died in Achaia, perhaps in Patras, the capital of this district.  His emblem is the calf, the third symbolic beast mentioned by Ezekiel (1:10), which is a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial and priestly office, as St. Irenaeus says.
 
The dismissal hymn in Tone 5 (troparion) to St. Luke praises him for his service to Christ and to the Church:
 

Let us praise with sacred songs the holy Apostle Luke,
the recorder of the joyous Gospel of Christ
and the scribe of the Acts of the Apostles;
for his writings are a testimony of the Church of Christ.
He is the physician of human weaknesses and infirmities.
he heals the wounds of our souls,
and constantly intercedes for our salvation.

And the kontakion in Tone 2:

Let us praise the godly Luke;
he is the true preacher of piety,
the orator of ineffable mysteries
and the star of the Church,
for the Word, Who alone knows the hearts of men,
chose him, with the wise Paul, to be a teacher of the Gentiles!

At Vespers yesterday evening, one of the apostikha stood out as an excellent summary of the contents of St. Luke’s Gospel, outlining some of the unique features of this particular Gospel and then moving on to mention St. Luke’s role as the Apostle Paul’s traveling companion.  Although highly rhetorical as usual, this particular aposticha remains as a good teaching tool:

Rejoice, blameless writer of the Gospel of joy;
you have recorded for us the conception and preaching of the Baptist;
the wondrous Annunciation to the Mother of the Lord;
the ineffable Incarnation and Birth of the Word Who came forth from her womb;
His temptations, miracles, and parables,
His Passion, Cross and death,
the glory of His risen body recognized in the breaking of the bread,
His glorious Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
As a faithful witness you compiled the Acts of the Apostles.
You were Paul’s companion in travel and his great consolation,
The beholder of divine mysteries and light of the Church.
Guard us all, O glorious healer!

Is everyone able to identify all of the references above?  Is everyone able to enumerate some of the miracles and parables that are unique to St. Luke, meaning that they cannot be found in any other of the remaining three Gospels?  Is everyone aware of some of the different details found only in St. Luke’s account of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ?  Does everyone know the events compiled by the evangelist in the Acts of the Apostles?  
 
As the years go by and as we continue to read the Gospels over and over, I believe that we begin to distinguish between Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – their style, their particular emphases and approach, and the material that is found in only one of the Gospels.  The point is not about “passing a test” concerning our knowledge of the “facts.” . (Though, periodically, the “Bible” as a category does shows up on Jeopardy!). The point is rather to have a scriptural mind that is very familiar with the Gospels precisely because we turn to them on a daily basis for our immersion into the “joy” that is found there because they make Christ alive to us.

I recall watching many years ago an interview of William F. Buckley.  Buckley was asked what books and writers have had the greatest influence on him, and he unhesitatingly responded:  "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."  An awkward silence ensued, and the interviewer  quickly changed the subject!  So, who are the writers and what are the books that have most deeply influenced your thinking, your worldview, and your approach to life?
 
 
 

Monday, October 15, 2018

In an Honest and Good Heart



Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This last Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we heard the Parable of the Sower (LK. 8:5-15). This could also be called the Parable of the Seed(s); or even a touch awkwardly, the Parable of the Fourfold Field. 

The reception of this parable and how it has been analyzed by biblical scholars, makes this parable a complex story in and of itself. However, we will remain on "good ground" if we simply "hear" the parable as interpreted by Christ for His disciples, as it has been consistently understood within the Church. 

Before coming to that, though, perhaps it would be wise to review the meaning and purpose of the parables of Christ. The prominent biblical scholar C. H. Dodd, defined the parable as "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought" (The Parables of the Kingdom). 

In other words a story that will make us think, as in ponder or meditate. That is why we need "ears to hear;" otherwise the parable will "go through one ear and out the other," thus wasting an opportunity that the Lord has granted us to understand how His Kingdom is being presented to us as a gift. My own wonderful New Testament professor, Veselin Kesich, had this to say about parables in his book The Gospel Image of Christ:


The Old Testament records a few parables (II SAM. 12:1-4; I KG. 20:35-42; IS. 5:1-7). Jesus, however, brought this art to perfection. Differing from previous storytellers in his subject matter, Jesus revealed his own character in these parables. His purpose was to lead the hearer to him and to compel a response to his challenge. Parables are never told to amuse people; they are not merely interesting or entertaining. They are of a revelatory character.


The Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable are, respectively, mashal and mathla. Whatever the meaning - allegory, riddle, symbol, story - the parable is meant to challenge our way of thinking and "to compel a response" to the gift of the Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus. You cannot "walk away" from a parable of Christ's. Such indifference is a response of sorts, though not one pleasing to the Lord, one would imagine. And such a response makes one an "outsider" who will "see but not perceive, and ... indeed hear but not understand; lest ... you should turn again and be forgiven." Those on the "inside," as true disciples of Christ, have "been given the secret of the Kingdom of God" (MK. 4:11-12). It is a serious matter to come to church and listen to one of Christ's parables!

For those unable to be in church this past Sunday, and who have not yet turned to the appointed reading(?), the Parable of the Sower as recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke, is as follows:


A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold. As he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." (LK. 8:5-8) 


Since, in first century Palestine, the sowing preceded planting, the parable is a realistic story that would have highlighted the rich abundance of the seed that may have not seemed so promising because of the various soils it fell into - the trodden path, rocky ground, and the thorns. Thus, the Kingdom of God, though facing an unpromising beginning, will grow by God's grace regardless of any and all obstacles. However, the final admonition to careful listening tells us that we must probe deeper to understand the full implications of the parable. And Jesus will assist his disciples - and us today - by providing an explanation of the parable that reveals the parable's inner meaning:


Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.

And as for what fell among thorns, they are those who hear; but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience. (LK. 8:11-15)


During His ministry Christ realized, as did many preachers of the word following Him, that many who heard His word - Jew and Gentile alike - would reject that word for various reasons. This was clearly the experience of Christ and His disciples/apostles. So the parable is not simply about the fate of the seed, or about the quality of the soil that it falls into. The parable is thus "symbolic" and prophetic because of its ultimate reference to the human rejection (or acceptance) of the proclamation of the Kingdom and the Gospel. This is a realistic assessment based upon the three sources of temptation inherent in the process of hearing the Word of God and reacting to it. Basically, these three sources of temptation are: the devil, persecution, and mammon.

We pray "and deliver us from the evil one." The "evil one" lurks behind temptation and abandonment to it. This does not relieve us of our responsibility by "blaming it on the devil," but rather alerts us to the need for vigilance. As our spiritual tradition makes quite clear, the evil one often works through such "passions" as: gluttony, lust, avarice, jealously, envy, anger, dejection, vanity and pride. As such, direct confrontation is unnecessary; or perhaps reserved for the great saints who take up that battle with utter seriousness, determination, and profound reliance upon the saving grace of God. Our "inner demons," multiplied and strengthened by our weaknesses and lack of faith, thus pluck the seed of God's word from our hearts as birds will pluck up loose seed on shallow ground. Distracted, enervated or consumed by our passions, the evil one, as an ever-present threat, can leave us with a heart empty of the saving seeds of the divine Sower. And as Christ warned, the horrific result can be unbelief and a loss of salvation.

"Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II TIM. 3:12) When you think of the "world" as it is, obsessed with "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (I JN. 2:16), this has a certain inevitability to it. From the beginning, many followers of Christ have been persecuted, the great company of martyrs unto death itself. This is a severe test, and many have failed to make such a witness. It is hardly for us to judge, especially if we are incapable of holding up to even the slightest social pressure that will intimidate us into silence or inaction when our "witness" to being a Christian would make a significant impact. "I am a Christian" was the phrase always used by the martyrs to identify themselves, even though it would also serve them up a death sentence. Yet, would anyone feel that that would be an awkward form of self-identification today? Perhaps that can be re-phrased with the following question: "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" If not, it would reveal that we have "no root" and the seed from the Sower was wasted. The Lord left us these encouraging words as He envisioned the fate of His followers to come: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (MATT. 5:10).

Alas, who is not "choked by the cares of life?" In the versions of this parable found in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Mark, Jesus adds "and the delight of riches" (MATT. 13:22), "and the desire for other things" (MK. 4:19). So the "cares of life" should not be limited to the legitimate struggle for our "daily bread" and the protection and care of our families. Jesus is referring to that pervasive spirit of acquisitiveness that can never be satisfied. There is a wonderful 19th c.(?) aphorism that needs to be memorized: "Enough is a feast." And yet a contemporary distortion would say something like: "There is never enough!" No matter what we have, we need more of it - and then some more. How humiliating: either collectively or personally, we are the donkey doomed to trotting in a circle going nowhere with an inaccessible carrot dangling before our noses! There is never a shortage of contestants willing to line up for life's perennial "rat race." Has there ever been a "winner?" This insatiable demand for "riches" and "other things" only serves to "choke" the life out of the seeds of the divine Sower so that "their fruit does not mature." The Lord expressed this struggle perfectly with the well-known words: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (MATT. 6:24).

And yet the parable is not only about the sadly inevitable reality that "many" will lose the seed-word of the Sower upon hearing it because of the evil one, persecution and mammon. Christ is telling us that despite that unholy triad of temptations, there will still be an abundant harvest that will yield a "hundredfold." In fact, that may be the most significant point about the parable. When we hear the Word of God, our concern is "hold it fast in an honest and good heart." This, in turn, will cultivate "fruit with patience." Every Liturgy presents us with the opportunity of "hearing" the living Word of God. If we have "ears to hear" the seed of the Sower will fall on "good soil."


Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Thundering Message


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ raises the Son of the Widow of Nain
We recently heard the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16).  This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:

This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story:  two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.  (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said: "Young man, I say to you arise!"  (LK. 7:14).   And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16).  
 
The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12).  There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman.  Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been.  Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15).  What a reunion that must have been!  
 
Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt:  "And when the Lord who saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13).  It was "the Lord."  This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus.  The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh.  Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death.  Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died.  In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner.  The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death."  Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism.  And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible.  
 
But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination.  That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner. 

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created  "according to the image and likeness of God."  The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23)  Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood.  Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye."  We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and  the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God!  Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29).  This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death.  Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust.  Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body."  Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death.  This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy." 
 
When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word.  Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9).  The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death.  The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days. 

There is a passage from his Discourse on the H0ly Pascha, in which St. Gregory of Nyssa offers a very "modern" - or is that "post-modern?" - evaluation of the loss of a moral/ethical dimension to life when we discard the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead:

... If there is no resurrection, and death is the end of live, then leave off your accusations and reprimands, having been granted an unimpeded authority for homicide: 
let the adulterers destroy marriage; let the covetous live in luxury at the expense of their opponents; do not scold anyone; let the perjurers curse continuously, for death awaits him who sticks to cursing; let another lie as much as one may desire, because there is no reward for truth; let no one help the poor, for the merciful will remain without a prize. 
Such considerations occur in the soul of those more chaotic than the flood; they cast out every wise thought and encourage every foolish thought and thievery. For if there is no resurrection, there is no Judgment; if then the Judgment is denied, the fear of God is denied along with it. 
 
Where there is no one who is humbled by fear, there the devil exults.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness.  This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. 
 
The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different.  To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God.  It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful.  We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!"  (LK. 7:16).  And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end:" thus allowing us the final joyful affirmation: "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."