Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Gospel has turned things Upside Down

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We have entered the season of the Triodion, that vast compilation of lenten hymnography gathered together in one book over the centuries that will guide us through the pre-lenten period; and then on through Great Lent and Holy Week; taking us to the very brink of the paschal celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.  The inspired hymnography of the Triodion interprets the Scriptures in a direct and accessible manner, in the process making it challengingly  clear that each person and event from the Scriptures – Old or New Testament; positive or negative – is meant to be applied to our own lives as someone or something to emulate or avoid.  The Church always treats the Scriptures as a living Word, not as a chronicle of the past or as an abstract system of belief.  This form of concrete realism is indeed more challenging than a presentation of untested ideas. Be that as it may, the Triodion opens with the Sunday of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (LK. 18:10-14).  In the Orthodox Church, this reading is part of the pre-lenten cycle always prescribed for the fourth Sunday before Great Lent begins.  The intentions of the Lord in delivering this parable are clearly expressed in the solemn pronouncement following the parable itself:

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.  (LK. 18:14)

The pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee – he who “exalts himself” – is rather starkly contrasted with the humility and repentance of the Publican – he who “humbles himself.”  From these two examples of a revealed interior disposition, it is only the publican who is “justified” according to Christ.  With a kind of “folk-wisdom” that would have resonated for his rural flock in early 20th century Serbia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich recasts the parable in an earthy story form that seeks to reinforce Christ’s teaching:

A man went into the forest to choose a tree from which to make roof beams.  And he saw two trees, one beside the other.  One was smooth and tall, but had rotted  away inside, and the other was rough on the outside and ugly, but its core was healthy.  The man sighed, and said to himself:  “What use is this smooth, tall tree to me if it is rotten inside and useless for beams?  The other one, even if it is rough and ugly, is at least healthy on the inside and so, if I put a bit more effort into it, I can use it for roof-beams for my house.”  And, without thinking any more about it, he chose that tree.

And just to be certain, Bishop Nikolai drives home the moral point in the following conclusion:

So will God choose between two men for His house, and will choose, not the one who appears outwardly righteous, but the one whose heart is filled with God’s healthy righteousness.

The Pharisee acted according to the Law, keeping himself free externally from sin, fasting twice a week and paying a tithe on all that he had.  How many parish priests secretly wish that that was precisely how their parishioners would live and act!?  (For the moment we will not investigate just how parishioners would wish their priests to act).  However, it is the interior orientation of the heart that Christ is most concerned with; and it is here that the Pharisee twisted righteousness into self-righteousness which is basically a form of idolatry – that of the “self.”  Do any of us escape that self-destructive trap?  If not, then better to admit it, as St. John Chrysostom reminds us:

It is evil to sin, though here help can be given; but to sin, and not to admit it – there is no help here.

The humility of the publican is perhaps best expressed in a series of short descriptions – unwillingness to look up towards heaven, the beating of the breast, the plaintive cry:  “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” – rather than an intellectually-constructed set of abstract notions.  Why is it so hard to be humble?  Perhaps because it frightens us.  But what would the source of this fear possibly be?  We fear being taken advantage of, of being used by others, of losing ground in our struggle to not only get ahead, but to survive in a harsh world.  We may pay lip-serviced to humility as Christians, but we act as if deep down we “know better.”  Humility is hardly a recommended survival tactic!  I would rather doubt that humility is the “stuff” of self-help literature.  This silent and implicit rejection of the virtue of humility makes a certain amount of sense if we equate humility – wrongfully, I am certain – with weakness, timidity, passivity, fear of conflict, etc.  So we usually practice a safe form of humility when that will keep us in our “comfort zone.”  But do we know better?  Can we actually doubt the strength of a universally-acclaimed Christian virtue without having experienced it ourselves?  Certainly we recognize the truth that we literally depend upon the humility of Christ for the gift of salvation!  We praise and glorify Christ precisely because of His surpassing humility.  Perhaps, then, if we ever made a sustained effort to be humble, we would appraise this essential virtue differently.  As the saints teach us:

Until a human person achieves humility, he will receive no reward for his works.  The reward is given not for the works but for the humility.  (St. Isaac the Syrian)

A humble person never falls.  Being already lower than any, where can he fall?  Vanity is a great humiliation, but humility is a great exalting, honor and dignity. (St. Makarios the Great)

The Gospel – based on the scandal of the Cross – has turned many things upside down.  In God’s judgment, according to Christ, the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted.  The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee sets this choice before us.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What can we restore to God?

Dear Parish Faithful,

   Casting one final glance back to last Sunday’s Gospel of Christ’s encounter with Zacchaeus, we might discover a way of actualizing that profound encounter in our own lives.  When Christ entered his house, we hear that

Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; ; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  (LK. 19:8)

   This spontaneous confession and repentance before the Lord drew from Him the following words of great consolation for all sinners at all times:

“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”  (LK. 19:9-10)

   We may well be content with ourselves for not having defrauded anyone of anything.  If that is the case, then the account of Zacchaeus will simply be an edifying story of the conversion of a sinner who bears little resemblance to us. The story may, then, move us; but it does not apply to us.  The basis for such a conclusion can be found in the fact that we are practicing members of the Church, not marginalized misfits such as Zacchaeus was seen to be by his peers, even though he was “rich.”  It is altogether unflattering to be compared with a sinner such as Zacchaeus!

   Yet how convincing is it to self-defensively distance ourselves from any comparisons with Zacchaeus?  I will assume that not many of us are prepared to give half of our belongings to the poor as a concrete sign of turning to God in repentance.  And although it may be somewhat of an awkward term to apply to our relationship with God, perhaps we too – like Zacchaeus before us - have “defrauded” God of the many things which God has graciously given to us:  our talents, time, energy, resources, desire and, ultimately, our love.  We selfishly cling to these gifts, and so fail to offer them back to God in love and thanksgiving.

   One of our most precious commodities is time itself – elusive, ever-moving, never enough of.  Do we “defraud” Christ of our time?  Is most of our “quality time” spent (or wasted?) elsewhere, so that it is rarely offered back on behalf of the “one thing needful?”  Does prayer, charitable work, visiting those in need, the reading of the Scriptures, attending the services of the Church, occupy the merest fraction of our time? Can our token crumbs of time really be enough to heal that artificial breach (which we ourselves have created) between the “sacred” and the “profane?”

That being the case, can we possibly repent like Zacchaeus and restore to God “fourfold” these things – and time itself – of which we have defrauded God?   If so, we would actualize this living encounter with Christ in our own lives and be worthy of hearing the words of Christ, as did Zacchaeus, that “salvation has come to this house.”

   Great Lent is the perfect season of the year to make at least some restoration of our time – and of our talents, energy, resources and love.  It is the time that we return to God.  The pre-lenten season which begins this Sunday with the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is the offering of an opportunity from God to meditate upon and start this process.  If we are feeling a bit “lost” then we need to realize that the Son of Man is seeking us. He will knock on the door as a “beggar of love” according to Vladimir Lossky; but we will have to open up from the inside.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Growing in Stature by following Zacchaeus

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

In the liturgical life of the Church, yesterday was called “The Sunday of Zacchaeus” based on the narrative found in LK. 19:1-10.  This is the first “signal” or “echo” that the season of Great Lent is approaching – four weeks away from today to be exact (Great Lent always begins on a Monday in the Orthodox Church).  This is unfailingly certain each year.  The date for this Sunday will of course change on an annual basis, because the date is ultimately determined by the date of Pascha, an unfixed date itself determined by the Church’s paschalion.  But the Sunday of Zacchaeus will always be placed in this position in relationship to the beginning of Great Lent (very late this year as it will begin on March 18). There thus exists a pre-lenten preparation in the Church that we will shortly begin with the use of The Lenten Triodion beginning next Sunday.  Why is this so?  In his now-classic book Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann provides the following insight:

Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature.  Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening “worldliness” of our life, the Church knows  our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another.  Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance.  Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning.  This preparation includes five consecutive Sundays preceding Lent.

In other words, if one is to find meaning in this period of pre-lent, one must be pro-lent!  We need to look forward to Great Lent, not as a burden to be endured; but as a season of renewal to be embraced – eagerly and decisively. Perhaps, then, we can extend the designation of the “Sunday of Zacchaeus” and now say that we are in the midst of the “Week of Zacchaeus.”  The intention would be to further meditate and reflect upon that wonderful passage and not forget it before we have had the time to further absorb its profound meaning for our own lives.

Zacchaeus, the “vertically-challenged” tax-collector becomes, for us, representative of our better impulses in his desire to “see Jesus.”  In order to simplify and to get to the heart of the matter, we need to lay aside all theological jargon, sophisticated reasoning, and misplaced rhetoric; and say with a kind of raw immediacy (that could actually make us feel a bit uneasy):  I desire to “see Jesus.” Though that may sound like something out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, it is actually rooted in the Gospels. In fact, this desire has immortalized Zacchaeus until the end of time – and beyond we believe!  In emulating Zacchaeus ourselves, we will be able to overcome our own “smallness of stature” and act decisively – “climb a sycamore tree” – and encounter Christ in a meaningful way.  In the case of Zacchaeus, he exposed himself to public ridicule by his outlandish public display of desire.  As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote:  imagine a business executive in suit and tie, climbing a street sign on a crowded downtown corner in order to see a wandering prophet passing by!  Overcoming such social self-consciousness is probably more difficult to achieve than imagined – especially for those of us untested by public reaction (friends and relatives) for the slightest breach of social etiquette done for a “higher cause.”

And there was, on a much more deeply-rooted level, Zacchaeus’ need to overcome his own sinfulness which, by that point in his life, must have been a hardened and frozen pattern of life.  He was a publican.  That was a tax-collector working for the hated Roman regime that conquered and occupied Israel.  Such a power position allowed him to cheat and defraud his own people to the point of being labeled “rich” by St. Luke the evangelist.  He may have been despised by the people, but his “comfort level,” achieved after many years, must not have been easy to leave behind.  Mid-life changes do not come easily for anyone; rather, as the years roll by, they become more difficult.  One would imagine that others were skeptical about his “conversion.” We are reluctant to attribute to others – especially a change for the better! – what we can hardly conceive of in ourselves.  The path of conversion can be a lonely one.

There was a “price” Zacchaeus was forced to pay in returning to God.  Perhaps the following passage from the Apostle Paul would have explained the (unconscious?) motivation of Zacchaeus not recorded in the Gospel:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ … (PHIL. 3:7-10)

With the desire to “see Jesus,” even the “little man” can grow in stature – “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (EPH. 4:13) – and become almost unrecognizable in the process.  This demands overcoming obstacles that are exterior and social; and interior and personal.  This comes at a price.  The familiar and comfortable must be left behind for the unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  Like it or not, Great Lent will pose such choices to us on the conscious and unconscious levels of our existence.  Are we willing to follow and emulate Zacchaeus in this regard?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Community of Love

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The reading from The Epistle to the Colossians that we heard this year on the 35th Sunday After Pentecost (February 3) is quite remarkable for what it reveals about our Christian Faith.  In the unique light of his Christocentric faith and piety, the Apostle Paul was reminding the Colossians - and us through them - of what the newly-baptized Christian has “put to death” when embracing the Gospel:  namely “what is earthly in you.”  And here, “earthly” means what is sinful and passion-ridden.  If he had stopped there, he would only have taught us what to avoid, but not what to acquire.   The Christian faith would then be a series of prohibitions, rather than a new way of life to embrace.  This text from the epistle then fulfills and complements what was heard a week earlier in Colossians 3:4-11. Thus, we were able to follow the essential progression of St. Paul’s moral/ethical exhortation to the fullness of the “life in Christ.”  To bring this remarkable text fully to mind yet again, here is the passage:

Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in  your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  (COL. 3:12-16, RSV)

St. Paul had so thoroughly put on the “mind of Christ,” that in a rather condensed passage, he faithfully and succinctly summarized the teaching of Christ as found in the Gospels – before the Gospels existed in their written form!  A few examples will make this clear, for here is what we will eventually find in the written Gospels at the heart of the Lord’s teaching, taught as exhortation to the earlier Christians in the  Apostle Paul’s Epistles:

On “lowliness and meekness:”

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (MATT. 11:28-29)

On “patience:”

“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. 8:15)

On “forgiveness:”

“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, now often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?’  Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’.”  (MATT. 18:21-22)

On “love:”

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  (JN. 15:12)

St. Paul was faithfully “handing over” (literally, “traditioning”) the authentic teaching of Christ in pastorally directing these early Christian communities, such as the one in Colossae that received the Epistle from him that is now part of the Church’s canonical Scriptures.  This was a gift of the Holy Spirit, as  Christ promised:

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”  (JN. 14:26)

It follows that if these characteristics are meant to distinguish a Christian community, then their absence will painfully reveal the weaknesses and failures of that community.  Institutional and financial stability may preserve a community, but it will neither “save” it – nor its members! - in the deeper sense of that word.  The “deadness” of such a community will eventually become plain to see.  For the absence of the greatest Christian virtues – love – is treated harshly in the Scriptures:

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”  (REV. 2:4-5)

But perhaps that is “jumping ahead” too quickly and pessimistically.  The Lord is patient with our slow progress in love, knowing that it takes time, patience and hard work.  The essential need for this binding love, is well-expressed by St. John Chrysostom:

Now what Paul wishes to say is that there is no benefit in those things, for all those things fall apart, unless they are done with love.  This is the love that binds them all together. Whatever good thing it is that you mention, if love be absent, it is nothing, it melts away.  The analogy is like a ship;  though its rigging be large, yet if it lacks girding ropes, it is of no service.  Or it is similar to a house; if there are no beams, of what use is the house?  Think of a body.  Though its bones be large, if it lacks ligaments, the bones cannot support the body.  In the same way, whatever good our deeds possess will vanish completely if they lack love.  (HOMILIES ON COLOSSIANS. 8)

And in the words of a lesser-known contemporary of St. John, a certain Severian of Galaba:

When love does not lead, there is no completion of what is lacking; but where love is present we abstain from doing evil to one another.  Indeed we put our minds in the service of doing good, when we love one another.

With such a spirit pervading a community, its members will “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness” to the Lord.  “The peace of Christ” will rule in the hearts of the faithful leading to a spirit of thankfulness.  Yet, there is not one drop of sentimentality in the words of the Apostle or the Fathers concerning love.  They realize that it is a gift coming after much labor and discipline – and dependent upon the grace of God.

Every Christian community/parish has the potential to grow into this love that is ultimately the one true witness to the world of the transformative power of the Gospel.  What St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Colossians is as challenging, inspiring and realizable today as then.  If not, then the grace of God does not actually exist, or it has abandoned us.  The process is long and arduous, but worthy of the Christian vocation.