Monday, October 27, 2014

St John Chrysostom: 'On Wealth and Poverty'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christians of East and West will agree that one of the premier preachers in the entire history of the Church is St. John Chrysostomos - the "Golden-mouthed."  His "presence," of course, is most alive in the Orthodox Church as we celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on a weekly basis; find his icon adorning the apses and naves of many Orthodox churches; celebrate his various commemorations on the ecclesiastical calendar with some consistency (September 14, November 13, January 30); and read his homilies of a pronounced moral and ethical nature with great appreciation for his wonderful insights to this day.  Not all Orthodox Christians know St. John's life as well as they should - but all have heard of him and from him! 

Yet, if St. John were to be with us today, I rather doubt that he would be "popular" - at least not in the conventional sense of that word.  We would find his relentless preaching of the Gospel altogether too challenging, or even too demanding of us as Christians, both in our relationship with God and with each other.  In fact, we know that it was St. John's uncompromising  adherence to the precepts of the Gospel that led to his untimely and even tragic death in the year 407.

Before that great drama of ecclesiastical intrigue unfolded in the imperial city of Constantinople, St. John was a presbyter in the large cosmopolitan city of Antioch.  In the year 388 or 389, we know that he delivered a series of homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31).  These magnificent homilies, combining an endless stream of insights into the parable together with an unmatched rhetorical skill, clearly demonstrate why St. John is, indeed, the "Golden-mouthed," and why he is considered to this day one of the Church's greatest biblical exegetes.

These homilies exist in English translation, published as part of the "Popular Patristic Series" by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.  This collection of homilies is appropriately entitled On Wealth and Poverty.  I bring all of this up on this particular Monday morning, because it was during yesterday's celebration of the Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom!) that the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was read.  (Since there is some divergence in the lectionary among various Orthodox churches, those following the Greek/Byzantine tradition had a different reading assigned for yesterday).  Be that as it may, I would like to offer just a few excerpts from these homilies to perhaps further impress the Lord's parable upon our minds and hearts, so that what we heard yesterday is not forgotten today in the rush of our hectic lives.

The parable deals with "otherworldly" and "worldly" reality - for death, judgment, paradise (the "bosom of Abraham"), hades, etc. are an integral part of a parable that also tells us about wealth and poverty.  There is, then, an "eschatological extension" to wealth and poverty according to the Lord.  It is in death, St. John tells us, that our true "face" is revealed:

Just as in the theatre, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are, so also now when death arrives and the theatre is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.  (Homily II)

In the parable, we hear of a stark "reversal of fortune," as Lazarus is escorted to the "bosom of Abraham" by the angels; and the rich man (does his lack of a name signify his loss of true personhood through indulgence and gratification?) is delivered to Hades.  This reversal is revealed to the rich man in sober, simple, yet utterly shattering words:

Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  (LK. 16:25

Here is just one example from among many of St. John developing this particular theme:

... Therefore when you see anyone living I wickedness but suffering no misfortune in this life, do not call him lucky, but weep and mourn for him, because he will have to endure all the misfortunes in the next life, just like the rich man.  Again, when you see anyone cultivating virtue, but enduring a multitude of trials, call him lucky, envy him, because all his sins are being dissolved in this life, and a great reward for his endurance is being prepared in the next life, just as it happened for this man Lazarus.  (Homily III)

No one has surpassed St. John for drawing out the moral implications of what is revealed by the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels.  He does not hesitate in following the Gospel in turning upside down the "values" of this world.  Hence, his words concerning true wealth and poverty:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.  We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired every one's money.  If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.  (Homily II)

I recall that St. John once said that two of the most dangerous words in our vocabulary are "mine" and "thine."  These words divide more than they unite.  They can relieve us of our responsibility toward the neighbor that God points in our direction.  In a passage that would have fairly radical social implications if applied consistently, St. John redefines "theft" based upon his reading of the Scriptures:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that only theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation ... (Here St. John cites passages such as MAL. 3:8-10 and SIR. 4:1, and then continues) ...  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 then 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, fancy 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 account of the funds which were entrusted to you ... For you 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.  (Homily II)

I am not trying to spoil your next shopping mall excursion - or for those like me, the next trip to the bookstore - but it is essential to be aware of the great gulf that separated conspicuous consumption from biblical stewardship!

Perhaps St. John Chrysostom's closing words from his Second homily will prove to be a fitting conclusion for us today:

... If it is possible for you, remember everything I have said.  If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.  If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory, honor and might, to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and every and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections on Autumn

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

     From my personal and, admittedly, "subjective" perspective, there is nothing quite like the Fall among the four seasons.  For me, this season's greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood "burning bushes," each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God's creation.  On a somewhat more "philosophical note" - more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day - we may realize that this "colorful death" signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, "for the form of this world is passing away."  (I COR. 7:31)  And yet this very beauty and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

     Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood "ritual" that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly-formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. ("Playing with matches" and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy).

     The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50's first-grade reading primer, as "Mom" and "Dad," together with "Dick" and "Jane" (and perhaps "Spot," the frisky family dog) smilingly co-operated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this "celebration" of healthy work and a neatly-ordered environment into a staccato of minimally-complex sentences:  "See Dad rake;" "Dick and Jane are raking too;" "Here comes mom!"  ("Mom," of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and "Jane" a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student's vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized - if not idyllic - American way of life.  Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode - especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!   And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very "Dick and Jane" primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.   

     Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev's shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous "We will bury you!" captured the whole mood of this period).  These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness - lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly-elaborate - if not labyrinthine - series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!   We would then sit in neatly-formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the "all clear" signal was given allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of "Dick" and "Jane's" age of innocence.

     I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal to meditate upon.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose - and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world - I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things."  This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God's glorious creation.  Would he also have "missed" all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun's golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!  (Kontakion 2)

You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest.  (Ikos 2)

I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go.  (Ikos 5)
Fr. Steven