Monday, February 28, 2011

The End Draws Near, My Soul . . .

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a fine short summary of the meaning and placement of the Sunday of the Last Judgment during our current pre-lenten season. This is from Archbishop Kallistos Ware’s Introduction to the Lenten Triodion:

The two past Sundays spoke to us of God’s patience and limitless compassion, of His readiness to accept every sinner who returns to Him. On this third Sunday, we are powerfully reminded of a complementary truth: no one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come as our Judge. ‘Behold the goodness and severity of God’ (ROM. 11:22). Such is the message of Lent to each of us: turn back while there is still time, repent before the End comes. In the words of the Great Canon:

The end draws near, my soul, the end draws near;
Yet thou dost not care or make ready.
The time grows short, rise up: the Judge is at the door.
The days of our life pass swiftly, as a dream, as a flower.

This Sunday sets before us the ‘eschatological’ dimension of Lent: The Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Saviour, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come. (This is a theme that will be taken up in the first three days of Holy Week.) Nor is the judgment merely in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts toward others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.

From The Lenten Triodion,p. 45-46

What are some of the “opportunities we are given” to help others by expanding our hearts in order to embrace their needs? We just heard these “opportunities” proclaimed in the Gospel reading appointed for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (MATT. 25:31-46):

+ to give food to the hungry
+ to give drink to the thirsty
+ to welcome the stranger
+ to clothe the naked
+ to visit the sick
+ to come to those in prison

These are the acts of mercy and charity proclaimed by the glorified Son of Man that will be at the basis of our judgment when we – together with “all the nations” – will be “gathered” before Him. The glorified Son of Man is our Lord Jesus Christ. According the imagery of the parable, He will “come in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” (v. 31) As the judgment unfolds, there is a separation between the “sheep at the right hand” and “the goats at the left.” (v. 33) Our response to the “opportunities we are given” to serve Christ by serving those in need is expressed in a particularly profound manner by the Lord: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (v. 40) Repeated failure to avail ourselves of these opportunities to serve others in need has harsh consequences according to Christ: the final separation that leaves one a “goat.” Yet, the consequence is self-inflicted; and not a rigid juridical pronouncement. Is our faith acting through love (GAL. 5:6); or does our faith never develop beyond the theoretical stage? These are choices that we make based upon the gift of self-determination bestowed on us by God.

Various possibilities arise that present these opportunities to serve others. One such possibility exists through our parish ministries. To minister is to serve; and that is the basic meaning and goal of all parish ministries. As our collective consciousness to embody the Gospel beyond the boundaries of the parish has developed through the years, so have those parish ministries that are directed to the assistance of others expanded accordingly. Those ministries that are directly connected to the teachings of Christ in MATT. 25:31-46 will include the following:

+ a food and beverage pantry that feeds local residents in need

+ financial sponsorship of an orphan that feeds, clothes and educates her

+ parish mission teams to the Hogar in Guatemala to work and support the children

+ the possibility of visiting those in hospitals

+ a prison ministry that includes visiting prisoners, preparing food items, etc.

+ providing Christmas gifts for poor and needy families, concentrating on children

+ a “Lazarus basket” in the Fall that helps fund some of the above

The inevitable questions then arises for every member of our parish: to what extent do we participate, support and embrace these ministries? Are these ministries a part of our Christian stewardship of time, talent and treasure? Is our heart “in it,”or “out of it?” How do we coordinate the teaching of the Gospels – heard at every Liturgy – within our life as lived out as a member of a concrete parish? Does my self-absorption minimize my care for the “other?” Do I truly believe that I will be judged as Christ declares in the parable?

Perhaps these very questions can form the basis for a “preparation for Confession” during Great Lent. We usually find ourselves examining how well we fasted or failed to fast during Great Lent. Yet, in addition to prayer and fasting, almsgiving/charity is essential for a holistic embodiment of an “evangelical” – i.e. Gospel-based – way of life. Perhaps such self-examination will prepare us for the ultimate examination before the Son of Man, when everything will be revealed in absolute clarity.

But, Savior who alone lovest mankind, King of the ages, before the end comes, turn me back through repentance and have mercy on me.
(Vespers of the Sunday of the Last Judment)

Fr. Steven

Friday, February 25, 2011

Have I Ever Really 'Heard' the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As we move toward the pre-lenten Sunday and subsequent week of the Last Judgment (MATT. 25:31-46), perhaps we can look back at this week in which the Parable of the Prodigal Son from last Sunday was hopefully uppermost in our minds.

This parable is chosen at this particular time in order to draw us toward repentance (Gk. metanoia); to remind us that Great Lent is the “school of repentance;” and that without repentance, our other “lenten efforts” become rather meaningless – if not spiritually dangerous. What will it take to convince us that we, too, need that “change of mind” and return to our heavenly Father that is the truest expression of living according to the Gospel?

 As I ponder that question, I ask myself further: Have I ever really heard this parable in the way that Christ refers to “hearing?” And that would mean being shaken at the very core of my being. Am I only paying “lip service” to this greatest of the parables, as I listen to it as a wonderful short story that is exciting to analyze and discuss; but not quite capable of moving me any closer to genuine repentance? Again, these are the questions that came to my mind as I read this parable aloud in the Liturgy for about the thirtieth consecutive year. Does anyone else possibly share these questions with me?

Yet, if we have spent some time in analyzing the richness of this parable, then we realize that it is not only about the prodigal son, with the two other characters – the father and the older brother – acting in a clearly subordinate manner or for the sake of rounding out the story. They are both integral to the parable and hold equal weight as we try and grasp the parable as a whole. Without the father and the son, the parable would suffer from a certain one-sidedness or incompleteness.

This is absolutely true when it comes to the very core meaning of the parable - which is repentance. We are deeply moved by the movement of the prodigal son toward his return to his father’s home. We first read of his journey to a “faraway country” and rapid and total decline wherein he wastes his inheritance in “loose living.” An all too-familiar tale. This is followed by a spiraling descent that has him longing for the pods that serve as food for the pigs he has been hired to tend. His re-ascent begins with his “coming to himself” after what must have been a painfully honest self-assessment of his stricken condition of estrangement from even basic human fellowship. This culminates in the thought of returning to his father and begging for mercy and the actual movement of “arising” and doing it.

None of this would have born any fruit, however, without the compassion and love of the prodigal son’s father who embodies the forgiveness that completes his repentance. If the father had been stern, or absorbed with his own sense of being offended; if he had chastised his son with the predictable and perhaps satisfying retort, “I told you so;” then the parable would collapse with an all too-human reaction that would be plausible but unworthy of the Gospel that Jesus came to proclaim. For the father of the parable is a figure of our heavenly Father’s compassion, love and forgiveness that Christ came to offer to all and every sinner. The father remains unforgettable as a “character” precisely because he confounds our expectations in his boundless love fully revealed by running out to his son, falling on his neck and kissing him. This is how the Father “Who is without beginning” acts toward his wayward creatures who have spent their inheritance – the “image and likeness” of God – in the faraway country of self-autonomy and the “swinish” fulfillment of the most base desires. Our repentance results in a cosmic joy that God shares with the angels and the preparation of the “banquet of immortality.”

The older son represents precisely that all too-human response referred to above of hurt feeling and an offended sensibility that leaves him insensitive to his repentant brother’s return and salvation. No matter how justified such a response would seem from our human perspective, it remains outside of the Gospel’s “transvaluation of values.”

This is our “invitation” to Great Lent offered to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (MATT. 4:17) To help us understand the beauty of that movement of repentance, the Lord delivers what just may be his “parable of parables,” the one we usually name after the prodigal son. So before we get out our lenten cookbooks, we must first really “hear” this parable and pray to God that He will direct and guide us toward true repentance. The lenten cookbook will not save us – but repentance will.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Shock of True Righteousness

Dear Parish Faithful,

Over the course of the last two days, we read two short passages from the Church Fathers – Sts. Basil the Great (+379) and Cyril of Alexandria (+444) – on the meaning of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Today, I would like to share some of the insights of a contemporary NT scholar on this same parable, as we continue to meditate upon its significance throughout the week. I am currently reading a book by Klyne R. Snodgrass, an Evangelical biblical scholar, entitled Stories With Intent – A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. This book seems to be nearly-exhaustive in its over-all study of the parables from the cultural, historical and religious perspectives explored by the author. Snodgrass helps us to contextualize the parables so that we can also understand the impact that they made on the contemporaries of Jesus, as well as their enduring and “timeless” meaning for us to this day:

The parable addresses the implied question “What counts as righteousness before God?” Righteous acts without compassion and love are not considered righteous by God. Jesus’ decision as to which man was righteous must have sounded paradoxical, surprising, and maybe even unacceptable to his hearers. This parable, like some others, is a veritable slap in the face. Jesus called a man righteous who was known to be unrighteous and refused the description for a man whom everyone would recognize as a righteous person, one who had done good things, even beyond what the law expected – that is, unless Jesus’ hearers were keyed to the love command. Modern readers must make the effort to realize the shock of Jesus’ statement to his first-century Jewish hearers. By implication, this parable also serves as a defense of Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners and instructs against disdain for the so-called unrighteous. M. Hengel points out that the person proud of his or her orthodoxy and orthopraxy is in the most danger and, by use of a word-play, summarizes the parable as saying that those who are written off elsewhere are written by God in the gospel. “A proud prayer is … a self-contradictory endeavor.” Conversely, humility is an essential aspect of true prayer.

Stories of Intent, p. 473-474.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

St Basil the Great, On Humility

Dear Parish Faithful,

Today, we will hear from St. Basil the Great and what he had to say about the humility of the publican and the pride of the Pharisee. This is from a homily of his that has the title of On humility. St. Basil will make the point that humility can save even a great sinner. Certainly “good news” when we can be fooled into falling into despair because of our sins. Notice how St. Basil makes it clear that pride leads to judging others “unjustly”, if it can be put that way. In St. Basil’s own words:

The stern Pharisee, who in his over-weening pride not only boasted of himself but also discredited the tax-collector in the presence of God, made his justice void by being guilty of pride. Instead of the Pharisee, the tax-collector went down justified, because he has given glory to God, the Holy One. He did not dare lift his eyes but sought only to plead for mercy. He accused himself by his posture, by striking his breast, and by entertaining no other motive except propitiation. Be on your guard, therefore, and bear in mind this example of severe loss sustained through arrogance. The one guilty of insolent behavior suffered the loss of his justice and forfeited his reward by his bold self- reliance. He was judged inferior to a humble man and a sinner because in his self-exaltation he did not await the judgment of God but pronounced it himself. Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many transgressions.
St. Basil the Great (+379) On Humility

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reproaching the Pharisee ~ St Cyril of Alexandria

Dear Parish Faithful,

As “promised,” more on the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, from “our Father among the saints,” St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444). St. Cyril, with great rhetorical skill, reproaches the Pharisee for praising himself while pointing out the infirmities of the conscious-stricken publican:

What profit is there in fasting twice in the week if it serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity and makes one proud, haughty and selfish? You tithe your possessions and boast about it. In another way, you provoke God’s anger by condemning and accusing other people of this. You are puffed up, although not crowned by the divine decree for righteousness. On the contrary, you heap praise on yourself. He says, “I am not as the rest of humankind.” Moderate yourself, O Pharisee. Put a door and lock on your tongue. (PS. 141:3) You speak to God who knows all things. Wait for the decree of the judge. No one who is skilled in wrestling ever crowns himself. No one also receives the crown from himself but waits for the summons of the referee…. Lower your pride because arrogance is accursed and hated by God. It is foreign to the mind that fears God. Christ even said, “Do not judge and you shall not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” (LK. 6:37) One of his disciples also said, “There is one lawgiver and judge. Why then do you judge your neighbor?” (JM. 4:12) No one who is in good health ridicules one who is sick or being laid up and bedridden. He is rather afraid, for perhaps he may become the victim of similar sufferings. A person in battle, because another has fallen, does not praise himself for having escaped from misfortune. The weakness of others is not a suitable subject for praise for those who are in health.

Commentary on Luke, Homily 120.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Who Do I Resemble?

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

We heard the Gospel yesterday on the first of the four pre-lenten Sundays that will prepare us for Great Lent three weeks from today. This was, of course, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. (LK. 18:10-14) In the homily I made the point that we can treat the parables of Christ in two very different ways: 1) listen to them carefully; reflect upon them through the course of the week; and determine what in the Lord’s parables “speak” to us today. Or: 2) we can take a “ho-hum” attitude which means we essentially forget the parable by the time we return home from the Liturgy; move on to the next distraction on our busy schedules which now include Sundays: and believe that the parable does not really apply to us anyway.

For those who actually “heard” the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the first question that may arise is very basic: Do I resemble the Publican or the Pharisee in my attitude toward God and my neighbor? Other questions follow: Am I also afflicted with self-righteous pride as was the Pharisee of the parable; or is my goal at least the slow and patient road of learning and practicing humility? Then there is a blunt but honest question: Do I even care? Somewhat unusual for the parables is that the intention of this parable is clearly stated before Christ actually delivers it: “He also told this parable to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (LK. 18:9). Is that a fair description of me when I enter the church on any given Sunday? If so, what could I possibly do to change such an attitude?

With the best of intentions, we could possibly turn this great opportunity for “self-examination” into the ho-hum approach of selective forgetfulness or remembrance; wherein we forget the parable, but remember the score of whatever game was on television later in the day or evening. That would be a colossal example of a missed opportunity. Perhaps one way to spare everyone from the ho-hum approach would be to provide the insights of others during the week – Church Fathers or contemporary writers – on this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. This way, at least the material that lends itself to meditation will be present, and then we can choose to avail ourselves of it – or not.

A good beginning could be this passage from Blessed Augustine:

How useful and necessary a medicine is repentance! People who remember that they are only human will readily understand this. It is written: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” … The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others. He came to the doctor. It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others. It is not surprising that the tax collector went away cured, since he had not been ashamed of showing where he felt pain.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ascending with Zacchaeus

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“Today salvation has come to this house.” (LK. 19:9)

According to our liturgical calendar, this past Sunday was called “Zacchaeus Sunday.” And this particular Sunday is the first “signal” that we are approaching the beginning of Great Lent. Those with the slightest familiarity with the Church’s liturgical cycle know that we are now five Sundays and four weeks away from the Lenten season. Great Lent, therefore, will begin on Monday, March 7. With the four pre-lenten Sundays subsequent to Zacchaeus Sunday, no one can claim that Great Lent caught him/her unaware. We are given ample “warning” for what just may be a seismic shift in lifestyle once we embrace Great Lent.

Zacchaeus Sunday, of course, is based upon the appointed Gospel reading of LK. 19:1-10, and the account there of how Zacchaeus and his household were “saved” by the healing and forgiving presence of Christ. This was in response to the conversion of Zacchaeus and his repentance before the Lord. It is quite interesting that we have the name of this particular publican. Perhaps he was a known member of the earliest post-resurrection Christian community centered in Jerusalem, yet scattered throughout Israel. Be that as it may, this conversion had a strong impact on the early Church as this account was recorded by the evangelist Luke.

In a relatively short, yet very dramatic narrative, St. Luke vividly brings to life not only the encounter between Zacchaeus and Christ, but a series of profoundly interconnected themes that deserve our close attention. These four are clearly essential:

+ desire
+ repentance
+ atonement
+ salvation

Zacchaeus, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his now classic study Great Lent, is the “man of desire.” It was his burning desire “to see who Jesus was” (19:3), that led him to “climb up into a sycamore tree to see him.” (19:4) Though despised as a publican/tax-collector who defrauded his fellow villagers in Jericho, that position gave him a certain begrudged “prominence,” so the spectacle of Zacchaeus scrambling up the sycamore tree must have exposed him to public ridicule and derision. Zacchaeus’ desire must have been strong indeed to suffer that anticipated reaction. Thus, desire to “see Jesus” can lead anyone to overcome many of his/her human frailties and limitations, as well as the fear of violating any of the accepted rules of social etiquette if necessary. Our human limitations, that sinfulness that leaves us all short of the glory of God (ROM. 3;23), is represented here by Zacchaeus being “small of stature.” Our own sinfulness “cuts us down to size” and leaves us short of the stature of Christ that we are meant to grow into. Desire to change is a first movement on to the path of this desired growth. In hearing or reading this passage, we learn to humble ourselves in the realization that the sinful publican Zacchaeus has attained a stature that we need to emulate: “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (EPH. 4:13)

Once Zacchaeus and his household are blessed with the presence of Christ, he openly repents of having “defrauded anyone of anything.” (19:8). His heart has been “wounded” by the obvious love of Christ who, in turn, had to suffer the reproach and murmuring of the witnesses to this event for being “the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (19:7) Jesus had heard this before, but always remained untroubled or “above” such accusations in His messianic role of bringing “good news” to “prostitutes and publicans.” Zacchaeus atones for his former sinfulness by openly declaring “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (19:8) This is not a legalistic transaction. Zacchaeus is not purchasing the favor of God. Rather, he is moved to a concrete expression of a changed life that goes far beyond mere words or internal disposition.

The unmerited gift of salvation is how Christ “seals” the initial movement of Zacchaeus toward the restoration of his full stature. Salvation – soteria – means wholeness; the wholeness of soul and body that only God can restore. Zacchaeus has received this gift of salvation because, contrary to certain elements then current within Jewish piety that would have left him marginalized as a religious and social pariah, “he also is a son of Abraham.” (19:9) The salvation of Christ is extensive and intensive: universally offered to all of people, and offered to the “worst of sinners.” This is made clear by Christ’s solemn pronouncement that closes the narrative concerning Zacchaeus: “For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost.” (19:10) All – Jew and Gentile, the righteous and the unrighteous – are lost but God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I TIM. 2:4)

In one of the many fine paradoxes - or ironies – found in the Gospels, the despised publican Zacchaeus becomes our teacher: “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (MATT. 20:16) When that sinks in deeply, we can begin our own ascent to God on the ladder of the virtues, as Zacchaeus ascended on his humble sycamore tree.

Fr. Steven