Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Adam Hamway

 
"WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?" This question is posed by a young Jewish leader whom Jesus meets on His way to Jerusalem. At first glance it seems a reasonable inquiry, one that many people would still ask today. “Tell me what prayer to say, what shrine to visit, what project I can take on which will guarantee that I’ll get to heaven.”

Church Fathers, however, saw this as a trick question, seeking to trap Jesus into setting some new requirement not in the Law. The Lord does not give the young man another thing to do, adding to the list of precepts which devotees of the Torah felt set forth God’s will for them. Rather Jesus says that to be perfect you must “sell all you have” and commit yourself completely to Him. Perfection does not come from performing this or that isolated action, however good it may be. Perfection comes from entrusting one’s whole life to Christ.

In the Pastoral Epistles we see some consequences of this life in Christ as it was perceived in the apostolic Church. The “elect of God” (Colossians 3:12) have died to the world, been buried in Baptism and are now alive in Christ. Their way of life is to be Christ’s, embodying the compassion and forgiveness of Christ Himself. They are to bear with one another (after all, others are putting up with them). They are to build up one another’s faith “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16), thankful for the grace filling their hearts. This is certainly in stark contrast to the way of the world, where self-love, resentments, grudges, and slanderously tearing others down is the norm for many.

One of the first qualities of someone dead to the world mentioned in Colossians is humility, a virtue most associate with monasticism rather than life in the world. In fact, as the Church grew, perfection came to be associated increasingly with some kind of ascetic life. At first people like the “sons and daughters of the covenant” in the Syriac Church lived in the world, but somewhat apart from others, devoting themselves to prayer and good works. By the third century ascetics like St Antony and the Desert Fathers lived as hermits in the wilderness, completely apart from others. Monasticism brought like-minded people together to live in a community, where they could commend themselves and one another and their whole life to Christ God while being apart from the world at large.

But the Gospel is not addressed simply to monks and nuns; it is meant for all believers. How does a Christian in the world “sell all” and follow Christ? Is there a way for a believer to live in the world but not be of the world, as Christ enjoins? It is not wearing some distinctive dress that says “I am different.” It is rather living by a different set of principles, given by Christ.

The popular book, Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander, affirms that our “wealth” is nothing less than our self-centeredness. “Take a look at yourself and see how bound you are by your desire to humor yourself and only yourself. Your freedom is curbed by the restraining bonds of self-love, and thus you wander, a captive corpse, from morning till eve. ‘Now I will drink,’ ‘now I will get up,’ ‘now I will read the paper.’ Thus you are led from moment to moment in your halter of preoccupation with self, and kindled instantly to displeasure, impatience or anger if an obstacle intervenes” (p. 5).

Colliander stresses that asceticism is the only path to victory over our self-centeredness. He gives some practical suggestions for living an ascetic life in the world. Like St Paul, Colliander begins with meekness and humility. He contrasts true humility with the desire to be perceived as humble: “We notice the person who is forever bowing and fussily servile, and perhaps say, ‘How humble he is!’ But the truly humble person escapes notice: the world does not know him (1 John 3:1); for the world he is mostly a ‘zero’” (p. 26).

Humility is rather a matter of not always putting forth one’s own will. Colliander teaches that following the Church’s tradition for fasting is the most basic school for obedience. We fast when the Church says to, we do not fast when the Church says not to. We fast not to be “righteous,” but to be obedient.

Ordinary life provides countless other occasions for us to develop a humble spirit through obedience. Colliander notes, “Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour” (p.44).

To “sell all one has,” then, ultimately means to give up one’s own will to follow Christ. Along with a certain simplicity of life and chastity appropriate to one’s marital state, we attain what St Tikhon of Zadonsk called “interior monasticism.” We put aside the values and pursuits of the world to follow Christ along the way of perfection in whatever state of life we find ourselves.

From the Commentary of Theophylact

It is better if we give away all our wealth; and if not all, then at least let us share it with the poor. Thus the impossible becomes possible. For though it is impossible for the man who does not distribute all to be saved, yet through God’s love for man, even a partial distribution brings a partial benefit.

In response to this, Peter asks, "Lo, we have left all. [What do we have to give to the poor?]" He does not ask this for his own sake alone, but in order to find some consolation for all the poor. Peter asks his question for fear that only the rich have the good hope to obtain much because they despised much, and that the poor have little hope because they had little to give away and thus can expect only a little reward.

Peter asks, and hears the answer, that everyone who despises, for God’s sake, whatever goods he may have, even if they are few, shall receive his reward both in this age and in the age to come. Do not consider those goods to be few; rather, for that poor man, his few things are his whole life. Just as you, the rich man, expect to pass your life with your many and great possessions, the pauper, likewise, expects to pass his life with his belongings, no matter how few and small they may be.

Though his belongings are few, I will say that a man’s attachment to his possessions is even greater when he owns little. This is clearly shown to be true with parents. The attachment of a parent to his only child is much greater than that of a parent to his many children. Likewise, the poor man has a keener love for his single house and single field than you have for your many houses and fields. And even if it is the case that a poor man is attached to his possessions to the same degree as a rich man, then, at a minimum, the loss is the same for each.

Even in this present age, those who give of the little they have receive their reward many times over, as did these very Apostles. For each Apostle left his own hut, and now each one has magnificent temples in his name, with lands and triumphant processions, and, instead of a single wife, many women bound to him in fervent faith; in short, for everything they gave up, they have received many times over. And in the age to come they receive, not a multiplication of fields such as these and other tangible rewards, but eternal life.
 
IT'S PROBABLY SAFE TO SAY that most people would prefer to read a story than an academic treatise. Both forms might be conveying the same point, but a narrative is likely to be more compelling – and more memorable – than a dissertation.

The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, the Great Feast we celebrate today, rests on such a narrative. The story is found in The Protoevangelion of James, a second-century telling of the birth and infancy of the Theotokos. We know that in the first and second centuries ad a number of books were written about Christ and His Mother. Some were accepted by all the local Churches as presenting a true portrait of the Messiah. Others were rejected because the Christ they portrayed was not the one who had been preached by the apostles. In some He was a Gnostic philosopher, in other a magician. We call these “apocryphal gospels” and do not see them as the voice of the Holy Spirit to us. Still other books, The Protoevangelion of James among them, were revered by the Christians of their day but not considered canonical Scriptures because their content was not at the heart of the apostolic proclamation or the early Creeds. Their subject matter treated things like Jesus’ physical appearance or the early periods of Christ’s life not covered in the Gospels. They may be true but not central to our faith.

The Source of This Feast

The prayers and icon of this Feast focus on two elements of the Protoevangelion story. In the first, Mary at the age of three is presented to God in the temple at Jerusalem accompanied, as the text reads, “by the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled.” There “the priest received her, kissed her and blessed her.”

The second vignette is shown in the upper right hand corner of this icon. There Mary sits in the innermost sanctuary of the temple, the Holy of Holies, ministered to by an angel. According to Jewish Law, no one entered the Holy of Holies: “only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Heb 9:8). It is unthinkable that a child would be not only allowed there but actually live there as the Protoevangelion avows.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are given a reason why no one was allowed into the Holy of Holies: “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning” (Hebrews 9:9). By placing Mary in the Holy of Holies, the Protoevangelion is saying that the way into the Holy Place – the presence of God – now is disclosed. It is Christ, who would be incarnate in the womb of this same Mary the Theotokos. For this reason the story and its celebration have been embraced by the Tradition as affirmations of the Gospel.

Mary’s coming into the temple is portrayed as an “Entrance” on this feast in the Christian East rather that as a “Presentation” as in the West. This term puts us in mind of things like the “Great Entrance” at our Divine Liturgy or the Entrance Procession in the Western rites. Her coming is not the blessing of an insignificant child given in a “side chapel,” as it were, but a festive “prelude” or “overture” inaugurating the main event, the New Testament itself.

Our celebration of this feast focuses on Mary as the temple of the incarnate God, the one for whom the Jerusalem temple was only a prefiguration. After their entry with Christ into Jerusalem His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to the temple and the buildings in its compound. Jesus replied, “’Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:2). This feast celebrates the fulfillment of His prophecy. God’s people will no longer reach heaven via Jerusalem; rather the heavens have been opened to us and God’s temple, the Theotokos, is become for us the way to heaven through her childbearing.

“Hail, Full of Grace”

Perhaps the most popular hymn of this feast is the kontakion, O katharotatos naos, which summarizes in a few lines the theology we have been presenting. It reads: “The most pure Temple of the Savior, the most precious and bright bridal chamber – the Virgin, sacred treasury of the glory of God – enters today into the Temple of the Lord, bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit. Wherefore, the angels of God are singing: ‘This is the heavenly Tabernacle!’” In this hymn two teachings are affirmed. Mary is proclaimed by the angels as “the heavenly tabernacle.” The tabernacle, we know, was the portable holy place which the Hebrews brought with them in the desert until they reached the promised land. It was rendered into a more permanent form as the temple. Now Mary, not any building, is the holy place where God dwelled.

Secondly we are told that Mary entered the temple “bringing with her the grace of the Most Holy Spirit.” People went to the temple to encounter God, to receive His blessings. Mary, instead, brings God’s grace with her. She is proclaimed as “full of grace,” even as a child, by the angels themselves. This feast is thus for the Eastern Churches what the Immaculate Conception is to the West: a celebration of the holiness of Mary, sanctified from her earliest days by the Most Holy Spirit who dwelt in her.

As we have said it was unthinkable that a child, or anyone for that matter, should enter the Holy of Holies. But it is Mary’s rightful place as the woman full of grace who would contain within her innermost self the Uncontainable One. There she remains in the Holy Places of our churches: the Platytera between earth and heaven, the foremost worshipper of the Lord whom she bore.

The “Nea” Church The sixth-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian saw himself as a new Solomon, destined to outdo the Hebrew king of that name in building magnificent temples to the Lord. He rebuilt Jerusalem’s church of the Resurrection and, gave us the Great Church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia.

Justinian also built a vast church complex in Jerusalem on the highest point in the city, the New (Nea) Church of the Theotokos. Of unprecedented size itself, it was surrounded by many buildings: accommodations for pilgrims, a hospital and a monastery. The principal historian of that age, Procopius, described it as “a shrine with which no other can be compared.” Antoninus of Piacenza, who visited it in 570, spoke of “its great congregation of monks, and its guest houses for men and women. In catering for travelers they have a vast number of tables, and more than three thousand beds for the sick.”

Archeologists have shown that the Nea was designed to be twice the size of the Jewish temple. Like the temple, the Nea was adorned with cedars of Lebanon. Also like the temple, its entrance was flanked by two elaborately carved red marble columns. As the Theotokos, the new temple, was the katharotatos naos, so the Nea would be the ultimate temple built by the new Solomon.

Like the Jewish temple, the Nea would not survive the first millennium, destroyed in wars and earthquakes. The Theotokos, however, remains our heavenly tabernacle in whose womb Christ took flesh.
 
WHEN PEOPLE READ THE SCRIPTURES they can often easily grasp the basic meaning of the passage. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Christ is clearly exalting the compassion of the Samaritan over the lack of concern on the part of the priest and Levite. The enmity that existed between Jews and Samaritans is also generally known, so people easily comprehend Christ’s point that your enemy is your neighbor when he is compassionate. We can also easily – if grudgingly – realize that we are called to imitate the Samaritan, even in dealing with people not like ourselves.

When passages are not so easily explained, however, people turn to others for help. People may turn to their pastor or another clergyman or instructor. Many will surf the net to see what others say on the subject. As Eastern Christians we have another – and preferred – source for guidance in reading the Scriptures. We look to the tradition of the Church Fathers to explain the sacred texts.

Since the rise of academic, rather than pastoral, theology in its Middle Ages, the West has preferred contemporary scholarship to the Fathers’ insights on the Scriptures. Academic scholarship first stressed the context of the Scriptural texts and then sought proof of their historic origins to determine their original literal meaning.

One of the approaches favored by the Fathers but out of favor in scholarly circles has been allegory, which sees many passages as a kind of extended metaphor for the entire Gospel. Allegory was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, which inherited from Judaism. It seeks to draw our attention through many well-known Scripture passages to the universal condition of mankind and the all-embracing love of God. It was used in various ways by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and John Chrysostom in the East, as well as Ambrose and Augustine in the West.

Chrysostom on the Good Samaritan

Using this method St John Chrysostom (feast: November 13) was able to help us see through this text God’s constant and all-embracing love for us. This parable becomes a word-picture of the entire mystery of salvation:

A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho – Adam, by trusting in himself instead of God, descended from Paradise into this world. Jericho, at 825 feet below sea level is the lowest city on earth, as far down as you can get.

He fell among robbers – Mankind apart from God is beset by the band of demonic powers led by the ruler of this age.

They stripped him of his raiment – the robe of immortality.

They departed, leaving him half dead – he was reduced to the half-life of this earth, subject to sin and death.

It happened that a priest …and a Levite came that way, but passed by on the other side – The people of Israel kept to themselves and did not aid mankind.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine – Christ, not from this world, who was accused of being a Samaritan (John 8:48), is that compassionate stranger. He doctors mankind by His teachings (the bandages), His anointing with the Holy Spirit (the oil), and the Eucharist (the wine) by which He begins our healing.

He set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn and took care of him - Christ joined mankind to His own human nature, brought him to the hospital of His Church and continued to minister to him as the divine physician.

When he left on the next day he gave the innkeeper two dinars and said, ‘Take care of him’ – After His ascension Christ entrusted mankind to the Apostolic Synod personified by its great apostle to the Gentiles, St Paul, and “through Paul to the high priests and teachers and ministers of each church,” saying: “Take care of the Gentiles whom I have given to you in the Church. Since men are sick, wounded by sin, heal them, putting on them a stone plaster, that is, the prophetic sayings and the gospel teachings, making them whole through the admonitions and exhortations of the Old and New Testaments.” So according to St. John Chrysostom, Paul is the one who upholds the churches of God “and heals all men through spiritual admonitions, distributing the bread of offering to each one...”

And when I come again I will repay you’ – At my second coming I will reward you.

In his important work, Orthodox Psychotherapy, the contemporary Greek Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos expresses the life of the Church in terms of this imagery. “So in the Church we are divided into the sick, those undergoing treatment, and those – the saints – who have already been healed. … The Fathers do not categorize people as moral and immoral or good and bad on the basis of moral laws. This division is superficial. At depth humanity is differentiated into the sick in soul, those being healed, and those healed. All who are not in a state of illumination are sick in soul... It is not only good will, good resolve, moral practice and devotion to the Orthodox Tradition which make an Orthodox, but also purification, illumination and deification.” These stages of healing are the purpose of the Orthodox way of life.”

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In another place St John Chrysostom taught that ministering to the spiritually ill in the hospital of the Church is for us all:

“Let us not overlook such a tragedy as that. Let us not hurry past so pitiable a sight without taking pity. Even if others do so, you must not. Do not say to yourself: ‘I am no priest or monk; I have a wife and children. This is a work for the priests; this is work for the monks.’ The Samaritan did not say: ‘Where are the priests now? Where are the Pharisees now? Where are the teachers of the Jews?’ But the Samaritan is like a man who found some great store of booty and got the profit.

“Therefore, when you see someone in need of treatment for some ailment of the body or soul, do not say to yourself: ‘Why did so-and-so or so-and-so not take care of him?’ You free him from his sickness; do not demand an accounting from others for their negligence. Tell me this. If you find a gold coin lying on the ground, do you say to yourself: ‘Why didn’t so-and-so pick it up?’ Do you not rush to snatch it up before somebody else does?

“Think the same way about your fallen brothers; consider that tending his wounds is like finding a treasure. If you pour the word of instruction on his wounds like oil, if you bind them up with your mildness, and cure them with your patience, your wounded brother has made you a richer man that any treasure could. Jeremiah said: ‘He who has brought forth the precious from the vile will be as my mouth.’ What could we compare to that? No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.”

St John Chrysostom, Eighth Homily against the Judaizers 4: 1-3
 
WE LIVE IN A SPEED-DRIVEN AGE. We look for faster ways to accomplish every task: in the office, in the kitchen, in the classroom. In our economy, speed is a source of competitive advantage. In the workplace, higher speed means greater efficiency. Today, “to build a better mousetrap means “to build a faster mousetrap.”

As a result, we are increasingly intolerant of slowness. Waiting becomes more and more difficult. If we encounter a long line in a store, a bank or a post office, our impulse is to leave and come back later. Our relationships to others may be scarred or shattered by our impatience with others. Our impatience with ourselves can make it impossible for us to rejoice in or even accept life in the present.

While people with chronic illnesses or handicaps have health services available to them as never before, their greatest suffering today may be psychological: knowing that they must live with their affliction day in and day out without hope of deliverance. Some advocate suicide or mercy killing as a way out of this impasse. The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland have decriminalized mercy killing in certain circumstances to give people a “way out” of their hopeless conditions.

In contrast, we find the situation of the woman recoded in the Gospels whose hopeless condition exceeded anything prevalent in developed countries today. We are told that she had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. In the Torah, any contact with vital fluids such as blood rendered a person ritually impure and called for the sufferer to be avoided. “If a woman hemorrhages for many days not at the time of her period she shall be unclean as in the time of her period. Anyone who touches her shall be unclean and shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until the evening. When she is cleansed from her discharge, she must count off seven days and after that she will be ceremonially clean”(Leviticus 15:25-28).

Since this woman was still hemorrhaging, it meant that she could not have experienced any intimate contact for twelve years.

Christ Alone Brings Healing

In Mark 5:26, we read that her attempts at finding medical help had been as fruitless as they were financially draining. She had no hope until she heard of Jesus. She approached Him secretly to void defiling Him or being rejected by Him, but touching the All-Pure One cleansed and purified her. Contact with the Long-Suffering One ended her long suffering.

In the New Testament physical healing and other miracles generally point to spiritual healing. Here the woman’s illness and her healing contact with Christ direct our minds to reflect on our own spiritual condition.

Most Christians today look upon the idea of ritual impurity in the Old Testament manner as antiquated and not part of our spirituality. Yet, each of us is unfit for contact with the Holy One because we share a nature scarred by sin and subject to death. We need to touch the hem of Christ’s garment for our broken nature to be restored.

For us who live in the time after Christ’s resurrection, the “hem of His garment” – the physical realities which convey His divine power to us – are the Holy Mysteries. In Baptism we rise with Him from the death of our broken humanity. In the Eucharist we become more deeply one with Him in His Body, the Church. We come to Him in the various circumstances of our life - our need for physical or spiritual healing, our desire to experience His blessing on our families and our ministries –seeking to be transformed by His presence. And when we approach the water, chrism, oil or crowns with the faith of this unnamed woman in the Gospels, we are touched by the power going out from Him through them as well.

The Mysteries as “Works of the Law”

It is all too easy for us, particularly those raised in the Church, to approach the Holy Mysteries as if they were acts of ritual cleansing as described in the Torah. We can bring our children for baptism because that’s what we do with babies to “make them Christians.”We can approach the mystery of confession legalistically, so that we can get a pass to receive the Eucharist. Approaching any of the mysteries as if they were rites of passage or ritual purification – or as anything other than reaching out to touch the hem of Christ’s garment – turns them into “works of the Law.”And, as St Paul insists, “by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

Our sacramental contacts with Christ are meant to affect our life. The Holy Mysteries re not simply “rites,” ceremonial moments that we perform then return to ordinary life without their affecting the way we live. On the one hand, we live and worship as Christians only because we have touched Christ. On the other hand, we know that our baptismal union with Christ does not guarantee that we will live the life we have received. As with the woman in the Gospel, our contacts with Christ are simply part of the story. The way we live determines how the story develops and will end.

The Woman in Eastern Christian Lore

The Scriptures do not mention this woman again. A later work, The Acts of Pilate, gave her a name, Berenice, but this does not shed any light on how her healing affected her life. In the West, this name was transliterated as Veronica, whose connection with Christ’s passion was popularized in the Middle Ages.

The Acts of Pilate, parts of which date to the mid-second to third century, describes this woman as offering testimony at the trial of Jesus. “There was found there also a woman named Berenice, and she said, ‘Twelve years I was in an issue of blood, and I only touched the edge of His garment, and directly I was cured.’ The Jews say, ‘Our Law does not admit the testimony of a woman’” (Acts of Pilate, 7).

According to one tradition, Berenice caused a statue of the Lord Jesus to be made in gratitude for her healing, before which she prayed to God. The fourth century Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, described it: “Since I have mentioned this city [Caesarea Philippi] I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Savior deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Savior to her remain there.

“For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying, Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city.”

The statue was preserved until the year 305 when it was demolished under the emperor Maximinus Daia. Julian the Apostate (331–363) attempted to replace it with an image of his own, but (as the contemporary historian Sozomen asserts in his Church history, Hist. Eccl. V, 20) that “a flash from heaven smote the statue, hurling the head and neck to the ground, where it continues to this day, looking black as if burned by lightning.”
 
WOULD WE BE AFFECTED if someone rose from the dead? We would probably say “Yes,” but the Lord says “No.” What does He know that we don’t?

Throughout the centuries, and even today, many people have what might be called mystical experiences. They see visions and dream dreams, to quote the Prophet Joel. Thus St Paul experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and it changed his life. Similarly, St Peter and the other disciples encountered Christ risen from the dead and proclaimed it throughout the world. These experiences energized their ministries and jump-started the spread of the Gospel throughout the ancient world.

Such experiences continued throughout Christian history, right up to our own day. One well-known Christian thinker in the modern world, the Russian Orthodox bishop in London, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) described his encounter with the Lord in these words: “I met Christ as a Person at a moment when I needed Him in order to live, and at a moment when I was not in search of Him. I was found; I did not find Him.

“I was a teenager then … I could not accept aimless happiness. Hardships and suffering had to be overcome; there was something beyond them. Happiness seemed to be stale if it had no further meaning … I decided that I would give myself a year to see whether life had a meaning, and if I discovered it had none, I would not live beyond the year. I had no use for Church. I did not believe in God.”

Under duress, young Anthony attended a religious lecture at the Russian youth organization. He was greatly disturbed by the lecture and asked his mother for a copy of the New Testament to check the truth of what the speaker had been saying.

He describes what happened: “I expected nothing good from my reading, so I counted the chapters of the four Gospels to be sure that I read the shortest, not to waste time unnecessarily. And thus it was the Gospel according to St Mark which I began to read.

“I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone though a similar experience will know what came to pass. While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s Gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a Presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of Him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will... This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist.”

PBS commentator Frederica Mathewes-Green tells of a similar experience. She was a vocal agnostic who had dabbled in Hinduism. In Facing East – A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (San Francisco, 1997), she describes her husband Gary as “a political animal who just didn’t think much about God.” She then tells how that changed:

“Gary’s shell began to crack when a professor required his philosophy class to read a Gospel. As he read the words of Jesus, he became convinced that here was one who ‘speaks with authority.’ Since Jesus said there was a God, Gary began to doubt his doubting.”

Federica’s turn came on their honeymoon trip to Europe where the following took place: “One day in Dublin I looked at a statue of Jesus and was struck to my knees, hearing an interior voice say, ‘I am your life.’ I knew it was the One I had rejected and ridiculed, come at last to seize me forever.”

What was different about these people, compared to the brothers of the rich man in Christ’s parable?

Why “Few Are Chosen”

The Apostles were religious people; they observed the precepts of Judaism as practiced in their day. Others were contemptuous of religion and had ridiculed it. Yet somewhere deep inside them was a search for meaning, a hidden disposition to faith, even if they were not practicing any religion at the moment. Thus when these momentous experiences took place, they received them wholeheartedly and changed their entire way of life.

People who have no interest in God or in any kind of an interior life, who are content pursuing a materialist way of life might easily shrug off a spiritual experience as some kind of delusion. They might blame it on a touch of the flu or having too much to drink.

Similarly the rich man’s brothers in the parable may have paid lip service to the Scriptures, but the focus of their lives was far from the things of God. They would not even have heard a voice from the dead.

Christ’s Alternative

A parable is a story with a moral, not a detailed history of an event. In this case, as in most, the moral is found at the end of the story. When the rich man in the parable asks Abraham to send Lazarus to shake up his brothers, Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets: let them listen to them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, they have the Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – as their means of discerning the mind of God for them.

This saying, of course, is directed at us – it is the moral of the story. We are meant to base our faith on the mystery of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures rather than on some fantasy that the Holy Virgin or an angel might visit us. Just as our daily life must be based on something more practical than a hope of winning the lottery, so our Christian life must have the solid foundation of the Word of God to us.

We have not only the Law and the prophets, but the Gospels and Epistles. We have the witness of Christ and the apostles, the testimony of the martyrs and the ascetics. We have the power of the holy mysteries, the words of our liturgical texts and the unspoken voice of the holy icons. These are the voice of the Lord to us – let us hear them in faith.

A Missed Opportunity

When people think about violating God’s law, they think about sins of commission: doing something prohibited like stealing, harming another, or the like. We often forget that sins of omission – things that we neglect to do – are often even more damaging.

The rich man in Christ’s parable is not accused of any sin of commission. He is not blamed for being rich any more than Lazarus is praised for being poor: in itself, having money is not a sin. We are not told how he made his money. He is not accused of defrauding people as Zacchaeus claimed to have done. The only thing he is accused of is not giving alms.

The poor man, Christ says, lay at the rich man’s gate, hoping for scraps. It may be easy to ignore a panhandler on the street; it is not so easy to ignore him when he is at your doorstep day after day. Yet this is what the rich man did. He did not overlook abstract appeals from far-away charities; he passed by a flesh-and-blood person in need on his own doorstep, “the living creature,” as St John Chrysostom describes him, “for whom God cares.”

The rich man in Christ’s parable may have felt that he needed every scrap he had acquired, but as St John Chrysostom affirmed, he did not know what he needed it for: “If a person enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then his wealth does him good. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the great pit. That is what happened to this rich man” (On Wealth and Poverty).
 
10/25/20
THE GOSPELS RECORD SEVERAL INSTANCES when the Lord Jesus called people to be His followers. At times He called people to leave their homes and livelihoods and follow Him. He called Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were busy fishing “and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him” (Matthew 4:22). Similarly, Matthew walked away from his toll booth and followed Jesus (see Matthew 9:9); the other disciples, whose calls are not recorded in the Gospels, did the same.

Sometimes the Lord called but was refused. The cost of following Jesus was more than some people could bear. To the rich young man who wanted to be perfect Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go – sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matthew 19:21-22).

In other instances, the Lord raised objections Himself before the would-be follower could discover through failure and discouragement that following Christ meant enduring hardships. Thus “a teacher of the Law came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19-20). The Lord wanted this teacher of the Law to know that following Christ would not provide the comfortable lifestyle he may have been anticipating.

To a procrastination, however, He gave the opposite advice. “Then another disciple said to Him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). The Lord surely wanted followers, but He had a different approach based on the readiness of the person before Him.

This passage suggests the hurdles that people in any age will face when they consider following the Lord in a radical way: fear of the unknown, self-concern, pre-occupation and attachment to other things – all can hinder us from following Christ.

The Vocation of the Gadarene

The Gadarene whom Jesus healed (Luke 8:27-39) wanted to follow Jesus as well; the Scripture says that he “begged to go with Him,” but the Lord had another plan for him. “Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:38-39).

The Gadarenes had made it clear that they wanted Jesus to go away. He would not force Himself on them. At the same time, He wanted to leave them with a permanent reminder of His presence: their own fellow countryman whom He had delivered. This man had once been a burden to the townspeople; now He would be a blessing.

The apostles were told to go through the world preaching the Gospel; this man’s call was to go home and do the same in his village. Was his call by Christ less of a vocation than that of the apostles? It was different, surely, but it was a vocation nonetheless.

Some people in the Church tend to think that “vocation” refers exclusively to the calling of a cleric or monastic, or as a member of a religious community. The Lord does call some people in every age to serve the Church as priests, deacons, chanters, etc. He does invite others to serve Him as a monk or nun, but these are not the only people whom He calls to serve Him.

Our Fundamental Vocation

Every person baptized into Christ has a vocation. The essence of that vocation is perhaps best expressed in the First Epistle of Peter: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

There are three important aspects of our universal vocation expressed in this passage. First, our vocation is to a priesthood: what the Scripture calls a “royal priesthood.” Christ is the true kingly priest and, because we have been baptized into Him and sealed in His Holy Spirit, we share in His priesthood. As members of a people, the people of God. We are not individually priests, as are the ministers of the altar, but members of a priesthood because of our common union with Christ the High Priest.

This passage also tells us the reason for this priesthood: “that you may declare the praises of” God. Our vocation as members of the royal priesthood is to support the Church’s call to proclaim the work of God in Christ. Some, like the apostles and evangelizers, are called to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Others, like the Gadarene whom Jesus delivered in the Gospel or the Samaritan Woman, are called to show forth God’s love for mankind in their own corner of the world. Still others – most of us, in fact – are called to lend our assistance to these chosen vessels as they proclaim Christ to the world.

How Can We “Proclaim?”

When we think about “proclaiming God’s work” we invariably think about speaking or writing. There is a host of other ways by which the Church makes the Good News present in our world. At the Bridegroom Matins on Holy Tuesday we are reminded that the abilities which we have received are often the way in which the Lord makes known to us our way of responding to this call:

“Come, O faithful,
let us work eagerly for the Master,
for He distributes wealth to His servants;
And let us increase the talent of grace,
each one according to his ability.
Let one adorn his wisdom with good deeds.
Let another beautify the celebration of the service.
Let someone strong in faith communicate the word to the uninitiated,
And another dispenses his wealth to the poor.
Thus, we shall increase what has been loaned to us and,
Like faithful stewards of grace,
Shall be worthy of the Master’s joy.
O Christ God, make us worthy of that joy, for You are the Lover of mankind.

Through each of these ways and countless others, believers can take their place in the royal priesthood, joining in the Church’s mission to declare though word or work “the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.”
 
10/18/20
FROM TIME TO TIME, Christians in a number of communities, including the ancient historic Churches, are encouraged to tithe to their congregation. Tithing – the giving of 10% of one’s income – is mandatory in some groups. Mormons, for example are required to tithe and only tithe-paying members are allowed to enter Mormon temples and to receive its “ordinances” (sacraments). Many Pentecostal groups teach that, if you are not tithing, you are robbing God.

Tithing in the Old Testament

The practice of tithing arose at the start of the Israelite nation. When the Israelites occupied the Promised Land, eleven of their twelve tribes were given a portion of the conquered territory. The twelfth tribe, Levi, which was set apart as the nation’s priests, received no land. The eleven landed tribes were to give their tithes to the Levites (temple assistants, comparable to our deacons). These mandatory tithes were used to support the priests, manage the temple, and provide relief for foreigners, orphans and widows (see Num 18).

The tithe was seen in the Torah as a recognition that all of creation was God’s: “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord.  If a man wants at all to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add one-fifth to it.  And concerning the tithe of the herd or the flock, of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27: 30-32).

If a person failed to pay the tithe or held back some of it, he was considered to have robbed God. As the nation became more established and prosperous, the temptation to avoid paying the full tithe was not uncommon. The prophet Malachi thundered against this practice, but also promised that those who paid the tithe would be blessed: “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.
You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts.” If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it…” (Malachi 3: 8-10).

Malachi distinguishes between tithes and offerings. The tithe was the required tenth of one’s income which was God’s by right. An offering was whatever was freely given over and above the tithe. Sometimes such gifts are called “love offerings,” made from personal devotion rather than by law.

Tithing in the New Testament

Tithing was practiced regularly by Jews into New Testament times. In the Gospels, we see that the Lord Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being strict about determining tithes of everything they have received while ignoring more important matters: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.  Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23, 24). He did not condemn tithing, only the mechanical performance of it while ignoring the spirit behind it.

Similarly, in His parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), the Lord Jesus shows the Pharisee taking pride in his fasting and tithing. The Lord does not reproach the Pharisee for doing these things, but for taking pride in them.

That even the poor sometimes gave more than was required was noted – and praised –by Jesus when He visited the temple: “Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood’” (Mark 12:41-44).

Nowhere in the New Testament is tithing mandated. Generosity and openness in giving are recognized and praised while mean-spiritedness is condemned. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), two believers are reproached for pretending to give to the Church whatever they received for selling a piece of land. St Peter discerned the lie and said to Ananias, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (vv. 3, 4).

Giving in the Writings of St Paul

St Paul teaches several principles for giving in 2 Corinthians 9. First, in v.5 he notes that all giving should be “a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation.” He then adds: “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So, let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (vv. 6, 7). In v.7 St Paul sees the individual believer as responsible for determining the amount he can give “as he purposes in his heart”.

Instead of giving a set amount (the tithe), the believer is expected to give as his heart dictates, out of his faith that he is “in Christ.” Some, like popular Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green, believe that a commitment to tithing, like fasting, can foster spiritual growth. She recommends, “Aim to give a percentage of your income. Start with whatever percentage you give now, and raise it a little each year. In time, you will reach the tithe. Then you will be giving as generously as the people of the Bible, who lived in conditions we would see as abject poverty. … there is no better indication of your priorities” (Christianity Today 59.5).

Many churches have annual pledge drives asking members to make a specific commitment of what they purpose to give in the year ahead. The introduction of set amounts for giving as “dues,” “pew rents,” or “fees” in some churches suggests that many Christians believe in paying only for services rendered.

The Ministry of Giving

St Paul indicates another principle for giving in Romans 12:4-8: “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

Some Christians have been gifted to teach or lead the Church; others have been gifted to support the Church in a significant way. As good singers should use their voices to build up the Church, those with material abundance should use their wealth as a gift given them to support the Church over and above the average donor. The many believers who have built churches, shrines, schools or hospitals with their own resources have ministered in this way by using the gift they have received.
 
10/11/20
THE BYZANTINE CHURCHES commemorate liturgically each of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium. Both Catholic and Orthodox Churches have held important councils since then, but none of those councils are celebrated with liturgical feasts in either the East or the West. Why are only the seven Councils which we commemorate so set apart?

An answer may be found in the title of a recent book on these councils, edited by Sergey Trostyanskiy. Its title, Seven Icons of Christ, indicated the unique character of these gatherings. They articulated the heart of the Church’s faith in Christ, expressed in the first two councils by the Creed. The five councils which followed nuanced this faith by insisting that to say that the incarnate Word was “fully God and fully man” meant that He was one person in two natures (Chalcedon), that, as one person, His Mother could be called Theotokos (Ephesus), that He had both a divine and a human will (3 Constantinople) and that as truly man He could legitimately be depicted in icons (2 Nicaea).

While all these councils were accepted by the Greek and Latin Churches in the first millennium, the Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenians, Copts, etc.) only accepted some of them. Beginning in 1988 all these Churches signed agreed statements of faith with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Thus, while using contrasting terms and upholding different councils, all the historic Churches share a common faith in Christ as truly God and man.

Was There an Eighth Council?

In the ninth century we find the first signs that the Greeks and Latins had seemingly irreconcilable differences. Two councils were held in Constantinople to resolve the question of who was the rightful patriarch of Constantinople. At that time the patriarchs were closely tied to the imperial court and their fortunes rose or fell depending on who ruled the empire. The situation was intricate; the following timeline may help make it clear.

847 – Ignatius, of royal stock and an anti-iconoclast, became patriarch shortly after the Triumph of Orthodoxy (restoration of icons).

857 – With a regime change, Ignatius loses imperial support and is deposed. He is replaced as patriarch by Photios. He quarreled with the Pope of Rome over which of them had jurisdiction in Bulgaria.

867 – A new emperor, seeking an alliance with the West, deposed Photios and recalled Ignatius. Contrary to expectations, Ignatius would not cede Bulgaria to the pope.

869-870 –A council met in Constantinople to decide the status of clerics ordained by Photios. The pope sent three legates who presided. The other patriarchs were represented as well. Photios was condemned for rousing “continuous turmoil and storms for all the Churches of Christ our Savior, in a multiplicity of ways” and his supporters were deposed.

This council also challenged the imperial practice of deposing patriarchs, decreeing: “We declare that no secular powers should treat with disrespect any of those who hold the office of patriarch or seek to move them from their high positions, but rather they should esteem them as worthy of all honor and reverence …. If, then, any ruler or secular authority tries to expel the aforesaid pope of the apostolic see, or any of the other patriarchs, let him be anathema.” This canon would be invoked in later centuries as the Pope of Rome struggled for independence from various rulers.

877 – Ignatius dies and Photios is restored as patriarch with no significant opposition.

879-880 – Another council is called, again with representatives of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Roman legate presented Photios with a pallium sent by the pope. The council fathers abrogated the council of 869-870 and sealed the union of Rome and Constantinople, disrupted by the Photian affair.

This council became important later because it had implicitly condemned the addition of the Filioque to the Creed, an addition which was still rejected in Rome at that time. The fathers condemned those who would “impose on it [the Creed] their own invented phrases … and display the audacity to falsify completely the antiquity of this sacred and venerable rule with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions.” It was not until the eleventh century that Rome would accept the Filioque.

After the eleventh century, when the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople had excommunicated one another, Western canonists began to designate the Council of 869-870 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. Acts of this council are not found in any Byzantine canonical collections, however.

In the fourteenth century, when the controversy between hesychast and scholastic theologians was raging, some Greeks began referring to the Council of 879-880 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. This designation is generally not followed by all Orthodox. In the words of Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev, “Since the seven ecumenical councils represent the fullness of the Church’s teaching, an eighth council is not only superfluous, but also quite dangerous.”

Later Councils

Several other councils have had enough of an impact upon the Churches of East and West that they have been deemed by some to be Ecumenical Councils. In the Greek Church the Hesychast Councils of Constantinople, held between 1341 and 1351 are sometimes referred to as the Ninth Ecumenical Council. This council endorsed the theology of St Gregory Palamas, upholding the distinction between the essence and the energies of God as well as man’s ability to commune with these energies.

Some Orthodox have proposed that the Council of Jassy (1642), which countered some trends from Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, and the Council of Jerusalem (1672), which refuted Calvinism, should also be considered as ecumenical. The encyclical of the 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Churches simply described them as “later councils of universal authority.”

There have been thirteen other councils which Roman Catholics generally consider to have been ecumenical:

Five Lateran Councils (1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, 1512-1517) – chiefly concerned with Western Church discipline and reform;

Two Councils of Lyons (1245, 1274) – The first was concerned with the Crusade led by King Louis IX of France. The second unsuccessfully sought a reunion with the Greek Church.

Council of Vienne (1311-1313) and the Council of Constance (1414-1418) – dealing with local schisms and heretical movements.

Council of Basle-Ferrara-Florence (1431-1439) – concerned with Church reforms and another unsuccessful attempt at reunion with the Greek Church.

Council of Trent (1545-1563) – The Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.

First Vatican Council (1869-1870) – Decreed papal infallibility.

Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) – Concerned with expressing Church teaching and practice in the contemporary world.

While Catholics usually refer to all these councils as ecumenical, many prefer to call the last thirteen “General Councils of the Catholic Church,” more accurately distinguishing them from those which pre- ceded them.
 
10/4/20
DOES CHRIST AS THE IMPOSSIBLE of His disciples? At times it seems so, as when He tells us to “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). This doctrine goes against the ordinary inclinations of people of every society, social class or station in life. As a result it has been routinely ignored by Christians of every age when they are faced with the choice of actually putting it into practice.

This is why many non-believers have seen Christians as hypocrites – teaching this principle in theory but ignoring it in practice. In all honesty, many of us might see ourselves in this criticism leveled by the eighteenth-century political philosopher of the American Revolution Thomas Paine: “Those who preach this doctrine of loving their enemies, are in general the greatest persecutors, and they act consistently by so doing; for the doctrine is hypocritical, and it is natural that hypocrisy should act the reverse of what it preaches.” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason).

In the Old Testament

The Scriptures are full of imprecations against the enemies of Israel. The Torah and the early histories of Israel encourage believing Jews to consider the pagans living in their midst as God’s enemies and, therefore, their own. If they encourage readers to treat their enemies with compassion, it is for a motive other than kindness. The author of Proverbs warns his readers, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Prov 24:17, 18). In other words, don’t rejoice over your enemy’s misfortune or God will restore their good fortune to spite you!

In Proverbs we find another word of advice on dealing with one’s enemies which was apparently well regarded among first-century Jews: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21, 22). The author encourages the doing of good from a base motive – Treat your enemy kindly. You will make him feel guilty and God will bless you in the bargain! This is very far from the New Testament teaching and shows us how far from conventional wisdom, even among God’s People, Christ’s doctrine is.

Imitating God

Christ regularly encouraged His disciples to imitate God’s way rather than man’s. God’s way is, of course, the way of mercy and compassion. God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities, For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Psalms 103:10, 11). While the Jews were long encouraged to trust in God’s mercy, it was Christ who taught us to imitate that compassion in the way we treat others.

The Lord Jesus urged His disciples to strive for perfection in their spiritual lives and He pointed to love for one’s enemies as exemplifying that perfection. Anything less, He identified with the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees. In St Matthew’s Gospel the following injunction concludes and sums up the Sermon on the Mount: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful…  You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:32-36, 43-48). If the aim of the Christian life is to imitate the Lover of Mankind, the chief sign of that way of life is the way we treat our enemies. We can and should act in the image of God.

Perhaps the most striking example of love for ones enemies in the Gospels is the prayer for His killers which Christ offered while hanging on the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). Arrested for preaching in Christ’s name some years later, the first martyr, St Stephen, used his last breath to imitate Christ’s love for His enemies, praying: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60) as he was being stoned by his killers: God, and those who follow His way, do not let themselves be conditioned by the wickedness of others. Even when forgotten or rejected, they continue to be faithful to loving others.

Forgiving through the Holy Spirit

Imitating God in this way isn’t easy. Some say it isn’t even in our power, but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, "The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it."

The ability to love one’s enemies is also closely bound to humility. Almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride: it is from pride that flows the affliction that follows upon insults, hated, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, refusing to forgive him and to be reconciled with him. Pride excludes the love of enemies and love for one’s enemies excludes pride.

When we think of asceticism, we may consider prayer vigils, fasting, or making numerous prostrations. The most challenging ascetical feat, however, is to practice love for one’s enemies.

St Silouan the Athonite on Loving Our Enemies

“He who has not learned to love from the Holy Spirit, will certainly not pray for his enemies.”

"Lord, teach us through Your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears . . . Lord, as You prayed for Your enemies, so teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies."
 
9/27/20
How many TV channels can you access – 300, 400, more? How many do you actually use? How fast can your car travel – 150 mph? How fast do you actually drive? Does your Smartphone have more apps than you’ll ever use? Manufacturers design their products based on the conviction that people want more than they really need. As humorist Will Rogers said back in the 1920s, “Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want to impress people they don't like.”

This dynamic, called consumerism, has been known for over 100 years. As more people became financially able to buy more, do more, and travel more “conspicuous consumption” became a way of life for an increasing number of people, particularly in Europe and America. The great symbol of this phenomenon, at least in the U.S. has been “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, when people descend on stores in a Christmas Shopping frenzy to grab the latest thing before it’s sold out.

Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced a way of life devoted to conspicuous consumption, contrasting it to a Christ-centered way of life. “The encounter with the living Jesus, in the great family that is the Church, fills the heart with joy, because it fills it with true life, a profound goodness that does not pass away or decay.

“But this experience must face the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumerism,” he said before thousands in St Peter’s Square.

“Young people are particularly sensitive to the emptiness of meaning and values that surrounds them. And they, unfortunately, pay the consequences.”

Critics have accused the pope of introducing socialism or even Marxism into Church teaching. In fact, the anti-consumerism he espouses may be found in the New Testament and even in pre-Christian philosophers.

How God Provides

St Paul sets forth his “Christian economics” in 2 Corinthians 9:8 – “God is able to make every gift abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work”. The first plank in his three-fold approach is to recognize that God is able to provide for us. We often emphasize our own contribution to life, forgetting that our talents, our abilities, our very existence comes from God. As we read in the Epistle of James – and repeat regularly in the Divine Liturgy – “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). We are, to be sure, co-creators with Him by virtue of our creation in His image; but there is nothing good wrought by our hand apart from Him.

Secondly, God provides for us in a specific manner. He provides for us all sufficiency in all things. In other words, He guarantees that we have everything we truly need. Third, He guarantees us an abundance, over and above what we need, but for a specific purpose: for every good work. We have enough for what we actually require and even more, for the purpose of doing good.

What Do We “Need?”

St Paul’s economics are easy to understand in principle, but we find ourselves with a lot of questions when we try to apply his teaching. When does “need” – I must have –become “excess” – I can use or I want? And is it good for me to have everything I want and can afford?

We recognize the negative effects on our body if we eat or drink to excess. But there are even more serious effects on our soul. Our physical cravings can lead to a psychological dependency: the feeling that I can’t live without X, Y or Z. Overeating leads to overweight, physical discomfort and illness; overdependence on material things leads to psychological unhappiness and spiritual emptiness.

Philosophers throughout the ancient world recognized this apart from Christianity. Lao-Tzu, the fifth-century bc Chinese author of the Tao Te Ching said it this way: “To know you have enough is to be rich.” The first-century Roman philosopher Seneca noted, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” Another Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, Himself born into slavery, had so freed himself from dependence on the material that he reportedly said in ad 55 that, “Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants.” These pagan philosophers would likely have agreed with the Lord when He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man [i.e. one dependent on his material wealth] to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).

Enough vs. Abundance

St. Paul is clear: the purpose of any abundance we may be given is for doing every good work. Do you have more than you need? Don’t look to add to your holdings – you will simply be frustrating God’s purpose for your life. As the Prophet Isaiah warned those who build their life around making more than they need, “Woe to those who add house to house and field to field… their many houses shall be desolate” (Is 5:8, 9). Wealth, it must be said, is not wrong. Not using it according to God’s plan turns it – and us – aside from God and His way.

Even this is a principle that non-Christians and non-believers of every kind have espoused. This is evident in the way people have made their own the saying “Live simply, so others may simply live.” Non-Christians have attributed it to Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian nationalist or to Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth-century American Transcendentalist thinker. Roman Catholics have found it in the writings of Mother Theresa of Calcutta or in the teachings of their first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. The idea is clearly easy to accept, but demanding when we try to put it in practice.

One help for those who might try to devote their abundance to the doing of good is the teaching of St John Chrysostom. He reminds us that God’s purpose in commanding almsgiving is not only for the sake of the recipient. It is also, if not primarily, for the donor. The recipient of alms receives physical sustenance but the giver of alms grows in his or her spirit, imitating the Giver of all good gifts.

St John Chrysostom on Almsgiving

We are given time by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ for the seeds of almsgiving to fall upon our hearing. Christ has given us the sower to imitate. He sowed his seed on good earth and from it reaped a hundred fold. Hear the message proclaimed by his action.

Behold, the lovers of God, the lovers of honor, and the lovers of the poor are all gathered together as in an arena – God is standing by, receiving the little money given by the lovers of the poor and granting them in exchange the kingdom of heaven. I beg you, let none of us forfeit this grace. Let none of us neglect this great and world-transcending gift for the sake of a little money. I entreat all of you: with diligence let us purchase the kingdom of heaven.
First Homily on Almsgiving

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