Sunday, September 09, 2007

Love Makes It Easy: Sunday after Holy Cross (Mark 8:34-38; 9:1)

Sunday after Holy Cross
The Reading is from Mark 8:34-38; 9:1

The Lord said: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

Just to the left of my computer, at the corner of my desk, is a small, wooden three bar cross--what sometimes in called (erroneously) a Russian Cross. I have had this cross for 20 years--it is a cheaply made cross, in fact I have to glue it back together every year or so, but I love it.

Above my desk is another cross--in fact it is twin of the one in the upper left corner of this post. It was a gift from my friend Fr Michael and his wife Annette when I was ordained to the priesthood. Above the wall cross is the icon Extreme Humility, one of the first icons I every bought.

It is surprisingly easy to own these reminders of the Cross of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. More difficult is the task of actually picking up the Cross when it comes to me in the ebb and flow of my daily life.

Some Christians, hearing the command to pick up their cross and follow Jesus Christ, simply don't, they simply reject their cross.

Others having picked it up, glory in their suffering. But they never quite seem to get around to following Christ.

In the first case, people are frightened by the enormity of the task. In one of his homilies St Augustine tells these people:
How hard and painful does this appear! The Lord has required that "whoever will come after him must deny himself." But what He commands is neither hard nor painful when He Himself helps us in such a way so that the very thing He requires may be accomplished. . . . For whatever seems hard in what is enjoined, love makes easy.
Not just to modern ears do Augustine's words sound odd. How can it be easy to bear our cross--after all if it is easy it can't be a cross, right?

Terullian offers us an explanation. He writes that the Cross is simply "your own anxieties and our your sufferings in your own body, which is itself shaped in a way already like a cross." The cross then is already with us--it is an inescapable part of simply being alive. In this light, picking up the cross means learning to bear with our anxieties and sufferings in such a way that we not only remain faithful to Christ, but draw nearer to Him.

So, the first person, the person who does not want to pick up his cross, is the person who flees from responsibility for his own life. Not picking up the cross means escaping into a fantasy world in which I some how manage to convince myself that I am exempt from the ordinary anxieties and suffering that the rest of the human race has to bear.

But what about the second person--the one who does willingly, even hurriedly, picks up his cross, but doesn't follow Christ?

This second group turn the Gospel into something confused and unhealthy, a spiritual and theological justification or apology for their own sadomasochistic tendencies. For these people, the whole point of the Gospel is suffering--they forget that, well, let me again borrow from St Augustine:
This precept by which we are enjoined to lose our life does not mean a person should kill himself, which would be an unforgivable crime, but it does mean that one should kill that in oneself which is unduly attached to the earthly, which makes one take inordinate pleasure in this present life to the neglect of the life to come. This is the meaning of "shall hate this life" and "shall lose it." Embedded in the same admonition he speaks openly of the profit of gaining one's life when He says: "He that loses his life in this world shall find it unto eternal life.
Augustine writes this well before the Reformation, much less the Puritan movement or stereotypical sober Calvinists, or Janesists, or phlegmatic 19th century monastic obsessed Russians (I mention these simply to be fair). From very early on, Christians have been tempted to avoid following Jesus Christ.

In some cases we don't want the Cross--in other cases we don't want the reward. But in both cases, we reveal ourselves as ashamed of Christ and the Gospel. "Does he think himself a Christian who is either ashamed or fears to be a Christian?" St Cyprian asks. And then he asks again: "How can he be with Christ who either blushes or fears to belong to Christ?"

While the actions are different for the two classes I mentioned above, I think Cyprian's questions reveal their common foundation: Shame and fear. In my own life at least, I see how one is the source of the other: Shame breeds fear, and fear breeds shame. Not a very profound insight on my part I admit, but, well there it is anyway.

Christ comes to free us from, among other things, a life of fear and shame. Ironically, it is these very two things which not only bind us, but also keep us from accepting Christ's liberating and healing grace. As I think about this struggle, I remember the spirited conversation between Chrys and Sherry in the combo box to Saturday's post about my participation in an upcoming Called and Gifted workshop.

I think that they are both right in what they affirm.

Chrys alluded to the importance of asceticism, and by this he meant the unapologetically physical asceticism that is so honored and loved, albeit in the breach, by the Christian East. This means not only fasting and abstinence (the former of which is sadly neglected among the Orthodox), but also almsgiving and a life of prayer that is physically demanding (which means we actually have to be in church on time and not cut the services, but that's another post). Asceticism in this sense is essential to helping us overcome shame and fear.

But there is another kind of asceticism, or maybe another dimension of asceticism that Sherry alludes to (and which Tertullian would also value). It requires a real, ascetical, effort both to discern, and then remain faithful, to our unique vocations. In his treatise on the priesthood, St John Chrysostom (I don't have the exact quote off hand so I must paraphrase) says that it doesn't matter much to the life of the Church if a priest doesn't fast or keep vigil, as long as he treats all people equally. In other words, the key for Chrysostom to a health Church is that we remain faithful to our vocation.

I think that one reason for the division we see not only between Catholics and Orthodox, but also within these two Churches, is the lack of a clear commitment--and who knows even awareness--of our respective communal vocation. But, I digress.

We ought not to oppose these different kinds of asceticisms--they are all part and parcel of picking up the Cross and following Christ. I know in my own spiritual life, asceticism as Chrys alludes to it has strengthened (to borrow from Sherry) my vocational commitment as a husband and priest. Likewise, as I grow in my understanding of what it means to follow Christ as a married priest, I have a greater appreciation for asceticism that I would have not so long ago dismissed as "monastic" (which is like saying "He's throws like a girl," all it does disparage one by disparaging the other).

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, and the commentaries offered by the Fathers on the text, challenge us all to deepen our commitment to the Most Holy Trinity. At heart of this commitment is our own willingness, even our eagerness, to take up our own cross and to willingly integrate in to our lives the different dimensions of asceticism that our cross brings us. Failing this, well, the Cross becomes just another pretty bit of "Christian" art--but when that happens we rob ourselves and others of the power oft the Cross of Christ to save us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Humility of the Everyday

This morning I served Orthros & Liturgy at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA. I have a rather soft spot in my heart for the Cathedral community--I was ordained to the holy priesthood there on their feast day (St Nicholas, 6 December) in, well, let's just say awhile ago and the dean (Fr Sarantos Serviou) community has always been very welcoming to both my wife Mary and I. In addition for the 18 months before we left Pittsburgh, St Nicholas was also the home of the OCF group I served as chaplain. The students and I would meet on Wednesday morning at 7am for Divine Liturgy and Thursday evenings at 7.30pm for Vespers and Bible study. During Great Lent, since we don't celebrate the Divine Liturgy on weekdays, the students would come on Friday mornings (again at 7.00am!!) for Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts (Vesper and Holy Communion).

So all in all, St Nicholas Cathedral has played a significant role in my ministry as an Orthodox priest and i am looking forward to spending the next few weeks with them while Fr Serviou is on vacation in Greece.

As I was driving in to Pittsburgh this morning from Youngstown, I was listening America Public Media's radio program Speaking of Faith. The guest on this mornings program was Conservative rabbi Sharon Brous, who spoke about (according to the program's web site) "the world and meaning of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days — from the new year of Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur's rituals of atonement — a span of ten days known as the Days of Awe."

My guess is that Rabbi Brous and I would disagree on, oh any number of things. But what we would agree on was her profound insight that--amidst the "big story" of salvation history--we ought not lose sight of the many "little stories" that come in between the big, life changing events that we tend to remember.

So while it is import for Christian, in my own case, to remain always faithful to Christ, the quality of my fidelity is questionable if, for example, I can't treat the people I meet on a daily basis with respect and courtesy. This is precisely the point that the Apostle John makes in his epistle (1 Jn 4):

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (7-11).
To love as the Apostle suggests requires from us repentance. While there are many different forms that repentance can take, I suggest in the sermon a way to foster repentance in our hearts.

Earlier this week I was reading the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (Monastic Wisdom). In one of his letters he writes about the importance of self-knowledge in the spiritual life. But in the process, he says something that I found not only profound, but beautiful. He asks rhetorically:
Who has conquered the devil? He who knows his own weaknesses, passions, and shortcomings. Whoever is afraid of knowing himself remains far from knowledge, and he doesn't love anything except seeing faults in others and judging them. He doesn't see gifts in other people, but only shortcomings. And he doesn't see his own shortcomings, but only his gifts. This is truly the sickness that plagues us . . . : we fail to recognize one another's gifts. One person may lack many things, but many people together have everything. What one person lacks, another person has. If we acknowledge this, we would have a great deal of humility, because God, Who adorned men in many ways (p. 50).
With the Elder's words in mind, I suggested to people that, if they wished to be transformed by Christ, if they wished to be freed from the jealousy, anxiety and petty angers that often consume us, then the place to start is thanking God for the good things they see in the lives of others. This, I think, leads us naturally to loving other people as God loves them, and eventually wears down the hard outer shell that sin places around our hearts.

To return to the rabbi's observation: This thankfulness of what God has given my neighbor, my friend, my co-worker, my spouse or family member, is best done by paying attention to the "little stories" that make up our lives.

Will this be sufficient to transform the human heart? I don't know, but it is a good start, after all, how many marriage really break up over big things? It seems to me that, the big things that undermine a marriage are really just the aggregate of little things over time.

And it this is what I think I appreciate most about St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, they are most people who attend to the "little things" in human life. It is there, in the rather ordinary bits and pieces that make up everyday life that they demonstrate their faith in Jesus Christ.

It is this, the humility of the everyday, that I think most pleases Christ.

Well, speaking of humility of the everyday, it is my turn to cook dinner.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory