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What don’t you understand?

 

One can say, I don’t understand all this high theology, I don’t understand what Liturgy is all about, I don’t understand how bread and wine can be the body and blood of Christ. One can say any of these things and be sincere. But what don’t you understand about “Go and do likewise”? It’s a simple command, and it needs no theology. And it needs no consecration of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It’s actually a simple command that turns us into the body of Christ, and sometimes even into his blood!

If you are not a neighbor to the homeless, to the persecuted, to the refugee, then you are not following this basic command of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.” Saint John Chrysostom, whose feast day we celebrate today, understood the message, and that is why he was persecuted by the empire and the rich and powerful 1600 years ago. The church honored him after his death with the title Chrysostomos – the “golden-mouthed”. The Liturgy we celebrate today and most days of the year is named after him.

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But was he golden-mouthed only because he was an eloquent preacher? His preaching was consumed with a passion for the poor and the homeless, the ignored of society. He spoke of the oil of mercy (referring to the parable of the maidens and the bridegroom). “Who are the merchants of this oil? The poor, who are sitting in front of the church, waiting for your mercy! You have money? Buy heaven! You don’t have money? Give a cup of cool water.”

“The poor are physicians of the soul, your benefactors and protectors. You receive more than you give. You give silver and receive the kingdom of heaven. You wash your hands before you pray. God has placed the poor at the doors of the church so that before you enter to pray you wash your hands with philanthropy.”

Δύο νιπτήρες εισι προ των πυλών της εκκλησίας˙ μία του ύδατος, εν ή νίπτεις τας χείρας, και μία η χείρ του πένητος, εν ή αποσμήχεις (purify) την ψυχήν σου. Εισέρχου εις την εκκλησίαν, και νίπτε τας χείρας σου˙ επίδος εις την χείρα του πένητος οβολόν, και απόσμηχε την ψυχήν σου. Εάν δε εισέλθης και νίψης και εύξη, τω δε πένητι μηδέν επιδώσης, τί όφελος;

“There are two fonts at the entrance of the church: one with water, in which you wash your hands; and the other the hand of the beggar, in which you purify your soul. Enter into the church, and wash your hands; give your offering to the hand of the beggar, and purify your soul. If you enter and wash your hands and pray, but give nothing to the beggar, what’s the point?”

On the very first day of Lent, we read from the first chapter of Isaiah. We enter Lent with these extraordinary words. It is God who speaks:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Is there any difference between today’s Parable of the Good Samaritan and this passage written by Isaiah 700 years before Christ? God has a passion for us human beings. He desires that we have com-passion for each other, for the poor, the homeless, the refugee.

Τουτό εστιν, ώ εξισούσθαι δυνάμεθα τω θεώ, ελεείν. An amazing statement by Chrysostom: “This is the means by which we become equal to God (in the sense that we are put on the same level with God), by being merciful.”

But you will protest that we live in very different times than Chrysostom. Indeed, it is hard to tell who is really poor and who isn’t – though we all know that there is real poverty in our society. Many people are afraid of refugees – maybe some of them are terrorists. Highly unlikely, but a real, justified fear nevertheless. So what do we do? Well, you can get involved in an organized effort to help the poor, to promote social justice, to alleviate poverty in our city, state or country. For starters, you can work in a food pantry or a soup kitchen. Perhaps you might want to start something like that in our own church, in our own parish house. Perhaps you might want to help a halfway house or one of the shelters in our city for abused women. You might want to volunteer at one of our hospitals or nursing homes. Perhaps you might want to form a small group that will visit nursing homes or the Veterans Home in Scarborough. There are lonely people all around us. They might not all be poor, but they lack human companionship. Perhaps you can organize to drive people to church some Sundays, if not every Sunday. The possibilities are endless.

Icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with Jesus himself in the role of the Samaritan. He is our peace, our shalom.

In this icon illustrating the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus himself is the Samaritan, showing us also the path to sharing his life, by being compassionate.

We can all be good Samaritans. And all of us are in one way or another like the man who was beaten and left for dead. We need each other. This is where the gospel of Jesus Christ begins. This is always where John Chrysostom began. So we honor him as the great teacher of mercy and compassion.


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The Passions of God

 

Fr. Sophrony Sakharov, a highly esteemed Russian monk who died in 1993 at his monastery in England, used to say, ‘To be a Christian, one must be like an artist.’ Just as artists are captivated by the subjects they paint and by the desire to portray them as perfectly as possible, so too the Christian is captivated by Christ and by a desire to attain to His endless perfection. ‘I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own’ (Philippians 3:12).

The Christian life is meant to be a masterpiece of sublime art because God is an artist. And God’s masterpiece is the product of his love. God’s love is infinite and glorious, a mystery beyond human comprehension. It is the mystery of the Holy Trinity. “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). The Son gave himself “for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Galatians 1:4). And the Holy Spirit also offers himself, in order to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13) of the fullness of God’s love.

1113achrysostomΕπεθύμησε πόρνης, John Chrysostom said in one of his sermons. God desired a harlot. God desired a humanity that had gone astray, that had sold itself to sinful, self-serving, self-pleasing behavior. But he did not send a servant, or an angel or archangel, not the cherubim or the seraphim. He himself came as a lover.

God desired a harlot. And what did he do? Chrysostom asks. He continues (in my translation). Because she could not rise to the heights, he came down to the low depths. He comes to her hut. He sees her drunk. And how does he come? Not with divinity shining, but he comes as she is – so as not to terrify her and cause her to run away.

He finds her wounded, wild and unkempt. And what does he do? He takes her as wife. And what does he give her? A ring. What ring? The Holy Spirit!

He tells her: Didn’t I plant you in Paradise?

Yes, she says.

How did you fall out from there?

The devil came and took me out of paradise.

So you were planted in paradise and he took you out. Here, I will plant you in me. No one dares approach me. I the shepherd hold you and the wolf does not come.

But I am sinful and dirty.

Don’t worry, I am a doctor.

Look at what he does, so that you may learn the love of the Bridegroom, ίνα μάθης του νυμφίου τον έρωτα. This is the way of the lover: He does not ask for causes and reasons or a rendering of accounts, but he forgives and he heals. Τούτο ερώντος, το μή απαιτήσαι ευθύνας αμαρτημάτων…

Throughout this imagery, Chrysostom uses the word eros, not agape! So God is ο ερών, ο ερωτευμένος in modern Greek, the lover. Chrysostom does not use the New Testament word agape because he really wants to speak the language of human love and human passion. Chrysostom’s God is not the dispassionate god of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers. Chrysostom has no use for classical Greek ideas and images. He was steeped in biblical language – and in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, God is passionate; God is a passionate lover. God is intoxicated with love for humanity. That kind of love does not see ugliness, Chrysostom says. The lover doesn’t care much about his behavior or what others will say – ουκ εξετάζει τρόπον: he doesn’t calculate how he is to behave. This is what Christ did: He saw the ugliness of humanity, he loved us – and he renews us.

Ώ νυμφίου καλλωπίζοντος αμορφίαν νύμφης!

Oh, Bridegroom, you make beautiful the ugliness of the bride!

Ugliness is such a terrible English word, and it doesn’t capture the Greek αμορφία – which literally means lacking form, μορφή; so img_0508αμορφία is formlessness, formless chaos (as in Genesis 1:2), unshapeliness. So human nature is not so much ugly in the conventional sense, but lacking form, lacking order, lacking the beauty that God originally meant – waiting to be recreated and renewed as the universe was waiting for God’s ordering Word in the beginning of Genesis.

Chrysostom captured the meaning of our Gospel reading today – “God so loved the world…” – in this little parable that I came across when looking through an old theological magazine from 1982 – issue no. 2 of Σύναξη, Τριμηνιαία έκδοση σπουδής στην Ορθοδοξία, a magazine still published in Greece every three months, now in its 35th year.


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When our thinking is turned upside down

A few years ago two important books were published: Debt, the First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber (2011, revised 2014); and Le Capital au XXI siècle (2013) by the French economist Thomas Piketty, quickly translated into English as Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and many other languages. Piketty’s book became an immediate sensation and bestseller and is probably the most important and most-discussed book of the 21st century, so far. It’s a bit too technical for my small brain, so I prefer Graeber’s book, which you can buy locally at Bullmoose or online at Amazon or any of its international branches.

I was reading a chapter of Graeber’s book this morning and came across an amazing anecdote (pages 92-93), an incident in the life of the British missionary, Rev. W.H. Beatley in the Congo (19th or early 20th century?):

A day or two after we reached Vana we found one of the natives very ill with pneumonia. Comber treated him and kept him alive on strong fowl-soup; a great deal of careful nursing and attention was visited on him, for his house was beside the camp. When we were ready to go on our way again, the man was well. To our astonishment he came and asked us for a present, and was as astonished and disgusted as he had made us to be, when we declined giving it. We suggested that it was his place to bring us a present and to show some gratitude. He said to us, “Well indeed! You white men have no shame!”

The story stopped me in my tracks and I didn’t continue reading. It is a story that could very well have been a parable by Jesus. This is the kind of story that Jesus loved to tell – a story that turns the tables on all our expectations. Jesus was good at it, but reality is often stranger than fiction, and even Jesus rarely told a story so surprising as this one.

This story strikes at the very heart of our thinking. We expect to be thanked! We expect people to feel indebted to us when we do something good for them. It’s part of our contemporary language: “You owe me.” We’ve all used that phrase at one time or another, or at least thought it. I know I have said it and thought it!

What the missionary failed to understand is what we also fail to understand: It is the most blessed thing to help someone. When I do good – even when I do it grudgingly – I feel blessed, I feel better about myself and my purpose for living in this world. Saint John Chrysostom (lived 347-409) used to preach to his congregations in ancient Antioch and Constantinople that the poor man begging at the entrance of the church is a superior altar table than the one inside the church where the priest stands and offers the eucharistia!

“The temple of our afflicted neighbor’s body is more holy than the altar on which you celebrate the holy offering. You are able to contemplate this altar everywhere, in the street and in the open squares.”

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Imagine a priest today saying something like that in any of our churches. He would be reported to a bishop and told to never say something like that again. Of course I’m safe from such discipline here because I’m quoting a saint of the church. It seems that the only way you can challenge common perceptions in the church is to quote a rebel saint from the past, and Chrysostom was in many ways a rebel saint. He focused on precisely those same things that Pope Francis is most concerned about – poverty and the misuse of money – and we know how Francis has been attacked in certain quarters.

But do you see what Chrysostom was trying to say? The very thing the missionary could not understand. When you help someone needy, you should thank that person rather than wait for that person to thank you!

Here’s how Chrysostom put it in one of his sermons:

Helping a person in need is good in itself. But the degree of goodness is hugely affected by the attitude with which it is done. If you show resentment because you are helping the person out of a reluctant sense of duty, then the person may recieve your help but may feel awkward and embarrassed. This is because he will feel beholden to you. If,on the other hand, you help the person in a spirit of joy, then the help will be received joyfully. The person will feel neither demeaned nor humiliated by your help, but rather will feel glad to have caused you pleasure by receiving your help. And joy is the appropriate attitude with which to help others because acts of generosity are a source of blessing to the giver as well as the receiver.

Both the giver and the receiver are blessed. In his rather shocking way, the man in the story was trying to teach the missionary something that is easily missed by most Christians. By reaching out to another person you are offering greater worship than anything you can offer inside a church! Again, not my opinion but that of Saint John Chrysostom, whose Liturgy we do on Sundays.

The man in the story and Chrysostom did what Jesus loved to do: turn people’s thinking upside down. The last shall be first, Jesus loved to say. That goes against everything we usually think. We follow every story about celebrities, big-time successful people, and politicians. But they are not necessarily the ones God has his eyes on. No, it’s more likely the man who shocked the missionary rather than the missionary!

 

Here are some words of Saint John Chrysostom to help you turn your own thinking upside down!

If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.

Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing … Every family should have a room where Christ is welcomed in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger. The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; the poor are an altar that you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer the liturgy at any hour.

Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.

Would you honor the body of Christ? Do not despise his nakedness; do not honor him here in church clothed in silk vestments and then pass him by unclothed and frozen outside. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same that said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor.. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

I am not saying you should not give golden altar vessels and so on, but I am insisting that nothing can take the place of almsgiving. The Lord will not refuse to accept the first kind of gift but he prefers the second, and quite naturally, because in the first case only the donor benefits, in the second case the poor gets the benefit. The gift of a chalice may be ostentatious; almsgiving is pure benevolence.

What is the use of loading Christ’s table with gold cups while he himself is starving? Feed the hungry and then if you have any money left over, spend it on the altar table. Will you make a cup of gold and without a cup of water? What use is it to adorn the altar with cloth of gold hangings and deny Christ a coat for his back! What would that profit you?

It is no wonder that Chrysostom was attacked by the powerful and was eventually exiled by the Byzantine emperor. That’s right, the emperor who usually stood in the most important place at the Liturgy exiled the man who was trying to bring the emperor’s mind into harmony with Christ’s mind. But Chrysostom was not against money and the rich per se; his attacks were aimed at the misuses and selfish use of money:

I am often reproached for continually attacking the rich. Yes, because the rich are continually attacking the poor. But those I attack are not the rich as such, only those who misuse their wealth. I point out constantly that those I accuse are not the rich but the rapacious. Wealth is one thing, covetousness another. Learn to distinguish.

Many people today cannot understand the words of Chrysostom. We look up to people of great wealth, and many of us look down on the poor, often blaming them for their own poverty because they are lazy or addicts. Or, they take the easy way out by claiming it’s God’s will for them to be poor. Such thinking is nothing new, it’s an age-old prejudice. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390) had some words for that thinking:

There are some even among our own people, a thing that makes one weep, who, far from helping or having compassion on these poor sick, will reproach them bitterly, insult them, make up empty, foolish speculations about them; and truly, out of the ground they mutter speeches, and voices are heard in the air; not in the ears that used to and understand holy teachings. And they have the audacity to go further, and to say: ‘their affliction is from God; and our good health comes from God. And who am I to undo the decree of God, and put myself forward as more kind than God? They are sick. Let them be sick! Let them be afflicted! Let them suffer misfortune! This is the will of God!

Saint Gregory is one of the most highly regarded of all saints of the Orthodox Church, and is honored together with Chrysostom and St. Basil every year on January 30th. So highly is he regarded that he has been honored with the name “St. Gregory the Theologian”! Theologian because he plumbed the deepest truths about Christ and the Trinity. But theologian also because he saw Christ beyond theology! He saw Christ in the poor, just as Chrysostom did. That is theology at its purest!

An interesting icon showing the Three Hierarchs (Gregory, Chrysostom & Basil) as enlighteners for all the ages. Pardon the exclusively male images in this icon. It's a weakness of Orthodox tradition. (Click to enlarge.)

An interesting Greek icon showing the Three Hierarchs (Gregory, Chrysostom & Basil) as enlighteners for all the ages. Pardon the exclusively male images in this icon. It’s a weakness of Orthodox tradition. (Click to enlarge.)