Monday, 27 February 2006

Sunday of the Abstention from Meat

Sunday was the Sunday of Abstention from Meat, eight days before the beginning of Lent. The Gospel reading was the Gospel of the Last Judgement, when Jesus Christ will sit on his throne and separate the sheep from the goats. We would like to say a few words about how the Orthodox Christian views the Last Judgement. One way to view the Last Judgement is with indifference. That is not suitable. The next way is with fear. A little fear never hurt anyone. The next way is to await a reward for one's good deeds. The final way is to await the Last Judgement in an expectant attitude of love, as the good and faithful servant. This is the best way.

We have been discussing Elder Porphyrios' remarks in Wounded by Love in the last few posts, so let us remark on how he approached his end. In his testament, he stated that he viewed himself as the worst of sinners. That is remarkable. Elder Porphyrios was a saint and a miracle worker. But, he said, although he was the worst of sinners, he left himself in the hands of the love that Jesus Christ has, resigning himself to the best that Jesus thought for him. Forty days after his death, Elder Porphyrios healed a group of heart patients, the first major miracle after his passing.

We say this because we want to point out that there is a way to view the Last Judgement which is not suitable. This is with an attitude of arrogance: I'm saved, whatever I do, and you're not. What I should do is put you up against the wall until you get saved too. Then we can both be saved whatever we do.

It takes work to arrive at a love which views the Last Judgement—and our own death is our own little Last Judgement—with love and expectancy. We start off with an attitude of fear, working our way through the attitude of the worker expecting his wage, to the attitude of the son waiting to return to his Father and to his Brother Jesus. But to start off with an attitude of arrogance is to short-circuit the whole spiritual journey.

There is another part of the Gospel passage that interests us. This is the very famous statement by Jesus Christ that when he judges he will say to each one that he has done thus and so 'unto me'. And when the nations ask him, when did we do that to you, he will reply, 'As you did unto the least of my brethren, you did unto me.'

Why should it be so? Why should whatever we do unto the least of Jesus' brethren—the most sinful of clergymen, the most nondescript and lowly believer, the most tepid and lukewarm Orthodox Christian—be something that we have done unto Jesus himself? In this is a mystery, the mystery of Christian salvation. For as St John Chrysostom interprets Romans, when we are baptized with an Orthodox baptism, we die with Jesus Christ and shall surely live with him in a resurrection like his. It is our baptism that makes us members of the Body of Christ, whose head is Jesus. What these images convey is the intimate mystical union of Jesus with the Church, and with each believer, so that the body of believers comprises his body; and so that after our death, whatever we have done to the least member of the body of Jesus Christ is reckoned as having been done unto Jesus himself.

We can now see a little more clearly the role of love in our expectation of the Last Judgement: In cultivating true Christian charity—not sentimental affectionateness and backslapping—for each member of the Church, we are cultivating love for our Master, Jesus Christ. Indeed, this is a classic rule of discernment based on the Gospel: when someone comes to you as a Hesychast saint, look at his fruits: does he have real Christian charity? Not just in his words, but in his deeds? We don't look at the clothing of his words, but at the heart of his actions: does he show true Christian charity?

Moreover, in our own lives, do we cultivate true Christian charity towards our brother—and, as St Paul says, towards all men, starting first with the household of faith—or are we merely pretending to pray to our Master: 'Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.'? If we cultivate true Christian charity, it will spill over into our hearts and we will no longer fear the Last Judgement, but as sinners awaiting the mercy of their Master, we will say: Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.


Sunday, 12 February 2006

Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee

We would like to weave three themes into our thoughts today: a passage from Elder Porphyrios’ Wounded by Love, which work we cited here, the Gospel of the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, and the Gospel of the Feast of the Three Hierarchs, which falls today for those of us who follow the old calendar. The passage from Wounded by Love is this:

Let us Love the Church Greatly

So that we preserve our unity, we will have to be obedient to the Church, to its bishops. Being obedient to the Church, we are obedient to Christ himself. Christ wants us to become one flock with one shepherd.

Let us feel pain for the Church. Let us love it greatly. Let us not accept that others condemn its representatives. On Mt Athos the spirit which I learned was Orthodox, deep, holy, silent, without disputes, without quarrels and without expressions of condemnation. Let us not believe those who condemn the clergy. Even if with our own eyes we see something being done by some cleric, let us not believe it, neither let us think about it, neither let us pass it on to others. The same applies to lay members of the Church and to every man. We are all the Church. Those who accuse the Church on account of the errors of its representatives, supposedly with the goal of helping to correct the Church, are making a big mistake. These people do not love the Church. Neither, surely, Christ. We love the Church then, when we embrace with our prayer each of its members and do whatever Christ does. We sacrifice ourselves; we keep vigil; we do our all—just as He did, who, ‘reviled, did not revile in return; suffering, did not threaten’ (1 Pet. 2, 23).

(Our translation from the original Greek version, Bios kai Logoi, p. 206.
Compare pp. 91–2 in Wounded by Love.)

To put Elder Porphyrios’ remarks into context, let us look at the Gospel for today.

The Lord spoke this parable: Two men went up to the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector. Turned unto himself, the Pharisee prayed these things: ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men—plunderers, unjust, adulterers—or even like this Tax Collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tithing of everything I acquire.’

And having stood from afar, the Tax Collector did not even want to raise his eyes to Heaven but was striking his breast, saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

I say to you that this one went down to his house having been justified rather than that one. For every one who raises himself up will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be raised up.

(Luke 18, 10–14.)

Do we here not see the error of those who condemn the clergy? Are they not Pharisees? Are they not raising themselves up as holier than clergy? And—most serious of all—in their arrogance are they not ignoring that it is human to sin and divine to forgive? The sinner can change in Orthodoxy; can become a vessel of election. Moreover, are these people not running the risk of enraging God? For it was the Tax Collector who was justified, not the Pharisee who condemned. If the sinful clergyman repents, will he not be justified? Moreover, if those who condemn the clergy even go so far as to be selective in the evidence they produce of the sins of the clergyman, ignoring mitigating circumstances or changes in the clergyman’s subsequent behaviour, are they not running the risk of bringing the wrath of God down upon themselves? For the clergyman belongs to God. God is not mocked.

Of course, the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee is a key text for an understanding of the Jesus Prayer, of Hesychasm; for an understanding of how it is that we should proceed in Hesychasm. The importance of the parable for Hesychasm is its emphasis on the disposition of the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer: he is to pray the Prayer humbly, really meaning it from the depths of his soul.

The third Gospel text is for the Feast of the Three Hierarchs.

It goes like this:

The Lord said to his disciples: You are the light of the world. It is not possible to hide a city set on a mountain. Men do not light a lamp and set it under a basket, but upon the lamp-stand; and it shines on all those in the house. Let your light thus shine before men that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in the Heavens. Do not think that I came to dissolve the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to dissolve but to fulfil. Amen, I say to you, amen, until Heaven and earth pass, one iota or one tittle shall not pass from the Law until all things take place. Whoever therefore looses one of these commandments and teaches men thus will be called least in the Kingdom of the Heavens. But whoever does and teaches, this one will be called great in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

(Matthew 5, 14–19.)
All the you’s and your’s in the Gospel passage are in the plural.)

May the three Hierarchs, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom, pray for us.

A good Lent to all.

Orthodox Monk