12 March 2012

Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a time of restraint and self-control. It is time when we earnestly strive to live within boundaries, not just in what we eat but also with the words we use, in what possesses our imagination, and in how we treat another.

Lent is a time when we stop focusing on our wants and desires. For only when we limit our self-gratifications and discipline our passions can we truly begin to see what God wills. And only when we control our appetites can we truly begin to see what others need.

Lent, then, is a time when we push aside our needs and put ourselves in the background, and instead have the Word of God take first place and likewise let the needs of others come before what we like.

05 March 2012

Faith alone is not enough

Very few folks in America vote against God. The vast majority say they believe in God. The better questions is which god they believe in, and what they believe about God. But rarely are those questions pursued in public discourse or even in "mass evangelization." For our nations Protestant roots have embedded in us the notion that it is simply enough to believe. So much is this false notion emdedded within us that we often hear the slogan absent the object: "Just have faith" or "You've gotta believe." As if faith alone is enough.

Commenting on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, St Augustine confronts head-on the false theology which says that faith alone is sufficient. When examining that scene, he points out that Our Lord charges the condemned "with having failed, not in faith, but in good works."
He does not rebuke them because they have not believed in him, but because they have not done any good works. For assuredly, lest anyone should promise himself eternal life by reason of his faith (which without works is dead), He went on to say that He would separate all nations, which before had been herded together, and were accustomed to use the same pastures... These [condemned] had believed in Him, but had not taken pains to do good works, as though they could achieve eternal life by means of that same dead faith.
Notice how our holy father among the saints characterizes the understanding of faith alone, or faith without works. He says that it is "dead faith." Living faith, however, is what Our Lord desires; and it is that faith which attains eternal blessedness and grants us the beatific vision. This living faith is active in love; in fact, the two are inseparable. For to believe in God is both to love Him and to love Him in others.

St Augustine indicates that this is the point that not only St James, but also St Paul also makes when he says, "Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

04 March 2012

Kissing Metal

Amongst the Byzantine and Slavonic Orthodox churches, the First Sunday in Lent is known as the "Orthodoxy Sunday" or "Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy." That day commemorates both those who suffered or were martyred for defending icons, and the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. Above all else, this Sunday reiterates the confession that in Christ God assumed created matter, and so is able to be depicted. Hence, the prohibitions in the Old Testament do not apply to Christ Jesus or His saints (in whom He lives), or any likeness (e.g., dove or cloud) in which the Divine reveals Himself. (As an aside, while the West did not suffer iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, they consistently agreed with the doctrine and confession of the Eastern churches.)

Icons are not only the chief expression of this doctrine; they are a particular visible form of confession amongst the Orthodox generally and the Byzantine and Slavonic churches specifically. Hence, icons are consistently venerated, particularly by being kissed. (Notice: there is a clear distinction linguistically and theologically between "veneration" and "worship.") These icons are made of various media; most commonly painted wood, mosaics, or enameled or painted or engraved metal.

Because of our practice of venerating icons, Orthodox Christians are often accused of greater or lesser degrees of idolatry. The most virulent will recite the words, "Thou shalt not make any graven image/icon" while others will confuse the veneration of the icons with the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In the case of the former, the particular doctrine described above is not understood; in the case of the latter, the distinction between sacrament and sacramental is lost.

The irony of this criticism is clearly shown when one remembers the ceremony that took place a few weeks ago at the end of the Super Bowl. One by one, players and coaches from the victorious New York Giants football team lined up to kiss the Lombardi trophy. No one took that ceremony as strange. No one accused these men who were kissing engraved metal of idolatry. In fact, most everyone understood what they were doing - giving true lip-service to their joy at having reached their season-long goal.

If football players are permitted to kiss their metallic symbol, then why should anyone look askance when Orthodox Christians affectionately kiss their symbols of faith? If athletes can venerate their signs of victory, then why is it hard to understand Orthodox Christians who venerate the signs of their Victor and victors? If it is accepted when others hug tightly those things which depict such mundane and fading accomplishments, then surely there should be no qualms with Orthodox Christians embracing sacramentals which which depict their God and Lord, and His glory in His saints.

Of course, there are qualms; the veneration is not understood; and the kisses are denounced. And I suggest that this occurs because those who reject such Christian piety understand precisely what the Orthodox Christian is doing; he is confessing that Him whom the world cannot contain was conceived in the flesh of the Virgin; and that this same Virgin together with all the saints pinned their hopes to their undying victory in this God-Man.

HT: Fr William Bartz, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Detroit and homilist at the COCC (Metro Detroit) Inter-Orthodox Lenten Vespers at St Mary's Basilica.

02 March 2012

Doing the Impossible - Loving Your Enemies

The words "Love your enemies" are the most radical of all words ever spoken. No other religion or philosophy urges such a demanding and seemingly impossible thing. Most religions and philosophies entreat their followers to follow the "golden rule." Words similar to that rule articulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount can be found in the teachings of Confucious, for example. However, even the gentlest of philosophers never urged his disciples to love his enemies. The closest that one comes to that command apart from Jesus is the notion not to hate your enemies.

What does it mean, then, to love your enemies. To love is to sacrifice. That is how love looks, how love lives. It is more than an emotion or feeling; it is stronger than liking; it far exceeds tolerance or the lack of hatred. To love means to give all that you have and all that you are to another. To love your enemy means, therefore, to be willing to sacrifice yourself and your goods for the person who is set on killing you.

Most men do not let Jesus' words, "Love your enemies," stand as bare as they truly are. Instead, they interpret them ironically or paradoxically. Yet Jesus is not speaking sardonically, or commanding the impossible. To be sure, these words seem impossible to live and, at the least, demand the very difficult. But as we consider these words, it is good to keep in mind what our holy father in the faith, St Jerome, once wrote about them: "Many people measure the precepts of God by their own weakness rather than by the strength of the saints." He then points to the examples of David loving Saul and Absalom; of Stephen loving those who stoned him; and of Paul being willing to be damned in order to save his persecutors.

And then, of course, there is the example of Our Lord Himself. When He commands us to love our enemies, Jesus is merely imploring His disciples to follow in the path that He trod; to love as He loves. And in doing so, Our Lord knows that such such is able to convert an enemy to a friend.