The first catholic epistle of the Holy Apostle Peter instructs the faithful to “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), and it is true that we must love one another. In fact, St. John records it in his Gospel as nothing short of a commandment from the Lord, who said “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It is imperative, then, that we love one another. It is not optional. The loveless life is a graceless life, one that is unredeemed and ultimately unchristian. However, when we talk about loving one another, we often forget that love is often called upon to make sacrifices peculiar to itself; by this I mean that love, by its nature, desires closeness, joy, happiness, filial feeling, loyalty, devotion…but in fulfilling these (and by no means is this an exhaustive list), love sometimes has to rebuke, reprove, and correct. Did St. Paul love the Thessalonians any less for having to reprove them? In the Apocalypse, does not Jesus himself reprove the Churches? And who would suggest that He does so out of malice or maliciousness, and not out of his deep and abiding love for the sheep of His fold?

So the commandment to love one another, even as He loves us, must be remembered in this light; often we hear that we need to “speak the truth in love” and that is absolutely so. However, very often, this is just an excuse to avoid confrontation, possible hurt feelings, and as an excuse to keep from exercising our responsibility to love in this way. And so it is that sometimes, lest we be accounted puffed up and prideful, we will avoid these situations entirely, saying that it would be judgmental or uncharitable to say clearly what is the truth. But let us take a lesson from the Desert Fathers:

It was said concerning Abba  Agathon that some monks came  to find him  having
heard tell  of his great  discernment.  Wanting to  see  if he would  lose his
temper they  said  to him  'Aren't  you that   Agathon who is   said to  be  a
fornicator and a proud man?' 'Yes, it  is very true,'  he  answered. They
resumed, 'Aren't you  that Agothon who is always talking  nonsense?' 'I am."
Again they said 'Aren't you Agothon the heretic?' But at that he replied 'I am
not a heretic.' So they asked him, 'Tell us why  you accepted everything we
cast you, but repudiated this last insult.' He replied 'The first accusations
I take to myself for that is  good for my soul. But  heresy is separation from
God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.' At  this saying they were
astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.

The great desert father, Agathon, would not consent to being called a heretic; heresy, he says, is separation from God. Even though he showed mercy to others and accused only himself of great sins, he nevertheless took heresy and heretical teaching very, very seriously.  Abba Agathon understood that the slightest deflection of the truth would lead one into a plentitude of errors. And so we must also understand this, and not shrink away from making out boast in the Lord and His Church and its eternal truth–which is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Let us be unafraid to love our fellow Christians enough to reprove them in their errors…not in some kind of crusading, arrogant, condescending way, but honestly, frankly, and without compromising the Truth for the sake of appearing charitable. Because charity that doesn’t hurt a little, that doesn’t cost us anything, isn’t charity at all.

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It is always particularly interesting to me when the Gospel reading has Jesus issuing some command, and today’s very short Gospel lesson has a number of interesting features.  In fact, it covers a somewhat famous event, but I think that there is some deeper meaning than that understanding with which I grew up.  So, let’s take a minute and read over the passage from St. Mark VII:30-34:

And he charged them that they should tell no man of him. And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the presbyters, and the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he spoke that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about, and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men. And when he had called the people [to him] with his disciples also, he said to them, Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

This follows directly from yesterday’s reading, where Christ heals the blind man by spitting on his eyes.  This is one of those curious passages where Jesus strictly charges both the man he healed, and those who witnessed the healing, to say nothing about it.  Of course, the scriptures tell us in many places that often, these commands were not heeded.  But what is more curious, to me at least, is that He here goes immediately into teaching about His death and resurrection.  Almost as if there were a causal connexion.

Which, of course, there is.

As in the parable about the man who owned a vineyard, and improved it, and let it out to tenants who beat and stoned his servants, and finally conspired to murder his heir and take his inheritance, here we see that the chief men of Israel (the presbyters, chief priests, and scribes) reject Jesus for the very reason that He came to those who were lowly and in need, and rejected the way of temporal power.  He was not the sort of Messias they had been expecting; and it seems from the reading here today, His teaching on this matter was not what Peter–who, let us remember, was the first to confess Him as God–had been expecting either.

How often it is that I am like Peter.  I know that He is God, but rather than bring that understanding the the fore and interpret everything that I see through that one truth, I more often than not ‘savorest the things that are of men.’ I was raised in a tradition where that is what prayer was: asking God to do things for you.  Old habits die hard–especially when one is unwilling to crucify ones self upon one’s cross.  And yet, that is precisely how today’s teaching ends, with Jesus telling all of us “Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John tells us that after He told the people that they could not be saved unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood, many left Him because of this hard teaching.  Times like this morning, I feel far more wretched than they, because I believe that at the Eucharist I partake of His very Body and His very Blood, but I imagine myself to be greater than my Master.  “He was crucified for me” takes on a dangerous meaning in the minds of many; yes, He was crucified for each of us, to destroy Death in His flesh and make an end of the Law of Sin and Death…but He was not crucified so that we do not have to suffer our own cross, following Him and His example.  Today’s Gospel clearly teaches that this worldly understanding that “Christ did it for me” is of the things of men–and of Satan.  And if St. Peter, who was the first to confess Him, who saw Him transfigured upon Mt. Tabor, could fall into that trap, then so can any one of us.

May Christ, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief, illumine and enlighten all of us through the coming Feast of His Nativity according to the flesh. Amen.

Dominus vobiscum+

(Abba Isaiah) also said ‘When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will,  he then allows  it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.’

It strikes me every year as we pull out the Lenten Triodion on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, marking the beginning of the Lenten season, how much rebellion, how much hopeless self-will I continually pursue.  Being the unrepentant hedonist that I am, I continually complain and grumble over every little misfortune that comes my way, and yet, all too often I forget to bless and thank God for even the great things he has done for me (to say nothing of learning to actually thank Him for even my adversities).  Like a petulant child, I spend large portions of the year neglecting Him, forgetting Him, and relegating Him to my often-unused prayer corner and Sunday mornings.

Picking up the Desert Fathers always makes me realize something else about myself, something else that I’d rather forget, ignore, and lock up in a box under my bed.  Today, Abba Isaiah reminds me that it is God’s pity which sends misfortune and disaster upon the rebellious man, so that that man will suffer the pangs of desire for that which he ultimately does not want, so that he will come to himself, and realize that what he truly desires is God.

To come to one’s self is an important concept.  The Gospel tells us that, while lying in the mud with the swine and coveting their food, the Prodigal Son “came to himself” and realized that he would be better off even as a servant in the house of his father.  With the Sunday of the Prodigal coming up this weekend, reflecting on such an understanding of the suffering of rebellion takes on a much more poignant meaning to me.  Have I come to myself?  Or am I only dimly walking about in the shadows of death that permeate the world—that highlight the darkness of the world that I carry within me?

Lord, have mercy upon me, and show the light of Thy countenance upon me, revealing to me that which causes me to separate myself from Thee, that I may bring this brokenness and lay at Thy pierced feet.  Amen.

In considering that Sunday marked the anniversary of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which reaffirmed the Faith of the Fathers of the previous six councils of the Church, and returned the holy icons to the churches against the heresy of iconoclasm, I’ve been thinking about the wider implications for the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Church teaches that we humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and that our sole reason for existence is to grow in that image and likeness, becoming more and more like what He is (in his Energies, as we can never comprehend the unknowable Essence of God).  This is a high calling, and one that is completely impossible for mankind after the Fall; this is why we need the redemptive saving of Christ, to restore for us the way of communion with God, through the denial of our selves and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, imparted to us by the Mysteries of the Church.  It should be pointed out here that the Greek word for image is ikon–we are called to be icons of God.   It only makes sense, then, that our temples should be adorned with the icons of those who have succeed  in this task–those in whom the Triumph of Orthodoxy has been written on their hearts, lived out in their flesh.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for any Saint of the Church, for those we know and those we have forgotten.  Primarily, this is because I cannot foresee this process of sanctification, the achievement of theosis, ever becoming a reality in me.  I am the weakest willed, most sinful, most hypocritical ‘Christian’ of which I know.  So, while I proclaim the triumph of the return of the holy icons, I lament that Orthodoxy has not yet flowered to triumph in my soul.  I can only blame myself, as I, the burdened sinner always flee from the Good.

May the prayers of our Holy Fathers, especially of St. Anthony the Great, lead us into the richness of the kingdom, and help us to restore in our souls the image of the indescribable God.