Barren Trees Die


The Readings for the 8th Friday of Ordinary Time

And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Mark 11:14 (RSVCE)

SO MANY SERMONS ON this passage make it out to be about Israel, or the Temple priesthood. In fact, the footnotes on the USCCB website say this as well. If we read the entire pericope we might see a different interpretation. If every pericope is supposed to teach the whole Gospel, then what can we see here? Certainly condemning those who say they reject Jesus might make feel good those who say they accept him. What does Jesus actually say though?

Pull back a bit and you’ll see that the story of the cursed fig tree is framed. He’s leaving Bethany, which name means House of Figs. And he sees a fig tree… It also means House of Affliction. Interesting. So we’re about to afflict this fig tree, right? Jesus is hungry. He wants a fig. It’s not the time for figs though. So he curses the tree. And yes, then he cleanses the temple. But when his disciples ask him about the tree, what’s he make it out to be? Not the temple but rather about the fruit of righteousness in the hearts of the disciples: prayer. Forgiveness. Mercy.

Yes, it would seem the Temple is a visible parallel to the fig tree. But we need to be consistent in our readings: if Israel is a type and foreshadow of the universal (Catholic) Community of the Messiah, then what is done in the Temple is not “done to them…” but to all of us in symbol. Figs are Israel, I get it: but the Church is the Israel of God. The House of Figs is filled with followers of the Messiah.

That means that it is his followers from whom the Messiah is driving out the money changers. It is we who are in danger of being cursed if we do not bear fruit, “in season and out of season.”

Jesus comes to the Temple. He sees what’s going on. He goes to the house of Figs. He – also there – sees what’s going on. He curses the barren tree, drives out the money changers, and the tree dies.

Jesus cleanses us from our sins, restores us to God. But if we are bare, we will die.

Nothing Ordinary


The Readings for the Visitation of Mary
8th Wednesday of Ordinary Time

The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3:17 (RSVCE)

WHEN MARY Visits Elizabeth their unborn children greet each other: the Forerunner leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth, his mother, at the presence of the Savior come in the womb of the Latter’s mother, Mary. The Church celebrates this today as a feast, but it comes rather late in the history of the Church. It’s from about the middle of the 13th Century, at least in the West. It shows up in the East only in the 19th! It’s the newness of the feast that I want to run with today.

Pascha was new at one time (seemingly it arose in the communities around St John in Ephesus). Christmas arose in the West. Epiphany arose in the East. Both of these feasts celebrated the Incarnation, but over time they combined and bifurcated. East and West now celebrate both.

The Incarnation of God in the flesh is the entrance of Eternity into Time. Everything that God does – even in time – is a fixed point in Eternity. Everything that happens in time is a result of the Incarnation. Full Stop. Everything in our world carries the echoes of that one event, like a wave rolling outward. There will, therefore, always be new feasts in the Church as we unfold the revelation ever more. Since Eternity is, of course, also Infinity, there is room for infinite unfolding, for more discovery.

The LORD is in our midst. He who made heaven and earth is here, today, celebrated as a foetus, or as the feminists would have it, a lump of cells. The humility of Eternity before he creation he made is staggering: fully dependent on the womb of the woman he chose, on her blood for his life, on her breathing for his breath, on the sounds of her womb for the knowledge of the world that a baby can have (we do not know). And here is God loving us even so for still, eternity, on the throne of Glory with his Father, breathing all of life in his Spirit, rolling the waves and the stars.

Silent and dumb in the present. Mary is the Living Ark of the Covenant, carrying within her the living word of the Torah, no longer script on scrolls, but here as flesh and blood. The Baptist leaps like David before the Ark.

How can we fail to weep for his love? How can we not be awestruck like his Aunt here? How can we fail to leap for joy like the Forerunner? How can we not cry out in strength like his mother?

In the Eucharist no less than in the womb.

And we become his living tabernacles through communion, the Ark of the Covenant walking through the streets unseen. We are Mary, making visitation.

So, when you greet people today, after the Eucharist makes his dwelling within you, will others leap for joy, or will they worry that you’ve not yet had your coffee?

Overcoming the World


The Readings for 7th Monday after Easter

I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

JESUS SAYS HE HAS OVERCOME the world. Yet, this is before his Crucifixion, before the Agony in the Garden – just before the High Priestly prayer. How has he already overcome the world? What does this mean for us? John Chrysostom says these words were spoken for our comfort and out of love for us. So I think we see here a little Transfiguration as it were: which happened to tell the Disciples that Jesus went to his death not as someone taken by surprise, but voluntarily as God.

When I was younger I had the sigil “IX XC + NIKA” on my email signature file. A friend who was Greek (but her family had been protestant for at least four generations) said to me, “I hope you know that means ‘en totou'”. Jesus Christ Conquers all. In fact the Greek in John 16:33 uses a form of that verb, “Nika” with νενίκηκα nenikeka. Jesus says he has already conquered. But we know he’s about to go to a false arrest, a rigged trial, and a politically motivated murder. How has he conquered? How can we say he has done so in spite of all this?

Christians tend to hyper-focus on the crucifixion. They do this either by making it out to be more important or less than everything else. I had a friend say the Resurrection and Ascension were irrelevant to his salvation. A Catholic priest even agreed with him no matter what I said to the contrary. The Catechism says, though, it is the entire incarnation that is salvific. Everything about Jesus is salvation happening. Other folks try to coverup the scandal of the death of God on a cross. Look at the Ascension by Salvador Dali:

Notice anything missing? Those hands and feet look might solid, no? Where are the wounds?

Everything about Jesus is salvation happening. Or, really, none of it is.

It’s popular among those who want to inspire Antisemitism, and also with those who want to downplay this moment as a defeat, to say this was something of a nightmare for Jesus. Some go so far as to say the Apostles made up the stories that come after Good Friday out of sheer guilt for leaving Jesus alone at his arrest. No one goes to their death for a lie they made up out of guilt, though.

The disciples knew that Jesus had conquered. He told them so. They forgot for a day or two… but he reminded them.

The world is not the thing that can damage us as Children of God. Yes, it can hurt us. Yes, it can tempt us. Yes, it can even kill us.

But Jesus has conquered the world not by undoing it, not by overthrowing it, but by subverting it. As man he received the worst the world could throw at him: poverty, political oppression, religious persecution, social rejection, depression, torture, dejection, loneliness, and death. As God, though, he took all that in and turned them into pathways to God or, more correctly, one long pathway to God. As man he also took the best we had – familial love, friends, joy, study, teaching, humor, creativity, physical labor, and piety. He turned these, also, into one long pathway to God. As man, he took perfectly normal, everyday things like eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. He turned these into pathways to God.

This is how he has overcome the world: at one time it all just lead to death. Maybe a life well-lived, or well-partied, sure, but death.

Now – since God has done it – it all leads to life. God is at the root of everything if we can only see him: good, bad, normal, exceptional, God has overcome the world by going all the way down and coming back again. No matter how far we run, he’s gone further. That is the meaning of atonement. Or, to quote Corrie Ten Boom, “There is no pit so deep that he is not deeper still.” (It is often misquoted as “…God’s love is deeper” but it is himself that is there in the deepness.)

Jesus Christ Conquers.


Something Greater.

The Readings for the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt
The Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast

OUR HOLY MOTHER MARY OF Egypt, as she is called in the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, is perhaps my most-favorite of female saints. Her regular feast day is 1 April which is always in Lent so – like the other saints of this Church Season – she was given a Sunday so that her feast would not get obscured. However she – of all the saints in Lent – is especially Lenten. It makes sense that she should have a Sunday. 1 April being Saturday this year, this whole weekend is hers. There is nothing twee or Victorian about her. She is not a visionary or mystic. She is a sinner who returned to her God. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Her Life is read in Church on Wednesday or Thursday of this week as part of Matins. (Wednesday night is normal, but I’ve been in places where it’s read on Thursday night – may just be a scheduling issue…) This year one thing stands out.

As I mentioned, she is a sinner who repents, nothing more. But she is a very prolific sinner. I’ve appended her words to the end of this post. She did not do things out of hatred of God or love of evil. She wasn’t paid to do evil. She was simply following her bliss: things that she enjoyed.

But the thing that stands out is at the beginning of the tale, the whole point. The Elder Zosimas has been a monk since childhood until he was 53. “After that, he began to be tormented with the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself mentally, “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?” Thus thought the elder, when suddenly an angel appeared to him and said: “Zosima, valiantly have you struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan.

The whole tale is predicated on this promise: to show him something greater than his own journey. To this end he meets St Mary of Egypt who has struggled alone for her 50 years in the desert of her own choice seeking God. There’s not further comment on the Angel’s promise in the text, but the implication is clear: the monk thinks he’s done it all… but this one sinner who repented is greater, living in the angelic realm even while on earth.

Beyond that, St Mary seems to have had communion only twice as an adult and never even once attended the liturgy. This is paralleled by the odd practice of the monastery to which the Elder attaches himself: at the beginning of Lent the entire community leaves the monastery, each going his own way. They only return on Pascha. This is a story about someone inside the church being sent beyond the church’s walls to meet a saint.

Can we imagine that God’s power stops at the doors of the Church? No. Can we imagine our faith has no effect in the world? No. How great is God’s mercy? Infinite. How loudly can God call us even through our sins!

Holy Mother Mary of Egypt, pray to God for us!

I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to sensuality It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery. for about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to try to obtain me, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life. That is how I lived. Then one summer I saw a large crowd of Lybians and Egyptians running towards the sea. I asked one of them, Where are these men hurrying to?’ He replied,They are all going to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross, which takes place in a few days.’ I said to him, Will they take me with them if I wish to go?’No one will hinder you if you have money to pay for the journey and for food.’ And I said to him, `To tell you truth, I have no money, neither have I food. But I shall go with them and shall go aboard. And they shall feed me, whether they want to or not. I have a body — they shall take it instead of pay for the journey.’ I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to have more lovers who could satisfy my passion. I told you, Abba Zosima, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”

Zosima, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”

And, resuming her story, she went on: “That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. and, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigour and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travellers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once. How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him.

Of Incidents and Accidents.

The Readings for the Sunday of St Gregory Palamas
The Second Sunday of the Great Fast

AS THE Observance of the Great Fast evolved in the Eastern Church, each Sunday was assigned a special devotion: the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Sundays of St Gregory, of St John, of St Mary, and the Sunday of the Holy Cross. Of all of them, it’s this Sunday of St Gregory Palamas that can seem the most out of place. Or, at least it seems to me. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese puts it, “The feast day of Saint Gregory Palamas is November 14, however, he is commemorated on this Sunday as the condemnation of his enemies and the vindication of his teachings by the Church in the 14th century was acclaimed as a second triumph of Orthodoxy.” So, here we are as Byzantine Catholics celebrating the “second triumph of Orthodoxy”. In what way?

Although Gregory’s opponents are usually seen as “Scholastics” on a western model – and that is spun to be an anti-Catholic feast – the history is a bit more clear. Gregory taught “that ascesis and prayer are the outcome of the whole mystery of Redemption, and are the way for each person to make the grace given at Baptism blossom within himself.” That “God is love and full person”, that God allows us to participate as beings in His Being without admitting a break or division in “the unity of the divine Nature.” The fire of God is the fire of love which ignites the Christian soul and draws us all towards God.

Here, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we celebrate not a theological innovator but someone whose brilliant mind compiled the teachings of the Fathers of the preceding 14 centuries and summed it all up. St Gregory is often depicted by partisans as someone who stands against “Scholasticism” but he is as great a compiler as St Thomas Aquinas. His teaching is just a distillation of all that had gone before in the Eastern Church.

The light of Christ’s Transfiguration on Tabor shines in the soul of the Baptised and, through participation in the Holy Faith, that same light can shine out of our sous into the world around us. Deification. Theosis. This is what salvation means. This is the Glory of God, St Irenaeus teaches, “a living man” (and as was echoed in the Talmud – “The adornment [or glory] of God is man” – Derekh Eretz Zuta 10.7.) As we live in the world today, we are called to see the unity of our soul in Christ not so that each of us can – as individuals – be got into heaven, but rather so that we as the Body of Christ can bring healing to the world around us. Paul asks, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb 2:3)

Of Icons & Hosts

The Readings for the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy
The First Sunday of the Great Fast

HEARING OF A BYZANTINE CATHOLIC podcast called What God is Not, I decided to give a listen to a ByzCath Nun, Mother Natalia, and Fr Michael O’Loughlin, a priest of the Eparchy of Phoenix. I was instantly drawn in, not only because of the excellent material and conversation, but also because Mother Natalia sounds exactly like someone I know – and in fact looks like her! I had to use my Google-Fu to make sure I wasn’t hearing a St D parishioner. Someplace in the first episode to which I listened, and sadly I do not remember which one it was, Mother made a comment to the effect that the East had to deal most with heresies around iconoclasm while the West had to deal with denial of the Eucharist. This, she suggested, was why Eucharistic Adoration is a thing in the West, but not in the East; and why icons, and venerating them, take such a huge role in the East. Marian apparitions are a thing in the West, but “revelations of Marion icons” are a thing in the East.

The listener’s mind was sufficiently blown. This is, certainly, an historic reality, but it’s a huge theological statement as well. Imagine the idea that God can work, locally, delivering what might be needed there.

I started teaching a class called ByzCath 101 at Our Lady of Fatima. It seemed like a good way to put my experience in the Orthodox Church to use or, rather, to bring that with me into the Catholic Church. Yet I’ve had to rethink a lot of things around how we parse out (T)radition vrs (t)radition. Big-T Tradition and Little-T Tradition are a huge argument on the Orthodox Internets. One can easily get burned for anything from letting women read prayers before Liturgy to using “you” for God. Did your pastor leave the Holy Doors open at Liturgy? You’re in danger of Modernist Ecumenism. Did your Bishop’s spiritual father commune with the Catholics or Communists in Soviet Russia? You’re outside of the Church now. It’s a mess! After 20 years or so, what seemed to me to be (T)radition was really just (t)radition all along. What was hyper important in this place wasn’t so important in that place. Yet, everyone seemed to be struggling towards God. So (T) must stand for things that are dealing with our salvation. (t) must be everything else. There’s a lot of (t) masquerading as (T) though.

Then, becoming Catholic and reading the Catechism, one begins to see that even the things that seemed very important at the end of my Orthodox Journey are only (t) as well. In fact, how to say mass or the Liturgy, how to pray, how to do anything, what confession means, how the sacraments work… even the Filioque. It’s all (t)radition. Yes, it’s hella important in your local Church, but in the end only what pertains to your salvation is (T). Everything else is (t). You must believe certain things, yeas – but those are the T. We cannot even legitimately say that certain things are required in a sacramental marriage or a sacramental confession unless we qualify them by saying “required in this particular church” with the subtext always being “but not in that one…”

Let me tell you how liberating it is to be a member of the Catholic Church!

The Parable of Rabbits & Pigs

The Readings for the Sunday of the Last Judgement

HERE IS A PRECES of our parable: Jesus says at the Last Judgement God will divide us as a farmer does the sheep from the goats. The sheep will find out that they have often fed, clothed, and cared for Jesus. And they will say in all humility, No… we did not. And the goats will be told that they have never fed, clothed, or cared for Jesus. And they will say in self-justification, But we never had that chance: we would certainly have done so if you had shown up.

And then both groups will be told the punchline: when you did – or did not do – these things for the poor, the hungry, the homeless then you did – or did not do – these things for Jesus.

Then the sheep get into heaven and the goats go someplace where heaven is not, and the story ends.

Readers might have heard a sermon that goes something like this: Jesus never asks either the sheep or the goats if they’ve kept any religious rules. Did they’ve gone to mass, did they say their prayers? Jesus only asks if they have cared for the poor. Care for the poor matters, but Jesus doesn’t care about religious rules. A more subtle form of this sermon might conclude that people who care for the poor will get into heaven long before anyone else. Then it swerves off into “social justice” and trying to “build the city of God” here on this planet to “get ready” for the second coming.

However, this parable is not about ditching religious duty in favor of a crypto-Marxist reading of scripture.

In terms of animals following religious rules, a better example might be pigs. To be kosher an animal must have split hooves and chew its cud. Pigs have hooves that are split, but they do not chew the cud. You can’t see that, so if you look at a pig briefly you might think it’s Kosher on the outside… but it’s not. Horses chew the cud, as do rabbits. They have the right insides, but they have the wrong kind of external features. Rabbits not only chew the cud, but they are also cuddly. The inside counts as much as the outside. But this parable is NOT about following rules. Sheep and goats are both Kosher. They are both sacrificial animals. They both – unlike pigs, rabbits, or horses – follow all the rules: on the inside and on the outside.

You miss the point if you don’t catch this. Jesus is not talking about Marxist bunnies or Capitalist pigs here. This scene from the Last Judgment takes place after the pigs, rabbits, and horses have all been sent away already

Both sheep and goats are goodly, clean things. Both are acceptable symbols for us, the religious folks. Follow all the rules. Do everything right. The sheep, however, follow through on the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
The goats fail to do so. The sheep realize that, beyond the law, there is love.

It is almost like Jesus saying to all the Good Sheep and the Good Goats…(Realized here that my “Jesus Voice” sounds like Bishop Barron….)  “Oh, one last thing… you went to mass every day, you prayed every day, you never broke a commandment. Good. Good. All important, all needed….”

But, um…

Did you get the point?

You can’t use this parable to say “there are no rules except care for the poor.” Love God AND love your neighbor. Do right by both. No one is saved by doing anything: but love and faith require doing to be real. There is something beyond the rules: your whole life must be changed into Christ.

There are no generous pigs here. There are, however, people who follow all the rules and do nothing important. (Rabbits are cute, though.)

So this Guy’s got Two Boys, right?

Readings for the Sunday of the Prodigal:

NOT THAT THERE’S Really this kind of ranking system, but I imagine that “The Prodigal Son” is one of the more well-known of Jesus’ stories. Perhaps equally as often what they know about this story is wrong. We use “prodigal” as a way to describe anyone who goes away and comes back, although that’s not what “prodigal” means. Many folks know about how forgiving the Father was in this story and use this story as one of Jesus’ “don’t judge me” moments to try and get the Church to bend (or even break) her own rules. They only know what they want to hear. What they have learned though, is sort of an inoculation: it keeps them from wanting to know more.

First, we’re going to start with the meaning of “prodigal”. It’s about how you spend, waste, give away, or otherwise use or misuse your money. It’s not about coming back.

  1. spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.
    “prodigal habits die hard”
  2. having or giving something on a lavish scale.
    “the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream”

When the younger son says to the Father, “split your stuff in half and then give me what is mine…” he is saying, “I wish you were dead now.”

The Father concedes this. So it is the Father who is the first prodigal in this story. Yes, the Son runs away and spends all of Dad’s hard-earned dough, but the Son is only doing what he’s seen Dad do already. And yes, I know: the Son is prodigally sending his money on wine, women, and song. However he’s spending only irresponsibly – and he’s copying Dad. Dad, of course, could run a business, take care of a family, and lavish a gift on his son. Son does not have the kind of discipline needed to navigate in the real world. That said, I knew lots of kids in college who made stupid money choices. I was one of them! Again, the Youth probably wanted to do “things” with his money that would make him happy. He didn’t want to do responsible things like pay bills. That’s boring – let Dad do that – but as long as I have money, let there be a party! The Son thinks Dad made some wonky choices and the Son thinks, Hey, I can do this better.

And, like most irresponsible youths he comes to himself after a while, snaps out of it. Grows up. Settles down. Stops being prodigal in a bad way and – one hopes – becomes prodigal in a good way, like Dad.

But then the problem with reading arises: because the older brother is a bit of a putz, at least in the normal reading. So I want to speak for him.

See, at the start of the story, Dad divides everything in half and gives one whole half of everything to the younger brother and one whole half to the older son. It says the property was divided between them – not just to the younger one. That might sound just to you, with your 21st-century ears, but to a Second Temple Jew or in many cultures around the area, that would have already been entirely wrong. By right, the older brother gets anywhere from 2/3 of everything all the way up to everything. It’s the older brother who’s getting screwed here. And, when the younger brother comes back, and the father says, “All that I have is yours…” it might be better to hear that as “The only stuff we have left is your stuff.” When the fatted calf gets killed for this welcome home party the calf belongs to the older brother.

I’d be a bit indignant about this too.

Dad’s been very prodigal with his family stuff. The father is just as guilty of wasting his belonging as the younger son. The older son is saying, “Hey… wait. That’s my stuff!” And, let’s be real, it is.

Where the older brother fails here is to think it’s about stuff – his stuff, my stuff, your stuff, our stuff. But it’s not about stuff. It’s about love. It’s about family. It’s being together in the end that’s what counts.

But more than that, the older brother is only acting as if he hasn’t anything at all. The Father already gave him his half of the stuff. (Jesus says this happened at the beginning of the story.) He’s acting this way to get the right to complain. You never gave me a fatted calf… well, actually, everything was given to you at the beginning of the story. Why are you complaining? What are you afraid of?

The older brother is acting like the guy with one coin (Luke) or one talent (in Matthew). In the both stories, the servant hides things away because they are fearful of the master. In the Lukan story the servant is described as “wicked” but in the Matthew story the servant is “slothful”. The Greek implies that the Master is accusing the the servant of being scared of doing anything, of being timid. Jesus seems to be saying the same thing here: yes the younger brother ran away, and took a huge risk and came back. He had every reason to be afraid, and yet he was not. He was bold as all get out – just like Dad. But the older brother had no reason at all to be fearful or angry – and yet he was still that way: love is prodigal. Fear is not.

Fear is risk adverse. Timid. Careful. “Where’s my stuff” is not a greedy question here, it’s the voice of fear. That’s not Jesus’ way at all.

Freedom is a State of Soul

Tuesday in the week of the Publican & the Pharisee:

BETWEEN THE CFR Podcast and my own t0-read (especially Transformation in Christ and He and I) list I’m in the midst of a flood of thoughts about interior freedom. This is a specifically Christian conception, although it may have non-Christian predecessors in pagan philosophies. How can a person respond fully from, the core of their being, to God as he is really presenting himself to them? To do this the person must be free, but this doesn’t mean free of external chains: a saint can be imprisoned, beaten, enslaved, abused, tortured, maimed, and nearly dead – while still being free to respond to God.

Understanding that external forces can only “kill the body, but not the soul” is a first step, or maybe the first step is realizing that no matter what the world says, God says we are free in the Son. That means that even when the world says you are “oppressed” or “unfree” in any way, you’re not actually hindered at all from responding to God in a way that mirrors the mystery of Holy Matrimony: free, full, faithful, and fruitful. We fear external forces and this fear can prevent us from being free. It is the fear itself – and internalized response – that is the cause of our unfreedom: not anything on the outside. If God calls and we do not respond because of fear, we have failed. It’s not that someone else has prevented us. God does not call us foward if he doesn’t give us the gifts to move in his will. A fearful rejection of God’s call is a lack of faith in God, a lack of confidence in his promises.

Today’s epistle, though, finds St Peter describing to us an entirely different kind of hindrance to interior freedom: those who fall pray to their own desires, “especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority… They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way they have gone astray…”

It would be especially easy in today’s church to point at Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Monastics, Nuns, theologians, etc, and say, “they are like this” but to point at or to point out… would be to make us like the Pharisee in Sunday’s Gospel. It’s damnable to point out this failure in the second or third person, but far more difficult and far more laudable to point out this sin in the first person. In the second person, just saying “she gets to do this…” becomes an excuse for me to do it as well. But saying out loud, “I am doing this because I want to…” and saying it with that level of honesty can help others seek their own healing. Peter calls out those who want to. They are enslaved to their own addictions to sin. And they lead others to the same enslavement.

It’s easy, as I mentioned, to point at others.

I spent most of my twenties and thirties involved in things this way. My parents turned into activists, now launching others in this direction. It pains me, today, to see the blowback of my own enslavement.

But freedom comes not from one’s own license to do whatever one wants, but conformity to the God who’s very name is love.

CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters has a passage on this at the very beginning:

To us [the Demons] a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy [that is, God] demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below [that is, Satan] has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.

…Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

When that desire to obey manifests, it is God’s Grace that does so. When we lean in, it is His Grace that causes us to lean in at all, and gives us the needed time and energy and tools to do so. It is the dance of human freedom to be God’s Son that moves us, but the Dance is God.

We can only do it when we are Free.

And God will break all the chains we hold out to him.

Publican and Republican

The readings for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee:

LAST NIGHT I attended the vigil service at Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA), my former parish. Since my Byzantine Catholic Parish does not have vigil services, I think I may make a few trips over to the Cathedral this Lent. The Dean greeted me and asked what prompted my visit and I replied, “Publican and Pharisee.” “Which one are you?” He asked. “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“We’re all the Pharisee.” he replied.


It’s important to realize that any of Jesus’ listeners would have known the good guy and the bad guy in this story. Everyone hated the tax collectors and everyone respected the Pharisees. Some scholars posit that Jesus, himself, was a Pharisee and there’s good reason to read many of the stories in the Gospel within the context of contemporary, Second Temple rabbinic debates. So, begins Yeshua, Let me tell you a story about a tax collector and a Rabbi I know. Everyone settles down knowing how this will end.

Except suddenly the bad guy is the good guy and vice versa.

This is not a parable about “legalism” or about Jews, this is not even a parable about Pharisees. Yes, the prayer the Pharisee says is a slight mockery of three of the prayers one says waking. But these didn’t (seemingly) start in Judaism. Yeshua taught us not to judge, it would be odd if he made a parable judging others – and teaching us to judge that group of people as well! It’s about You-know-who-the-bad-guy and You-know-who-the-good-guy, except you’re wrong.

This is a story about the listener or, in this case, about the reader.

My brother in Christ drew this 12 years ago. It’s still right. We always want to compare ourselves. Jesus wants us to focus each on our own journey. But we want to see how others are doing. That’s why this week is a fast-free week in the Eastern Tradition: there’s no fasting at all. Meat for seven days! Don’t look at what others are doing. And, by the way, what you can do doesn’t really matter that much either. It’s your heart. Rend your heart, not your garments, as the prophet says. Rend your soul, not your diet. Rend your life, not your neighbor’s.

When we think we know who the good guy is, we usually make a first-person inclusion there. Aquinas says no one loves evil because it’s evil: everyone thinks he’s loving a good. Of course I’m the good guy. Or at least one of them.

The lesson in this parable is that we can’t tell from the outside and – worse – if we’re making judgments at all from the outside, we’re exactly like the bad guy in this story who judged himself good and the other guy evil when… in fact… the other guy was saved.

Rather than looking anywhere else, it’s much better to look at your own plate, at your own heart, at your own life and see what’s out of place and pray for God to have mercy on you. When you sit down to hear a story and it seems you may have misjudged who was the good and bad guys, yes, the storyteller was very crafty.

But the problem (which the storyteller used) was your judgment.