Homily for Transfiguration

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The story of the Transfiguration takes place, as tradition and scholarship both suggest, at the time of the Jewish Festival of Booths. The Festival of Booths was both a festival of harvest or ingathering, when people brought the first-fruits of their fields as an offering to God, and time of remembrance. The people would make little booths out of mud and sticks, the kind of thing you could knock together in an afternoon if you knew what you were doing, and shelter in them for the week of the festival. Recalling the tents they dwelt in after escaping Egypt but before entering the Promised Land. In this way, the Transfiguration is connected to the story of the Exodus. This connection is further underscored by the fact that in the Gospel reading for Matins we hear that Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his coming exodus, though the English translation often says “decease” or “departure” instead. But notice here an interesting reversal. In the Old Testament The exodus from Egypt comes first and Moses’ receiving of the law and shining with divine glory come later. Here the law and the glory are present before the exodus, which is Jesus’ passage through death and hell to the right hand of the Father. Why is that? Remember that what happens in the Old Testament is a type or foreshadowing of what was to come in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To say this another way, the Old Testament tells us something, and something important, about the meaning of Christ’s saving work but does not exhaust or circumscribe it. There is something new to be learned here. And the fact that the order is reversed points us to that something. That the glory of God is revealed in the flesh of the man, Christ, prior to his descent into Hades recalls the words from Melito of Sardis’ Paschal poem; Hell took a man and met God below. It is the presence of divine life in the flesh of Christ that makes him a stranger to corruption and it is that divine life which overcomes the power of death. The new lesson for us here is clear. If we are going to come after Him then we will need that same divine life dwelling in our flesh at the hour of our departure from this world. We need the glory before we can cross the water.

It is important to understand that sharing in this glory, the uncreated light of God, isn’t just for monks or ascetics. It isn’t like a secret menu item for those special souls who know what to ask for. This glory belongs to all Orthodox Christians. It is nothing other than the divine life of God in us; the Holy Spirit. How do we acquire this gift? St. Athanasius very clearly connects the glory of God with his crucifixion and death. We enter into that glory-bearing death, acquiring by grace, the same glory He possessed rightfully as the Word of God, in baptism. (Col. 2:12) Recall also the Apostle Paul’s words elsewere: If we suffer with him we shall reign with him, (II Tim. 2:12) and, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:5) Truly, because of our baptism we now hold this treasure in earthen vessels. (II Cor. 4:17) The fact that we do not see this light or shine outwardly with it, as Christ and some of the saints have done, does not mean it isn’t there. It may mean we are hiding it under a bushel, “veiled” as St. Gregory the Theologian says, by an excess of worldly cares and concerns. But the glory is buried in our hearts despite our unworthiness and we will have to give account on that Last and Great Day for our stewardship of it. (Mt. 25:14-30)  And so we come full circle: The Festival of Booths, the Transfiguration, this Liturgy.

We are folded in to the one story of God’s people. The Transfiguration not only connects us to the Exodus of old, it illuminates the meaning of Christ’s exodus, which, in turn, prepares us for our own. Speaking of Christ, the Apostle Paul says that He is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep… (I Cor. 15:20) The ingathering of the harvest of the Kingdom of Heaven has begun and though we are still making our tents in a foreign land we are a part of it. God’s blood runs thick in our veins, his light burns in our hearts, so that when the pledge of our baptism is fulfilled in earnest, and we die a mortal death, we will likewise be raised to an immortal life by the power of Jesus Christ. You have the glory. Are you ready to cross the water?

A Poem

These hands now resting on the holy place, now lifted, now blessing; reaching to touch the untouchable. These hands cuffed in gold and silk, adorned as best art can achieve, have only late come in from garden. Only recently did they leave off the gathering of sticks and the trash which needed to be carried – dirty diapers and all. The ragged porch rails, which demanded paint to make up for eager children, stained them. The oily dishwater clung to them. These hands which have almost forgotten how to pick a tune, turned out now mostly for other purposes, had to be dressed and cleaned from the blue crabs in the bay, and the wet dog that feared them. They had to be made presentable. And they were. But nothing changes the fact that these hands now lighting upon the altar are not here because they were suitable but because God was not too high to touch them despite.

Homily for Sunday of the Paralytic

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is risen!

There has been a lot of fighting this week. Last night there was a big boxing match with two superstars duking it out. The winner of that fight went home many millions of dollars richer, with the adulation of an international crowd ringing in his ears. Earlier in the week we saw a much larger and poorer fight in the city of Baltimore. A fight that pitted citizen against citizen, against policeman, against shopkeeper, against everything. There were heroes too; people who bravely stood for peace or in defense of the weak. But unlike Vegas on Saturday night, in this fight there were no trophies, no accolades, and no winners.

In the wake of the violence voices from every corner have eagerly hurled blame and solutions into the digital winds. “The problem is racism!” “The problem is black culture!” “The problem is poverty and lack of education!” “The Problem is Obama!” “What we need is more government programs!” “What we need is more individual responsibility!” “What we need is more jobs!” On and on it goes in an endless cacophony of opinion, the most bewildering aspect of which is that there is, in most of it, at least a modicum of truth.

It is true that Baltimore’s police department had a history of abusing the authority it was given. It is true that poverty and difficult circumstances do not excuse wanton destruction and theft. It is true that racism and abuse of power are still sadly common in this country, and it is true that heroic public service is too. If all these things are true; if neither fault nor solution can be ascribed solely to the public, the President, or the police, where does this leave us as we look for a way forward? How can justice and peace be realized? As you might expect, the Gospel reading gives us light for this dark problem.

Today we hear about a man who had been sitting by a sheep washing pool in Jerusalem for 38 years in the hope of being healed of his paralysis. Once a year the Archangel Michael would disturb the sheepy water and the first person into the pool at that point would be restored to full health. Alas for our poor paralytic. In all the years he sat waiting, never once did he get to the water in time because, unlike many of those who had been healed in the past, he did not have a friend to help him. Jesus sees the man laying there and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” “Of course!” He gasps excitedly. Actually, no, he doesn’t say that at all. He simply tells Jesus that he can’t get to the water fast enough. He’s fixated on the pool, his old way of thinking about the solution to his problem, and doesn’t know that salvation isn’t in the pool any longer, but in the man standing before him.

In an article written a year ago for this very day, Fr. Lawrence Farley gives the following insight into today’s Gospel:

In John’s subtext, the pool functions as an image of the Law and the man as an image of Israel hoping to find salvation in the Law. The paralytic had been long in his condition, even as Israel had long been waiting for divine salvation. The Bethesda pool was thought to have been stirred by an angel, even as the Law had been given by angels (Acts 7:53). The pool even had five porticoes (John 5:4), even as the Mosaic Law had five books. Like the paralytic who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them, and also turn to Christ. The old was giving place to the new.

We see this contrast between the old and the new throughout John’s Gospel: not Jewish water, but Christ’s wine, not the old Temple, but Christ’s body, not the manna in the wilderness, but Christ’s flesh. Christian faith involved turning from the old ways to the new, as sacred Jewish history veered upward into the Kingdom and the eschaton. It was as Isaiah foretold long ago: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you now perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

How does this Gospel illumine the ongoing social crisis we saw in Baltimore this past week and may face in our own community in the future? It grounds us in Christ again. Like the paralytic we get fixated on our old external answers. We favor conservative, or progressive, or radical political solutions, and the partial truth they contain, to the intractable problems of human society. We forget that the power that allowed Fr. Roman Braga to confess the faith despite horrendous torture and years of isolation; the power that gave Dr. George Washington Carver, a black man, the willingness to discover, as a blessing to the Jim Crow South, more than 300 uses for its peanut crops; the power that can give frustrated Baltimoreans and world-weary policemen love, compassion, and forgiveness for one another – a true basis for society – is not rooted in politics, economics, criminal or social justice. The power to love one’s enemies, to do good to those who persecute you, and so end the demonic cycle of hatred and violence, is in the grace of the Holy Spirit given as a gift to those who put their faith in Christ.

It seems cliche to say it, but, more than anything else, this is what Baltimoreans need. They need Christ. So do the people in our community where these same tensions are not unknown. And we have Christ, here in the Holy Mysteries, and therefore in ourselves! We are grace-bearing creatures, commanded to be salt and light for those around us. If we obey this divine command and begin to offer Christ to our community, lovingly, patiently, and gently, through prayer, acts of kindness, integrity, fidelity, and all the rest that goes with being His witnesses, He can bring healing to our community by doing in others the work He is doing in us. As Isaiah says, He will lift the low, make the rough smooth, and straighten the crooked. (Is. 40:4)

With His Father, and the All-Holy, Good, and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Story We Tell

The stories we tell ourselves have the power to shape what we see and even what we believe possible. In our society one of the most deeply embedded and powerful stories is the story of progress.  Broadly speaking, many Americans believe that, as a society, we are progressing. That is, in many ways – economics, social relations, health, etc. – things are better than they were before. Naturally, there are also many who insist that, at this moment, we are not better off but worse. An example of this would be someone who insists that things were moving in the right direction when Ronald Reagan was president and have been going down hill in the 30 years since. This group denies progress at the moment but accepts the concept on the whole. In other words, those who believe we are currently progressing and those who believe we are currently regressing equally operate with the assumption that society is (or would be if x was different) moving forward.

The story of social and cultural progress is usually told as a sort of historical narrative in which progress is the theme connecting the various historical touchstones. The Magna Carta is the newborn gasp of progress, freed from the womb of a wretched, stultified old order; the Renaissance hails progress’s puberty; the enlightenment is the man-child progress coming-of-age; and the technological and social changes of the 20th-21st centuries represent progress’ further maturation toward the full flower of inclusion, equality, tolerance, and freedom. This story is very appealing. It also happens to be false.  Or false enough to be useless at any rate.

There are four fatal problems with the story of progress.

  1. It is a profoundly first-world story. It is certainly true that in specific ways we in the first-world have experienced progress. Healthcare is better than it was 100 years ago; technology affords us access to more knowledge and facilitates broader communication than has been available at any time before; and individual liberty and tolerance for different modes of life is the norm in most first-world nations. However, little or none of this applies to most of the people living on the continents of Africa or Asia. That is, this story is not true for most of the people living in the world. So when we speak about progress what we are really talking about is progress for us. 
  2. But even this narrower definition of progress is untenable. This leads us to the second flaw in the story of progress; namely, that it is a dramatic oversimplification. Whether we are talking about technological or social change, we can only speak of it as “progress” if we filter out the all the ambiguities and problems that tend to rub the shiny off the story. For example, if one is using the internet as an example of progress one will focus on knowledge sharing, crowdsourcing, and other examples of how the internet has changed the world for good. In such an example one will ignore completely the fact that internet has spawned the darknet and facilitated an otherwise incomprehensible growth in sex-trafficking and other horrors we do not care to imagine. Both stories are equally true but including the nasty part makes it sound less like progress and more like mere change.  Further, the sad fact is that very often our “progress” comes at the expense of others. Racial slavery represented an astounding step up in the quality of life of many Europeans and from their vantage point I am sure things seemed to be looking up. In our own time many of the goods we purchase so affordably, including our most beloved technological gadgets, come from wage-slave sweatshops in Asia or support conglomerates that make money through various forms of human and environmental exploitation. This is not progress in any social or moral sense. It is simply change – better in some ways, worse in others. But it is the kind of change wherein the consequences are placed carefully out of sight and thus out of mind. It is this more than anything else that most enables our illusion of progress. We are not obliged, most of the time, to face the negative consequences our society’s appetites. They remain neatly tucked away in another part of the world, in a womb, or another part of town, and we are free to imagine that we humming happily into a brighter future.
  3. The third problem with the myth of progress, aside from its being untrue, is that it dooms us to a conflict oriented social environment. If society is progressing, or should be, then progress itself, embodied by certain goals or policies, is the fundamental “good” of society. Those who are committed to progress, whatever it happens to be, are “on the right side of history” while those who oppose progress are their generation’s Dodo bird, doomed for the evolutionary garbage heap. As in Robespierre’s French Republic, the continued evolution of human society can be secured if only x person or group is got out of the way – sometimes with a little help. This kind of thinking has ended badly so many times in recent history that it might justly be used as a demonstration of group insanity.
  4. The fourth, and perhaps most visceral, problem with progress is its insatiable nature. If progress is the fundamental good of society then society must always be progressing. We must be in a never-ending state of progressive reformation. There can be no rest, no homeplace free from the righteous urgency of the moment. Progress marches to a relentless and pitiless drum.

To sum up, progress is a privileged illusion. it’s the computer generated pin-up girl of the idea world; a pretty but unreal and unsatisfying story we tell ourselves about the way things are. But if we reject the idea of progress what do we replace it with? That is a question for another day. Stay tuned!

You keep saying that word…?

I was having a conversation with a young man. We were discussing philosophy, specifically his philosophy. He was describing his views to me in a beautiful flow of language. When he came to a stopping place I asked him what he meant by certain words he had used. He paused and said, “I don’t really know.” The reading he had done that formed the basis of his thoughts had had a powerful, evocative effect but had conveyed little conceptual clarity or content to his mind. This is common. Professionals use jargon all the time and while it serves as a useful shorthand it can also be a convenient mask for, or even enable, a lack of real, concrete understanding. Evocative language is not itself the problem. We use language in a variety of different ways – what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “language games” – and the way language functions in each of these games is different. For instance, an inside joke can be evoked in all its power simply by means of a certain gesture, word, or phrase. So too with poetry. When Adele says that in her fury toward her ex she has “set fire to the rain” she is speaking evocatively. The problem with evocation comes when we employ it, as did my young friend, in a language game it isn’t meant for.

A perfect example of this kind of mistaken application is a political speech. A campaigning politician will use evocative words and phrases that convey the desired impression – freedom, dignity, fiscal responsibility, etc. –  without describing in any meaningful way what he or she actually intends to do. In cases like this the misuse is intentional and therefore, manipulative. Sadly, this kind of misuse of language sometimes makes its way into theological and spiritual conversations as well. It is especially popular (and useful!) for people who want to see a change of doctrine or practice that they know will be unpopular or contrary to what is currently believed. For example, if someone wanted to change the Orthodox Church’s understanding of human sexual relationships the way to do that would not be to come right out and say that such a change should be made. The way to do it would be to carefully wrap the suggestion in familiar and trusted evocations – dying and rising with Christ, eucharist, eschatology, resurrection, golgotha etc.. These words and phrases evoke a scriptural and patristic content that is familiar and trusted, and this allows the intended thesis to pass unobserved into the mind of the reader. In such a scenario success depends on the reader never stopping to think about the content of the evocations or ask whether that content is consonant with the impressions or ideas he or she is receiving. If the reader stops to do that the illusion will be broken and they will see that what’s in front of them is not an image of the King of Glory but a fox dressed up in His clothes.

Does Israel Really Care About Palestinians?

A friend of mine sent me this timeline of recent events in Israel and Gaza and I offer it to you along with the following question: Does it seem to you that Israel really cares about the Palestinian people, Christian or Muslim, or achieving a two-state solution?

– On April 23, Hamas and Fateh agreed on a unity government in order to mend inter-factional ties and strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. According to Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti at the time, the deal would “end to the division between the Palestinian people… Palestinians are in a unified camp, and Israel cannot claim that Palestinians cannot negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians” (CNN, April 23).
– The Hamas-Fateh unity government was set to “recognize Israel and renounce violence, meeting the conditions set by the ‘Quartet’ of Middle East peacemakers” (NYT, April 24). According to senior Fateh official Jibril Rajoub, “The government of national consent that will be established, headed by Abu Mazen, will declare clearly and unequivocally that it accepts the Quartet’s conditions” (NYT April 24).
– The Israeli government reacted by instantly suspending negotiations with the Palestinians. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated at the time that, “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace” and that the unity agreement “is the direct continuation of the Palestinians’ refusal to advance the negotiations.” (NYT, April 24)
– On the day of the announcement of the Hamas-Fateh unity agreement, Israel conducted an airstrike in northern Gaza that injured 12 people, including children and teenagers, referring to it as a “counter-terror operation, but provided no other details” (CNN, April 23). Hamas did not retaliate.
–Hamas did not kill the three Israeli teenagers on June 12 (The Jewish Daily Forward, July 10, NY Magazine, July 25). Salah al-Arouri, who claimed responsibility for the murders, is linked to the Hebron branch of Hamas, rather than the leadership in exile and in Gaza (Washinton Post, July 10). The Hebron branch of Hamas, run by the Qawasmeh tribe, has repeatedly gone rogue in order to undermine peace efforts by the leadership. “Each time Hamas had reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire or tahadiyeh (period of calm), at least one member of the [Qawasmeh] family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understandings with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste. If there is a single family throughout the PA territories whose actions can be blamed for Israel’s assassination of the political leadership of Hamas, it is the Qawasmeh family of Hebron” (Al Monitor, June 29)
– The Israeli government knew that the boys were dead from the beginning (Jerusalem Post, July 2, The Jewish Daily Forward, July 10).
– On June 15, despite this knowledge, “the IDF confirmed that Hamas terrorists were responsible for last week’s abduction” and began “working around the clock, on all fronts, to find Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel…” (IDFBlog, June 17).
– Also on June 15, Netanyahu drew a direct connection between the motives for the kidnapping and the Hamas-Fateh unity talks: “Israel warned the international community about the dangers of endorsing the Fatah-Hamas unity pact… The dangers of that pact should now be abundantly clear to all” (NYT, June 15).
– In the ensuing quest to “bring the boys home”—Operation Brothers’ Keeper—Israel proceeded to arrest around 800 Palestinians without charge or trial, kill nine civilians, raid almost 1,300 residential, commercial and public buildings, and target Hamas members released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap (The Nation, July 25).
– According to Israeli security officials, Hamas’ rocket volley from Gaza on June 30 was the first time the group had shot rockets into Israel since Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. (The Times of Israel, June 30). It came after two weeks of efforts by Israel to cripple Hamas during Operation Brother’s Keeper.
– Israeli security sources had previously attested to Hamas’ aggressive anti-rocket efforts, including the establishment in 2013 of a police unit in Gaza dedicated to stopping rocket attacks (International Crisis Group, MEB39, July 14).
– Israeli officials had conceded that, prior to June 30, “smaller groups, such as Islamic Jihad, are usually behind the rocket attacks, while Hamas squads generally attempt to thwart the rocket fire” (The Times of Israel, June 30).

The Invincible Weapon of Peace

We live in a world mutilated by violence. Indeed, at this particular historical moment it seems the world is engulfed in the flames of it. The thunder of anguish and indignation rides on the shockwaves of bombs and fills the world with disturbing echoes of death, misery, and recrimination. In the din of so much bitterness calls for peace seem to have no power. Does this mean that peace is unattainable and naive? As Christians called to reconcile the world to God we cannot accept such a cynical answer. But how can the balm of peace overcome the maelstrom of violence sweeping us away? The answer is the cross. But before we unpack that answer the question needs to be refined. Because we have access to a global perspective we tend to think in global terms, “how can we achieve peace around the world?” But if you ask the question this way you’ll end up with a faulty notion of peace as well as a faulty answer. Political solutions can certainly put an end to wars but the fact that people are not shooting each other in the street or running one another out of town doesn’t mean there is peace. It means there isn’t war. If what we Christians mean when we say we desire peace is that we do not want war then we need look no further than diplomacy for the answer to our hopes. Otto von Bismarck, no saint, successfully kept Europe at “not war” in spite of itself for more than 30 years. Peace however is something much more than “not war” and harder to achieve.
What is peace? Peace is a state of being defined by inner freedom. A person who lives in peace is not dominated in his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors by outside influences of either demonic or human origin. A peaceful person has an inner stability and strength that is more powerful than hatred or desire. Such a person may certainly be manipulated physically; others may kill or wound his body, but they cannot alter the condition of his soul and therefore cannot change what he is. Such a state of being is not something gained by diplomacy, which only controls external factors. It is a gift of God and the cross is the means by which we gain this gift. How this works is revealed in one of the stichera hymns for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and life-giving Cross.
The stichera speaks of the cross as an “invincible weapon of peace.” So much is packed into those four words. Notice first, that this weapon is invincible. It cannot be defeated, not even by the devil. Second, consider the paradox at work here. The cross is spoken of as a weapon but the one who carries it is not going out to slay but to be slain. This means the weapon is not aimed outward, at the world, but self-ward. This further implies that the enemy is not “out there” but “in here.” St. Paul confirms this when he tells the Ephesians that “we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against… [demonic] spiritual forces of evil.” (Eph. 6:12) These demonic forces manipulate our thoughts, attitudes, feelings, desires, memories, etc., in such a way as to provoke us into doing evil in the world which is what they desire because they are opposed to God and want to unmake everything He has made. Demons are the cause of war. The only way to battle and defeat these demonic powers is to voluntarily crucify in ourselves the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). How do we crucify these things? Self-denial. When you want to throw angry words at someone who hurts you but refuse to allow yourself to do it you are crucifying your desire for revenge, which is rooted in self-love. When a sexually stimulating image catches your eye and you turn away instead of looking again you are crucifying your lust. When you resist the temptation to speak or think ill of others you are defeating self-righteousness and vainglory. The more you deploy the weapon of the cross against your own sinful inclinations the less power demonic forces have over you and the more room there is in your heart for the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit living in us that makes us free; free from the power of sin and the devil, and therefore free not only not to hurt others but to heal them with the love of God. As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace [the Holy Spirit] and a thousand around you will be saved.”