Month: February 2012
This morning, after Matins, I high-tailed it across New Jersey over to Newark Liberty International Airport, pulled up to the Departures area at Terminal A, and picked up a man holding a tray of coffee. We drove to the airport parking, picked a spot, and proceeded to chat for about ninety minutes, about sixty of which I caught on tape.
The man was (as you can see from the photo) Emmy award winning actor Jonathan Jackson, who is perhaps best known for his role as “Lucky Spencer” (son of the mighty super-couple Luke and Laura) on “General Hospital.” Jonathan and his family are currently catechumens of the Orthodox Church, preparing for baptism this coming Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha (Easter).
I’ll let you listen to the interview yourself for all the details of our chat, but I will say that it was a genuine pleasure to conduct. One occasionally finds people that convert to Orthodoxy for various reasons (many of which can, indeed, be good), but it’s always such a delight to find someone who is entering into the Church because of a diligent and earnest desire for the truth. Jonathan has that. But this post isn’t really about that. (But the interview is!)
What this weblog entry is actually about is how a lowly, no-account priest like me got to interview a Hollywood heartthrob, especially because, when his name first came to my attention, I had never heard of him. (He didn’t seem to mind.)
The story essentially goes like this: In the process of exploring the history of Christianity, Jonathan and his sister ended up coming across Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (also on Amazon) and reading it together. Out of the blue, she contacted me this past November to ask if I’d be willing to send a couple signed copies out to them over on the West Coast, as a surprise Christmas gift. She also asked if I’d be willing to be introduced to her brother.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I often get people contacting me out of the blue and asking for things from me as a priest that are really properly asked of a priest who is local to them. So my first thought was to try to politely brush them off, because I essentially have a local-only policy about such things. But this wasn’t the same kind of request. She wanted to introduce us, because she thought we might get along, and she also let me know that he was already fully plugged-in with a priest and parish local to him. But I must admit that my first thought was, “What the heck will a soap opera star and I have in common?”
But there was just something about the request that kind of intrigued me, even though I am naturally wary of anyone with fame. (I was particularly amused to hear Jonathan say today, “Fame is ridiculous.” I agree.) So of course I sent the books, but instead of initiating the contact myself, I just put a couple of copies of my business card inside the books.
Sure enough, he contacted me sometime after Christmas. We corresponded a bit over email, and I was particularly amused at the (barely restrained) gushing of some of my female parishioners and friends when I happened to mention the whole thing to them. They couldn’t believe that this guy was really becoming Orthodox, and they also had a hard time believing that their priest (of all people) was somehow connecting with him.
Over the course of our correspondence, he told me that he was going to be on the East Coast with his band Enation to play some shows not terribly far away from Emmaus, all within a couple hours or so. So we decided to try to meet up.
Anyway, we eventually were able to work out a time when we could connect, and in the meantime, I suggested the idea of doing an interview for the Roads From Emmaus podcast. He graciously agreed, and now you can listen to much of our talk.
It was a wonderful encounter. I guess I should probably get familiar with his work, though I can’t say I’m likely to start watching “General Hospital” any time soon. (He’s off the show for the time being, anyway, so I guess that lets me off the hook. I should probably watch Tuck Everlasting at some point, though.)
In my previous post, a comment from a Protestant challenged me to argue for Lent purely from Scripture, also saying that his own experience of Lent, like Mark Galli’s, was pretty miserable. That led me to consider that I actually had left several important things out in the previous post, most especially touching upon the question of the dualism of Evangelicals and what that might do to their appropriation of Lent. Following is my response to that comment, which I thought merited a post of its own:
If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.
But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.
But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.
Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.
But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.
In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)
As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.
Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.
If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Mark Galli recently posted an article entitled Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent which is actually a fairly fascinating look into what Lenten ascetical effort looks like from within a Pietist tradition. Pietism is, in brief, the belief that the private relationship with God is paramount and that doctrine and shared tradition in community are relatively unimportant. (For more on this, see Pietism as an ecclesiological heresy by Christos Yannaras.)
That such a piece would be posted on the Christianity Today site is certainly a sign of the times. Lent itself has been religio non grata for Evangelicals’ low-church Protestantism descended from the Radical Reformation for quite a long time. I’ve been surprised in recent years to hear of Evangelicals recovering the idea of Lent, and here we have an example of someone from that tradition reflecting critically on that appropriation.
Or do we? CT is certainly an Evangelical publication, but who is Mark Galli, and why does he construct his argument in the way he does? We’ll get to that, but let’s first look at the argument itself and how I as an Orthodox Christian would evaluate it.
The narrative here has a classic rhetorical shape: Appear to be criticizing or dismissing something, then reveal how you’re not really criticizing it, but instead revealing its true message contra the popular impression of that thing. Thus, Galli seems to be dismissing Lent (“the Grinch that stole Lent”) initially, but he eventually says that its true value is something else.
How does this actually work out in the article? What he is indeed criticizing is that Lent really is about self-discipline. Self-discipline as an inherent good is part of the Pietist package, and it makes sense to approach Lent from that angle (if one approaches it at all) from within Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is so steeped in the culture of self-improvement and self-help (not to mention, self-service) that Lent actually starts looking pretty good, so long as it’s understood in this Pietist manner.
And why shouldn’t it be understood this way? Evangelicals’ main cultural contact for Lent is American Roman Catholics, whose Lenten asceticism no longer even necessarily includes actual fasting on Fridays—to say nothing of every day during the season, which is Roman Catholics’ ancient tradition, giving up even dairy, which is why there are Shrove Tuesday pancakes and (around these parts), Fastnacht Day. Rather, what they see is “giving something up for Lent.” Picking something to give up for Lent is a perfectly Pietistic thing to do. (Pietism has, alas, affected not only the churches of the Reformation.)
Because there is no doctrine of theosis (divinization/deification, the process of becoming united with God in His divine energies) in the world of Pietism—nor really in any of the Reformation churches—asceticism has nothing to do with uniting with God. For us who believe in theosis, asceticism’s very purpose is the retraining of the will, not for the sake of mere self-discipline, but rather because the will has to become receptive to divine grace in order to receive it. But that doesn’t exist outside of theosis, so fasting or giving up anything at all for Lent will not, as Galli says, actually lead to more self-discipline. That wasn’t its purpose when it was commanded by Christ, so attempting to use it for that won’t actually accomplish it. Asceticism’s purpose is the retraining of the will, not the self-improvement of the body. Fasting is not a diet to help us lose weight or to become more “responsible.” It is the ongoing struggle against the passions.
What’s also missing from Pietistic asceticism is the guidance of tradition and community. Remember that Pietism’s concern is the private relationship with God, so there is little room for the idea that one should have a father-confessor guiding one’s asceticism, who is himself guided by centuries of Church tradition and experience. It’s something you do on your own and for yourself. So why shouldn’t you just pick and choose for yourself how you’re going to do it?
Galli essentially shares some of these same criticisms that Orthodoxy has of this Pietistic approach to Lent, though certainly he doesn’t make his criticisms from within Orthodox tradition, so there is no theosis here to reveal asceticism’s traditional Christian purpose. He also does not seem to have any problem with the individualized approach to Lent, so he’s keeping at least that bit of Pietism intact. This leads us to ask just how it is he has determined what he calls “the real point of Lent”:
Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.
To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.
What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.
So here we have to figure out exactly from where within the Reformation Galli is making his criticisms of the Pietistic approach to Lent. To figure that out, I had to do a little digging.
Galli is of course one of the editors at CT, but some Googling reveals that he is also a member of the Church of the Resurrection in the Wheaton, Illinois, area. And to whom do they belong? That also took some digging. (What is it with churches that don’t tell you up front which denomination they’re part of?) They belong to the Anglican Mission in America, a conservative breakaway from the Episcopal Church USA (which has as a body gone quite off the deep end in recent decades). So Galli is coming from that interesting, multifarious and confusing world of Anglican traditions (note well the plural).
But he is essentially using a Lutheran argument, which is not surprising coming from a conservative Anglican. They’ve always had a certain affection for Lutheranism. Martin Luther, as you remember, identified good works as being opposed to faith—which was not St. Paul’s argument at all; Paul was instead concerned to contrast grace with the works of the Law of Moses, not with good works in general (Luther’s error was to conflate “the [Mosaic] law” with “good works”). (For more on this, see the rather bountiful references to the inherent close connection between faith and good works in the entire Epistle of James, which Luther was none too fond of.)
So the best that good works can offer—and of course asceticism was very much on Luther’s mind as a “good work,” seeing he was an Augustinian monk—is the same that the Mosaic Law can offer. It is a tutor to show you what a rotten sinner you are. That’s what Paul says about the Mosaic Law, but he doesn’t say it about asceticism. (Instead, the whole New Testament actually speaks quite highly of asceticism and its place in making the will receptive to grace. But never mind that.)
So what we really have here in Galli’s article is essentially a less Pietistic sector of the Reformation criticizing a more Pietistic one.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent and all of our ascetical effort (which includes fasting around half the days of the year, not just Lent, as well as other ascetical practices, none of which include picking something to give up) are about neither the Pietistic emphasis on self-discipline and individual piety and belief nor in the more Lutheran concern of revealing us to be sinners (thus representing the continuum between the Radical and Magisterial Reformations, respectively). There is nothing wrong with either goal, of course, but that is not the point of asceticism.
And I have to say that asceticism is rather a silly method of showing yourself to be a sinner. Wouldn’t it be easier just to take a long, hard look at yourself? And what about the Pharisees who “succeed” in their asceticism? It would seem to have the opposite effect on them. Centuries upon centuries of Christian tradition is finally about “play acting”? Yeah, that does sound pretty “miserable” and “onerous” to me, but that’s because you’re doing it wrong.
It actually doesn’t particularly matter if we succeed in “self-improvement” by means of asceticism. If we do, great, but if not, what we are actually trying to achieve is something different. It is becoming more receptive to the free gift of divine grace, so that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature, so that we can be united to God in His energies, becoming partakers of the divine nature.
It also doesn’t matter if we reveal ourselves to be sinners or not in practicing asceticism. To be honest, if you’re not aware that you’re a sinner simply by being in the presence of the beauty and glory of Orthodox Christian worship, then I’m not sure what will reveal it to you. But I suppose if you belong to a religion that does not know about that beauty, it may well take something else to reveal this to you, because you’re cut off from the true revelation of that glory.
Because he is probably far from experiencing the amazingly heartrending beauty that we Orthodox experience in Lent, I can see why someone like Galli might find Lent to be “a miserable way to live” and why he’d never want to “turn Lent into a lifestyle.” But if you’re Orthodox, Lent is very much “a lifestyle”! We’re always in the process of struggling against the passions of our will, and asceticism is our constant companion—Lent is only one season in which it is intensified. And if we do it the right way—as part of the Orthodox Christian community—it is rather far from being a miserable life. Indeed, the true ascetics always have a curiously indomitable joy.
For the Orthodox, Great Lent’s purpose is possible and revealed only within the actual community of faith, both within space (including all those currently in the Church) and time (including all those who have come before). It is not an individual achievement. It is something that is done within the Eucharistic, liturgical community, which is why Great Lent so radically transforms our daily liturgical life. It is also perhaps why so many people who may not otherwise make confession a frequent practice often find it within themselves to come to confession during the Lenten springtime (and “spring” is what Lent actually means, by the way)—they feel something awakening, and they know that the only possibility for its coming to full alertness is to reconcile and renew with the community with the guidance of their father-confessor.
What is missing both from the Pietism that Galli criticizes and the Reformation opposition between faith and works that he endorses is the doctrine of theosis, which is communion with the Holy Trinity. That communion between us men and women and the Divine Community Himself (for He is three Persons!) is what drives our asceticism and is the inner meaning of Great Lent.
For a great deal more on what asceticism actually means and how it’s everywhere in the New Testament, contra what the Reformation says about such things, I very much recommend a piece by Fr. Georges Florovsky to which I linked above, The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation. In English, at least, you can hardly do any better.
I have to say that this is one of my favorites among the things I’ve written. A number of folks have actually asked me to expand this into a book, but I don’t think I really yet have the experience or background to have enough material to warrant a book on this. Perhaps I will someday.
Theron Mathis, author of The Rest of the Bible: A Guide to the Old Testament of the Early Church, has graciously conducted a brief interview with me regarding Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and other matters on his weblog Sword in the Fire.
Excerpt from the introduction:
Fr. Andrew does the seemingly impossible in a mere 224 pages. He gives a broad scope of Orthodox belief, but details every imaginable brand of Christianity, cult, and world religion.
The book originally began as a podcast series on Ancient Faith radio with the same name, but don’t be afraid of redundant content, there is plenty of new information expressed clearly for the religion teacher and the non-specialist.
I spotted this image on Facebook today, and it puts forth a commonly accepted ethic, which I’ve dubbed here the Eminem Ethic. Essentially, various categories of race, sexual desire, physical appearance, and economic status don’t matter when it comes to winning his kindness. What matters is that “you’re nice to me.”
This sounds pretty good. This is a morality bandwagon that probably most folks in American culture could jump on. It probably even sounds noble. And of course this is a familiar ethic. In 1991, Michael Jackson told us that it didn’t matter if we were black or white. He would probably add Eminem’s various categories, too, if he were writing his song now.
Probably the most obvious point here is that these various categories of human being and behavior don’t matter much when it comes to kindness toward others. With that, I agree. I laud Eminem’s desire to be kind to people without regard to these categories.
But let’s think about this for a moment. It is probably one of mankind’s most basic yearnings that we overcome divisions between each other. Even the most rabid Nazi, despite his desire to expel all difference from Germany, actually desired peace and not divisiveness—his method for attaining it was of course, monstrous. The Eminem Ethic is similarly problematic, because it also expels difference from his sense of community, but in this case, it is a difference based on one behavior—being nice.
Implicit in this ethic is its inverse: If you are not nice to me, I will not be nice to you. This is the ethic of revenge. There is nothing in the Eminem Ethic that will prevent or end wars, that will overcome differences, that will bring about peace, because he leaves us the excuse for not being nice to those who are not nice to us.
And we are also left with this ethical problem: If being nice depends on the nice behavior of others, then who actually gets the ball rolling? Someone will first have to be nice to someone who has not yet been nice to them. But if everyone follows the Eminem Ethic, then there will never be any niceness at all, because we’d all be waiting for other people to be nice first before we return the favor.
Let’s compare this ethic with the ethic that is, quite frankly, superior to all others:
But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:32-26)
When at the birth of Jesus the angels announced to the shepherds that there would be “peace on Earth,” this is what they surely had in mind. Jesus was born into a world dominated by the pagan ethic of obligation and revenge—which is what the Eminem Ethic actually is. But He came to bring something higher, something far better, and that is the ethic of love.
True love is not obligation or reciprocity. It is not what you owe someone else, and it is not in return for something you have received. In sending His Son Jesus, the Father gets the ball rolling, but it is not the ball of niceness, but of love. And what is love? It is to care for and give to another in a self-sacrificial way. Jesus puts it exceptionally clearly in the quote above, and He even tells us to love not just those who have failed to be nice to us, but even those who hate us and oppose us, the unthankful and the evil.
In the passage immediately preceding the one quoted above, Jesus says this:
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. (Luke 6:27-31)
In our time, the Golden Rule (essentially taken from Luke 6:31, the last sentence in this quote) has become distorted into the paganized Eminem Ethic: “Do unto others as others do unto you.” But the Christian, like his Master, is called to be something far greater, and it is because he is a citizen of the Kingdom of Love, because God is Love, and because He first loved us, even while we were His enemies.
We will never overcome judgmentalism, prejudice, hatred, violence and war if we merely care for those who do the same for us. But a new Kingdom has been inaugurated, and its triumph is coming. There is only one way to become a citizen of that Kingdom.
Will you be one of them?
Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 2012
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
One of the principal themes that we meditate upon during these weeks that precede Great Lent and during the Fast itself is forgiveness. And it’s no wonder, because the Christian Church is really the only place in which forgiveness makes any sense, the only place where forgiveness is actually possible.
If you’re standing in front of a judge who is about to sentence you for a crime, try saying, “Please forgive me!” Or imagine Richard Nixon, during the announcement of his resignation from the presidency in 1974, saying, “Please forgive me!” Or what if you get an “F” on an exam in school—can you say to your teacher, “Please forgive me”? Forgiveness is not really how our society operates. And yet we think about it a great deal here in the Church.
So what does it mean? And what can we learn about forgiveness from the Gospel theme for today, the parable of the Prodigal Son?
I think a lot of people think of forgiveness as a sort of deal we do with God. We come to church every so often (perhaps even regularly), give a certain amount toward our pledge, or even just say, “God, forgive me,” and God will of course forgive us—right? Actually—wrong. In fact, that sort of approach to Christian faith indicates that we don’t even understand what forgiveness really is.
So first let’s talk about what it’s not. Forgiveness is not a ticket to Heaven. Forgiveness is not for God to look at our sins and say, “Oh, I guess that’s all right. Just don’t do it again. Here, have some eternal life.” Forgiveness is not having some big mystical debt or punishment just wiped away.
To get inside what forgiveness actually is, consider your own experience. Have you ever had anyone say to you “I’m sorry,” but you just knew that they weren’t really sorry? You knew that there was no real change on their part, that they just wanted whatever had happened to be over with, that what had happened had not really affected them inside. They just wanted to get out of whatever bad experience awaited them, even if it was just the experience of continuing to be confronted with their failing. Or perhaps you were that person—not really sorry for what you did, but just sorry you got caught or sorry that something uncomfortable happened because of what you did.
But have you ever had someone who had failed you, who had betrayed you, who had hurt you, and who then came to you with genuine sorrow, not because they feared bad things happening to them, but because they could not bear to be separated from you? Their sorrow for their sin came out of the brokenness of the relationship with you, not from concern for their own comfort. That’s the basis for real forgiveness, because there is real repentance there, a real desire to be reunited, to be reconciled.
So, now think for a moment about your real relationship with Christ. When you say to Him, “Lord, have mercy,” are you saying it merely out of habit? Are you saying it out of a sense of obligation? Are you saying it just because it sounds nice when the choir sings it? Or are you actually aware that you need, well, mercy?
Are you aware of your separation from your Creator? If not, there are two possibilities: You are a saint and have a constant and unbroken awareness of God’s presence with you or you do not actually care to have a real relationship with your God, and so the separation doesn’t matter to you.
If you come and listen to the hymns of the Sunday Matins service leading up to and during Great Lent, you will hear a hymn sung shortly after the Gospel reading in which the writer says that he “tremble[s] for the terrible day of judgment.” Why would anyone tremble, though? Didn’t the writer of that hymn—probably a saint—have his ticket to Heaven? Even in his holiness, a saint is aware that he still has separation from God, and his thirst for God’s presence is so strong and his awareness of his inability to be perfect is so strong that he cries out to God, “Lord, have mercy!”
I think this is a real problem for many of us—we do not know that we are separated from God, and probably worse yet, we may not even care. But probably all of us do care for how we will spend eternity. But we may be deceived, thinking that all we need to do is to fulfill some religious “obligation,” and that ticket to Heaven will be ours. If we believe that—no matter how we may define our “obligation”—then we have believed a lie, and it is a lie whispered to us by the demons.
The truth behind all this is to be found in today’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, which we all know well, an ungrateful son takes what belongs to his father and wastes it all in a far-off country, eventually finding himself in total shame, total filthiness, total rejection from society.
We know how the story ends, but let’s imagine an alternate ending for this parable. Instead of the Prodigal “coming to himself” and going back to his father, he sends him a letter:
As you may have heard, I am now living in a far-off country and am forced to feed pigs for a living. I’ve even gotten so hungry that the pigs’ food is starting to look pretty good to me. I messed up, and I’m sorry. I was hoping you might send over one of your servants with a bag of gold so I could pay off my debts and maybe buy something to eat. I’d appreciate it.
That’s ridiculous, of course. But that’s basically the approach a lot of us take. We send God the occasional prayer-letter and want Him to bail us out in exchange. But that’s not what forgiveness is about. It’s not a bail-out from the Big Banker in the Sky.
What really happens in this parable is what forgiveness is all about. The Prodigal “comes to himself,” meaning that he really realizes what he has done, meaning that he really has become aware of his separation from his father, from his home, from his family. And then he goes home. And he makes no request other than “Please take me back.” He doesn’t even expect to be treated as a son. He just asks to be treated as a servant.
Ask yourself today whether you’re aware of the separation that exists between you and God. Really ask yourself that. If you don’t think there is one at all, well as much as it may be hard to hear, there actually is. If you think there isn’t one, ask yourself whether you have yet become perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, because that’s the only way there’s no separation.
If you’re not there yet, then that means you have some work to do. And if you can at least acknowledge that intellectually, but you have no idea where to start, no idea how to actually “come to yourself” and start heading toward the Father, then please, come to confession and let’s talk. It’s true: No one is perfect. But if we’re satisfied with that, then that means we are satisfied with living with the pigs, satisfied with the temporary pleasure and success the world has to offer, satisfied with forgetting about living with God and all our family in Heaven at the end of our lives. But if you’re not satisfied with that, if you want to know what you can do about overcoming that separation, then Christ and His Church stand ready to take you by the hand and lead you, step by step, back to the Father.
As ever, our forgiveness depends on our hearts. We cannot be forgiven if our hearts are not really set on drawing close to Christ. We cannot only set our minds or our sense of religious “obligation” on the forgiveness of God. We have to give our hearts. And you know when you’ve given your heart to something—it’s when you can never answer the question, “How much is enough?” There is no “enough” when it comes to the heart.
So what is forgiveness? It is to be received back by our Father. And how do we get there? We “come to ourselves,” return to Him, and open our hearts. Then we will gain not only the glory and beauty of His presence in this life, but eternity with Him, as well. As the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither” (from The Joyful Christian).
So which way are you aiming?
May the God of peace, forgiveness and restoration, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Throughout much of January and often into February, I spend close to 20-30 hours every week visiting the homes of parishioners and blessing them as part of the annual Theophany celebrations. I put several hundred miles on my car’s odometer during this time. Aside from the extra workload and of course the joy of visiting parishioners in their homes, I also particularly enjoy driving around the countryside in and near the Lehigh Valley. If I have some extra time, I may wander a bit and follow some rabbit trails that my GPS or simply something catching my eye might take me down. This past Saturday, the sign depicted in the photo above is what quite suddenly caught my attention.
As you no doubt know (especially if you’ve read this), I have a great curiosity for obscure religious groups. I must admit that, though they are perhaps somewhat known to many of my fellow Pennsylvanians, I had never heard of the Schwenkfelders. What could they be? And what was this remote little spot out in the woods with the weathered sign?
After seeing the sign, I pulled over, parked my car, and walked up the hillside in the direction of the sign’s arrow. There, I was greeted by a remarkably picturesque little cemetery. And of course, I find old cemeteries utterly irresistible.
Nearby was a fairly unremarkable building (the meeting house) that looked like a small church whose windows were boarded up and yet curiously seemed to have recently received a fresh coat of paint.
At one end of the meeting house was a stone set into the ground that gave some details of its use just over a century ago.
One of the things that fascinated me most about this site was one large memorial stone toward the back of the cemetery that was dedicated to the original Silesian Schwenkfelder immigrants who had come to the area almost 300 years before. The stone is of course interesting for its historical significance, but what particularly delighted my eye was to see that three of these eleven Schwenkfelders in fact bore the traditional names of the Three Wise Men who came from Persia to visit the child Jesus after His birth: Melchior, Casper and Balthaser (the latter two are most often spelled in English as Caspar and Balthazar).
It seems curiously coincidental that all three Magi would be represented among these folks, but perhaps there is a tradition among the the Schwenkfelders of using these names, if only because their namesake, Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig, bore one of them.
So who are these people? You can of course read about them on Wikipedia or at the website of the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center, not to mention the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (which often has rather droll entries for non-Roman Catholic religious entities), and there are of course whole books dedicated to these folks. But here’s the brief version of their story:
Caspar Schwenckfeld (ca. 1489 – 1561) himself was a Radical Reformation theologian in Silesia, having had a conversion experience when he was about 30, joining the Lutheran church. He eventually came to disagree on the sacramental reality of Holy Communion contra Luther and also held some rather odd Christological views (namely, that Jesus’ humanity was indeed real but was not consubstantial with Adam’s seed but represented a new creation, derived from His divinity). He broke from the Lutherans and gathered a small group of followers, who over the years were persecuted by the Lutheran state church.
About 1,500 Schwenkfelders still persisted at the opening of the 18th century, and they fled Austrian imperial persecution in Silesia, many finding refuge with the famous Count Zinzendorf, who is perhaps more notable for his connection with the Moravians (he later came to America and actually preached right here in Emmaus). In the 1730s, a number of Schwenkfelders immigrated to the Philadelphia area, forming a Society of Schenkfelders some fifty years later. They did not form an actual denominational body until 1909, by which time the Schwenkfelder community in Europe had become extinct. There are now only five Schwenkfelder churches in the world, and they are all within fifty miles of Philadelphia. It does not seem that they explicitly retain a common theology based on Schwenckfeld’s teachings but have become essentially congregationalist in that regard.
During my wandering on Saturday, I also found the new location of the old Kraussdale Schwenkfelders in Palm, Pennsylvania (a whimsically named town, considering our climate). It looks little different from most of the Lutheran churches in our area.
A mystery still remains for me, though, and that is how these Wise Men of Silesia came to bear these remarkably uncommon names in common with those ancient Persian magi. Perhaps that will be the occasion of a future visit to the aforesaid library.
Canticle for the Meeting of Our Lord
Long years ago I heard the Voice of God—
foreshadowing to me the news of Christ,
that death I would not see ’til I had seen
th’awaited coming of the Son of Man.
“Behold, the Virgin shall conceive,” I read,
Isaiah’s vision did foretell the One
to bring salvation to old Israel,
His flesh and blood to feed the race of man.
And so I prayed, my face upon the ground,
to see the Son of God, the great I AM,
the icon of the mighty Father God,
incarnate for us sons of Israel.
Both night and light, at every hour and time,
with tears I prayed: O Lord, O Lord! How long?
A Light we need, for revelation true,
the glory of Thy people Israel.
Then came the day, within the Temple’s gates,
wherein we saw the coming of the Lord—
a host of angels gathered ’round, I felt,
as two from Galilee did enter in:
The good old man, the righteous Joseph there,
and at his side a young and spotless Maid;
she held within her arms a newborn Child,
Who’d breathed our earthly air but forty days.
They brought with them the sacrifice, two birds,
according to the Law of Moses’ words.
And then, she brought to me the Child—my God
was laid so tenderly within my arms,
His infant breath upon my hands I felt,
His holy breath upon my sinful hands.
I stood, Creator held by creature’s arms,
the Living Word and Son of Most High God
now meets the tired and war-worn Israel,
the faithless bride has now beheld her groom.
“O Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant part
in peace, according to Thy word of truth:
Behold! my eyes have seen salvation’s birth,
which Thou prepared before the face of all,
the Light we need, for revelation true,
the glory of Thy people Israel.”
Then Joseph and the Virgin stood amazed,
to hear such truths as these which God had shown
to me so many long, long years before.
I gave to them the blessing of the Lord,
the Lord Who slept there as an infant Child,
then said to them, “Behold, O Virgin pure,
this Child will be the rise and fall of men
of Israel, a sign which shall be mocked;
And, lo, a sword will pierce thy soul as well,
the thoughts of many men will be revealed.”
Then prophetess, the righteous Anna, came,
and she rejoiced as well to see His day,
thanksgiving sang unto the Lord Most High,
and preached of the Redeemer’s blessed birth.
The Virgin and the good old man returned
to Galilee, performing all the things
required by Moses’ ancient Jewish Law.
The Child, He grew, His spirit strong and good,
with wisdom filled and filled with grace;
He bore mankind’s salvation on His back,
our essence taken to Himself, while yet
retaining without change His place as God.
Our God became a man that we might live
and grow as gods, to fullness of the Christ.