A Sunday Fr. Stephen collection

  1. God is not alone
  2. Shame & Mockery, or Pain & Suffering?
  3. Hungry, and we gave foodstamps
  4. Receiving the due end of evil works
  5. Taking Sonya’s advice
  6. Christians are not called to be agents of progress

1

I consider it both a strange mystery and a settled matter of the faith that God prefers not to do things alone. Repeatedly, He acts in a manner that involves the actions of others when it would seem, He could have acted alone.

Why would God reveal His Word to the world through the agency of men? Why would He bother to use writing? Why not simply communicate directly with people? Why speak to Moses in a burning bush? Why did the Incarnation involve Mary? Could He not have simply become man, whole, complete, adult, in a single moment?

Such questions could be multiplied ad infinitum …

There is a fear in some Christian quarters that were we to admit that God shared His action with any other, our salvation would be a matter of our own works and not the sovereign act of God. It is feared that a conciliar mode of action shares the glory of God with mere mortals.

It is true. This understanding shares the glory of God with mere mortals. But, interestingly, St. Paul says that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7). Apparently, we were brought into existence in order to have such a share.

The failure to understand this and the effort to re-invent the Christian story with diminished roles for angels and saints, or Christians themselves, comes very close to setting forth a different gospel altogether.

The Word became flesh of the Virgin Mary. The flesh of the Virgin is also the flesh that is nailed to the Cross (when her soul was itself mysteriously “pierced”). The flesh which we eat in the Eucharist is also the flesh of the Virgin – for there is no flesh of God that is not the flesh of the Virgin.

And it does no good to protest that the Word merely “took flesh” of the Virgin. For Adam cried out concerning Eve, “This is truly bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And St. Paul noted concerning the wife of a man that a man should love her, “For no one ever yet hated his own flesh.”

I puzzle at how Christians who understand that it is wrong for a woman to say, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want,” when she is carrying a child, can at the same time treat the Mother of God as though she had merely lent her womb to God for a period of time.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, You Are Not Alone – And Neither Is God)

2

Like all Orthodox icons, the Crucifixion is somewhat stylized, conforming to the norms of Byzantine grammar. It is a theological rather than historical presentation. Typically, the icon presents a very calm Christ on the Cross. He is clearly “dead” (His eyes are closed). But there is no particular sense of agony. The suffering is more a note of sadness rather than pain. And, contrary to history, the plaque over the Cross reads: “The King of Glory.” As glory goes, it is indeed subdued. There is a profound stillness that comes with it.

Of great note … is the absence of pain and torture in this presentation. The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery …

The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ “became obedient to death,” and adds, “even death on a Cross.” The point of the “even” is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame … The purple robe, the crown of thorns are not unique images of pain, but torturous bits of mockery.

All of this runs counter to the penal theories of the atonement. In those theories, Christ is punished on our behalf. It is His pain and suffering as sacrificial victim that come to the fore. What Western (cf. Spanish) art did to the Crucifixion, Western rhetoric did to the atonement ….

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, An Atonement of Shame – Orthodoxy and the Cross)

3

There is, within the modern paradigm, a profound substitution of state action for personal action. Voting to help the poor with other people’s money seems somehow amiss in terms of the gospel.

I was sick and you advocated for a single-payer health-care system. I was hungry and you gave me foodstamps. I was in prison and you advocated for more just sentencing and additional social workers. I was naked and you argued with people for judging my appearance.

These are more characteristic of popular “justice” in the modern setting. Our concern for justice rarely seems to engage anyone face-to-face, or to leave us with substantially less money. We fail to understand the true nature of violence, and refuse to acknowledge its necessary role in “making the world a better place.” Modernity is married to violence and pleads that it is all in a good cause.

Within our daily lives, if we confront the day with thanksgiving, the Cross will quickly reveal itself. The first moment that the giving of thanks becomes difficult, we have reached the wood of the Cross itself. We stand in the very gates of Hades. If in that moment of difficulty we persist in giving thanks, then Hades trembles and the dead are raised. This is our personal kenosis, our self-emptying in the presence of the good God. “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.”

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, A Cruciform Providence)

4

Christ told a parable about a rich man and a poor, named Lazarus. The poor man sat by the rich man’s gate but never received even so much as a scrap from the rich man’s table. In time, they both die. Lazarus, we are told, was received into “Abraham’s bosom,” while the rich man was tormented in the flames of hell. When the rich man cries out for help, he is reminded by Abraham of the injustice he refused to correct in his life: the rich man “fared sumptuously” while Lazarus had nothing.

Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. (Luk 16:25)

He then tells the rich man that there is a great gulf between them now and that there is nothing that Lazarus can do for him.

This latter comment has, through time, become almost the only thing in the parable that some remember. It is, of course, a point that has become fixed through centuries of anti-Catholic argumentation. “There is a great gulf fixed,” we are told, and so prayers for the departed are of no use. The damned are damned.

Of course, this is a terrible distortion of the parable and overlooks its most obvious point. The rich man has done nothing for the poor, and now he receives the due end of his evil works. It is quite similar to those who, in Matthew 25, did not feed, clothe or visit the “least of these my brethren,” and, in so doing, did not do it to Christ Himself. In this hardness of heart, they, too, are lost.

Strangely absent from modern thought, however, are the clear assumptions within both parables. In both cases, the care for the poor would have made all the difference in the matter of salvation. The Rich man might have come to the aid of Lazarus. In so doing, he would have discovered that Lazarus would “receive him into an everlasting home.” His refusal to be of help to Lazarus is the sole reason given for his burning in hell. In Matthew 25, those who are kind to the sick, the naked, the homeless, etc., discover that they are being given the Kingdom, even though they were unaware of their service to Christ.

It is in light of such an understanding that I made the scandalous statement that a man can “buy his way into the Kingdom.” There is no bribe he can offer God. God needs nothing from him. But he can give to the many Lazaruses that surround him. In time, perhaps, they will receive him.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Put Your Money to Work – It’s for Your Salvation)

5

Is it any wonder that the Church teaches us to cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” over and over again? I think of the advice given to Raskolnikov, the axe-murderer in Crime and Punishment. After confessing his crime to Sonya the prostitute we read:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes.

He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy. “So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

We take a burden far greater than Raskolnikov’s into Great Lent. Bow down, kiss the earth you have defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud: “Forgive me!”

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Forgiveness for All the Sundays to Come)

6

We have a deep, fearful resistance to the notion of Divine providence. The fear is that nothing good will come unless we make it come, and that dependence on Divine providence is the same as doing nothing. It is a tragic circle in which we believe that only our exercise of power can order the world, coupled with the fear that it will not be enough. Any yielding in our drive for control is seen as an invitation to disaster.

The end of the Soviet Union is an interesting case in point. Though various Western political leaders clamored to claim their own efforts as the decisive piece in the collapse of Communism, it was nothing of the sort. Indeed, its collapse came as a surprise to Western intelligence agencies. It came to an end, largely without bloodshed and suddenly. The most important figure was, doubtless, Mikhail Gorbachev, who simply allowed matters to unfold without intervention. The system was not pushed over a cliff – it was allowed to fall.

Anyone who denies the providence of God in that collapse denies reality …

Christians are not called to be the agents of progress. Progress requires that the future be known. It is a movement towards a defined purpose and end. The violence required by that purpose is the very core of the modern nation-state’s existence. Its citizens are equally required to support its violence and celebrate its victories.

I will expand for a moment what I mean by the “violence” of modernity. There are many actions, now endemic to our nation and economy, that require various forms of violence. The mobility of populations, for example, does violence to the extended family, having rendered one of the most fundamental structures of human existence seemingly obsolete. Its absence is devastating in the destruction of the social order. We have quietly made an agreement to prefer economic progress to the stability of family …

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Providence and the Guarded Heart)

I hadn’t intended today’s blog to have such bookends, so to speak, but there it is: God is not alone; Christians are not called to be agents of progress.

* * * * *

“The truth is that the thing most present to the mind of man is not the economic machinery necessary to his existence; but rather that existence itself; the world which he sees when he wakes every morning and the nature of his general position in it. There is something that is nearer to him than livelihood, and that is life.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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