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Sunday of Meatfare

jean vanierWe have finally come to Meatfare Sunday, the final day of Meatfare Week.  The Great Fast begins next Monday.   Did you fill up on meat?  Our Church – in its original practice – asks us to prepare for the Great Fast, physically and spiritually.  By tradition, everybody was asked to abstain from meat, egg, dairy for the entire Great Fast, so the faithful would ease into the fast.  For anyone who follows this early practice, Meatfare Sunday is the last day to eat meat until Easter.  Monday begins what is traditionally Cheesefare Week which is our last opportunity to eat cheese until Easter.

How about our spiritual preparation for the Great Fast?  That is grounded in the Scripture readings.  The Gospel readings through Meatfare Week help us to anticipate the Great Fast by recounting the events of Holy Week, as told in Saint Mark’s account of our Lord’s Passion.  The apostolic readings are mostly from Saint John’s Letters who goes nudges, pushes, and cajoles us to love in imitation of the One Who is Love.  Here are a few of the things Saint John  had to say in this week’s readings:

If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen…whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.  Whoever does not love remains in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”

Let us love one another…This is love, that we walk according to his commandments.  This is the commandment as you heard from the beginning, in which you should walk.”

And at yesterday’s Divine Liturgy we heard Saint Paul implore the Corinthians: “No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor.”

These are very blunt words.  Last week was with friends at their Roman Catholic church which was about to begin a series of discussions entitled “Things I wish Jesus never said.”  Next to the words was a picture of a young man covering his ears with his hands!  Did you feel that way hearing these words from Saint John or hearing today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25?

“…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.   42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 

And Jesus said that those on the Lord’s left 44…will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 

[And] 45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 

Whenever we fail to do for the least of our brothers and sisters, for all intents and purposes, we trivialize and mock what He did for us on the cross, and, as Saint John stated so bluntly we are murderers and liars in spite of our protestations that we love God.

So how do we love?   There are so many people hurting.  So many people in need.  We can contribute money to organizations whose reason for existence is to serve our neighbors in need – from the local food pantry to Catholic Relief Services which help 136,000,000 million people per year in over 110 countries. That’s one way, and let’s not minimize it; but there is another way.

Some years ago during the Second World War a thirteen year old Canadian boy joined the Royal Navy.  He served with the navy until he was twenty-one years old.  Something stirred inside of him.  He went to France where he began studies in philosophy and theology.  He earned his PhD in Philosophy and wrote his dissertation on happiness in the ethics of Aristotle.  Pretty heady stuff, wouldn’t you say?  For a while, after he completed his studies, the young man assisted a priest who was chaplain to a residence for thirty developmentally disabled adults.  He returned to Canada to teach ethics and, though his students loved him, but something was missing, so he returned to France at the end of the semester.  One day, while visiting a psychiatric hospital, the young man met Philippe and Raphael, two developmentally disabled men.  He was taken by their horrible plight, and he acted.  He bought a small home in which he, Philippe, and Raphael would live.

The young man I’ve been talking about is Jean Vanier who, with Philippe and Raphael began what would become the first L’Arche community.  Today, from that one community there are 151 spread out across the globe on five continents.

In that first home, Vanier discovered that Philippe and Raphael “wanted a friend.”  He said, “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”  The only way Vanier was able to recognize that was to stop, look, and listen so that he might be able to see into their hearts, listen to their words and discover the ways in which they were hungering and thirsting, recognize how they were marginalized and imprisoned, and simply be their friend.

During the Divine Liturgy before the Gospel and Apostolic readings, the deacon commands, “Let us be attentive!”  Pay attention!  We are about to hear the living Word of God.  My brothers and sisters, I would like to suggest that after we are dismissed from the Divine Liturgy to go forth in peace, the Word of God that we have heard today should compel us to be attentive to the least among us. It is there that we find the suffering face of Christ, if we dare to look.  What will my response be to Him?  What will your response be?

My brothers and sisters, this year the Great Fast begins on March 4th.  The Church asks that this be a time of more intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Prayer and fasting to strengthen us so that we are not compromised by fear, weariness, insecurity, or a desire for comfort and we care able to reach out beyond ourselves in almsgiving.  The Great Fast is a time to sacrificially give to worthy causes. But do not stop there, look closer to home.  Let us all be attentive to those are hurting and rather than seek our own advantage reach out to our neighbor, and there you will find Christ.  Saint Gregory the Theologian could not say it any better: “Christ becomes for you a stranger, a person without clothes, food, and health, a prisoner…moving about homeless, naked, sick and needy.  So long as there is time, let us desire to visit this Christ, to care for Christ, to feed Christ, to clothe Christ, to gather Christ, and to treasure Christ.”

If you feel like you are spiritually dying, caught up in your worries, fears, insecurities and want to come alive spiritually, offer yourself to the suffering Christ wherever you may find Him.  Only then will you discover that the words of Jesus are truly words for which to be grateful.  Let us be attentive!

By Dn. Thomas P. Shubeck

The Thirty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: A Prelude to a Prelude

6be470fa-e502-4654-af4c-e01711f803f9This Sunday’s readings are like a prelude to a prelude.  What do I mean?  

Let’s get a handle on the prelude to which this Sunday’s readings are a prelude.  Next week is the Sunday of Zacchaeus when the lowly Zacchaeus seeks Jesus’ mercy.  This marks the beginning of the five-week preparation for the Great Fast.  The following Sunday we will hear about the haughty Pharisee who thinks he is too good to need God’s mercy and the lowly Publican who begs God’s mercy.  The following Sunday we will hear the Parable of the Prodigal son who begs his father’s mercy.  That will take us up to Meatfare Sunday when we learn the fate of those who do not follow Jesus’ way of mercy.  Finally, we will find ourselves on the cusp of the Great Fast: Cheesefare Sunday when we will be reminded of the importance of forgiving others.  And as that day draws to a close we begin the Great Fast when we come together as a community to pray Forgiveness Vespers asking God His forgiveness and asking one another forgiveness for the offenses we have committed to one another.  Forgiveness may be the most difficult act of mercy to perform.

That will be our prelude to the Great Fast.  Today may be considered a prelude to the prelude because thereadings we heard are about the mercy of God.

Saint Paul wrote to Saint Timothy that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom, he said, he was the greatest.  Saint Paul reasoned that since he was the first among sinners, Jesus displayed all his patience as an example to all who would come to believe in him for everlasting life. Jesus, our Brother, manifests the infinite mercy of the Father.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man who the Evangelist Mark identified as Bartimaeus – was sitting by the roadside begging, and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.  The people in the crowd told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”  He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  He repeated himself once again: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he said, “Lord, please let me see.” The blind Bartimaeus had faith that Jesus could and would heal him.  So Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God.

There is a beauty and simplicity to this story.  We can take away at least three important elements from this event in the public ministry of Jesus:

First, the blind man certainly believed that Jesus was merciful and could make him see.  Second, Jesus healed the blind man in response to the blind man’s plea for mercy.  Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!  Jesus heals those who have faith in him and invite him into their lives.  He is a merciful God to those who actively seek his mercy.   Third, Jesus’ mercy demands a response from the one who is healed.  Bartimaeus’ response to being healed was to follow Jesus, giving glory to God.  Following Jesusdoes not mean that Bartimaeus literally walkedbehind Jesus wherever he went.   Bartimaeus’followed in the way of Jesus, the way of mercy.

To follow Jesus in the way of mercy is to have a merciful heart.  Rather than four chambers, the merciful heart is composed of fourteen interconnected chambers– one for each work of mercy.  There are the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual acts of mercy.  

The corporal works of mercy are those kind acts by which we help our neighbors with their material and physical needs: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead, and giving alms to the poor. In last Sunday’s reading from Luke, Jesus was speaking about corporal acts of mercy when he told the rich young man who had kept all the commandments and wanted to know how he might inherit eternal life: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

There are also acts of compassion by which we help our neighbors with their emotional and spiritual needs.  These are the spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those who sorrow, forgiving those who hurt us, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead.

On January 30th we will commemorate the Three Holy Hierarchs: Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom.  It is safe to say that these three Fathers of the Church are teachers for all time; their words as relevant today as they were in their day.

Saint Basil followed Jesus’ way of mercy: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need.”  Basil opened the first hospitals for the sick and the poor, called, at that time, basiliads in his honor.

Saint Gregory the Theologian followed Jesus way of mercy: “We are all one in the Lord, rich and poor, slaves and free, healthy and sick alike; and one is the head from which all derive: Jesus Christ.  And as with the members of one body, each is concerned with the other, and all with all.”  And very pointedly he wrote that the one salvation for our flesh and our soul is to show people in difficulty charity.  

Saint John Chrysostom followed Jesus in the way of mercy: If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.” The man with the golden mouth never minced his words, did he?

Each of the Three Holy Hierarchs found the True Faith.  Each, like the blind Bartimaeus, asked God for His mercy, and our Lord generously extended it to them.  Each, like the blind Bartimaeus, then followed Jesus in His way of mercy.

As the Church helps us prepare for the Great Fast over the next several weeks, listen to the stories of God’s mercy.  Let these stories inspire you to go ahead and take the risk to make the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner – your own every day and throughout he day.  Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.  Allow His Holy Spirit to show you how to imitate Jesus’ way of mercyevery day of your life and in every situation you encounter.  See where God leads you.  And pray for the intercession of our Three Holy Hierarchs – Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom.  

By Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

Beginning, middle, and end. Every story seems to have one. Or does it?

ancestry of christToday’s gospel reading was the entire first chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament.  So, we heard the beginning of Matthew and the New Testament!   Saint Matthew’s account of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is no ordinary story with a clean beginning, middle, and end.  I would like to suggest that the Gospel of Saint Matthew looks back to a prequel – the Old Testament – and looks ahead to today – to each and every one of us.

Saint Matthew begins his Gospel with the Genealogy of Jesus Christ, which begins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” followed by a long list of names.   Two thousand years removed from the days of the early Church, most of us listening to Matthew’s genealogy of Christ – forty-two generations worth –hear but a handful of familiar names, and a lot of strange sounding, unfamiliar names. Why did Matthew include Jesus’ genealogy?  The short answer is that a genealogy provides a quick way to learn who a person is.

The Jews and Gentiles in the very early days of the Church hearing Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy became excited or at least intrigued about this Jesus born of a Virgin.   Indeed there is much that the Jews and Gentiles of Jesus’ time and we, even today, can take and learn from Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.  Most significantly, we learn that

  • The Son of God became en-fleshed and entered completely into the human condition: the dirt; the grime; the ambiguity, the paradox, and the comedy of life.
  • He entered deeply into our very dysfunctional human family.  We are able to say this because we see this in the persons whom Jesus allowed as his ancestors:
  • David was a man of great faith but with many faults.  He composed many of the beautiful psalms in praise of God, yet he also who arranged for the murder of his lover Bathsheba’s husband so he might take her legally as his wife.
  • Jacob was a man who wrestled with God and injured his hip in the process making him lame for life.
  • Rahab was a prostitute.  She also came to believe in our one true God, for as we heard in today’s reading from the Hebrews, “by faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies [that is to say because of her hospitality], was not killed with those who were disobedient.”
  • Ruth was not even an Israelite; she was a Moabite, an outsider who married an Israelite.  Upon her husband’s death she remained a member of the house of Israel, living with her in-laws.
  • And then there are the people like Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Eliud, Eleazor, Matthan, and Jacob the father of Joseph about whom we know nothing except that they form much of Jesus’ genealogy after the Babylonian exile.

God welcomed into the ancestry of His Son Jesus Christ persons who sinned horribly; persons who wrestled with Him, who struggled with Him; persons who were outsiders and foreigners; persons who were nobodies…These persons were all part of Jesus’ human nature.

We also learn today that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Fully human and fully divine.  Jesus took His human nature, bearing all the beauty marks and warts of his ancestors, and perfectly conformed it to the will of his Father.

That this is so, there was no doubt to Simon Peter.   Matthew, Chapter 16, verses 15 and 16 – roughly in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus asked his first disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15) Amongst all the disciples, Simon Peter came forward and answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16)   

By the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus, tells his disciples, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Mt 28:18-20)

We; sons and daughters of Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus by virtue of our baptism; are called by our brother Jesus to do the will of the Father and be disciples.

The problem is, too often, we get in the way of ourselves.  We feel unworthy to be players in God’s story because we are ashamed of our sins; because we struggle with God, fighting His call to faith, trust, and holiness; because we feel like an outsider; or because we feel like a nobody.  It is at these times that we need to remember who God welcomed to be the ancestors of His Son.   If he welcomed them to be participants in his story, then he certainly welcomes us.

And remember, too, Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph.  An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  Joseph did not cave in to his fear.  He took Mary as his wife and welcomed Jesus into his home and his heart.  God, through his Son, entered into human history – Joseph became a full participant in that story – the story that begins the New Testament.

As we approach the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, my prayer for each and every one of us is that we welcome into our hearts the newborn Jesus, the Mystery of the Incarnate God, the Word made flesh; and, in doing so, cast aside our fears, which are so often self-serving, and welcome ourselves as full participants in God’s story, in our homes,  in our hometowns, and in the larger world.

The story of the Son of God has no beginning as we profess in the Nicene Creed: I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.  On that first Christmas morning the Son of God entered into human history, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he is with us today.  Heed His call.  Go.  Make disciples of all nations.  Jesus, the Son of the living God, is with us, always until the end of the age.

By: Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

On Keeping Christ in Christmas

nativity-of-christ-icon-443During Advent or Philip’s Fast we see car magnets and an occasional billboard which say, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  Since you are reading this, you are most likely in agreement with the perennial plea to Keep Christ in Christmas.

Did you ever take the time to pray over what it means to keep Christ in Christmas?  The obvious answer is to say Merry Christmas rather than the bland Happy Holidays.   I would like to suggest that keeping Christ in Christmas consists of much, much more than saying Merry Christmasinstead of “Happy holidays”; “Christmas tree” instead of “holiday tree”; or Christmas party instead of holiday party.   What if I brought a cake decoration which says on it “Merry Christmas” to a Christmas party but did not bring a cake?  The Merry Christmas cake decoration might look nice, but something would be missing.  It just doesn’t stand by itself; it is meant to be put on a cake.  Similarly, the proclamation “Merry Christmas” doesn’t stand by itself.

So how do we keep Christ in Christmas?  We can begin with what the Church encourages us to do during Philip’s fast: more fervent prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

We can make Sacred Scripture part of our prayer.  In fact, this Sunday’s reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:12-17) is a beautiful and succinct “recipe” for keeping Christ in Christmas:

12Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  13bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.  14And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.  15And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.  16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  17And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Where do we begin?  Saint Paul described what a community of Christians looks like when they allow their hearts to conformed to the heart of Christ by the Holy Spirit!  This is an invitation to a life with Jesus Christ at its center.  It is an invitation to live the Beatitudes (which were read from Luke’s Gospel at the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of Saint Nicholas).   A person or a parish community whose hearts are not growing in conformity to the heart of Christ is like a Merry Christmas cake decoration without the cake.

If this passage from Colossians was written like a recipe, it might read something like this:

12Put [in]…

  • 1 T of heartfelt compassion, 
  • 1 T of kindness, 
  • 1 T of humility, 
  • 1 T of gentleness, and 
  • 2 T of patience.

13[Add] as many pinches of forgiveness as is needed, for as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.  

14[Thoroughly mix in a lot of] love, that is, the bond of perfection. 

15And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.  

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, 

singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 

17And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

It is all here: Love of God manifested in our gratitude to Him and our joyful worship; and love of neighbor manifested by our heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, our willingness to forgive.  This is the essence of keeping Christ in Christmas.  This is also how we evangelize.

During the coming Christmas holiday-season we our parishes will see a number of visitors for the Divine Liturgy.  Some will be back from school or visiting family.  Some will be here as they are every year for Christmas, perhaps out of a sense of obligation or nostalgia, and not to be seen again until Easter.  Some will come seeking God, and others will be curious about this Byzantine church they drive or walk by day after day.

How much will visitors be able to see, feel, and hear our love of God and one another?  How much will they sense our gratitude to God?  Will visitors say, “this parish is special, I can sense the presence of God in this community”?  Will they see members of our communities saying yes to God’s call to die to self and love others?  The answers to these questions depend upon each and every one of us.  What we do may very well influence whether they will return sooner than later.

How have you let your heart be conformed to the heart of Jesus?  In what ways is God asking you to keep Christ in Christmas this year?  Will each of us respond to God’s call with the same “Yes” that Our Lady the Theotokos gave?

Five years ago Pope Francis wrote the Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.    It was and remains a call to evangelization.  The Holy Father ended his apostolic exhortation with a prayer:

Mary, Virgin and Mother, you who, moved by the Holy Spirit,
welcomed the word of life in the depths of your humble faith:
as you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One,
help us to say our own “yes”
to the urgent call, as pressing as ever,
to proclaim the good news of Jesus….

Obtain for us now a new ardour born of the resurrection,
that we may bring to all the Gospel of life
which triumphs over death.
Give us a holy courage to seek new paths,
that the gift of unfading beauty
may reach every man and woman.

Virgin of listening and contemplation,
Mother of love, Bride of the eternal wedding feast,
pray for the Church, whose pure icon you are,
that she may never be closed in on herself
or lose her passion for establishing God’s kingdom.

Star of the new evangelization,
help us to bear radiant witness to communion,
service, ardent and generous faith,
justice and love of the poor,
that the joy of the Gospel
may reach to the ends of the earth,
illuminating even the fringes of our world.

Mother of the living Gospel,
wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones,
pray for us.

Amen. Alleluia!

May we, as individuals and communities of believers, make this a Christmas to remember where Christ is front and center throughout this Christmas season.

By: Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck

IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE…PHILIP’S FAST

Orthodox-Christmas-4 ‘Twas the night before Halloween and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a fully decorated Christmas tree as I entered my local supermarket.  Rather than get me thinking about Christmas, my thoughts turned to the forty-day period of fasting leading up to the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  Philip’s Fast gets its name from the fact that the forty-day period begins on November 15, the day after the feast of Saint Philip the Apostle.  In his wonderful book of meditations, The Winter Pascha (SVS Press), Father Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, suggested it may be providential that the start of the pre-Christmas fast coincides with the Feast of Saint Philip.  Father Hopko rightly observed that, like the first disciples, Jesus calls us to “come and see.”

The first step on the way of the Winter Pascha is the encounter with the man Jesus… If we want to come and want to see, we will.  Like the first disciples, we will see ‘greater things” than we ever expected.  We will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”  We will see Jesus as our Master, and will cry to Him: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  And we will come to know Him for who and what He really is.  But first we must come.  For if we do not come, we will never see.

To “come and see” means to turn our attention away from the many distractions of everyday life as well as the additional distractions of the season – from Black Friday and Cyber Tuesday, to mall Santas and “malling,” from sports and politics to the Internet and its various social media.  The tradition of the Byzantine Church asks that we abstain from meat products every Wednesday and Friday during the Philip’s Fast.  In fact, the Philip’s Fast is a voluntary forty-day penitential period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Take a few minutes and ask yourself, if I do not enter into the Philip’s Fast, will I have anything left to give to the Son of God on Christmas morning?  Will I be exhausted after days, if not weeks, of Christmas parties (aka “holiday” parties) and Christmas shopping.  Will I have any room left in my heart to receive the Son of God – in the Eucharist, in the message of His Word, or in my neighbor, or will my heart have become supersaturated with the distractions of the season?

Philip’s Fast is a time to prepare to come and see the Lord.  Stop and take a time out from the secular holiday season frenzy.  Come and see the Lord.   Can any of us afford not to participate deeply in this too often neglected penitential season of the Church?

By Fr. Deacon Thomas P. Shubeck