Virtue as Grace

Homily at St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church, Lewisburg PA, on the 24th Sunday After Pentecost, Nov. 6, 7532 (Nov. 19, 2023 on the civil calendar)

In the Gospel reading for today (Luke 8) we read about Christ mentioning that he perceived that virtue had gone out of Him. It is part of a conversation that he must have had with Peter and those with Him to enlighten them further. Sometimes virtue in the text is also translated in English as power, and the original term in Greek, dunamis, has both meanings. When we think of virtue, we may think of qualities of character such as honesty, purity, self-control, compassion, courage. Yet these are also in the Orthodox Christian view powers that are grace. They are not just legalisms, things we ought to do or be. They are gifts from God. Specifically, this Gospel account indicates they are gifts from Christ, God Incarnate. Another term for powers can be energies. What really is discussed here, as suggested by the Church Fathers, is the uncreated energies of God, or grace. Blessed Theophylact in his commentary notes that “The prophets did not have power that went out from them; instead they worked miracles by the grace of God. But Jesus is the source of every good thing and the source of all power, and He indeed has power that goes out from Him. The Lord grants the woman a double healing: He first heals her sickness and then He dispels the fear from her trembling soul by saying, Daughter take courage.”

When Jesus arrives at the home of the ruler of the synagogue Jairus, He comes to the dwelling of a man deemed powerful in the eyes of the world. Fear not only believe, he says. Blessed Theophylact adds that the message here is “Consider the woman who had the issue of blood. Imitate her and you will not miss the mark.” She had reached out with great humility and urgency and persistence and focus to Jesus. Jairus and his house should do the same.

When we seek healing, physically or emotionally, in Christ, we must go about self-emptying in Him, rather than self-assertion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Who loves us. He does not grant a miracle of grace like the Old Testament prophets. He is the miracle Himself. We experience this through His power or virtue, the uncreated energies of God. Virtue is not just etymologically related to power, but also by the way to manliness—the kind of manliness that the holy fathers say both men and women can express, through God’s grace.

Laughed to scorn, our Lord paid no here. He raised the 12-year-old girl from her death bed and we are told “her spirit came again.” Just so in the second Gospel reading for today, in Luke 12, He speaks to us that we should take no thought for what we should say when we are called to witness for Him in a hostile setting of worldly power, for the Holy Spirit will give us the words we need, give us the real power of God.

The nous, the eye of our soul, is also called by Church Fathers the spirit. This is where God’s uncreated energies can enter into us and touch our heart. Opening ourselves to that and nurturing that is how we empty ourselves in the power of Christ, and become one with the divine energies. The Trinity being one in essence, of one nature, although three Persons, the power from Christ is also the power from the Holy Spirit. This is the power that surges through the Church from Pentecost and even before from Jesus breathing on the Apostles, all the way down into our private saying of the Jesus Prayer in our most troubled moments: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

This is why Jesus calls blaspheming against the Holy Spirit such a great sin. Blessed Theophylact writes: “What the Lord means is this: when someone sees signs from God, great and extraordinary deeds, and does not believe but instead slanders them, attributing the activity of the Holy Spirit to Beelzebub, then he blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, saying that these signs were done by an evil, not a divine spirit. Such a blaspheme is not forgiven and will be guilty, unless he repents.

Some years ago, a political figure told people they had to learn that “you didn’t build that” when claiming credit for a business or career. Many other people contributed to what you did, he said. There was a backlash. People criticized the statement for taking away credit for individual hard work and sacrifice. But the whole truth in the Gospel is this: God built that. That which is built on the Rock, Christ, and which endures in our lives, is of God, and not either from any government program or our own skill. It’s true that both character and community can make a difference. But a real sense of both is a gift from God, it is grace, not legalism. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.

It may sound morbid, but it could be said that my life as an Orthodox Christian to date has been bookended by car accidents. These were unexpected events, but to me on reflection signs, reflections of those factors in our life that are a surprise and a mystery, even as our very birth and death are mysteries.

I was returning from the conference in New Orleans where I snagged a job at the university that led to moving to this area more than two decades ago now. As I was driving back, I was on an interstate near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when my newish sporty car suddenly caught on fire. I barely had time to pull over, jump out, and go to a safe distance. The volunteer fire department arrived, alerted by calls from other drivers. Despite warnings, I returned quickly to grab a few items. One was an icon that had been at the front of the car propped up against the dashboard, of the Mother of God the joy of all who sorrows. It was smoldering and burned around the edges but still intact. That icon with its burned edge sits still today on our icon table at home. What perished in the fire, which totaled the car, included boxes of folders belonging to my Ph.D. dissertation adviser, a collection of photocopied scholarly articles he had collected painstakingly for years before the internet, which I was using for research. Years later, he and my old fellow grad students still spoke about the lost files.

I bring this up because that very unexpected event marked a milestone, not only in getting a job and a new home, but also not long after getting engaged and then married to a wonderful Orthodox woman and establishing a family and fully a new life in Christ, and ultimately coming to a place where we would find our Church family, and join in starting a new Orthodox mission. I had been baptized not long before. This then marked as it were a lot of aspects of my life coming into focus, a literal trial by fire, a separation from my old life marked by the burned Ph.D. files and sports car. It was time to get serious.

The other bookend car accident happened almost a year ago now, when I was driving outside of Harrisburg after having dropped off Matushka Olga and Kevin as they started a trip to see my mother-in-law in Chicago. I was listening to recorded prayers in the car. A white truck behind me suddenly loomed larger and larger like a whale in my back windshield, speeding up and rear-ending our hybrid, which spun across lanes of crowded traffic. Police and tow-ers expressed amazement that anyone survived. It turned out that the truck driver had had a diabetic seizure. And he was Russian, Russian Orthodox. What were the odds of that? We expressed thanks to God together on the side of the road, that no one had been injured. The car was a loss but a loss that gave me a renewed sense of what priority should I have in my life, given that we never know if today will be our last. My sense of being called to the priesthood grew and a deeply felt need to follow up. As Archdeacon Paisios the beekeeper at Jordanville told me shortly before my ordination this summer, the times we live in give us a more urgent sense of the most important things we should be doing. That for me had been underscored that unexpected way, and following it through in the coming year with God’s help.

(I would add, however, that in that second accident, the files of the Church that were in my car were not destroyed, thank God, although the file box was banged up badly!)

So, two very unexpected moments came to mark significant times of feeling God’s power. The first marked the transition period, begun in baptism and turning toward marriage, in two mysteries of the Orthodox Church, which opened the door to more to come, from a previous time of real despair and uncertainty, like the woman with the issue of blood, toward feeling the power of Christ in my life. That period had involved the untimely death of my sister when I was in college and she was in her 20s, which impacted my family greatly, and my passing in and out of heretical religion and sin. God never gives up on us, though, however sinful. Christ reaches out to us saying, as to the woman with the issue of blood and to Jairus: “take courage….fear not and believe.” Last year’s crash marked unworthily a sharpening of that focus of a new life in Christ, too–turning toward experience of another of the Church’s mysteries. For a day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day. His plan for us comes in unexpected moments, even if separated from our experience in years. Each of our identities is not shaped by our skill at a job or career, but by our life in Christ.

When we look at the building site of our Church in rural Winfield, we can see the power of Christ at work. He has led us thus far, and God willing will do more so, in ways totally unexpected and mysterious across the past eight years and beyond, in each of the details of the project and the back stories of it. We see this too in our Church family and how we have been gathered together. Power has gone out of Christ, we feel that, too, as we most of all experience it in the Eucharist. Because He is good and the lover of man.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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