For the Sake of Envy

img_10073In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this small re-write will have to suffice for now.

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We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of Paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

In the world in which we live it is all too easy to create yet another scheme of the two-storey universe. The world we inhabit we assume to be defined and finite with scarcity as one of its leading boundaries. Abundance is shuttled off to a heaven somewhere else. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. They receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was the blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!” 

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough. 

Envy plays a large role in the events of Holy Week. Strangely, it is a passion which is rarely mentioned in our culture, even though the Fathers (at least some) thought of it as the root of all sin. We frequently think of pride as the root of all sin, but some of the Fathers note that pride, unlike envy, can be completely private, whereas envy always seeks harm for another.

Many times the sins we think of as pride, are, in fact, envy, insomuch as they are directed at other human beings. We envy their success, their “good fortune,” and many other such things. If we examine our heart carefully we will discover envy to be frequently at the root of anger, our sense of injustice and unfairness. The first murder, Abel’s death at the hand of his brother, is clearly the result of envy.

Even Judas is described as envious in the hymns of the Church, as well as the rulers of Israel by the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes in our “free-market” society, our failure and the envy it engenders gets turned against us and we condemn ourselves because we are not as clever as others. The basic inequalities of life become the source of either anger towards others of self-loathing depending on our own personality (and sometime a mixture of both).

The great difficulty with having a God is the fundamental requirement that we renounce envy. As one friend told me, “The most important thing to know about God is that you are not Him.” And this is something that I must learn to be content with. God is the Lord of the universe and not me. Things work together for good according to His own redemptive plan and not according to my secret machinations.

Envy is perhaps the most subtle of sins. Even in the desert where no one possesses anything, there is always something about another that we can find to envy. Our adversary, himself dominated by his envy of God, will always have envious suggestions to make to us.

To combat envy several things are necessary:

We must believe that God is good.

We must believe that God’s will for us in particular is good.

We must believe that God’s goodness is without limit.

We must believe that God’s goodness, shed upon someone else, does not come at our expense.

Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever. 

Envy has no place within the Christian life. It belongs to those who drive nails into the flesh of God and taunt Him with their perceived victory. When all is said, they will stand as mute as fish, unable to cry, “Alleluia.”

10 Responses to “For the Sake of Envy”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: pilgrims praying at the altar that stands on Golgotha in Jerusalem.

  2. katia Says:

    Thank you father and Glory to God for all!

  3. Margaret Says:

    Thank you! Thank you! God be praised! I so needed to “hear” these words, to see them here in writing, as God is continually writing them on my heart. Yes, it is all true! God is here, not somewhere “up above and beyond” so there is abundance NOW. Thank you also for your instruction on combatting envy.

    God is good all the time, and so I’ll just put the whole paragraph you wrote close to the end in your post:

    Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever.

  4. Katia Says:

    Akathist Hymn to the Passion of Christ.
    …………………………………………………….

    Kontakion 10
    Desiring to save the world, Thou didst heal the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the dumb, and didst drive out evil spirits. But the foolish Jews, breathing envy and malice, nailed Thee to the Cross, not knowing how to sing: Alleluia!

    Eikos 10
    Jesus Eternal King, Thou sufferest in every limb for my intemperance and incontinence, that Thou mightest make the whole of me pure, giving us a pattern in everything that we might follow in Thy steps and cry:
    Jesus, unfathomable Love, Who didst not charge with sin those who crucified Thee!
    Jesus, Who didst pray earnestly with crying and tears in the garden, teach us also to pray!
    Jesus, Who hast fulfilled all prophecy in Thyself, fulfill our heart’s desire for goodness!
    Jesus, Who didst surrender Thy spirit into thy Father’s hands, in the hour of my death receive my spirit!
    Jesus, Who didst not prevent the division of Thy garments, separate my soul from my body gently!
    Jesus, Son of God, remember us when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom!

    Kontakion 11
    Tenderest songs did Thine immaculate Mother offer to Thee, saying: Even though Thou sufferest on the Cross, yet I know Thee from the womb to be begotten of the Father before the morning star, for I see that all creation is suffering with Thee. Thou surrenderest Thy spirit to the Father. Receive also my spirit and forsake me not as I cry: Alleluia!
    ……

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Sorry,

    Some spam got through and I was busy with Church and only just now had time to tend to it. It is indeed some kind of “robot” that produces this useless stuff.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Having just eliminated another batch of spam…apparently there is spam that is generated by an evangelical source. That’s just weird. If it wasn’t spam, it’s sad that a human being cannot be distinguished from the robot stuff.

  7. Karen Says:

    Lord, have mercy! Father, bless! The Priest who gave the homily at yesterday’s vesperal Liturgy commemorating the Last Supper said something so helpful to me, who struggle so much with my own neediness–especially the need to be accepted despite my failures. (Case in point: though I love the absolution at the end, I hate making my Confession! Paradoxically, I’m so grateful the Orthodox Church gently but firmly requires this of me.) My Priest pointed out that the Mysteries of the Church instituted by Christ all touch upon meeting our most basic human needs–for cleansing in Baptism and for food in the Eucharist. Contrary to understanding “spiritual” reality as a “mental” approach to connecting with God (which is pure fantasy), Christ reaches out and, in a mystery, spiritually and really connects Himself to us at the level of meeting our most basic human needs, through water, oil, bread and wine and through one another as members of His Church.

  8. Karen Says:

    Father, forgive! I meant to post my last comment under your post, “Take, Eat.”

  9. Visibilium Says:

    Fr. Stephen, you’re absolutely right about the fullness of Orthodox funerals. Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, my favorite service is the panakhida, when it’s properly done with an open casket in the middle of the nave. The deceased is at home, among the prayers of the Church and the veneration of the faithful. As the casket is taken to the hearse, we sing the Holy God, for even a God who is holy and mighty is mindful of every death. There’s fullness in knowing that God had intended something better for man, and that that something has been only temporarily delayed.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Orthodoxy (and its several forms) seems to be the last Christian community with anything approaching a proper treatment of death. I learned the services surrounding death the hard way (we had several tragic deaths in our young mission when I first converted) while at the same time being employed as a hospice chaplain. It made for very rich reflection. Thank God for the panikhida.

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