Let Us Give Thanks to the Lord

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.  (Hebrews 12:28-29; emphasis added)

We Orthodox are to be grateful people every day of our lives – our main worship after all is our thanksgiving service, the Eucharist.  We give thanks to God every week when we celebrate the Liturgy.  Giving thanks is the very reason that we assemble together every Sunday and feast day.  We not only offer thanksgiving in the Liturgy, we receive it in Holy Communion, the Eucharist.   Orthodox have been doing this for 2000 years even through all the periods of tragedies and persecutions which have befallen us Christians in history.  St Justin the Philosopher who was martyred for the faith in 165AD comments about Christian worship (emphases added) from the 2nd Century:

“We praise [the Maker of the universe] as much as we are able by the word of prayer and thanksgiving for all the things with which we are supplied . . . being thankful in word, [we] send up to him honors and hymns for our creation, all the means of health, the various qualities of the different classes of things, the changes of the seasons, while making petitions for our coming into existence again in incorruption by reason of faith in him.”  (Christopher Hall, Worshiping with the Church Fathers, Kindle Location 341-345)

St Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) commenting on the Divine Liturgy of the 4th Century writes:

“Next, the priest says, ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord.’ For rightly we are bound to give thanks, that he has called us, being unworthy, to such great grace, that, being enemies, he has reconciled us, and that he has made us worthy of the ‘Spirit of divine adoption’ (cf Rom 8:15).  Next, you say, ‘It is right and just.‘  For by our giving thanks we do  a right and just thing.  But our Benefactor did not do only a just thing but more than just by making us worthy of such great love.”  (LECTURES ON THE CHRISTIAN SACRAMENTS, p 125)

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the priest says a final prayer of thanksgiving, recognizing that every blessing we have in this life has its source in God:

O Lord who blesses those who bless you and who sanctifies those who trust in you: Save your people and bless your inheritance.  Preserve the fullness of your Church, sanctify those who love the beauty of your house, glorify them in return by your divine power, and forsake us not who put our hope in you.  Give peace to your world, to your churches, to your priests, to all those in civil authority, to the armed forces, and to all your people.  For every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from you, the Father of lights, and unto you do we send up glory, thanksgiving and worship, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

According to Her Word: How Mary Made Possible the Word Incarnate

In the long history of the Church, the Virgin Mary has been frequently contrasted with Eve, the first woman.  Eve is viewed as disobeying God and listening to Satan.  Mary is upheld as the one who obeys God and makes the salvation of humanity possible.

“The comparison of Mary to Eve gives us a much larger tableau against which we can view the matter of gender and sexual identity in Late Antiquity.  If all we had was Genesis, we might conclude that early Christian writers were interested solely in condemning women on the grounds of their gullibility.  But in Mary, we encounter an example of feminine obedience that rubs against the grain of these misogynistic stereotypes.  Mary’s obedience to the angel’s charge was neither craven nor easily won.

In perhaps the most extravagant paean of praise to Mary, the late Byzantine writer Nicholas Cabasilas asserted that the Word could not take up residence within Mary until she had given her consent: ‘Let it be done according to your word‘ [Luke 1:38].  The angels stood in hushed silence awaiting the verdict from Mary.  The very balance of human history and God’s providential plan for that history hung on how she would respond.  The hold of the human over the divine was never so powerful as on that fateful day of the annunciation.  There, Mary redrew the course of all creation.  ‘By the word (logos) of the mother,’ Cabasilas wrote, ‘the Word of the Father is fashioned, and the Creator is created by the voice of a creature.  Just as when God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and immediately there was light, so too as soon as the Virgin uttered her voice, the true light began to dawn.”  (Gary Anderson, THE GENESIS OF PERFECTION, p 97)

As St Nicholas Cabasilas says, it is the word of a woman which makes the salvation of all possible.  Just as when God spoke, “Let there be light,” and creation came into existence, so too when Mary spoke in response to the Creator, the salvation of the world became possible.  Christmas, the Nativity of Christ, is not possible without Mary and her word.  In Mary we see the synergy between humanity and God which the Lord had desired from the beginning.  Mary says to the Lord, “Let it be according to Your word.”  Mary’s word and God the Father’s Word are one.  A human’s will, distorted by a world of sinfulness, aligns with the will of God – this is God’s will from the beginning, but had been thwarted by humanity’s self-willfulness.   God replies to the Virgin, “Let it be according to your word.”  In the Theotokos, the human will and divine will are one.  Christmas is not only the annunciation of the heavenly Glad Tidings, it is also the good word of Mary and through her all of humanity’s.  Salvation is possible if we desire it, if we are willing to do God’s will, if we love God and our neighbors more than we love our selfish, self-centered desires.

The Virgin Mary as All Holy

“At the heart of this boundless Church, of this ‘boundless love,’ as the ‘Monk of the Eastern Church’ entitled his most beautiful work, we perceive and celebrate Mary, the Mother of God; the one who, by receiving the Spirit in order to give birth to the Word, undid the tragedy of human freedom.  For once our freedom welcomes the Spirit, He makes it free and fertile, giving it an infinite space for creation and molding it within eternity.  This is why the Orthodox Church uses the same expression to describe both the Spirit and the Virgin: the Spirit is panhagion, all-holy, and the Virgin is panhagia.” (Olivier Clement, THREE PRAYERS, p 55)

“The Orthodox Church teaches that man is not heir to the sin of Adam, but to the consequences of his fall: the inclination toward evil, which is inseparable from human freedom.  It differs in this respect from the Roman Catholic Church, for whom every person inherits original sin.  From this Western perspective, Anna cannot conceive a child who is free from this guilt and ontologically removed from other human beings from the time of her birth (which gives rise to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception).  The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, professes that Mary, from the time of her birth, was like all other mortals; yet she remained unfailingly devoted to God, and therefore absolutely pure.  This theological difference, far from being a mere quarrel over terminology, is crucial insofar as the whole understanding of salvation is at stake.  According to a famous patristic adage, ‘what is not assumed is not saved.’

The full Incarnation of the second Person of the Holy Trinity implies that His Mother was like all other human beings, a true daughter of Eve, apart from voluntary subjection to the passions.  Any restriction on this condition encroaches on the fullness of the Incarnation.  It invalidates the affirmation that Christ was like us in every respect.”   (Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON, p 115)

She Is the Forgotten Apostle

Today, November 22, we in the Orthodox Church honor a 1st Century woman, the Holy Martyr Apphia (Philemon 1:2), who has been given by the Church both the honorific appellations of “Among the Seventy Apostles and Equal-to-the-Apostles.  She had the special honor of being baptized by St Paul, according to her hagiography.  St Paul calls her ‘beloved’.   As a Christian woman she is ranked as a saint, martyr, numbered as one of the 70 Apostles, and called Equal-to-the-Apostles – a pretty impressive resume for anyone in the Orthodox Church.  Despite her rank, in a Church which loves ecclesial & celestial ranking and hierarchy, sadly, she is relatively unknown, forgotten and largely ignored.  This may be a result of the other facts of her holy life – she is a woman and not a monastic but married.  Through the centuries in a male, monastic dominated Church with a history of misogyny, she was reduced to a name with a title but no longer listed among the 70 Apostles and no longer “beloved”.  It is another sad chapter in church history is that through the centuries the list of the 70 Apostles becomes all male (see the list on OrthodoxWiki, and the icon of the 70 posted there).  St Apphia is dropped from the list although she retained the title, probably because she had that appellation before the all male lists were composed.  She must have been well known at one time for her to be honored as Equal-to-the-Apostles (defined on Orthodoxwiki as “one whose work greatly built up the Church, whether through direct missionary work or through assisting the Church’s place in society“).  No doubt through the centuries the notion of a married woman Apostle made some monastic churchmen uncomfortable.  A similar fate was met by St Junia (Romans 16:7), a companion of St Paul. The Latin Church eventually changed Junia’s name into a male name as the male and monastic dominated clergy were not comfortable with a married woman saint in the apostolic pantheon.   The Deaconess Phoebe mentioned by St Paul in Romans 16:1-2 is another biblical married women saint whose renown dwindled through history – her hagiography says almost nothing and some Orthodox clergy even deny she is a deacon of any kind though she is given that title by the Church.  She is another biblical female saint who has a title which now the church empties of meaning as with St Apphia.

St Apphia is commemorated three times on the Orthodox Calendar:

1]  Today, November 22, she is remembered along with three males saints of the Apostles among the Seventy mentioned in Luke 10 whom the Lord Jesus commissioned to proclaim the Gospel and cast out demons.  She is the only one of these 4 Apostles among the Seventy who is also honored in the Church as Equal-to-the-Apostles.

2]  She is also commemorated on February 19 where she is honored with two other Apostles among the Seventy.  Her husband, St Philemon, is also ranked among the Seventy Apostles.  Despite having two feast days to honor her, not much is said about her in the hagiographies, which again I think is because she is a woman, married and an Apostle,  a combination which I think over time caused her stock to fall in the church controlled by male monastics.

3]  Additionally, she should be commemorated on January 4, the Synaxis of the Seventy Apostles, even if she is not specifically mentioned by name or has been excluded from the list of the Seventy.

On the Orthodox Church in America webpage for November 22 we read this about St Apphia and her fellow apostles:

The Holy Apostles of the Seventy Philemon and his wife Apphia lived in the city of Colossa in Phrygia. After they were baptized by the holy Apostle Paul, they converted their house into a house of prayer, where all those who believed in Christ gathered and attended services. They devoted themselves to serving the sick and downcast.

Saint Philemon became bishop of the city of Gaza, and he preached the Word of God throughout Phrygia. The holy Apostle Paul continued to be his guide, and addressed to him his Epistle filled with love, and in which he sends blessings “to Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer, and to our beloved Apphia, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house” (Phil 1:1-3).

Saint Onesimus (February 15), also mentioned in the Epistle, was Saint Philemon’s former slave.

Saints Philemon and Apphia, and also Saint Archippus (who also lived at Colossa), all received the crown of martyrdom during the persecution of Nero (54-68). During a pagan festival an enraged crowd rushed into the Christian church when services were going on. All fled in terror, and only Saints Philemon, Archippus and Apphia remained. They seized them and led them off to the city prefect. The crowd beat and stabbed Saint Archippus with knives, and he died on the way to the court. Saints Philemon and Apphia were stoned to death by order of the prefect.

Nothing in this hagiography gives us a sense of why Apphia is sainted as Equal-to-the-Apostles.  In her hagiography for February 19 we read on the OCA webpage a few more details about her life:

Saints Archippus, Philemon and Apphia, Apostles of the Seventy were students and companions of the holy Apostle Paul. In the Epistle to Philemon, the Apostle Paul names Saint Archippus as his companion, and mentions him again in the Epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:17).

Saint Archippus was bishop of the city of Colossae in Phrygia. Saint Philemon was an eminent citizen of this city, and the Christians gathered in his home to celebrate church services. He was also made a bishop by Saint Paul and he went about the cities of Phrygia, preaching the Gospel. Later on, he became archpastor of the city of Gaza. Saint Apphia, his wife, took the sick and vagrants into her home, zealously attending to them. She was her husband’s co-worker in proclaiming the Word of God.

During the persecution against Christians under the emperor Nero (54-68), the holy Apostles Archippus and Philemon and Apphia were brought to trial by the ruler Artocles for confessing faith in Christ. Saint Archippus was brutally slashed with knives. After torture, they buried Saints Philemon and Apphia up to the waist in the ground, and stoned them until they died.

Still, we do not get a sense of why she was raised to the saintly rank of Equal-to-the-Apostles.  The troparion and kontakion  (hymns) for February 19 do not even mention the holy Apphia.  While the troparion and kontakion for November 22 do at least include her name though saying little about her, except the kontakion calls her “all wise” but no explanation is offered for this praise of the godly woman.

Troparion — Holy Apostles Philemon, Archippus, Apphia, and Onesimus,  entreat the merciful God to grant our souls forgiveness of transgressions.

Kontakion — Let us praise the Apostles of Christ, who illumine the ends of the earth like all-radiant stars: glorious Philemon and dedicated Archippus, Onesimus, together with Mark and Apollos, and the all-wise Apphia.  Let us cry to them: “Unceasingly pray for us all!”

The online Orthodoxwiki has a very brief hagiographical note for her, whom they identify as Apostle Apphia.  The hagiography is taken from St. Nikolai Velimirovic’s The Prologue of Ohrid.

The holy, glorious, all-laudable Apostle Apphia is numbered among the Seventy Apostles. She is the wife of the Apostle Philemon and along with Sts. Philemon and Archippus she ministered to the town of Colossae from its Christian center, her home. During a pagan feast the Church had gathered in her home for prayer. When the pagans learned of it they raided the home and took Sts. Archippus, Philemon, and Apphia to be killed. They were whipped, buried up to their waists and then stoned. Sts. Philemon and Apphia gave up their souls to God. The Church remembers St. Apphia on February 19.

Amazingly little about a woman who is honored as an Equal-to-the Apostles and heralded as “all wise” in hymnology and called ‘beloved’ by St Paul in the Bible.  I have seen lists of 26 Orthodox Saints with the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”  Eight of the 26 are women – Sts Mary Magdalene, Apphia, Photini, and Thekla are all biblical saints with the latter three being companions of St Paul; the other four were involved with bringing entire empires into the Christian household: Helen, Nina, Empress Nana of Georgia, and Olga).  Perhaps in the modern age if women’s roles are restored in the church, Christians will take a greater interest in these women Apostles and Equal-to-the-Apostles.  This in turn may inspire the Church to even further restore the role of women in the Church’s ministry.  Hopefully Orthodox scholars will take an interest in discovering why St Apphia is praised as “all wise”, “beloved” and “Equal-t0-the-Apostles.”  Rediscovering her life may in fact inspire other women to strive to take up apostolic ministry in the 21st Century which can only help build up the Body of Christ (Romans 14:19).

O Holy Apphia, our beloved Saint, pray that our souls may be saved and that God will raise up in His Church all members to be witnesses to the faith and  ministers of the Gospel.

The Theotokos & the Temple

While Christians embraced the Jewish Scriptures as their own sacred writings, it was clear from the beginning that the exact purpose of the Old Testament presented a challenge to Christian leaders.  From the time the Apostles in Council (see Acts 15) realized that circumcision was not a requirement to be part of God’s chosen people, Christians have wrestled with what it means that the Scriptures (in this case the Old Testament) are the Word of God.  For huge portions of the Old Testament dealt with the Jerusalem Temple which the Romans destroyed, with a wide variety of Jewish religious, ritual and social rules which the Christians no longer viewed as necessary for salvation, and with a history of a particular people which wasn’t of much interest to the non-Jew.

It was in this milieu that the Christians embraced an interpretation of the Scriptures which looked beyond their literal meaning to a more hidden, spiritual purpose.  These interpretive ideas were already popular in Judaism as well as in the pagan understanding of their myths and legends such as how they interpreted the writings of Homer.  The Christians, thus didn’t need to invent an interpretive method for reading the Old Testament, there were solid precedents already popular among Jews and pagans.  The Christians came to believe that the entire Old Testament was about Christ, and one needed Christ as the key to unlock the mysteries of the Old Testament.  One of their popular ideas was reading the texts about the Temple as prophetically or poetically referring to Mary, the Theotokos, who having God in her womb was viewed as THE Temple of God which both fulfilled and superseded the Jerusalem Temple.   For the Christians, it was not so much that the Romans eliminated the temple when they demolished it  but rather that Mary superseded the Temple when God became incarnate in her womb, so the Romans destroyed a building which had already served its purpose and was no longer essential to God’s saving plan.  This becomes obvious in many of the liturgical hymns about the Theotokos and also in the Old Testament readings which were selected for the Major and Marian Feasts, such as the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, celebrated on November 21.  Four of the selected scripture lessons for the Feast have to do with the Temple: Exodus 40 (composite), 1 Kings 7, 8 (composite), Ezekiel 43:27-44:4, Hebrews 9:1-7.

Any of the texts can be read literally and understood to be about the Temple in Jerusalem, but Christians saw them as prophecy and promise about the coming Messiah in the incarnation of God in the Virgin Mary.  To read them as history or archeology was to miss their significance for God’s plan of salvation for the world.  The importance of the texts is in their spiritual reading which also shows the importance of the Old Testament in understanding Christ and our salvation.  Below is a hymn about the Theotokos in which we read the abundance of references to the Temple.  For in Christian thinking, the Temple is not important as a historical reality, but mostly as a prefiguring of our salvation – for Mary in having God incarnate in her womb becomes the True and Living Temple.  (Emphases is added in the text to point out connections with the Scriptures for the Feast.  The hymn also has other Old Testament references not connected to the Temple.)

Rejoice, O Tabernacle wherein God dwelt in the flesh. Rejoice, O Holy of Holies into which only the Eternal High Priest can enter. Rejoice, O Ark of the Covenant, filled with the Spirit that bore the Giver of the Law. Rejoice, O Candlestand aflame with the fire of Divinity. Rejoice, O Vessel that carried Christ, the Manna of Life.  Rejoice, O Banquet Feast, feeding us with the Bread of Life. Rejoice, O Censer, radiant with the warmth of God, filling the world with sweet smelling incense. Rejoice, O Stem, from which Christ the Flower blossomed. Rejoice, O Pillar of Fire which leads us to the Promised Land. Rejoice, O Pillar of Cloud that hides us from all visible and invisible enemies. Rejoice, O Promised Land. Rejoice, O Fleece upon which Christ descended as dew from the heavens. Rejoice, O Lady, our merciful defender before God!

The early Christians did not just take the Old Testament texts, which seemed mostly of importance to ancient Israel, and set them aside and ignore them.  Instead, accepting them as God’s Word, they found in them a rich source of theology, poetry, prophecy, promise, insight into a deep understanding of God incarnate in Christ.  They realized that reading the Old Testament only literally, robbed the Scriptures of their depth and riches.  The Scriptures were a revelation of God, and so do not have just human importance or human information – for then they would be obsolescent and only of limited historical value, rather than revealing eternal truth.  The importance of the Scripture is that it connects heaven and earth, Divinity and humanity, Creator and creation, the spiritual world and the mundane.  The Scriptures were read as being theologically true, whether or not they were historically accurate or important.  The inspired interpreters were reading these Scriptures not to learn more about the earth, but to have their eyes, ears, hearts and minds open to heaven.

Not Made for Wrath

For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.  (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)

God did not create us in order to vent His wrath on us nor did God send His Son into the world in order to wrathfully condemn us.  “Certainly, God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17).  As St Paul says,  “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God‘ (Romans 5:9).

Archimandrite Aimilianos commenting on Psalm 38:2 – Do not rebuke me in Your anger, not chastise me in Your wrath –  takes the viewpoint of the Psalmist who accepts that he needs correction from God, and that he deserves correction for his sin.  So, first he has the Psalmist speaking and then he evaluates the Psalmist’s thoughts:

The martyrdom that You will make me undergo, the punishment that You will inflict upon Me, is in essence a lesson, a form of education.  It is the way in which You condescend to my level.  I have sinned, and so I need to change, to grow, to learn a new way of living.  I have made a mistake and I must be corrected.  How will this happen?  I must be chastised, but not in wrath.

How beautiful!  He knows that for himself it will be a chastisement, but that for God it will be an act of love.” (PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, pp 199-200)

There is a footnote in the book citing Patristic support for Aimilianos’ reading of the Psalm verse :

Compare St John Chrysostom, On Psalm 6: ‘When you read in Scripture of God’s ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’, you are to think of nothing human, for these words are a gesture of condescension  to human understanding, since God has no share in human passions’ (PG 55:71); and Origen, Against Kelsos 4:72: ‘When we speak of God’s wrath, we do not hold that it is an emotional reaction on His part, but something He uses in order to correct by stern methods those who have committed many terrible sins.  That the so-called ‘wrath’ of God and His ‘anger’ have a corrective purpose, and that this is the teaching of Scripture, is clear from the words of the psalm: Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chastise me in Your wrath (Ps 38:1), and of Jeremiah: O Lord, correct us but with judgment; not in Your anger (Jer 10:24).

And that God’s wrath is not an emotional reaction, but that each man brings this on himself by his sins, will be clear from Paul’s words: Or do you despise the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But by your hardness and impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Rom 2:4-5).

Unlike human love or anger which is a reaction to events or to other people, God’s love or anger is not a reaction to us.  God is love and always loves us, not reacting to us or what we do.  It is we humans who project our ideas of love and anger on God.  God is not subject to human passions, and does not react to us but always acts towards us in love, no matter how we understand it.  God’s love for us is not dependent on our behavior, for God forgives us and ever awaits our return to Him.

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.  (Psalms 103:8-18)

Children of the Day

You are all children of light and children of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.  (1 Thessalonians 5:5)

Although we are not children of darkness, we still do at times in our lives experience this darkness, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly.  St John of  Kronstadt believes the encounter with hellish darkness in this world can cause us to run to God.  Perhaps the sense of the absence of God’s presence reminds us how we take God’s presence for granted which leads to us forgetting God – at least until we realize God’s absence and then we diligently seek for God! He says such experiences are times for us to turn to God in prayer and hope.

“Sometimes in the lives of pious Christians there are hours when God seems to have entirely abandoned them – hours of the power of darkness; and then the man from the depth of his heart cries unto God: ‘Why hast Thou turned Thy face from me, Thou everlasting Light?  For a strange darkness has covered me, the darkness of the accursed evil Satan, and has obscured all my soul.  It is very grievous for the soul to be in his torturing darkness, which gives a presentiment of the torments and darkness of hell.  Turn me, O Savior, to the light of Thy commandments and make straight my spiritual way, I fervently pray Thee.”  (MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 41)

As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”  And if we remain in Christ, He will turn even our darkness into light.  “If I say, ‘Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:11-12).

When the Lord Jesus appeared to Saul as Saul traveled to Damascus to destroy the Church, Christ told His chosen vessel:  ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:15-18)  After being illumined by Christ, St Paul never saw the world the same way again for he never walked in darkness for the rest of his life.

Taught By God to Love One Another

for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another (1 Thessalonians 4:9)

Olivier Clement comments:

In this fallen world the unity of human beings has been broken, everything is a ‘rat race’, and I try to free myself from the anguish that torments me by projecting it on to another, the scapegoat of my tragic finiteness.  The other person is always my enemy and I need him to be so.  In Christ, however, death has been defeated, my inner hell transformed into the Church, I no longer need to have enemies, no one is separated from anyone.  The criterion of the depth of one’s spiritual growth is therefore love for one’s enemies, in accordance with the paradoxical commandment of the Gospel that takes its meaning solely from the cross – Christ’s cross and ours – and from the resurrection – again Christ’s and our own.

‘One day I saw three monks insulted and humiliated in the same way at the same moment.  The first felt he had been cruelly hurt; he was distressed but managed not to say anything.  The second was happy for himself but grieved for the one who had insulted him.  The third thought only of the harm suffered by his neighbor, and wept with the most ardent compassion.  The first was prompted by fear; the second was urged on by the hope of reward; the third was moved by love.’   (John Climacus THE LADDER OF DIVINE PERFECTION, 8th step, 29 (34)…)

The true miracle, the most difficult achievement, is therefore the example and the practice of love in the spiritual sense of that word (and here the Gospel speaks of agape, the Latin caritas).  To enter into God is to let oneself be caught up in the immense movement of the love of the Trinity which reveals the other person to us as ‘neighbor’ or (and this is better) which enables each one of us to become the ‘neighbor’ of others.  And to become a ‘neighbor’ is to side with Christ, since he identifies himself with every human being who is suffering, or rejected, or imprisoned. 

We need only call to mind the Last Judgement scene in the Gospel according to St Matthew: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’  . . .  ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to of the least of these my brethren, you did to me.‘ (Matthew 25:35-40)”.   (THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 271)

Abound in Love

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.  (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)

Saint Porphyrios (d. 1991) tells the story of an elder hermit who had two disciples who lived with him.  They planned to attend a vigil at a neighboring monastery that was quite a distance across the desert.  The elder sent his two disciples ahead to help prepare the church and planned to follow them later in the day.  Porphyrios picks up the story:

The monks had covered some considerable distance when suddenly they heard a groaning noise.  A man was lying badly injured and was crying for assistance.

‘Take me with you, please,’ he implored. ‘Here in the desert no one else is going to pass by and who will help me?  There are two of you.  Lift me up and take me to the nearest village.’

‘There’s no way we can do that,’ they replied.  ‘We’re in a hurry to go to a vigil and we’ve got instructions to prepare everything.’

‘Please take me with you!  If you leave me, I’ll die.  I’ll be eaten by the wild beasts.’

‘We can’t do it.  We’ve got to do what we’ve been told to.’

And they walked on.

In the afternoon the elder set out along the same road to go to the vigil.  He came to the spot where the injured man was lying.  He saw him and went up to him and said, ‘What’s happened to you, good man of God?  How long have you been lying here?  Did no one see you?’

‘Two monks passed by in the morning and I asked them to help me, but they were in a hurry to go to the vigil.’

‘Don’t worry.  I’ll carry you along,’ said the elder.

‘You won’t be able to,’ said the injured man.  ‘You’re an old man and there is no way that you’ll be able to lift me up.’

‘Not at all, you’ll see I’ll manage.  I can’t leave you here.  I’ll bend down and you will grab hold of me and I’ll carry you along until we get to the nearest village.  A little today and a little tomorrow, but I’ll get you there.’

With great difficulty he hoisted the man onto his back and set off.  Walking in the sand with such a great weight was nearly impossible.  Sweat was pouring from him in rivers.  He thought to himself, ‘It will take three days, but I’ll get there.’  As he continued on his way, however, he felt his burden getting lighter and lighter until he felt that he was carrying nothing at all.  He turned round to see what was happening and was astonished to see an angel on his back.  The angel said to him, ‘God sent me to inform you that your two monks are not worthy of the Kingdom of God because they don’t love.” (WOUNDED BY LOVE, p 189)

St Porphyrios says, “Love towards Christ is without limits, and the same is true of love towards our neighbor.  It should radiate everywhere, to the ends of the earth, to every single person.”  Thinking of Christ’s question after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, which man proved to be neighbor to the man in need (Luke 10:36)? The monks who faithfully and obediently attended and prayed at the vigil or the one who didn’t even attend?

The Prefeast of Thanksgiving: When You Give a Dinner

As the pandemic continues to rage and spread across the country, Americans are being asked to downsize one of their biggest food festivals of the year – Thanksgiving – to help slow down the spread of the virus.  There is no doubt that we have tired of all the pandemic restrictions and it will be another test for us to follow the health advisories to downsize our Thanksgiving celebrations.  It would help slow the spread of the virus which would help everyone, not just the infirm but businesses, schools, hospitals and the government.  No one will be thankful for what we have to do to slow the spread of the virus, but maybe we will give thanks when we realize our efforts actually made a difference in our lives (which we may not appreciate until the virus is under control or vaccines have lessened the risks).

Or perhaps, especially this year, for Christians in America we can consider in a new way something the Lord Jesus said to those who invited Him to a dinner party:

“’When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.’  Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’”  (Luke 14:12-15)

This year is not the year to begin inviting strangers and the poor to our homes for a meal, due to covid-19.  What it is a good year for, especially since our celebrations are to be downsized, is to consider how much less you will be spending to feed family and friends and to give that money to a food bank to feed the people Jesus mentions – the poor, the maimed, the lame the blind, and this year also those who have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic.  In this way we can make Thanksgiving a day of gratefulness for the most needy of Americans – specifically those who have been negatively impacted financially by the virus.  In doing this, we fulfill what Christ teaches in the Gospel lesson, we will help the nation in the fight against covid, and we will bring thanksgiving to God from any who have been blessed by our charitable decisions.

You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.  (2 Corinthians 9:11-12)

While we all are asked to do our part to help slow the spread of the virus, some businesses and people end up bearing more of the burden due to the nature of their jobs and businesses.  Pray for these folks and do what you can to help them survive the pandemic.  We need them to bear the burden that falls on them, but we should do what we can to help support those who bear the biggest burden to fight the pandemic.  Local businesses and their employees need our support to help us all get through the pandemic.  When we lose jobs and businesses because of the pandemic or because of the restrictions we need these businesses to enforce, there is real pain – health wise and also financially.  We can do our part as Americans to support one another to help us all get to the other side – survival when the virus is finally controlled.