Isaac loved solitude and stillness, but any kind of closing in upon himself, any thought of his own salvation apart from his brethren, was entirely alien to him. He possessed that ‘merciful heart’ which is characterized by having compassion on all creatures, not only Christians, but also apostates, animals, and demons. His personal prayer, like liturgical prayer, grew to a cosmic scale embracing not only neighbors and strangers, but the whole of humanity and the entire universe.
One of the earliest Christian writings which despite its ancient origins did not get included in the Christian Scripture is the writing known as The Didache. It was written probably in the late 1st Century, shortly after the other New Testament books were written. In it we see some of the focus of early Christians and their thinking on how to live the Christian life in world which was often hostile to the Christians. Here is a brief excerpt from The Didache:
There are two ways; the one is that of life and the other is that of death. There is a great difference between the two ways. The Way of Life is this: first, you shall love the God Who made you; second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everything that you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to another!
Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies. Fast for those who persecute you, for what grace would you receive if you love only those who love you back? Even the heathen do that. Love those who hate you, and you will have no enemies. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also, and you will be perfect.
You shall not be rapacious and always want to have more, or be deceitful, or malicious, or imagine yourself to be great. You shall not plot evil schemes against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man. You shall admonish people, you shall pray for people, and you shall love man more than your own life.
Do not grumble, for this leads to blasphemy; do not be self-willed or evil-minded, for all these things breed blasphemy. Be gentle-minded, for those of a gentle mind shall possess the earth. Be patient and have a loving heart. Be guileless, quiet and good, trembling in all things at the words you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself or allow your heart to be bold or presumptuous. Your heart shall not cling to the high and mighty on earth but to the good and humble folk. (George Grube, What the Church Fathers Say About…, pp. 137, 138, 139)
Enshrined in the National African American History Museum in Washington, DC, are words by Archbishop Iakovos who was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America from 1959-1996. He was well known for his support of racial equality and civil rights.
He was a visible presence with Martin Luther King in America. By his life he indicated the importance of living the Gospel by supporting human rights. For many migrants who brought with them their Orthodox faith to the American shores, they were looking exactly for civil and human rights, and some suffered rejection by those who saw this “foreign invasion” as endangering American society. We all have benefited from those who have fought for the rights of minorities. Besides the National African American Museum in Washington, DC, I would highly recommend to all the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH. These museums do present us with our history as Americans – and the ongoing efforts to keep us all free.
Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.
For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit. Amen.
Jesus said: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
Anyone who has worked to love another, knows how much energy this requires. It is easy for us to say that we love someone, but life shows us how much love can demand from us. Spouses realize over a lifetime of marriage that love requires a great deal from them – demands things they never imagined would be required if you truly desire to love someone. Parents bring their children into the world, and desire to love them, but again learn that love demands much of us in ways we cannot even imagine. Just on a daily level, even when things are going well in our family, we realize that loving, forgiving, apologizing, overlooking faults, dealing with personalities drains a lot of energy, and yet this is what love requires.
Wrestling with love occurs in our lives as Christians as well. Desiring to be a Christian while living in the world tests the limits of our love. This was also the experience of monks who left everything to follow Christ. It is easy to imagine that going to a monastery – where one naively believes “everyone is committed to Christ and Christ’s love just like I am” – will be the perfect world to work out one’s salvation. But in the monastery too, love puts its demands on us – to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ.
The elders were keenly aware, from their own personal experience, of the high cost of fulfilling the commandment to love. Their reading of Scripture served to confirm this sense and to encourage them to risk loving even under extreme circumstances. It is startling, as we listen to the monks talk about the requirements of love, how literally they took the words of Scripture. Poemen’s interpretation of one Gospel text illustrates well the particular kind of demands love made upon the monks in their life in the desert, and how their reading of Scripture helped them to respond to these demands.
Abba Poemen saw the text, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) as referring to just such a situation: “If someone hears an evil saying, that is, one which harms him, and in his turn, he wants to repeat it, he must fight in order not to say it. Or if someone is taken advantage of and he bears it, without retaliating at all, there he is giving his life for his neighbour.” Fulfilling the commandment, then, entailed having the courage to love in circumstances where one’s natural response would lead one in precisely the opposite direction. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 264-265)
Each year I gather related posts into a PDF for the Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes. You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.
In January, we bless water in the Church as part of our celebration of the Theophany of the Lord. All of creation was given to us by God to be a blessing for us. We acknowledge those blessings in the many & varied prayer services of the Church. St. John Chrysostom reminds us that the wind is also a blessing from God.
“Truly the winds are also for you–for we are going back again to the beginning of our discourse–to fan worn-out bodies, to purge away the defilement from mud and the heaviness caused by smoke and furnaces and other exhalations,
to attenuate the heat of the sun’s rays, to relieve the stifling heat, to make seeds grow, to strengthen plants, to travel together with you at sea and to be servants of agriculture for you on land–in the first place, conveying ships more swiftly than arrows and making the voyage easy and convenient,
and in the second place, clearing off the threshing floor with you, separating the chaff from the grain, and lightening the hardship of the work–to make the air light and gentle for you, to give you delight in different ways–first whistling pleasantly and gently, and then softly striking the plants and shaking the leaves of the trees–to make your sleep in spring and in summer more pleasant and more delightful than honey.
They also act on the surface of the sea and on the waters of the rivers, and lift up their surface in the same way as with the trees, thus providing you with a great deal of enjoyment from seeing it and, more importantly, also rendering you a great service.
And in fact, the winds are useful to waters in another way: not allowing them to stagnate and go bad, but rather, continually setting them in motion and stirring them up, rendering them fresh and at their best and more suitable as sustenance for creatures that swim in them.”
(On the Providence of God, pp. 65-66)
“…our Lord Jesus Christ, who for all of us and for our salvation…” (common phrase in the festal prayers of the Church)
“…each thing that Jesus accomplished, no matter how apparently insignificant, had salvific effects. “Everything that Jesus does,” writes Jerome in his explanation of why the Gospel of Mark found it necessary to record the detail that Jesus rode on an ass when he entered Jerusalem, “is a sacrament. He is our salvation. For if the Apostle tells us, ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever else you do, do all things in the name of the Lord’ [1 Corinthians 10:31], are not these much more our sacraments, when the Savior walks or eats or sleeps?”
As the Gospels themselves indicate, the dynamism or radiant energy possessed by Christ extended also to his clothing, which Hilary comments on apropos of the story of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood in Matthew 9:20-22: “The power abiding in his body added a health-giving quality to perishable things, and a divine efficacy even went as far as the fringes of his garments. For God was not divisible and able to be contained, as if he could be shut up in a body.” A striking instance of the energy that radiated from Christ, finally, is associated with his baptism in the Jordan River.
Jesus’ mere physical contact with the Jordan was enough to cleanse it and, along with it, all the waters of the earth, so as to make them suitable in turn for cleansing those who would be baptized. We find this idea as early as the beginning of the second century in Ignatius of Antioch and frequently thereafter.” (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 83-84)
One thing from the Christmas Gospel narrative caught my attention this year: God values Mary as much as the Father values His Son. Here is the Gospel Lesson, Matthew 2:13-23 (with my emphasis added to the text) –
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
God wills and wishes to protect and save not only His Son, the Christ child, but also the Child’s mother, Mary. God did not just need Mary for her womb. God does not discard Mary after she gives birth to Jesus. God values Mary as a person. He didn’t just use Mary to accomplish His will, He loves and cares for her. God orders Joseph to protect and care for not only Jesus but also Mary, the mother of Jesus. God repeats this in the Gospel lesson perhaps because God knew all too well that for some men, women’s lives don’t matter. God knew Joseph had already contemplated divorcing marry quietly so God keeps reminding Joseph that Mary is as important for salvation as is Jesus.
The Gospel story as we well know was written in a very male dominated society. Once Mary served God’s purpose and gave birth to the child, God and Joseph could easily have dispensed with her. Joseph had been told in a dream that the child conceived in Mary was of God, and of value to God. Joseph could have disposed of her and attempted to use the child for his own gain both with God and with the Jewish nation. Or he could have tried to take the child himself to curry God’s favor. But he doesn’t. He protects both Jesus and Mary. Joseph apparently can see that Mary is just as important to the Lord as is His Holy Child.
God works salvation – the union of God and humanity, of divinity and creation, in Mary’s womb. But God values Mary and sees females as an essential part of His plan for salvation. Women are essential to salvation history. The salvation of us all is dependent on a woman, Mary, but also on all women because they give birth to us all. Women add something to salvation and make the salvation that God wants to accomplish possible. Our salvation in Christ was not possible without women. Salvation could not have begun without a woman, Mary, to be the mother of God (nor for that matter without all of the ancestral woman who gave birth to the forefathers of Christ). In Mary the healing of all humanity begins when God unites Himself to humanity in the incarnation in Mary’s womb.
For the Church this means that women are equally valuable to men in bringing salvation to more people and to new generations. The Church itself needs to recognize the role of women in the life of the Church, and the importance of all women, not just mothers, for bringing the Gospel of salvation to all the world.
St Paul in his evangelical enthusiasm writes: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). One thing he didn’t become was a woman. And St. Paul could not by himself bring salvation to all people. That is the purpose of the Church as the Body of Christ. WE are to become all things to all people so that by all means some are saved. We, the Church, need women in ministry to fulfill our task of taking the Gospel to all nations and all peoples.
Mary’s role in the Church, in the history of salvation, did not end with her giving birth to Jesus Christ. Her role continued in the life of the Church, and God willed her to be protected so that her entire life could be ministry for the life of the world. All of us, men and women, are to imitate her to bear Christ in our lives so that God’s plan for salvation can be proclaimed to every man, woman or child who exists or will ever exist.