Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

A Jonah Moment

 

The Holy Prophet Jonah is perhaps best remembered for trying to flee from the Lord, so that he wouldn’t have to do the Lord’s will since he found it disagreeable that the Ninevites, enemies of Israel,  might be given opportunity by God to repent and be saved.   As we read in the Book of Jonah:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.  ...  (Jonah 1:1-4)

Try as he might to flee from the presence of the Lord, Jonah discovered God is everywhere, one is never away from the presence of the Lord.  And though we have free will to choose in life anything other than God’s will, God is able to outlast us in any game of hide and seek or in any staring contest we might want to engage with God.  It is pretty hard to beat an eternal being in time, though we often are willing to try to play the game.   What is amazing about God in the Jonah story is that God saves Jonah from the belly of the whale while Jonah is trying to flee from God (the belly is certainly a symbol of Sheol – the place of the dead, and the whole story is a resurrection story and a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection, at least as Christ and His followers read Jonah) .  Jonah is not saved because he is trying to do God’s will, but is saved despite his effort to thwart God’s will.  Think about that – Jonah is saved despite clearly rejecting holiness.  Jonah has worked his way to his Sheol, just like Adam did – by disobeying God.  Yet, Jonah is saved from the consequences of his own behavior.  No eternal punishment for the disobedient in this prophecy.

In the writings of the desert fathers, Abba Issac has his own Jonah moment, though in the end he agrees to God’s will a lot more easily than Jonah ever did.  Even saints do not always want to do the will of God, and some do it only grudgingly.  Humans are headstrong and strong willed to their deaths.  So we read in the desert fathers:

Once they came to make Abba Isaac a priest. When he heard, he fled into Egypt, went into a field, and hid amidst the crop. The fathers went after him and, when they got to the same field, sat down to rest a little there, for it was night. They set the ass free to pasture, but the ass went and stood by the elder. When they sought the ass at dawn, they found Abba Isaac too. They were amazed and wanted to bind him but he would not let the. “I am not running away any more,” he said, “for it is the will of God and no matter where I run away to, I will come to it.”   (Isaac of the Cells, Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

No matter where we might run to get away from God, we will find God present there.  That is the mercy of an omnipresent God!

Jonah’s complaint with God is that God is too forgiving and merciful, and Jonah makes it clear that he disapproves of God’s nature:   But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray you, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”    (Jonah 4:1-2)   While it is true of God that:  “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever” (Psalms 103:9), that was not true of Jonah who was unforgiving of the Ninevites and hoped they all would be destroyed and perhaps sent to hell for all eternity.  Fortunately for us, God is far more loving, forgiving and merciful than his saints!  We may never find reason to forgive someone or their offense in our lifetime.  On the other hand, since God is not bounded by time, God can afford to be eternally patient with us and forgive us in the world to come.

We  commemorate the Holy Prophet Jonah on September 22.

Fulfilling the Command to Pray

“Every day call this prayer to mind, and repeat it to yourself as often as possible: ‘Lord, have mercy upon all who appear before thee today.’ For at every hour and every moment thousands of people depart from this earthly life and their souls appear before God – and how many of them depart in solitude, unknown to anyone, sad and dejected because no one feels sorrow for them or even cares whether they are alive or not! And then, perhaps, from the other end of the earth your prayer for the repose of their souls will rise up to God, although you never knew them nor they you.

How deeply moving it must be for a man’s soul, as he stands in fear and trembling before the Lord, to know at that very instant that there is someone to pray even for him, that there is still a fellow creature left on earth who loves him! And God will look on both of you more favorably if you have had so much pity on him, how much greater will God’s pity be, for God is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And he will forgive him for your sake.”

(Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p. 45)

The Temple of the Soul

“In true Christians as in spiritual temples, God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, abides with love. The Lord says of this, “If a man love Me, he will keep My words: and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him, and make Our abode in him” (Jn. 14:23). What can be more honorable and noble than that soul in which the Tri-hypostatic God abides with grace and love? It is a glorious thing for people to receive an earthly king into their house; it is incomparably more glorious to receive the Heavenly King into the house of their soul, and to have Him living therein.

What also could be more blessed than that soul in which God lives as in a temple? The paradise of sweetness and joy, the Kingdom of God is in it. O blessedness! O the worthiness! O the nobility of the Christian soul! God, a Being that is without beginning, without end, supremely good, and uncreated, wills to live in the holy Christian soul rather than in heaven or in any other temple. O most good and lovely God, our Maker and Creator, come and visit our weary souls, the souls created by Thee after Thine image and likeness!

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, pp. 48-49)

There is no Christian: There are Christians

Cyprian appropriately commented:

‘Before all things the teacher of peace and the master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not “My Father, which art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread,” nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one.’ 

...Prayer is not efficacious unless the members of the community are reconciled to each other. One thinks in this connection of Matt. 5:21-26, where the religious act of sacrifice is to be put off until one is reconciled to a brother or sister. The “kiss of peace” in the traditional liturgies, a sign of reconciliation preceding communion, has been a traditional expression of this idea that religious acts without concord with others are done in vain (cf. Cyril of Jerusalem). One recalls Didache 14.2: ‘But let not anyone having a dispute with a fellow be allowed to join you (in the assembly) until they are reconciled, so that your sacrifice not be defiled.’”

(from Dale C. Allision, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 118)

Dog Headed Saint

In the book 1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD,  the Chinese, 1421 : The Year China Discovered the World by Menzies, Gavin Bantam New Edition (2003)whose empire was expanding, sent sailors to navigate the seas and explore the world.  They brought back to China all kinds of exotic animals from distant lands.  They also spoke of the many different peoples they encountered in the world: the varied races, languages and customs they discovered in their journeys.   The book mentions the Chinese also heard and believed there were even stranger people living in distant and mysterious lands – including dog-headed humans.

Reading that the Chinese in the 15th Century believed that dog-headed humans existed intrigued me since the same legends were bantered about in Byzantium and also believed to be factual.  So much so that reports reached the Byzantine Orthodox that in these distant and mysterious lands, the dog-headed people had converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Stories of their conversion were accepted as true.   St Christopher was the reported name of the first saint of the dog-headed people.  In some versions of his story he is transformed into a human after being baptized.  That means they were willing to accept that a dog-headed person could and should be baptized.  Christ’s salvation extended to every human being no matter how different they may be.

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The Byzantines apparently were not surprised that the dog-headed people converted to Orthodoxy.  They believed Orthodoxy to be the true faith and believed it to be a faith for all people of the world.  It fulfilled a vision of the kingdom of God and of what it is to be human which was not limited to any one people of the world but was part of the new humanity created in Christ.  Recently Pantelis Kalaitzides describes this vision this way:

“In this perspective, the Church is seen as a spiritual homeland, a spiritual genus, in which all the divisions of nature (race, language, culture, gender, social class) are overcome, and the mystery of the unity in Christ and the fellowship of divided humanity unfold.  The Church is a new people, a new nation, which is not identified with any other people, race, or earthly nation since what characterizes it is not blood ties or subjection to the natural state of affairs, but voluntary personal response to the call of God and free participation in the body of Christ and the life of grace.”  (“Church and Nation in Eschatological Perspective”, THE WHEEL #17/18  Spring/Summer 2019, p 54).

All things are made new in this eschatological vision and all old divisions are no more.  As St Paul proclaimed:

… you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.   (Colossians 3:11)

Dog-headed depiction of Saint Christopher

And so whatever separated the dog-headed humans from the rest of humanity was  overcome in Christ.  Humans were humans and Christ died and rose from the dead in order to save them all.  They made icons of the saints of the dog-headed people and believed Christ Himself converted them.

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In reality,  the dog-headed humans didn’t exist.  Lives of the saints contained many miraculous embellishments and were not always historical or factual, preferring to emphasize the miraculous.  But it is interesting to note that for the Byzantine Orthodox if such people existed, they could be embraced into the Kingdom of God.  They could be baptized, become saints, have icons of their holy people.  Belief in the dog-headed people may never have become part of mainstream Orthodoxy, but the piety of those Byzantine Orthodox was ready to embrace these people as being God’s creatures and capable of being united to Christ, no matter how strange they seemed.   Christ after all was pantocrator – Lord of the universe, of all living beings.

“When gathered in the Holy Eucharist, the Church realizes and reveals to the world and to history the incorporation of all in Christ, the transcendence of every discrimination and contrast, a communion of love wherein “there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free” (Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28). In this way, it presents an image of the Kingdom of God, but at the same time also an image of ideal human society, and the foretaste of the victory of life over death, of incorruption over corruption, and love over hatred.”  (MESSAGE OF THE PRIMATES OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SYNAXIS-ASSEMBLY AT THE PHANAR CHRISTMAS 2000 AD)

When I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary, a little over 40 years ago, I remember Fr John Meyendorff saying that whatever else the Byzantines were (Hellenistic, triumphalistic, ethnic, xenophobic, nationalistic, phobic of anything “western”) they were not racist.  That seemed to be his professional opinion based on years of research.  His words stuck with me because through the decades it has seemed to me it is hard to differentiate the ethnicism in American Orthodox from the racism which was also present in the same people.  But the Eucharistic and eschatological vision which Kalaitzides is far reaching in its scope and quite inspiring.

However the idea of “dog headed” people played out in Byzantine Orthodoxy, it does show that they really had an expansive view of what it is to be human.   They were not racists, even though they allowed slavery.   Slaves could even work their way up in the world in certain positions.  They accepted eunuchs in the society – people whose gender identity was altered by force or choice (though eventually forbidding making eunuchs within the borders of the Empire).  Several eunuchs rose to high positions in Byzantine society and some became saints in the Orthodox Church.  Can Orthodoxy hold to this vision today as it deals with Trans-people as well?    Certainly some Patristic theologians thought gender was not essential to humanity, and some saw it as belonging only to the fallen world but not to eternal life.  We are challenged today with thoughts about what it is to be human which do have precedents in Orthodox history.  God’s love is given to all who are human which the Byzantine Orthodox understood and applied to others no matter how differerent they imagined them to be.

Today and Tomorrow


“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.   (Matthew 6:34)


Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.”  (James 4:13-15)

“Do not rely on tomorrow: your business belongs to today, for our time is not a time for just words or for acquiring property, or indeed to swagger about enjoying ourselves, or to relax in idleness. No, for the discerning it is time for action; it is the time to gather in fruits; it is the time for repentance; it is the time for everyone to supplicate Christ with all his heart.”   (Babi, “Letter to Syriacus”, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p. 140)

Don’t worry about being good for the rest of your life – as long as you do it today.  Don’t worry about being good for the rest of the day – as long as you do it right now.

The Liturgy: Another Love One Another

Bill interjected, “I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.”

“I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the eucharist is about,” Father answered. “The Liturgy is not a ‘me and Jesus’ phenomenon. The eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Isn’t it remarkable that we come mostly truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them.

Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just ‘me and Jesus’; after all, no one can ‘muster up’ the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, ‘we together’ who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 233)

Take Up Your Cross

Cross-bearing and servanthood are not substitutes for or bypasses around the task of overcoming evil. Rather, the section as a whole shows that God’s victory comes in a most unsuspecting way: the way of self-denial, humble service and the very giving of one’s life for others. This is the way of Jesus. And there is also the resurrection, a vital part of every passion prediction on the way.

Jesus’ hodos [way] is not only a way to death, but a way also to God’s victory. This victory is assured by Jesus’ death as a “ransom for many.” For Jesus and his disciples the way of faithful warfare was and is that of humble service, even unto death. Victory comes through God’s vindication of the faithful.

(Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, p. 116)

The Cross: Redemption, Not Sacrifice

“Yet the only text in St. Paul which directly applies sacrificial phraseology to the death of Christ is that of the Epistle to the Ephesians: 

He gave himself up for you as an offering and a sacrifice (prosphoran kai thusian) to God, as a fragrant perfume. 

It seems undeniable that, in expressing himself in this way, St. Paul was thinking of the text of Psalm 39.7-9.

You took pleasure neither in sacrifice nor in offering,

but you have opened my ears:

You have desired neither holocaust nor sacrifice for sin;

then I said: “Here am I, I am coming,

in the scroll of the book I am spoken of. 

My God, I have delighted in doing your will

your law is in the depths of my heart…

In other words, what the psalmist presents as something other than ‘sacrifice and offering’ and as what God prefers to them, is now described by the very terminology proper to what this has replaced. This transfer is extremely important. It is found at the basis of the whole sacrificial vision of the Epistle to the Hebrews, even though too many commentators have neglected to note this fact. 

We might be tempted to link up, with this unique text of St. Paul’s on the death of Christ as a sacrifice, another text found in the Epistle to the Romans. For the latter seems at first sight to lead directly into the sacrificial and, precisely, expiatory developments in the Epistle to the Hebrews: 

We are freely justified by his grace, by the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God has predestined to be a propitiation by faith in his blood. 

This text certainly brings us close to the Epistle to the Hebrews with this mention of propitiation, but we should note that here the implicit image of sacrifice is not applied directly to Christ’s death but rather to our faith in that death. Here, as elsewhere, the notion by which St. Paul explains the Cross is not that of sacrifice, but of redemption, that is, ransoming of slaves.”

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, p. 142-143)