St. Isaac of Ninevah (6th Century) makes a very astute theological observation about God. St. Isaac’s basic premise is that God is love, and everything God does is an extension of the Divine love. God’s actions toward human beings and God’s activities in creation cannot be inconsistent with God’s very nature.
God by definition of God’s nature is not altered by time or change, so God is forever acting toward creation, not reacting to it. Human behavior, including sin or rebellion against the will of God, does not change God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to love their creation because that is their very nature. The mystery of course is that we exist in time and God does interact with us. God is not an impersonal force, but in a manner beyond our comprehension, takes into account what we do with the free will God has bestowed on us. God has created the universe with quantum uncertainty. These are factors God deals with in God’s eternal being – they all are part of creation as God intended it and as God loves it. And the mystery deepens for God in Christ enters into creation in the incarnation, subjecting Himself to time and space. None of this changes God’s nature or the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
St. Isaac ponders:
“But we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser (place) in His love, no before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator’s goodness and love, (then) we know that this (original) cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator’s nature as a result of the disordered course of creation.”
Because we exist in space and time and are temporal, mortal beings we experience God’s love within our human experience and interpret it as love or justice or anger or grace or judgment. Our experience of the Divine is real, yet tempered by our created, mortal natures. We may gain glimpses into the Divine Life, but our understanding of it is shaped and limited by our own limits, and by the limits language imposes on our ability to conceive and explain.
God’s love is not diminished by God’s interaction with us nor by God’s ability to condescend to our limited understanding. We experience God within our capabilities of understanding and articulation. This does not change the love of God or the God who is love.
The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.
It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel. (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)
But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter. Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.
In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson. Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for. The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them. The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites. Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.
“Abba Poeman said:
‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”
Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us. But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color. We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away. But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers. And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.
“Moses testifies that while it was granted to him to do everything like God, at last he abandoned everything and prayed to see the Lord of all. For if the creatures of the Creator are so pleasant to look upon; how much more pleasant is their Creator to look upon; but because we have not any eye which is able to look upon his splendor, a mind was given us which is able to contemplate his beauty.”
The basic narrative is that Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, fulfilling Torah commandments, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. There they are met by the Righteous Elder Simeon who when he sees Jesus prophesies that this indeed is God’s Messiah.
Simeon, receive Him Whom Moses once beheld in darkness, granting the Law on Sinai, now that He has become a Babe subject to the Law! This is He Who spoke through the Law. This is He, of Whom the Prophets spoke, Who, for our sakes, has taken flesh and has saved man. Let us worship Him!
The above hymn teaches the truth held by Orthodoxy that the encounters with God which Old Testament saints had were in fact encounters with the pre-incarnate Christ. So Simeon recieves in his arm the infant Christ, but it is the same Christ, who as God gave Moses the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments. Both Moses and Simeon receive in their arms the Word of God! Moses receives the Law from the Word, and Simeon receives the Word as a baby. He who gave the Torah to Moses, namely Christ, which defined righteous behavior in the temple, will enter the Temple as a baby subject to the Law! This is the great mystery of the incarnation of God. Christ spoke about His incarnation.
They hymn playfully celebrates the mystery of the incarnation – Christ is He who spoke through the Law centuries before He was born. Christ is the one of whom the prophets spoke. The Old Testament is the history of a people being prepared for the coming of their Messiah.
Today Simeon takes in his arms the Lord of Glory, Whom Moses saw of old in the darkness when he received the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai. This is He Who speaks through the Prophets and Who is the Creator of the Law. This is He Whom David announced; He is fearful to all, yet great and abundant in mercy.
The above hymn presents Christ – a 40 day old baby in the Gospel who is also the Lord of Glory who Moses encountered when he received the Law on Mount Sinai. Christ as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity speaks through the Torah and the prophets centuries before He is born, and these prophets are speaking of His birth which occurs centuries after they spoke or wrote.
The Ancient of Days, as a Child in the flesh, is brought by His Mother, the Virgin, into the Holy Temple, fulfilling the promise announced by His own Law. Receiving Him, Simeon said: “Now let your servant depart in peace, according to Your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, O Lord!”
It is Christ who is identified as being the “Ancient of Days” from the prophecy of Daniel 7. The mystery of the incarnation means Christ is both the Ancient of days as well as the one like the Son of Man who Daniel mentions. The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord sees the prophesies being fulfilled in Christ who is the incarnate God.
It is 40 days after the Nativity of Christ, and His parents, Mary and Joseph, bring the infant Jesus into the Jerusalem Temple in fulfillment of the Torah commandments concerning the birth of a son. The Feast celebrates the fulfilling of the Torah concerning the Temple’s role in salvation and also celebrates Christ being THE High Priest of God forever. Christ fulfills and supersedes both the Temple and the Levitical Priesthood in beginning the New Covenant.
We can consider what the Temple is in Judaism and what it means that Jesus Christ both fulfills and supersedes the Temple. Our understanding of the Temple comes from Adolfo Roitman’s book, ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE.
1] The Temple in Jerusalem, like the Tabernacle in the Desert, was to be made according to a heavenly model which was revealed first to Moses and then to King David.
“As related in the Bible, the initiative for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert came from on high: when Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, God commanded, ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it’ (Exod 25:8-9). [footnote – Note that underlying this account is the assumption that the desert Tabernacle was built according to a heavenly prototype.]” (p 49)
“Significantly, David, like Moses at Sinai (cf. Exod 25:9), was said to have received a ‘blueprint’ in God’s own hand (1 Chron 28:19). [footnote: In antiquity people clearly believed that earthly temples were built on the basis of a transcendental, heavenly, prototype.]” (p 50)
The fact that the earthly Temple was meant to be built in the image of a heavenly prototype allows for a number of interesting comparisons.
A) The Temple in some way was thought to imitate Paradise, which was the image used by God to construct the world in the beginning. God was building Himself a Temple when He created Paradise and earth – a place to reside within His creation.
B) Christ is thought to be in some form the real Temple, of which the Jerusalem Temple and the desert Tabernacle were simply shadowy images. When Christ appears in the Temple, the purpose of the Temple is fulfilled and it reveals the Christ who is the real dwelling place of God on earth. What Solomon built was a temple based on a blueprint, but with the arrival of Christ, we have the real temple of God and no longer are in need of a blueprint.
C) The Theotokos is also portrayed as the living Temple in as much as she is God’s dwelling place on earth.
D) Christians, the Church, are to be the living Temple, replacing the need for a building of stone and bricks. Christians did not bemoan the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70AD, for they believed the true Temple was eternal and had already been raised up!
2] The temple is all about holiness/separation:
“In sum, the anonymous architect intended to protect the House of God from any contact with impurity and to enhance its sanctity by means of the three concentric courts and the moat around them. The source of sanctity, where God’s Presence would reside – the Temple – would stand in the center of the inner court, radiating its holiness to the whole of the Jewish people and the land of Israel, just as at the time of the Israelite’s wanderings in the desert.” (p 45)
The holiness of Israel comes from God. The Temple is made holy by God’s presence there. So too it is Christ, God incarnate, who brings holiness to the Temple, and makes the people of God Holy.
“In the biblical account, the Tabernacle had three main roles. To begin with, it provided a place for God to ‘dwell among the Israelites‘ (Exod 25:8; 29:45-46). It was also a cultic space in which, for example, a daily burnt-offering was sacrificed twice a day (ibid. 29:38-43)… Finally, it was in the Tabernacle – the ‘Tent of the Meeting‘ – that the Divine Presence revealed itself to Moses (ibid. 25:22; 30:6). ” (p 50)
There is a very important connection between the Tent/ Tabernacle of the meeting and the meeting of the Lord in the Temple. The Feast celebrates the fulfillment of all the Temple was intended to be. When the Christ child, the incarnate God, enters the temple, the Divine Presence is in the Temple and the purpose of the Temple is fulfilled.
3] The Temple is God’s dwelling place on earth.
“According to ancient beliefs, the main purpose of Solomon’s Temple was to provide an earthly dwelling place for God. This is clearly demonstrated by the account in the first book of Kings of the Ark of the Covenant being brought into the Holy of Holies: ‘. . . the cloud had filled the House of the Lord and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord’ (8:10-11). [footnote: However, this idea is deliberately revised in the present text of 1 Kings. In Solomon’s prayer… the possibility that God could dwell in the Temple is emphatically rejected (8:27). The text states that only God’s ‘name‘ dwells in the Temple (v. 29); the actual ‘abode‘ of the Almighty is in heaven (vv. 39, 43, etc.). The conception of the Temple’s primary purpose therefore changes accordingly, and the focus is no longer on the sacrifices, but on the prayers that will be offered up (vv. 28ff).] (p 53)
We see in the above what is often true in the Holy Scriptures: there is often a tension between conflicting ideas about God. This is no doubt intentional in the Scriptures to help prevent us from being overly literal in our reading of the text. The Temple is the dwelling place for God and/or the Temple is the place where God’s Name dwells on earth. God is both imminent and transcendent. This truly is fulfilled in the incarnation in which Christ is both fully human and fully God. Christ walks on earth and yet never ceases to reside with God in heaven.
4] Christ the eschatological Temple.
“In the last part of the book of Ezekiel … (Ezekiel 38-39), the prophet describes the future restoration of the people of Israel to its land, including an eschatological vision of the Temple and its cult (chaps. 40-48). The prophet’s guiding principle is the necessity for an entirely new Temple, free of any impurity and quite different from the unclean Temple that stood in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of 586 BCE (see Ezek 43:1-12; 434:6-8). . . . Ezekiel’s Temple no longer houses the Ark of the Covenant that occupied the heart of Solomon’s Temple; instead, the ‘Presence of the Lord’ fills the Temple (43:4-5). This is God’s abode: ‘. . . It said to me: O mortal, this is the place of My throne and the place for the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people Israel forever. …’ (Ezek 43:7). The prophet’s eschatological Temple will thus resemble the Tabernacle in the wilderness, built in fulfillment of the Divine command, ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’ (Exod 25:80).” (pp 53, 55)
We can note the literal fulfillment of what God says to Ezekiel that the Temple is “the place for the soles of My feet”. In the Meeting of the Lord, God is present in the soles of the feet of the infant Jesus. This is an unexpected literal fulfillment of what God promised!
It is not the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments which represent the Divine Presence in the Temple. For now Christ, the incarnate God, dwells in the Temple. Christ dwells in the Temple and is Himself the pure Temple of God. So too the Virgin Mary is portrayed in the same way as the Pure Temple of God prophesied by Ezekiel. Thus all that God promised and prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures come to fulfillment in Christ.
Our Lord Jesus made it clear that sin comes from within our hearts. Jesus tells us that the food we eat enters the stomach, not the heart, so the food we eat doesn’t make us unclean.
Fasting from food doesn’t cleanse the heart, but fasting can allow us to become more clearly aware of what is in our hearts. Food itself doesn’t cause us to sin. If we consider the Lord’s words we realize we can’t even blame Satan for our sins, for the sins come from within us. They don’t originate outside of our self. Spiritual warfare has to take place in and for our own hearts.
And Jesus said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:20-23)
So, St. John Cassian reminds us that even another person can’t really cause us to sin. Blaming another because “YOU make me angry” is failing to acknowledge the anger is already an evil in our hearts. It is more honest to acknowledge, “I get angry when….” Others don’t cause our anger, but they can cause us to reveal what is in our hearts.
So Cassian says:
“A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men.” (The Philokalia: Volume 1, p 87)
Holiness, like evil, is found within our own hearts. We have to bring it out in our relationships with others. Avoiding other people will not help us become holy. Being in the company of holy people can help awaken the holiness God has planted within each of us – the image of God which is natural to each of us and which is imprinted on our souls. We do become like the people we associate and identify with.
The purpose of fasting is to help “stir the pot” which is our heart – to help bring to the surface what really is within each of us. We can then confront the passions and sins in us or bring out the holiness which God has endowed us with.
Notice in icons – the halo around the saints emanates from the holy person. It doesn’t descend on them from above. The icons show holiness is revealed in and through the lives, the very being, of the saints.
The Gospel lesson of Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.
Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’
He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’
Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’
But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
“Spiritual egocentrism replaces the goal of true asceticism. It cuts off such a person from the universe and makes him into a spiritual miser – and then this miserliness quickly begins to develop and grow, because he begins to notice that the more he acquires, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of the spiritual life, whereby everything that is not distributed, everything that is saved, everything that is not lovingly given away somehow degenerates, becomes corrupt, is consumed in flames.
The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who will lend it at interest. Further accumulation makes one more and more empty. It leads to dryness, to spiritual numbness, to the complete degeneration and destruction of one’s spiritual essence. A unique process of self-poisoning by spiritual values takes place.”
The 4th Century monk Evagrius teaches that doing charity work can calm the mind and rid it of nightmares. Quoting Proverbs he writes:
“If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. And you will not be afraid of alarm coming upon you, nor of approaching attacks of the ungodly (Proverbs 3:24-25):
By this we know that compassion dispels the terrifying visions that befall us at night.
everything that is able to pacify the aroused irascibility, have the same effect, since these visions of terror tend to arise from the provocation of irascibility. […]
[One of these fathers] delivered a certain brother from the disquieting specters by which he was visited in the night by ordering him to minister to the sick and to fast while he did it. When asked about his rationale from employing this procedure, he replied:
‘Such afflictions are extinguished by no other remedy so well as by mercy.’”