God the Humble

My friend, Fr. Silviu Bunta wrote something in an email that I asked his permission to share with everyone.

mercytoChrist“I have come to believe that God is the greatest peak of humility, of humble compassion, and that we are most godlike when we sit at the gate hungry, when we are thirsty, when we are strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned, when we suffer, when we are down. We are like our God when we are spat upon, when we don’t have a place where to lay our heads, when we are judged and we don’t defend ourselves, when we make ourselves even lower than animals, when we love everyone dearly, when we are unable to bear any injury suffered by any creature, let alone of a fellow human being, when we take on the others’ injuries. It seems to me that the greatest aspect of godliness hides itself in pain, in suffering. When we are there, at the bottom of hell/life, all else that is needed to be fully in God is lack of despair. These two, pain and lack of despair, generate the most beautiful moments of painful joy.

Paisios the Athonite used to say that prayer gets its power from feeling the pain of the others. There is no true prayer without pain.”

Orthodox Bishops On the Right to Life

The Assembly of Canonical Bishops of North and Central America recently issued a statement on the 40th Anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.   You can read the entire statement at the above link.  I reproduce part of their statement below as it reaffirms a consistent pro-life worldview of the Orthodox churches in  America.

Assembly NA Bishops

On the occasion of this 40th Anniversary of “Roe v. Wade,” we republish the following “Agreed Statement” issued in 1974 by the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Bilateral Consultation in the United States (composed of representatives from the former SCOBA and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) a statement as timely now as it was then:

An Agreed Statement on Respect for Life

We, the members of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Bilateral Consultation in the United States, after extensive discussions on the sanctity of marriage, feel compelled to make a statement concerning the inviolability of human life in all its forms.

We recognize that human life is a gift of God entrusted to mankind and so feel the necessity of expressing our shared conviction about its sacred character in concrete and active ways. It is true that the Christian community’s concern has recently seemed to be selective and disproportionate in this regard, e.g., in the anti-abortion campaign. Too often human life has been threatened or even destroyed, especially during times of war, internal strife, and violence, with little or no protestation from the Christian leadership. Unfortunately, the impression has frequently been given that churchmen are more concerned with establishing the legitimacy of war or capital punishment than with the preservation of human life. We know that this has been a scandal for many, both believers and unbelievers.

We feel constrained at this point in history to affirm that the “right to life” implies a right to a decent life and to full human development, not merely to a marginal existence.

We affirm that the furthering of this goal for the unborn, the mentally handicapped, the aging, and the underprivileged is our duty on a global as well as a domestic scale.

We deplore in particular the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision failing to recognize the rights of the unborn–a decision which has led to widespread indiscriminate early abortion.

We affirm our common Christian tradition with regard to the right of the unborn to life.

We acknowledge our responsibility to mediate the love of Christ, especially to the troubled expectant mother, and thus make possible the transmission and nurturing of new life and its fully human development.

We urge our churches and all believers to take a concrete stand on this matter at this time and to exemplify this evangelical imperative in their personal lives and professional decisions.

Theotokos Sanctify of Life

Monasticism Began at Home

It is interesting that today some Orthodox families seek out monasteries to add a dimension to their spiritual lives that is missing in their daily lives.  Laura Swan in her book, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, reminds us that monasticism itself began in the home.  Families wishing to live the Gospel life more fully began shaping their lives around Christ’s commandments.  These families attempted to live for the Kingdom of God though still living ‘in the world.’

“Christian monasticism began in the home. The first communities usually included relatives, dependents, and household slaves. This inclusiveness had a deep impact upon monastic and desert spirituality. Life was centered around times of communal prayer, private prayer, services in local churches, the study of scripture and the writings of the leaders of the movement, and service to the poor. Some experienced a call to move away from the common life toward solitude.” (Swan,  pgs. 8-9)

If Swan is correct in how monasticism began, it is interesting that nowadays families seek something from outside the family to help them be disciples of Christ – they go to monasteries for monastic spirituality rather than trying to live the Gospel more fully in their own homes.   One can wonder: has historical experience taught us that we cannot live the Gospel in our home and family lives and so must go to monasteries for that dedicated spirituality?   Or have we Orthodox discovered that only in monasteries can people pursue the evangelical life – that the monastic community rather than the family community is the only way to follow Christ and practice Christian discipleship? (or at least discipline as monastics came to believe is normative for Christianity)  Or is it because we want to follow mammon AND God that we cannot be disciples of Christ in our families?  We want to pursue the American dream of success, prosperity, a suburban home and wonderful vacations AND so cannot figure out how to followChrist taught self-denial?   Is it that we want to live comfortable, middle class lives with only an occasional touch of monastic spirituality rather than shaping our family time and values by the Gospel lessons?   Or maybe we believe only monastics can really be fully Christian and so accept that we must have occasional monastic experiences but we really can’t live in the world and follow Christ.

Living a Christ-like life daily is hard work, so do we settle for vicarious experiences 0f Christianity – observing monastics while we are on retreat but imagining that we should not bother to figure out how to follow Christ within the opportunities presented by our families?   Perhaps a time will come again when we realize that Christ called us to follow Him as mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.  Christ can be a member of our families and dwell in our homes.  We do not have to go anywhere else to find Christ, for He lives in us, in our hearts, our homes, our families.  Christ commanded us to love one another, to repent, to forgive, to practice self-denial and He taught us to pray, be charitable, to pursue godliness, to live humbly and to proclaim the joyous Good News of the resurrection.  These are all things we can do in our own homes and families.  Monasticism became the Christian way for those who wanted to forgo the married life.  Those who embrace marriage and family life have to find their way to be disciples of Christ.

The Power of Liturgy and Theology

Fr. Alkiviadis C. Calivas offers us a thought about the role of both theology and liturgy in our Christian walk.  “I just want to be a Christian,” someone might say.  Orthodoxy would say that desire can never be separated from either liturgy or theology.  Theology informs and shapes our ideas about what it means to be a Christian.  Liturgy is where we act on our beliefs and enact our relationship to God, all of humanity and creation itself.  Fr. Calivas is making reference below to Liturgical Theologian Alexander Schmemann who often criticized the reduction of liturgy to a legalistic following of ritual which ultimately empties the Liturgy of its transformative power.

Schmemann“Father Schmemann’s stern critique – whether one accepts it or not as a valid evaluation of contemporary ecclesial realities – is a strong reminder of the serious dangers that face the Church whenever her theology is robbed of vigor and meaning and whenever her liturgy becomes opaque, burdened with ritual formalism, and turned into superstition or into a purely intellectual system divorced from real life. Both theology and liturgy are devitalized when theology is unwittingly allowed to decline into uncritical, repetitive, and sterile pietistic formulations and when the liturgy is unwittingly allowed to deteriorate into empty actions and words that have little meaning and have no appeal to the heart and mind of the contemporary worshipper.” (Essays in Theology and Liturgy: Volume 3, pg. 126)

Loving God and Neighbor Too

An essential belief that Jews and Christians share is the centrality of love for God and neighbor.

In the Torah, we read God’s word given through the Prophet Moses:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”   (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

And again from Moses we hear God’s voice:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  (Leviticus 19:18)

In the Gospels, Jesus reaffirms the centrality of these teachings/Law:

Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying. Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?

Jesus said to him, ‘

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it:

‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matt. 22:35-40)

Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) says:

“If you love God, you will certainly start to love your neighbors too.

You will find you are unable to hoard your money any longer

but will want to distribute it in a godly way, being generous to all who are in need.”

(The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, pg. 51)

St. Maximos on The Sanctity of Life

LOGOThe Orthodox Church claims that the values of the Kingdom of God include cherishing life itself as sacred, a gift from God.  We are to treat God’s gifts as holy, entrusted to our care and concern.  Thus we do hold that the intentional destruction of human life through abortion to be a denial of God’s Kingdom.  Orthodox Christians do join and support the annual March for Life in Washington, DC.

Metropolitan Tikhon said in his message for the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday:

Theotokos Sanctify of Life“If we are to transform the collective heart and mind of our society, we must begin by transforming our own hearts and minds.

Heeding the Gospel, let us remain faithful to the vision of human life as a sacred gift, recommitting ourselves to defending the lives “of all mankind,” as we pray at every Divine Liturgy.”

You can view a marvelous use of technology which offers us a visualization of the miracle of how a human develops in the mother’s womb from conception to birth.  The video created and narrated by Alexander Tsiaras  originally done on TED can be viewed at From Conception to Birth.

St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) writes:

“It is a fearful and heinous thing for us, because of our love for things corruptible, deliberately to kill the life that was given to us by God as the gift of the Holy Spirit.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 16081-82)

You can read a moving story of a young mom who chose to give her disabled son a few hours of life and love rather than choosing the logic of aborting his life.  The quality of life is not the only way to measure the value of life.  Abortion – intentionally terminating the life of an unborn baby – is not the only answer for dealing with the disabilities of an unborn baby.

As one pregnant mom recently wrote in an email, lamenting society’s views of women and babies:

Babies are seen as an impediment to the progress of women, not the mystery and gift of the Divine.


More information about the OCA’s participation in the Right to Life March is available on the OCA Webpage, including a Photo Gallery.

The Tenderness of God; The Hardness of Being Human

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra in 2009 wrote about God, men and women:

AdamEveForest“Let us turn instead to the creation of Adam and Eve as described in the Bible, beginning with the creation of Eve. As you know, God took a rib from Adam’s side (Gen.2:21), and having done that, Adam was no longer whole, no longer complete. So what did God do? He immediately remade it and closed the wound without Adam feeling any pain. Adam was now whole again. And as all of this was taking place, it says that God caused Adam to fall into a state of ecstasy (Gen, 2:21).

God did not put Adam to sleep or in a kind of trance, because what God did required Adam’s consent. How God respects our freedom! Adam was able to see what was happening, even though he didn’t fully understand it. God opened up his side, removed one of his ribs, and from it fashioned a new human being, Eve, whom God gave to Adam (Gen. 2:23).

When God showed Eve to Adam, he was amazed; completely dumbfounded. At first he thought he was seeing another version of himself, and said, this is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Gen. 2:23). It’s like seeing your brother or sister, whom you haven’t seen in many years, and saying:”But that’s me!” But when God said Let us make a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:18), Adam realized that there was a mystery here. And thus he said, “I Adam (‘ysh), will call her Eve (‘’ysha),” “Eve” being the feminine form of “Adam,” as if my name was Paul and I called you Paula. Adam and Eve were one, each being an image of the other, and so were not ashamed of their nakedness, because it’s only in the presence of others that our nakedness becomes a source of shame. But they were one flesh, just as we read at the marriage service: The two shall be one flesh (Eph. 5:31, citing Gen 2:24). And this is why they were always together, and why there was no hostility between them, for no man hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it (Eph. 5:29).

When they sinned against God, however, what happened? They realized that they were naked and so they covered themselves up with aprons made of fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). Do you see what happened? The unity that existed between them was broken. Their personalities were divided; they became strangers to each other, and so they covered themselves in order to conceal their bodies. And this is what sin does to us: it cuts us into pieces and divides us from ourselves and from others. Sin splits people up. It cuts them right down the middle. And thus Adam was ashamed, both before Eve and before God, and went off to hide. God, of course, went to look for him…

And when the little god sinned, God wept. God wept! But Adam ran off and hid. What did God do then? He humbled Himself. He acted like nothing was wrong. He approached quietly, feigning ignorance, hoping gradually to come around to the subject of what had happened. Adam, He called out, where are you? (Gen. 3:9). No answer. Just a trembling behind the trees. But God finds him, and says: “Why didn’t you come out to meet me? Why didn’t you come running to see me, as you always do? What’s the matter? What’s that you’re wearing?” By this time however, Adam had thought up an excuse, and blurted out: The woman that You gave me, she deceived me (Gen.3:12). It’s as if he had said: “this is all your fault, God. This all happened because of the woman that you gave me.” No humility here. And it was Adam’s utter lack of humility that sealed the verdict of death against him.

To all of this, God said something like: “The woman that I gave you? Do you mean Eve? But you and Eve are one person, aren’t you? How, then, can you blame this on her and say that you had nothing to do with it? How can you divide yourself, your nature, in this way? How did Eve become a separate person? Wasn’t it you who said she was bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh? Didn’t you call her by your own name? When did the one become two? How were you separated?”

Despite the fall of man, God did not, and never will, abandon the human race. Unlike the woman in pain who forgot her baby at the dentist’s office, God will never abandon us. Through His prophet, He tells us: Even if a mother forgets her child, I shall not forget you (Is. 49:15), because you are a god that I have made.

So this is our God! I have stretched out my hands all the day long to a disobedient and contrary people (Is. 65:2). We have no time for God. We’re too busy. We don’t think about Him because we’re tired. But all the day long, Christ, the Great High Priest, stands with His hands outstretched on the cross, on which the little gods have nailed Him. And from that lofty vantage point, He supplicates His heavenly Father on our behalf. Though we crucify Him every day, God prays for us! That, my beloved, is humility.

(The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God,  p. 305-309)

The Church and the Poor

“Many people erect high ‘temples’ and decorate them. They build tall belfries and cast great bells, they sew rich vestments for the churches and frame the sacred books, the icons and the Cross with gold and jewels. With these material gifts they wish to please the immaterial God; but they despise and neglect the poor…and leave them to their fate; and thus they do what God has not ordained and do not do what He has ordained! I do not condemn this building of churches. I only condemn the neglect of the Word of God. Churches are necessary, but not the magnificence of churches. Public worship can be held in any temple, provided it is clean. But people – the ‘living temples’ of God cannot exist without food, shelter, clothing …”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in What the Church Fathers Say About…Volume 2, pp 107-108)

Temple Annex

Though I planned to end the Temple blog series with the previous blog, Christ the Theotokos and the Temple,  one additional thought came to my mind about the Temple.  This is an idea I remember reading somewhere but I no longer remember where I read it, so I can’t give a proper citation for the idea, but want to fully acknowledge it did not originate with me.


The idea is a particular reading of Mark’s Gospel, 12:38-13:2 which follows:

And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” [12:38-40]

And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” [12:41-44]

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”  And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”  [13:1-2]

Frequently in homilies it is verses 12:41-44 that get the attention: praise for the sacrificial giving of the poor widow.

But I remember once reading a commentary which advised keeping Mark 12:41-44 in context: namely sandwiched between 12:38-40 and 13:1-2.  Mark 12:38-40 condemns the kind of religion which and the kind of religious people “who devour widows’ houses.”  This kind of religion is rejected by Christ who then sits down to watch happen what He just condemned about a certain kind of religion.

No sooner does Christ speak the words about those who devour widow’s houses (12:40) then along comes this widow who puts into her last 2 pennies into the temple treasury.  Here at the Jerusalem Temple is the kind of religion which convinces a widow to give all she has and which takes it from her!  It’s the temple religion which is being condemned.  The widow is not being condemned, but a religion which would convince her to give away all that she had to get to heaven or to avoid hell is condemned by our Lord.  A religion which impoverishes the poor is not being upheld as the model for the truth faith!

And then in Mark 13:1-2, no sooner has the woman contributed to the great temple building then the disciples begin to marvel at the great stones of which the temple is built.  Does Jesus join them in admiration and praise of the temple building?  NO!  He tells them the entire building complex is going to be completely destroyed and leveled.  The poor widow is wasting her money!  That is the bankruptcy of a religion – taking the last pennies from the poor and giving nothing in return.

Temple StonesThe “contextual” reading of Mark 12:38-13:2 suggests that maybe Jesus isn’t so much praising the poor widow but more condemning the kind of religion which takes every last penny of resource from such people and gives them a massive structure which all comes tumbling down into a pile of rubble.

This reading of Mark 12:38-13:2, certainly calls to mind the Prophecy of Malachi 3 where the Lord suddenly appears in the temple (3:1) and confronts in judgment “those who wrong the widow and the fatherless” as well as those who cheat the laborer of his wages and those who thrust aside the alien (3:5).  All of these are related to charges Jesus brought against those who were running the Temple.

It is another view of the Temple – or perhaps of the wrong idea of Temple or of a false Temple.

The Temple is God’s vision of how He might dwell with His people, how His people become His Temple, and in the end the Temple is God Himself.  It is a mystical reality that has nothing to do with a religion of rules that sucks every last penny from a poor widow and gives nothing in return.

The Temple is to be an experience of the eternal God, not a way for some to control and manipulate others on this earth.

All four Gospel writers report that Jesus engaged in a cleansing of the Temple (Mt 21:12-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48; John 2:12-25).  From what we have learned about the complex mystical and theological nature of the Temple, the fact that Christ the Lord thought the Temple needed to be cleansed – that it was defiled – shows how far the Temple had fallen from its ideal as the place where God dwells with humans.  The verses we see above from Mark 12:38-13:2 are very consistent with what we see throughout the Gospels: namely, the Temple is no longer about God but has become merely about religion.

The Temple is something God revealed to Moses and to David.  That archetypal Temple is God’s and not made by hands like an idol.  The Temple in Jerusalem was from its beginning a copy of the original.  It was a symbol drawing the world of humans and of God together, and a sign – pointing to the reality of which it was a copy, symbol and sign.  It was not meant to be worshiped   As Daniel says to King Cyrus in the story of the idol Bel, “I do not worship idols made with hands, but only the living God who created the heavens and the earth” (Bel :5, OSB).   God not only created the heavens, but is the Temple in the New Jerusalem.  No temple built of magnificent stones could ever replace that reality.

The Church is the Body of Christ and we are to be the living Temple of God.  Our concern should be what we need to do to make this a reality and not to become another form of the Temple which is nothing but inorganic stone.  Wisdom tells us that water can be the living kind of the baptismal font washing away sin, or the substance that petrifies the body’s bone into lifeless stone.   The presence of God gives reality to the Temple, the Temple does not give reality to God.

The entire blog series on the Temple is now available as a PDF: Envisioning the Temple (PDF).