The Good News: Blessings and Truth


(Vespers Hymn for September 1)

The Gospel lesson for September 1, New Year’s Day in the Orthodox Church, is Luke 4:16-22.

Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. ”So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

Christ teaching in the temple

Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos writes:

“Saint John Chrysostom celebrates the Gospel in terms of two elements: its blessings and essential truths. In terms of its blessings , he asks the question: Why did Matthew call his work good news (evangelion)? The answer is because of its spiritual benefits. The Antiochean Father enumerates these blessings as follows: removal of punishment, remission of sins, righteousness, sanctification, redemption, adoption, inheritance of heaven, and an intimate closeness to the Son of God (syggeneian pros ton uion tou Theou). He goes on, waxing eloquent about the blessings flowing from Christ’s earthly ministry:

God on earth, humanity in heaven; all mingled together, angels joining the choirs of humanity and humanity having fellowship with angels…reconciliation between God and our nature, the devil brought to shame, demons in flight, death destroyed, paradise opened, the curse blotted out, sin put out of the way, error driven off, truth returning, the word of godliness everywhere sown, and flourishing in growth…and hope abundant touching future things.

All these constitute good news because they are secure blessings and undeserved gifts given on account of God’s great love toward humanity. Chrysostom further comments: ‘For [it is] not by labor and sweating, not by fatigue and suffering, but merely as being beloved of God, [that] we received what we have received.’ Although the Saint emphasizes the role of free will and moral striving in the attainment of virtue, he never forgets that all are part of God’s gifts, all dependent on grace.” (The Way of Christ: Gospel, Spiritual Life and Renewal in Orthodoxy, pg. 16)

Other blogs on the Orthodox New Year:  There Is One God Maker of All and September 1 as the Church’s New Year

There is One God Maker of All

1 Tim 2:1-7 is the Epistle reading assigned for the celebration of the Orthodox Church New Year on September 1.  It reflects the Church’s thoughts about how we should begin the New Year.   We are called to begin the year with prayers of all kinds for everyone in the world and for world rulers.   Certainly our world leaders today need prayers as much as they needed them 2000 years ago.

Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle – I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying – a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Emperor worshiping Christ

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) comments on a verse from the New Year’s Epistle lesson:

This, you see, is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who wishes all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth (vv. 3-4): he wants all to enjoy salvation. Then he confirms this statement on another basis as well. God is one, after all (v. 5): there is not one maker of the faithful and another of the unfaithful; there is one creator.” (Commentary on the Letters of Saint Paul, pg. 214)

There is one God for believers and unbelievers, the faithful and sinners, the Orthodox and the heterodox, the Christian and the non-Christian.    When we pray to God we pray to the Lord who is the Maker of Heaven and earth and the Creator of every human being.

Another blog on the Orthodox New Year:  The Good News; Blessings and Truth  and September 1 as the Church’s New Year

A World at Peace or in Pieces

As the world watches the Syrian conflict expand into what may be yet another Mideast war, I saw the following comment by contributing editor Stephen Bates in the recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly.  He was commenting on the competition in the late 1940’s between various American cities vying to have the UN locate its proposed headquarters in those cities.

“… in 1945, E. B. White remarked that the ideal home for the UN would be adjacent to Dinosaur Park, an attraction in the Black Hills featuring life-size beasts cast from concrete. “Here let the new halls be built,” White wrote in The New Yorker , “so that earnest statesmen, glancing up from their secret instructions from the home office, may gaze out upon the prehistoric sovereigns who kept on fighting one another until they perished from the earth.”

God and Bosons

2013 Holy Week blogs GoldbergIn the previous blog, Science and Creation from Nothing, I mentioned my interest in what science is saying, but also acknowledge my limited capacity to understand pure science especially the math.   I read in the past few weeks Astrophysicist Dave Goldberg’s new book, The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality.   I will admit the book was way beyond my scientific comprehension.  My aging brain simply cannot remember the names let alone the differences between all the subatomic particles.

“It would be fantastic if the universe really were built up from just three particles, but for some reason, there are lots of “elementary” particles that don’t seem to do much of anything. There are at least twelve different fermions, and at least five different types of bosons, each with different spin states, antiparticles, and so on, giving a grand total of sixty-one. This is to say nothing of the literally hundreds of different composite particles. We have a laundry list of particles and forces but, so far in our story, no real idea of where they come from.”  (Kindle Loc. 2962-66)

Yeah.  Well, so I admit that I skimmed parts of the book as I just didn’t have the interest in what was being said.  And I can’t remember what it was in a review that I read that led me to decide to read the book.   But Goldberg is funny at points, and a few sections of the book were of interest, but over all I lost sight of symmetries and particles too.  I did take comfort in a story he told:

“There’s a famous story wherein Enrico Fermi (who won the Nobel Prize in 1938) was speaking to his student Leon Lederman (who himself won the prize in 1988).  Lederman asked Fermi about some particular particle or other, to which Fermi replied: Young man, if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.”  (Kindle Loc. 2955-59)

And I am certainly not a botanist, so the names of  those many and varied particles completely escapes me.  If a Nobel Prize winning physicist doesn’t need to remember the names of those particles then I won’t bother either.

Another bit of Goldberg humor (at least I thought it is pretty funny):

“In 1983, the very grand sounding seventeenth General Conference on Weights and Measures defined the second in terms of the ‘hyperfine transition’ of cesium-133. Every now and again, a cesium atom will give off light, so the conference defined a second as 9,192,631,770 times the period of the emitted photon. Once you know what a second is, figuring out distance is a piece of cake. A meter is simply defined as the distance that light travels in 1/299,792,458 second.”   (Kindle Loc. 638-42)

If you need someone to explain the humor, don’t worry about it.

Einstein Field Equation

The rest of my comments aren’t going to be related to what the book is about, because to be honest I don’t have enough scientific understanding to put the book in context.  My apologies to Prof Goldberg for bringing up his book without referencing any of the real points he was making.

I do want to point out the obvious that science and religion have different interests in understanding the universe.  If we want to understand the universe scientifically, I would highly recommend studying science.  In general, the Bible and Patristic texts were not written by or for modern scientists, and they have a different interest in the universe than modern science.  (See the comment by Tim McL to my blog Scientists and Angelic Thinking).  The Patristic Writers were as opposed to superstition and false scientific beliefs as any of us, but they all were pre-scientific in their thinking.  So while they often accepted the science of their day as true, they cannot be used today to prove scientific ideas.   For example, St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) says with the same authority with which in interprets scripture that the earth is the center of the universe.

“So then, ‘in the beginning God made heaven and earth’…  He surrounded the motionless earth, as a central point, with the higher circle of the perpetually moving heavens, holding them in place by means of what lies between, all according to His wisdom, that the universe might stay stable while in motion.  When the heavenly bodies all around were moving unceasingly and at great speed, the motionless earth had of necessity to take its place at the centre, its stability counterbalancing the motion, lest the sphere of the universe roll off its course.”    (THE HOMILIES, p 44)

St. Gregory assumes his science is true, but today, no scientist would read Gregory to learn about astrophysics.  And if the Church were to declare that Gregory’s astrophysics are true, no scientist would ever believe the Church about anything.  In the Church we acknowledge that science has discovered truths not mentioned in the bible and not taught by the greatest saints of the Church.

Palamas can be forgiven for not having the science correct as he dies almost 200 years before Nicolaus Copernicus (d. 1543) and almost 300 years before Galileo Galilei (d. 1642).   Palamas knew nothing of the Copernican revolution.  We Orthodox need to be aware that our greatest Patristic writers did rely on the science of their day, but we can’t rely on their comments to determine what science we believe today.  They did not reject the science of their day because it was ‘secular’ but relied on what they believed science had shown to be true.  Today science is reaching far beyond (in space, time, and even on the sub-atomic level) anything the Patristic writers could imagine.  So we can’t really say what they would have thought about the science of our day, but can infer that since they used ‘secular’ science in their thinking, they would have continued to do so had they lived in the 21st Century.

Goldberg in his book notes that it was churchmen who began advocating modern science, and found themselves in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church which was still holding to the same scientific ideas which St. Gregory Palamas taught in the 14th Century.

Giordano Bruno, who was first and foremost a Dominican friar, went much further than Copernicus. Not only did Bruno argue that the sun was the center of our universe, but he also thought (correctly, as it turns out) that all of the stars are simply suns like our own. He wasn’t framing things in hypotheticals. Instead, he argued: In space there are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark. There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours. For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies that may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human earth. Bruno was right about the ridiculous number of planets in the universe. As of this writing, there are over 800 known planets or planetary candidates in our galaxy, and if the early results from the Kepler planet-finding satellite mission are any indication, it looks as though there may be a great many that are potentially habitable. Being right, it turns out, isn’t always enough. In 1600, the Inquisition burned Bruno at the stake for heresy.”   (Kindle Loc. 1076-85 )

It would be wrong and simplistic to say Bruno was burned for teaching scientific truth.  He held many other religious and philosophical ideas that were at odds with the Roman Church.  It happens that Bruno’s science was correct (at least about the existence of many suns and planets) long before it could be proven.  But the fact that Bruno was correct about some science, doesn’t mean he was correct on everything he said or taught about religion.

Palamas’ cosmological comments come not in a course on science, but in a sermon he gave for the first Wednesday in Lent.  The sermon’s theme is fasting, not cosmology.  He speaks about science as he assumes it is true and well known by everyone in his day.

My point in mentioning these things is simply that we have to know what truth we are looking for and know where to look for that truth.  If we want a modern scientific understanding of the universe, read modern scientists.  If you want to know about Christian self-denial,  read the Patristic monks.  It is true that occasionally modern science affirms something that Patristic writers taught (creation out of nothing for example, mentioned in the previous blog).  And it is true that sometimes scientific ideas in the Patristic era turn out to be true (you can find Orthodox writers from the 4th Century who taught the world is round and who understood that ‘night’ is nothing more than being in the shadow cast from the earth as the sun was shining on the opposite side of the earth).   The Patristic writers were not opposed to science, but were opposed to superstition and pagan myths.  They often relied on the science of their day for examples and for understanding the world about them.  They did believe everything in the universe was made up of the four elements (fire, water, air, earth) – and this idea is even mentioned in Orthodox prayers blessing water.  But we are not obliged to believe or teach their science.  We have to relate God to fermions and bosons and antiparticles, spin up and quantum quarks and quirks.

Science and Creation from Nothing

Occasionally I read things in science, because I am interested in understanding the universe which God created.  I really can only read at a ‘popular’ level as the math is beyond me, and my aging brain does not readily retain the science which I dabble in.   I found Steve Nadis’ article, “Starting Point,” regarding the beginning of the universe, in the September 2013 DISCOVER MAGAZINE of interest.  The article focused on the work of Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin.  His research has led him to conclude “that before our universe there was nothing, nothing at all, not even time itself.”

This, of course, is not news to those who believe God created the cosmos out of nothing, but it challenges the absolute materialism of many scientists who hold to the same notion as “the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who argued more than 2,000 years ago that ‘nothing can be created from nothing.’”

‘Orthodox’ scientific materialism demands that there must be a material base, cause or reason for everything which exists.

“A universe with a beginning begs the vexing question: Just how did it begin?  Vilenkin’s answer is by no means confirmed, and perhaps never can be, but it’s still the best solution he’s heard so far: Maybe our fantastic, glorious universe spontaneously arose from nothing at all.  This heretical statement clashes with common sense, which admittedly fails us when talking about the birth of the universe, an event thought to occur at unfathomably high energies.”

Vilenkin’s conclusion is drawn from the fact that a concept of the universe having always existed, does not match the data that we know.

“Indeed, says Vilenkin, among all the ideas we’ve thought of so far for a universe without a beginning, none of them seem to work.  ‘So the answer to the question of whether the universe had a beginning is yes, it probably did.’”

There is a plus for some in accepting Vilenkin’s ideas – one does not have to then do an endless discussion of cause and effect, for example trying to determine what caused the Big Bang.

“One virtue of the picture, if correct, is that the spontaneous creation of our universe gives a definite starting point to things.  Time begins at the moment of creation, putting to rest the potentially endless questions about ‘what happened before that.’”

Vilenkin argues that the data we have shows an expanding universe (called ‘inflation’) but that also means if we go back in time, the universe gets smaller and actually has a beginning point.

“The universe, in other words, could not always have been expanding.  Its expansion must have had a beginning, and inflation – a particularly explosive form of cosmic expansion – must have had a beginning, too.  By this logic, our universe also had a beginning since it was spawned by an inflationary process that is eternal into the future but not the past.”

That the universe had a beginning comes as no surprise to me, but I am intrigued at science’s ability to wrestle with difficult issues, and how stubbornly resistant it is to certain facts and theories which don’t coincide with its purely materialistic philosophy.  Obviously scientists have their own sense of what is orthodox and what is heretical.  I also found the very question suggested by Vilenkin’s research to be fascinating.


“That raises some uncomfortable questions:  Where did the laws of physics reside before there was a universe to which they could be applied?  Do they exist independently of space and time?  ‘It’s a great mystery as to where the laws of physics came from.  We don’t even know how to approach it,’ Vilenkin admits.  ‘But before inflation came along, we didn’t even know how to approach the questions that inflation later solved.  So who knows, maybe we’ll pass this barrier as well.’”

The scientific effort to discover the cause of and reason for the laws of physics is another fascinating exploration to me.  They are not just trying to determine the origins of the physical universe, but also of the laws of nature which govern the universe.  These laws themselves are treated as ‘things’ which had to come from somewhere.  Of course atheistic materialism says they will have to have come from the material universe itself.   Theists will continue to see God’s hand in both the material universe and the laws which govern space and time.

For science, knowledge is power – the power to control the material universe.  And of course in scientific atheism, the only thing which exists is the physical universe.  So that power is limited to the empirical world.  For believers in God, knowledge of the universe is a way to understand the Creator, to experience that which is greater than any one person and which is beyond the material universe.  Knowledge may not help us control the universe, but it will help us to live in a right relationship with nature as well as with one another as we understand our relationship to the Creator of all things.

Next:  God and Bosons

A Christian Vision: Symbol vs. Diabolical

“How sadly Christians have misinterpreted the words of Christ that we are in the world but not of the world (cf. John 17:14 and 16). The two verses from John’s Gospel should not be detached, still less are they to be divorced, from the middle verse which is a clarification of Christ’s prayer:

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from evil. (v. 15)

Whenever we fail to seek the cosmic vision, we narrow life to ourselves, our concerns and our desires, and neglect the vocation to which we are called to transform the creation of God. Just as whenever we reduce religious life to ourselves, our concerns and our desires, we forget the calling of the Church to implore God – always and everywhere – for the renewal of the whole polluted cosmos. For the Church is a unique symbol. And I use the term symbol not as a way of perceiving reality, but as a profound way of realizing and reconciling (the literal translation of the Greek symbolon is bringing together) two distinct, though not unrelated realities: divinity and creation, God and world. The Church brings to God the world, for the life of which God gave his only Son; and the Church also brings God to the world, which God so loved (John 3:16). This reconciliation is the essential function of the Church. The direct opposite of the symbolical is the diabolical worldview. Also the diabolical Greek (Greek: dia-bolos meaning the one who disperses)  heresy of the ecological crisis is the exclusion of the reality of the kingdom of heaven, as well as the dispelling of the intuition that everything is a unique manifestation of that kingdom.” (John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights Into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, pgs. 11-12)

Repentance: Movement more than Emotion

Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father

Repentance must not be mistaken for remorse, it does not consist in feeling terribly sorry that things went wrong in the past; it is an active, positive attitude which consists in moving in the right direction. It is made very clear in the parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28) who were commanded by their father to go to work at his vineyard. The one said, ‘I am going’, but did not go. The other said, ‘I am not going’, and then felt ashamed and went to work. This was real repentance, and we should never lure ourselves into imagining that to lament one’s past is an act of repentance.  It is part of it, of course, but repentance remains unreal and barren as long as it has not led us to doing the will of the Father. We have a tendency to think that it should result in fine emotions and we are quite often satisfied with emotions instead of real, deep changes.”     (Metropolitan Anthony, The Modern Spirituality Series, pg.42)

A Prophecy of God Walking on Water

We read in Matthew 14:22-34 the Gospel Lesson of Jesus and then Peter walking on the water in the midst of a storm.  Christ saves the sinking Peter whose faith seems to falter in the midst of this miracle.   St. Matthew presents the story this way:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

 St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) in his sermon notes on The  Book of Job sees a prophecy in Job pertaining to Christ walking on water.  Chrysostom’s text of Job 9:8 says that God “trampled on the sea as on a floor.”   St. John notes this a “kind of prophecy” which seems to indicate Chrysostom believed the words were never fulfilled except by Christ walking on the water.   However, because the comments we have from Chrysostom are his sermon notes, we don’t know for sure to what he was thinking when he identified the text in Job as a kind of prophecy.  It seems likely that Chrysostom was thinking about Jesus walks on water.   For certainly in this Gospel lesson we encounter God incarnate in Christ trampling on the seas as on a floor.

The biblical commentators from the Patristic era were always looking for references to Christ in the Old Testament – whether prophecies, typologies or events which prefigured Him.   Chrysostom ever attentive to details apparently thought a reference in Job to God trampling on the sea to have been fulfill-led only in Christ’s walking on the water.  The Orthodox Study Bible also notes that St. Cyril (it doesn’t identify which Cyril) thought that it was Christ walking on water which fulfilled this prophecy.  Apparently a commonly held idea in antiquity.

The Restorative Justice of God

Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom

“If you want to understand God’s justice in an unjust world, says the prophet Isaiah, this is where you must look. God’s justice is not simply a blind dispersing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way. God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place. And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures and, more specifically, through the family of Abraham. […] The Old Testament never tries to give us the sort of picture the philosophers want, that of a static world order with everything explained tidily. At no point does the picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order. What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice. This project is a matter of setting the existing creation to rights rather than scrapping it and doing something else instead. God decides, for that reason, to work through human beings as they are – even though their hearts think only of evil – and through Israel, even though from Abraham onward they make as many mistakes as they do acts of obedience. Both in the grand narrative itself, and in many smaller moments within it, we observe a pattern of divine action, to judge and punish evil and to set bounds to it without destroying the responsibility and agency of human beings themselves; and both to promise and to bring about new moments of grace, events which constitute new creation, however much they are themselves necessarily shot through with ambiguity.” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, pgs. 64 & 73)

Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman