We All Offer Sacrifice and Sacraments to God

We shall only understand the character of the world when we think of it as a gift or present.

The whole world ought to be regarded as the visible part of a universal and continuing sacrament, and all man’s activities as a sacramental, divine communion.

Because man is unable to give God anything except that which he has already received from God, man learns to perceive the world as gift and sacrament by sacrificing something in this world for God’s sake, as a sign of his grateful love, and as the vehicle of this love. God for his part returns to man what man has sacrificed in the form of fresh gifts, containing a new manifestation of His love, in a new and repeated blessing. “Grace for Grace.”  And so an unbroken interchange between God and man in man’s use of the world takes place, an ever-renewed and growing mutuality of love. The more man discovers the beauty and the higher use of created things, and the greater the gratitude and love with which he responds to God, the more God responds with still greater love and blessing, because man is in the position to receive it.

Man puts the seal of his understanding and of his intelligent work on to creation, thereby humanizing it and giving it humanized back to God. He actualizes the world’s potentialities. Thus the world is not only a gift but a task for man. Man is able to mark the world with his seal because the world as the gift of God’s love for man is not the fruit of necessity but the fruit of divine freedom. If it were the fruit of necessity there would be no freedom in it, and it would develop as an inexorable casual process. But it is SO constituted that divine freedom and human freedom can manifest themselves in an unbroken dialogue.

(Fr Dimitru Staniloae, The Time of the Spirit, p. 28)

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Humans: Created to Unite Everything in the Universe

Within reality there are five divisions. The first is between uncreated nature and the created nature that acquires existence through coming into being. Second, the created nature that receives its existence from God is divided into the intelligible and the sensible. Third, within sensible or visible nature there is a division between heaven and earth. Fourth, earth is divided into paradise and the world. Fifth, man is divided into male and female.

Now man is, as it were, a workshop that contains everything in an all-inclusive way; and by virtue of his nature he acts as mediator, endowed with full power to link and unify the extreme points at the five different levels of division, because in the various aspects of his nature he is himself related to all these extremes. It is thus his vocation to make manifest in his person the great mystery of the divine intention–to show how the divided extremes in created things may be reconciled in harmony, the near with the far, the lower with the higher, so that through gradual ascent all are eventually brought into union with God.

That is why man was introduced last of all into the creation, as a natural bond of unity, mediating between all divided things because related to all through the different aspects of his own self, drawing them all to unity within himself, and so uniting them all to God their cause, in whom there is no division.

Through dispassion he transcends the division between male and female. Through the holiness of his life he unites heaven and earth, integrating the visible creation. Then, through his equality with the angels in spiritual knowledge, he unifies the intelligible and the sensible, making all created things into one single creation. Finally, in addition to all this, through love he unites created nature with the uncreated, rendering them one through the state of grace that he has attained. With the fullness of his being he coinheres fully in the fullness of God, becoming everything that God himself is, save for identity of essence.

(St. Maximus the Confessor, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 27)

Christian Spirituality

“Christian spirituality is centered in God; in fact, its very goal is communion with God, which is attainable through the accomplishment of His will. To be what God wants us to be and to do what God want us to do is the sole meaning of our human existence. The fulfillment of the prayer “Thy will be done” is the heart and soul of all spiritual effort and activity.”

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 16)

Pentecost: What It is to Be Human

About 3000 years ago, a man named David, King of Israel, was laying in a field at night, gazing at the stars.  He was awed by how vast the night sky was – more stars than he could count.  Yet, what came to his mind is that God’s love for humans exceeded God’s love for the vast expanse of the heavens.   However awesome the nighttime heavens are, God is more concerned about  humans than the infinite space of the cosmos.  David found the heavens awesome, God apparently finds humans more awesome than the cosmic universe.  Humans, tiny and frail and sinful were still God’s focus and God’s first love.  David sang:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have established; what is a human that You are mindful of him, and mortals that You care for them?

Yet You made him little less than God, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!   (Psalms 8:3-9)

What is a human?

3000 years ago, King David was humans as beings created to know and worship God, and to be crowned by God with glory and honor.  Humans were created to be faithful stewards of God’s creation, to work with God to co-create the world into God’s kingdom.

Humans were created to have continual communion with God.  We were meant to be God’s continual point of contact with all of creation. God was to live in our hearts (Deuteronomy 30:14).  We were created to have this inner spiritual lives – in our hearts (Luke 17:21, Romans 7:22) so that the entire creation would be blessed by God through us.  Humans are awesome to God, for humans were created with a heart large enough to be a home for God to dwell on earth.

It is this inner spiritual life –  the heart which is meant to be heaven – which makes us human, which makes us unique among all God’s creatures, which makes us unique in all the universe.  Our hearts were meant to be a temple for the Holy Spirit.

And because our hearts are capable of being such a vast expanse we often feel an emptiness in our hearts which we try to fill with things other than God.  But it doesn’t work and so our cravings create problems for us as we look in all the wrong places to find something to fill our hearts.   Some fill their hearts with everything or perhaps anything except God – with food, alcohol,  pornography, mindless entertainment, politics, internet debates, voyeuristic news about celebrities.  All those things we can’t seem to get enough of come to displace God in our hearts.  And then we wonder why we are spiritually ill!

If we want the Holy Spirit to abide in our hearts, we have to make room in our hearts for the Holy Spirit.  We have to push out all these other things that compete in our hearts for space.  Sometimes the waste is so deep we need a  shovel to dig out even a little room for God’s Spirit

Our hearts are capable of being a temple for the Holy Spirit, which God readily gives to us.  As we celebrate Pentecost we realize God is offering completely of Himself to us – to abide in our hearts so that we can each make God present in our lives for the good of the entire cosmos.

And in the Acts of the Apostles, which we read for the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11), we see God’s Spirit comes upon the apostles in the forms of fiery tongues. A flame which kindles divine illumination in us – a Light capable of driving out all darkness from our hearts.

Jesus use a vert different image in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost (John 7:37-52, 8:12) – not fire but water.  He speaks about a spring of living water that wells up in the heart.  This is flowing water, moving with vigor and vitality bringing life and power to all it touches.  Christ’s imagery brings to mind a passage from the Holy Prophet Ezekiel:

Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate, that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side. Going on eastward with a line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the loins. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other.  . . .   And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”    (Ezekiel 47:1-12)

For Ezekiel, the spiritual water to which Christ refers begins flowing at the altar and flows out of the temple and away from the temple.  And the further Ezekiel gets away from the temple, the deeper the waters become.  And for us there is an image of the Holy Spirit moving through time and space, away from the original outpouring at Pentecost.   Low and behold the outpouring gets greater, deeper the further we move away from the temple and that original pouring forth of the Holy Spirit.

Almost  in every generation leaders have complained that things are worse now than in previous generations.  You can see that in almost every century Christians write that the earlier  Christians in previous centuries were more devout and faithful.  Yet the Church continues to grow, and Ezekiel’s vision is that instead of the water trickling down to nothing, it is getting ever deeper.  And these deep waters of the outpouring of God’s Spirit are giving life up and down the banks of the river.   Things aren’t getting worse – they are changing without a doubt, but the spiritual spring flowing from Christ is increasing not decreasing.

And it is we Christians who have to make our hearts capable of bearing this outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that we can bring the divine life to all of creation.  We have a God-given role to fill in creation – we have a God-given obligation to fulfill our role.  The entire creation, not only all of the people of the world, but the entire created world and cosmos are waiting on us to make it possible for them to participate in God.

Praying in the Spirit

“The Holy Spirit exists and dwells in those who receive Him, and He does so to such an excellent extent and with such transforming power, that “such a person no longer lives according to the flesh, but is led by the Spirit of God. He is called a son of God, because he is conformed to the image of the Son of God; we call him a spiritual man.

This is an extraordinary statement. It means that the Holy Spirit, received initially through baptism and chrismation, actually transforms our very being, our “essence” or “form,” to the point that we are “conformed to the image” of Christ. We become “spiritual beings,” oriented and directed no longer according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, who is God Himself.

At the close of this same chapter, St. Basil alludes to a passage from the apostle Paul: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Basil concludes, “If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot be separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you.”

This means first of all that authentic worship is possible only through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Yet beyond that, it implies that true prayer is not a human endeavor at all. It is the work of God within us. In prayer, God speaks to God; the Spirit addresses the Father within the temple of the heart. Through that divine work, the Spirit illumines for us and within us the “Face,” the image and glory of the Son. Bated in the radiant light of that divine Image, we recognize Christ for who He is: we behold Him as Lord and Savior, the Crucified and Risen One. And that Image in turn reveals to us the Face of the Father.”   (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 171)

Send Your Spirit That We May Know Your Love

O Lord, Thou dost love Thy creature;

and who can fathom Thy love, or delight in it,

if he be not taught of Thee Thyself

by Thy Holy Spirit?

I pray Thee, O Lord, send down on Thy peoples

the grace of the Holy Spirit, that they may know Thy love.

Warm their sorrowing hearts, that

forgetful of the afflictions of this earth

they may glorify Thee in joy.

O gracious Comforter, weeping I beseech Thee,

Comfort the afflicted hearts of Thy peoples.

Let the nations hear the sweet sound of Thy voice

Saying unto them, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Yea, O Lord, it is in Thy power to perform miracles,

and there is no greater miracle.

than to love the sinner in his fall.

A saint is easy to love: he is worthy of love.

Yea, Lord, hearken to our prayer.

All the peoples of the world suffer in distress.

All are cast down by sin.

All are bereft of Thy grace, and live in darkness.

(Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 345-346)

God Contains the Sea

Earth as seen on July 6, 2015 from a distance of one million miles by a NASA scientific camera

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.   (Genesis 1:9-10)

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.  (Psalms 33:6-7)


I placed the sand as the bound for the sea, a perpetual barrier which it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it.   (Jeremiah 5:22)

“Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?   (Job 38:8-11)


You have made heaven and earth with all their adornment. You have bound the sea with Your word of command.    (Prayer of Manessah)

Is Being Good Enough?

Jesus never taught us “Be good.”  He never said those words.

He taught us to love one another.

He taught us to to serve one another.

He taught us to forgive one another.

He taught us to humble ourselves.

He taught us to do as He did and wash each other’s feet.

He taught us to see our own sins and not to judge others.

He taught us to sin no more.

He taught us to see God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

He taught us the way to the kingdom of Heaven.

He taught us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow Him.

He taught us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect –  in other words – He told us to be like God.

He never said, “Be good” but He did want us to see God, to become God’s people, to participate in the Divine Life which He shares with us.   As St. Athanasius would sum up the Gospel commandments:  “God became man in Christ so that we humans might become divine.

Christ did not come to be the Chief of the Moral Police.  He came to unite us to heaven.  He came so that we could participate in the Divine Life shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  He came to show us how to love like God so that we would imitate God in our love for one another.  When we reduce Christ to some kind of moral detective or prosecuting attorney, we dishonor Him.  Jesus Christ is God.  God is love.  Jesus is love incarnate.  He offers to share the divine life with us, to restore all that humanity and creation has lost due to human sinfulness.

In the Desert Fathers we encounter stories showing how these early Christians imagined imitating Christ by following the Gospel commandments.  Sometimes the stories are quite counter intuitive and they do challenge our modern sensibilities.  Here are two such stories for us to ponder as we discern how to follow Christ in our lives.  Keep in mind these are lessons from people who were both maximalistic and idealistic in their beliefs about what it means to take the Gospel seriously.   They saw the Gospel commandments as what guides life in heaven – yet they were  attempting to live them in this world of the Fall.

1}

A monk asked a Spiritual Elder: “If I see my brother living in sin, should I despise him?”

The Elder replied: If we cover over the fault of our brother, God will cover over our sins too.  But if we reveal our brother’s sins to others, God will expose our sins to others also.”

2}

There was a very spiritual monk named Timothy and all the monks in the monastery admired him. One time one of the monks fell into temptation.  The Abbot came to Timothy to ask his advice on what to do.  “What shall I do with our fallen brother?”

Timothy replied:  “Expel him from the monastery.”  So the Abbot expelled him from the community.

That same day the same temptation fell on the holy Timothy, and he spent the entire night crying and weeping, saying: “I have sinned, O Lord, have mercy on me.”  And  “I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me.”

At dawn, God spoke to Timothy and said: “Timothy, this happened to you because you sinned against your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

Our task as Christians is not to be the moral police of those around us.   Our duty is to rid ourselves of all blindness so that we can first see our own sins and repent.  Then we will see clearly God’s Kingdom and walk the way of the Cross to get there, inviting neighbor, family, friend and enemy to join us on the way.

[Having had to deal with sexual abuse in the Church, I will add that the above thought applies to many of our interactions with people.  However there are cases which require extra wisdom, courage and love to discern.  We are not to be foolishly blind to evil, nor are we to ignore or enable sexual predators or abusive leaders – we have a duty to love and protect those who are vulnerable from those who would sin against them or lead them into sin.  And we have to figure out how to love the sinner as well.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t give us a pass from having to deal with evil or  complex problems.]

The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)