Fasting Reveals Priorities


They used to talk about a certain old man who fasted for seventy weeks [nearly a year and a half!], and who only ate each Saturday.  He asked God that a word from the Bible might be given to him, but it was not.  Then he said within himself, “Behold, I have labored in all these things, and have omitted nothing.  Now I will arise and go to my brother and question him about it.”   He no sooner left his cell and shut the door, then an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said: “The seventy weeks in which you fasted have not come near God, but inasmuch as you humbled yourself to seek help from your brother, I have been sent to make known to you a word, and to give your soul rest. ”  Immediately, the angel made known the word to him which gave him rest, and then the angel departed.   (adapted from THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS Vol II, p 110)


Faith and Unbelief

In the Gospel lesson found in Mark 9:17-31, we find the following exchange between a distraught dad whose hopes had been crushed by the Twelve Apostles’ inability to heal his epileptic son and with the Lord Jesus who sees the dad’s hope and heart falling:

And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 

The dialogue touches on the issue of faith and how for humans it is often difficult to maintain one’s beliefs.  Sometimes one’s heart or mind falls out of belief.  David Bentley Hart reflecting on our lapses in faith says he thinks it is rare that someone totally rejects God.  More likely, Hart argues, we always have only an imperfect knowledge of God.  Often what we disbelieve in is this ‘God’ of whom at best we know only imperfectly.  Since God is not only immanent but also transcendent, there is always more to God than we can ever know.  Thus, argues Hart, we can never fully and perfectly disbelieve in God because most often the ‘God’ we reject is an imperfect understanding of God to begin with.  We often are rejecting ideas about God which in fact are not correct.  Hart writes:

“You can reject a glass of wine absolutely; you can even reject evil in its (insubstantial) totality without any remainder of intentionality. Neither of these things possesses more than a finite allure in itself. But you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity. We cannot choose between him and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approaches to his transcendence.”  (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved.  Kindle Location 2562-2565)

God’s transcendence means there is always some mystery to God which we cannot grasp.  What we choose between is ways to approach God, some of which are better than others.  But this means even when we come to a point of unbelief, this is still because we ourselves are limited beings and cannot fully comprehend the divine.  So we end up rejecting aspects of divinity but never do we fully understand God, so we can never completely reject God.

The dad whose faith was imperfect, was not experiencing totally failure in faith, but rather was coming to terms with those aspects of God which are beyond his knowledge and wisdom.  He is coming to terms with his own imperfection, not with the failure of God.  And, whatever were the shortcomings in this dad’s understanding of God, Christ heals his son anyway.  Christ opens the Kingdom not to those who have perfect faith, but to all who love even if their faith is imperfect.

Climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent

A ladder stretching from earth to heaven – a ladder of divine ascent – is a popular image and metaphor in Orthodox spiritual writings.  Monks in particular liked the image as describing their own struggles on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.  One has to exert one’s self to make it up the ladder, and climbing the ladder presents us with many risks for falling off the ladder back down to the depth.  St John Climacus wrote an entire book describing the spiritual life as ascending the ladder, and we remember that book each Great Lent as we consider our own spiritual sojourn as ascending this ladder to heaven.

The idea of such a ladder was popular even among pagan religions at the time of Jesus.  The ladder was seen as a fair model of how the spiritual life worked.  Even Jesus dealt with this ladder in the incarnation in which He participated in the same reality we all find on earth.

Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar describes the paradigm of the ladder as a way to connect heaven and earth needed because for many there was no connection or path between them.  He says the ladder imagery is an …

“… attempt to bridge the gap between God and world by means of ’emenations,’ ‘spheres,’ stages and rungs on which the soul in need o salvation tries to climb up to heaven.  –  Belonging consequently to this group is also the idea that the Logos incarnated himself on all these stages and rungs so that he, just as he was human to humans, was also angel to angels; and consequently, the soul which climbs on these rungs to the Father becomes a living ladder to heaven, a cosmic ‘true way.’ (SPIRIT AND FIRE, p 7)

As Balthasar describes the idea, each person who successfully makes the sojourn to the top of the ladder becomes himself or herself a living ladder to heaven which others can imitate or even take.  This brings the spiritual life into the realm of being our personal effort – asceticism.

Jesus describes Himself as:  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me”  (John 14:6).   Jesus is our way to the Kingdom; He alone is our ladder to heaven.  As Jesus said:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51).  Jesus opened Paradise to us all.  We still have to decide to make the climb – to work out our salvation.  

We begin this uphill sojourn when we are baptized into Christ – we become one with Christ in baptism.  We are united to Jesus the Ladder.  We don’t have to use all of our energies to climb this ladder.  We only have to humbly submit ourselves to Christ and we become one with Him.  We become the ladder in Christ and reach far into our heavenly homeland.

Listen to the words of our Savior:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Christ does not set before us Mt. Everest and say, “Good luck in getting to the top – not many will make it.”  He doesn’t place as a roadblock some impossible challenge so that He can enjoy watching us fail.  In Him, we find rest – the way to the Kingdom is found by uniting our self to Him.  He takes on our burdens, carrying them on the cross, so that in Him we can enter the Kingdom.  Each of us does not need to worry that “I don’t have the strength, purity, will, energy” to get up the ladder into the Kingdom of Heaven.  You don’t need it.  Humble yourself and unite yourself to Christ – for He opens the door to Paradise for you.   It turns out that the ladder is not the way to Christ, for Christ is the ladder.  United to Him, we are instantly brought from death to life and from earth to heaven.  Following Christ is not the beginning of our spiritual problems and struggles.  Rather, in Christ we attain “the hopes and fears of all the years.

This is the Spring Day Which the Lord has Made

 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.  (Isaiah 61:11)


In the midst of the coronavirus and all those worries, the world continues to turn.  Spring has come.  Life is renewed and hope for the future is reinvigorated.   In this post, just to help us renew faith in the Creator, I share a few photos of the spring.  One can see life going on, even in the face of challenges or threats.  There is hope.


Fourth Century church historian Eusebius writes that the season of spring was the first season of God’s creation:

‘This time was that very one which appeared at the moment of the first creation of the world, when the earth brought forth shoots, and the stars appeared; it is at this time that the lord of the whole world celebrated the mystery of His own feast and, like a great star, appeared to light up the whole world with the rays of religion and thus to bring back the anniversary of the cosmos.’


For Eusebius, just as creation originally came into existence in the spring of the year, so too salvation and the resurrection are appropriate to the spring.  The spring is thus the sign of both creation and the new creation of salvation.  As Eusebius puts it, each spring we celebrate the anniversary of God creating the world.  For him, spring is a metaphor both for the original creation and the salvation which is given us in the new creation.  Every spring we celebrate life and eternal life too!

“All these things find their fulfillment in the feast of salvation.  It is He, the Christ, Who was the Lamb whose Body was stretched out.  But it was he also, the sun of Justice, whose divine springtime and salvation-bearing change caused the life of men to pass from evil to good.  The spirits who cause the peoples to go astray have ceased to be active with the evils of winter, and the abundance of new fruits crowns the Church with the charisms of the Holy Spirit.  The fields which were cultivated by the Word with spiritual cultivation bear the lovely flowers of holiness and, freed from the scourge of darkness, we are made worthy of the light of the knowledge of the Day of the Lord.”


Fifth Century Bishop Cyril of Alexandria picks up the theme of spring:

‘The threats of winter have ceased, the winds of spring are blowing, the fields are covered with flowers, the trees bear their fruits.  it is not without cause that the Law commanded us to observe the months of first-fruits.  For human nature must rival the flowering fields and be seen, as it were, covered with the flowers of virtue.’


Cyril also says:

‘But what is more wonderful than all this is that, together with the green things and the flowers, that nature is also renewed who rules over everything on earth.  I mean man.  Indeed, the season of spring brings us the Resurrection of the Lord by which all are refashioned in newness of life, having escaped from the strange corruption of death.’

(Louis Bouyer, THE BIBLE AND THE LITURGY, pp 289-292)


If you would like to see other photos I took on this spring day, go to my Flickr page at Spring Flowers 2020 .


Abraham: A Model Human Believer

‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”   (Matthew 22:32)

Thus Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham.  (Galatians 3:6-7)

 For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham.  (Hebrews 2:16)

During Great Lent, in the Orthodox Church, part of the assigned Scripture readings are taken from the book of Genesis.  In the Lenten lectionary we are now beginning to read about the Patriarch Abraham, who is considered to be the father of all believers.

“For Jews in Paul’s day, Abraham filled a variety of roles.  He is seen as the founder of monotheism, as well as the paradigm of virtue and meritorious obedience, especially in the offering of Isaac… He was the father of all Jews, the first to be circumcised and thus the first member of the covenant people.  Some believed he obeyed the Law even before Moses gave it.  And some saw him not only as the father of the Jewish people but as the paradigmatic proselyte (convert). . . .   

For Paul Abraham is a hybrid.  He is still ‘our’ [Jewish] ancestor according to the flesh’ (Romans 4:1), but he is clearly not restricted to that role.  Paul claims Abraham is ‘the father of all of us’ (4:16), meaning Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ.  Abraham is a paradigmatic justified Gentile (like a proselyte) inasmuch as he was justified without either the Law or circumcision, but he is also a paradigmatic justified Jew inasmuch as he was justified not by the Law but by faith (4:9-17a).  Paul even implied that Abraham was ungodly, since God justifies the ungodly (4:5; cf 1:18).  Thus Paul reads Abraham’s story as the story of a sinner, a Gentile, a Jew, and a ‘Christian’ – a justified believer.  Abraham is Paul’s everyman.   . . .   

The next part of the chapter (4:9-15) establishes Abraham’s justification prior to his circumcision and without the Law of Moses.  Circumcision was not a prerequisite for justification but a sequel to it, serving as a seal (4:10-11).  The promise to Abraham came, moreover, before the Law (4:13-15).  All of this means, Paul claims, that Abraham was intended all along to be the father of both Jewish and Gentile believers (4:11, 13).  . . .   for Paul, looking to Abraham, faith is trust in God and the promises of God, particularly in God as the one who ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (4:17b).  Thus faith is forward-looking – eschatological in orientation, centered on resurrection – and therefore virtually synonymous with hope.  . . .  What Abraham found (NRSV ‘gained’, 4:1), then, was in essence the reality revealed in Paul’s gospel: race, faith, and justification apart from circumcision and Law; he encountered the God who raises the dead.  Without ever denying Abraham’s Jewishness, Paul universalizes him.  That is why the justified are defined as those who ‘share the faith of Abraham‘ (4:16).  But Paul claims that this universalizing is not original to him: according to Genesis, he reminds us, the covenant with Abraham was for him to be the ‘father of many nations‘ (4:17)”   (Michael Gorman, APOSTLE OF THE CRUCIFIED LORD, pp 360-362)

“…Paul regards Abraham as a representative figure whose destiny ‘contains’ the destiny of others; the blessing pronounced upon him applies not only to him but to his ‘seed’ as well (Rom 4:13).  Therefore, the fact that Abraham was ‘reckoned righteous‘ while still uncircumcised has symbolic significance: he can thereby be the ‘father’ of Gentiles as well as Jews.  .  .  . . Even more important than Abraham’s faith is God’s faithfulness. .   .  .  .  Paul has developed this interpretation of Abraham in Rom 4:1-22 directly through exegesis of Scripture, without any appeal to the language of Christian confession; this rendering of Abraham intends to be and is a Jewish theological interpretation of the significance of Abraham.”      (Richard Hays, THE CONVERSION OF THE IMAGINATION, pp 76, 78)

Babel: An Evil Peace?

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”


And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.  (Genesis 11:1-9)


“Man out of his need for unity sought to ‘make a name‘ for himself, lest he be ‘scattered abroad.’  This false unity from below sought to build its tower, sought to find its place in heaven as its own god.  Therefore God divides this false unity!  In the words of John Chrysostom, God made an end to ‘their evil peace’ by creating among them ‘good dispute.’  If the people ‘meant to reach the heights of heaven,’ then God was forced to divide their language so that this false unity would not destroy man altogether.  For as this fallen unity no longer found its moving principle in  God and became a ‘god-in-itself,’ it did not in fact bring unity, it brought division, and with it death.”  (Daniel Fanous, TAUGHT BY GOD, p 127)

23977733249_1d881d6e9b_nChrysostom like many of the Patristic writers tended to think the one non-negotiable truth about God is that God is love.  They tended to read the Scriptures through the lens that God is love.  Contrast that with the common idea today among many Christians that God is is an angry judge eager to condemn sinners to hell.  For Chrysostom, the narrative of the Tower of Babel is God once again saving people from themselves.  The people of earth at the time of Babel no longer recognized God as Lord and thought of themselves as being God.   God prevents the people from taking their atheistic idea to the extreme.  God sends the  many languages on humans to prevent them from cooperating in sin.   So though God sees the people of Babel as being in unity (of one mind) and being at peace with one another, they are using this peace to attempt to overthrow God as Lord.  God prevents this from being accomplished in order to prevent humanity from totally rejecting God.  God is always lovingly nudging us back into His flock.  For Chrysostom, the Babel story is another tale about God’s love for humanity and effort to guide us to His Kingdom.

Annunciation (2020)


Eve believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel.  The fault that Eve introduced by believing, Mary, by believing, erased.  But [one might object] at the devil’s word, Eve did not conceive in her womb.  To the contrary, she did conceive, for from that moment the word of the devil became in her a seed by which she conceived as an outcast and gave birth in sorrow.  Finally she gave birth to a fratricidal devil [Cain].  Mary, on the other hand, bore him who would one day bring salvation to Israel, his brother in the flesh and his executioner.  God, then, sent his Word into [Mary’s] womb, so that he, the good Brother, might erase his wicked brother’s record. ”  (Tertullian, MARY AND THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH, p 66)


Many Church Fathers saw multiple parallels between both Adam and Christ as well as Eve and Mary.  Most often they saw Christ and Mary as undoing the effects of the ancestral sin of Eve and Adam.  In the quote above, Tertullian (d. ca 220AD), points out yet another parallel – Eve after believing the devil gave birth to Cain who murders his brother.  Eve thus gives birth to one who causes death.  Mary on the other side of this gives birth to the one who overcomes death and gives us eternal life.  For Tertullian, “Israel” the nation can also be considered to be the brother who will murder Jesus.  Thus Mary in giving birth to Christ undoes all that was introduced into humanity by the sin of Adam and Eve by reversing the process.  The One born of Mary will be murdered just like Abel was, but He will rise from the dead, shattering the power of death and re-opening Paradise to the human race.

The Blessedness of Mary

“‘Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favor with (mercy from) God‘ (Luke 1:30).   Fear not, my child!  Fear not, thou grace-filled daughter of God!  Fear not, thou most blessed of all mortals, for the blessing of God will come down through thee onto the whole human race!    Fear not, for thou hast found mercy from God!   These last words refute the claims  of some western theologians concerning the ‘immaculate conception’; i.e. that the Virgin Mary was born of her parents without a shadow of the sin of Adam or of responsibility for that sin.  Had this been so, why would the angel have said that she had found mercy from God?  God’s mercy, which contains the notion of forgiveness, is found by him to whom mercy is needful, and by him who seeks it.  The most pure Virgin had made heroic efforts to lift up her soul to God and had, on the path of that uplifting, been met by God’s mercy.

(St Andrew of Crete, musing by God’s inspiration on the mission of the great Archangel, gives this commentary on the Annunciation to the most holy Virgin:  ‘Fear not, Mary, for thou has found favor with God, favor that Sarah did not receive, nor Rebecca feel; thou hast found favor that even the great Hannah was not worthy of, nor Peninnah her rival.  Although they became mothers, they lost their virginity; but thou, in becoming a mother, didst preserve thy virginity intact.  So fear not, for thou hast found favor with God – favor that none but thee hast found since time  began!'”  (St Nikolai Velimirovich, HOMILIES Vol 1, p 8)

Virtue and Virus


In any series of human events there are always winners and losers.  The vicissitudes of life bring about prosperity for some and poverty for others.  For example war, which is by nature very destructive, does bring prosperity to certain segments of a population, like manufacturers.  When governments change laws some benefit and some do not.  Elections, it turns out, don’t only determine which political power “wins” but also creates a massive collection of beneficiaries on the coattails of the victorious political party.  Generally, even if a policy benefits the majority of citizens, still there will be some who either don’t benefit or are even ‘hurt’ by the newly adopted regulations.

“Society” often attempts to hold all its various populations together, but by nature it does determine who are the beneficiaries of that society or within the society.  And, in society, not only are beneficiaries being determined, but also who bears the cost of the adopted policies is determined.  The distribution of benefits and costs may be fairly distributed across the society, but still some will benefit more and some will have to bear more of the costs.


Such is also our case with the coronavirus and our society’s efforts to deal with the spreading contagion.  Because certain products are in great demand right now, those parts of our society which manufacture or distribute the needed products will find the crisis a boon, even if overall the situation is undesirable.   But also, unfortunately, some parts of our society are going to unfairly bear the burden and costs of the policies that are adopted.  This unfair distribution of costs and benefits really can’t be avoided – choices have to be made in an imperfect world.  But the effects can be mitigated if we see ourselves not as competing individuals, but rather as parts of the whole.  We can choose to all bear some of the costs of some businesses having to close and some having to lose their jobs – we can choose to spread more widely (wisely!) the costs throughout society.   Just as by adopting policies to slow the spread of the disease over a longer period of time (so that we can better cope with it rather than being swamped by an uncontrolled tsunami), so too we can choose to see ourselves as all in this together and agree to share the costs of the policies we need to adopt.  We can extend help to those whose jobs have been (temporarily) terminated.  We can work to make sure that we all are able to get through this unprecedented and disastrous time.   Those who are alright now or who are benefiting from current policy can choose to help those who are more directly bearing the costs of our decisions.  Rather than breathe a sigh of relief if I’m not negatively affected by decisions, I can choose to support those who are hurt by the decisions which have to be made.


In Christian terms, we would consider this love.  When plague and disaster struck the ancient world, the pagans were impressed at how the Christians loved one another and cared for the sick and the unfortunate.  Christians did not abandon their compatriots but stayed to love and care for one another.  We can imitate them today.  Our society today and in the future will all benefit if we can see ourselves as humans in this together – as having a responsibility to share the burden.   Let us love one another.  We won’t all be spared the pain or loss which this pandemic causes, but we can make an effort to bear the burden together.


As our politicians debate what policy to adopt (deciding the winners and losers), we do need to pray for their guidance.  The choices they face are shaped by the limited resources available to them and us.  Not every need can be met – there are no perfect solutions to this massive problem.  What is more helpful to get us through the crisis – to give financial support to employers so they can keep businesses open or able to restart as soon as the pandemic allows OR to give money directly to workers so they can immediately survive?   Both scenarios are real, each has its own pluses and each its own minuses.  People need to survive financially in the short term and need help now.  But if businesses can’t stay open or aren’t there to reopen when the crisis  is past, then all that happened is the problem was kicked down the road.  Any decision made has winners and losers – and they can be different short and long term.  This is why we need divine wisdom at this point to help in our decision making, but also to empower us to share the burden whatever decision we make.


I don’t believe there is only one possible correct solution to our crisis.  The politicians are tasked with forming policy for the general welfare.  So, pray that our elected leaders are actually open to considering all solutions and that they do choose ones that are helping us get through and beyond the crisis.  The politicians need to debate and compromise now to distribute benefits and costs as best as possible.  They will get some of it right and some of it wrong because that is the nature of human wisdom and politics.  We will have to continue to work together through it all.   No doubt we will continue to debate decisions for many months to come.  While we cannot help everyone perfectly, each of us can help someone – friend, neighbor, family, stranger, fellow human being.

Noah and the Unexpected Wine

Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent.  (Genesis 9:20-21)

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.   (Genesis 6:9)


St Basil the Great comments:

“But it is Noah who provides proof that here was not experience of wine, for he did not know how to consume it.  After all, the consumption of wine had still not been introduced to the human lifestyle, nor had it become the custom of people.  So then, because Noah had neither seen another consuming wine, nor experienced it himself, he drank of it without due precaution and succumbed to the harm it inflicted.  ‘For Noah planted a vineyard, and drank of the wine, and became drunk‘  – not because he was a drunkard, but because he did not know how to partake of it moderately.  And so, the invention of drinking wine is more recent than paradise, and thus the dignity of fasting is ancient.” (ON FASTING AND FEASTS, p 59)


At least for St Basil, fasting, abstinence and self-denial were part of the life in Paradise and so are older practices than the self-indulgent and excessive behaviors we see in this world.  Adam practiced sobriety in Paradise but became intoxicated in and by the Fallen world.  Like several Patristic writers, Basil does not think Noah was a drunkard – he did not knowingly get himself drunk.  Noah’s problem is innocence – he does not know the effects of alcohol when he first drinks and the result is a drunken stupor.  Basil doesn’t fault Noah for this since Noah could not have known what the results of alcohol could be.  He learned by experience.  He also shows our behavior has consequences whether they are intended or not.  That is why spiritual vigilance is required of us all.