Vicious Gossip vs. The Vivifying Gospel

Jesus said:  A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  (John 13:34)

Anyone who has worked to love another, knows how much energy this requires.  It is easy for us to say that we love someone, but life shows us how much love can demand from us.  Spouses realize over a lifetime of marriage that love requires a great deal from them – demands things they never imagined would be required if you truly desire to love someone.  Parents bring their children into the world, and desire to love them, but again learn that love demands much of us in ways we cannot even imagine.   Just on a daily level, even when things are going well in our family, we realize that loving, forgiving, apologizing, overlooking faults, dealing with personalities drains a lot of energy, and yet this is what love requires.

Wrestling with love occurs in our lives as Christians as well.  Desiring to be a Christian while living in the world tests the limits of our love.  This was also the experience of monks who left everything to follow Christ.  It is easy to imagine that going to a monastery – where one naively believes “everyone is committed to Christ and Christ’s love just like I am” – will be the perfect world to work out one’s salvation.  But in the monastery too, love puts its demands on us – to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ.

The elders were keenly aware, from their own personal experience, of the high cost of fulfilling the commandment to love. Their reading of Scripture served to confirm this sense and to encourage them to risk loving even under extreme circumstances. It is startling, as we listen to the monks talk about the requirements of love, how literally they took the words of Scripture. Poemen’s interpretation of one Gospel text illustrates well the particular kind of demands love made upon the monks in their life in the desert, and how their reading of Scripture helped them to respond to these demands.

Abba Poemen saw the text, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) as referring to just such a situation: “If someone hears an evil saying, that is, one which harms him, and in his turn, he wants to repeat it, he must fight in order not to say it. Or if someone is taken advantage of and he bears it, without retaliating at all, there he is giving his life for his neighbour.” Fulfilling the commandment, then, entailed having the courage to love in circumstances where one’s natural response would lead one in precisely the opposite direction.  (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 264-265)

 

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2017 Nativity of Christ (PDF)

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I have gathered all of the 2017 posts from my Blog related to the Nativity Fast and the Feast of the Nativity of Christ into one PDF, which is now available at 2017 Nativity Posts (PDF).

Each year I gather related posts into a PDF  for the Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes.   You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

The Blessing of Wind

In January, we bless water in the Church as part of our celebration of the Theophany of the Lord.   All of creation was given to us by God to be a blessing for us.  We acknowledge those blessings in the many & varied prayer services of the ChurchSt. John Chrysostom  reminds us that the wind is also a blessing from God.

“Truly the winds are also for you–for we are going back again to the beginning of our discourse–to fan worn-out bodies, to purge away the defilement from mud and the heaviness caused by smoke and furnaces and other exhalations,

to attenuate the heat of the sun’s rays, to relieve the stifling heat, to make seeds grow, to strengthen plants, to travel together with you at sea and to be servants of agriculture for you on land–in the first place, conveying ships more swiftly than arrows and making the voyage easy and convenient,

and in the second place, clearing off the threshing floor with you, separating the chaff from the grain, and lightening the hardship of the work–to make the air light and gentle for you, to give you delight in different ways–first whistling pleasantly and gently, and then softly striking the plants and shaking the leaves of the trees–to make your sleep in spring and in summer more pleasant and more delightful than honey.

They also act on the surface of the sea and on the waters of the rivers, and lift up their surface in the same way as with the trees, thus providing you with a great deal of enjoyment from seeing it and, more importantly, also rendering you a great service.

And in fact, the winds are useful to waters in another way: not allowing them to stagnate and go bad, but rather, continually setting them in motion and stirring them up, rendering them fresh and at their best and more suitable as sustenance for creatures that swim in them.” 

(On the Providence of God, pp. 65-66)

Theophany: Jesus Cleanses the Jordan

“…our Lord Jesus Christ, who for all of us and for our salvation…” (common phrase in the festal prayers of the Church)

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“…each thing that Jesus accomplished, no matter how apparently insignificant, had salvific effects. “Everything that Jesus does,” writes Jerome in his explanation of why the Gospel of Mark found it necessary to record the detail that Jesus rode on an ass when he entered Jerusalem, “is a sacrament. He is our salvation. For if the Apostle tells us, ‘Whether you eat or drink or whatever else you do, do all things in the name of the Lord’ [1 Corinthians 10:31], are not these much more our sacraments, when the Savior walks or eats or sleeps?”

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As the Gospels themselves indicate, the dynamism or radiant energy possessed by Christ extended also to his clothing, which Hilary comments on apropos of the story of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood in Matthew 9:20-22: “The power abiding in his body added a health-giving quality to perishable things, and a divine efficacy even went as far as the fringes of his garments. For God was not divisible and able to be contained, as if he could be shut up in a body.” A striking instance of the energy that radiated from Christ, finally, is associated with his baptism in the Jordan River.

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Jesus’ mere physical contact with the Jordan was enough to cleanse it and, along with it, all the waters of the earth, so as to make them suitable in turn for cleansing those who would be baptized. We find this idea as early as the beginning of the second century in Ignatius of Antioch and frequently thereafter.”   (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 83-84)

 

God’s Plan and the Need for Women

One thing from the Christmas Gospel narrative caught my attention this year:  God values Mary as much as the Father values His Son.   Here is the Gospel Lesson,  Matthew 2:13-23 (with my emphasis added to the text) –

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” 

God wills and wishes to protect and save not only His Son, the Christ child, but also the Child’s mother, Mary.  God did not just need Mary for her womb.  God does not discard Mary after she gives birth to Jesus.  God values Mary as a person.  He didn’t just use Mary to accomplish His will, He loves and cares for her.  God orders Joseph to protect and care for not only Jesus but also Mary, the mother of Jesus. God repeats this in the Gospel lesson perhaps because God knew all too well that for some men, women’s lives don’t matter.   God knew Joseph had already contemplated divorcing marry quietly so God keeps reminding Joseph that Mary is as important for salvation as is Jesus.

The Gospel story as we well know was written in a very male dominated society.  Once Mary served God’s purpose and gave birth to the child, God and Joseph could easily have dispensed with her.  Joseph had been told in a dream that the child conceived in Mary was of God, and of value to God.  Joseph could have disposed of her and attempted to use the child for his own gain both with God and with the Jewish nation.   Or he could have tried to take the child himself to curry God’s favor. But he doesn’t.  He protects both Jesus and Mary.   Joseph apparently can see that Mary is just as important to the Lord as is His Holy Child.

God works salvation – the union of God and humanity, of divinity and creation, in Mary’s womb.  But God values Mary and sees females as an essential part of His plan for salvation.   Women are essential to salvation history.  The salvation of us all is dependent on a woman, Mary, but also on all women because they give birth to us all.  Women add something to salvation and make the salvation that God wants to accomplish possible.  Our salvation in Christ was not possible without women.  Salvation could not have begun without a woman, Mary, to be the mother of God (nor for that matter without all of the ancestral woman who gave birth to the forefathers of Christ).  In Mary the healing of all humanity begins when God unites Himself to humanity in the incarnation in Mary’s womb.

For the Church this means that women are equally valuable to men in bringing salvation to more people and to new generations.  The Church itself needs to recognize the role of women in the life of the Church, and the importance of all women, not just mothers, for bringing the Gospel of salvation to all the world.

St Paul in his evangelical enthusiasm writes:  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).   One thing he didn’t become was a woman.   And St. Paul could not by himself bring salvation to all people.  That is the purpose of the Church as the Body of Christ.  WE are to become all things to all people so that by all means some are saved.  We, the Church, need women in ministry to fulfill our task of taking the Gospel to all nations and all peoples.

Mary’s role in the Church, in the history of salvation, did not end with her giving birth to Jesus Christ.  Her role continued in the life of the Church, and God willed her to be protected so that her entire life could be ministry for the life of the world.  All of us, men and women, are to imitate her to bear Christ in our lives so that God’s plan for salvation can be proclaimed to every man, woman or child who exists or will ever exist.

The Virtue of a New Year

As we have made it through one complete week of the New Year, we can consider our spiritual renewal – whether or not we made New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and commitment.    Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We Orthodox engage in evaluating our lives in the sacrament of confession, in our daily examination of conscience, in meditating upon the Scriptures and spiritual writings, in our liturgical services, in our talks with our Father confessors and with our fellow Christians.

Here is a meditation from St. Francis of Assisi  on how virtue drives out vice.  We might use this to combat both sins of commission and sins of omission.  

“Where there is charity and wisdom

There is neither fear nor ignorance.

Where there is patience and humility,

There is neither anger nor disturbance.

Where there is poverty with joy,

There is neither covetousness nor avarice.

Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk 11:21),

There the enemy cannot gain entry.

Where there is mercy and discernment,

There is neither excess nor hardness of heart.”

(Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, p. 35)

St. John the Forerunner

“Divine Matthew describes the Baptism in Jordan in this way: Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad Him, saying: “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” John recognizes Christ, but does not know of His plan of salvation.

There now unfolds a scene unique in human history: God competing in humility with man! John was baptizing sinners to repentance. However, the Sinless One, who had nothing of which to repent, came up to him and demanded baptism of him. John, stronger in spiritual power than all the sinful men around him, suddenly recognized in Christ One mightier than himself.”   (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 78)

Theophany 2018

St. Ephrem the Syrian composed the following poetry as he reflected on the meaning of the Feast of Theophany.  He focuses on part of the prayer of the Feast for the Blessing of Water in which we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon the water and be present in it just as the Spirit was present at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.

The Spirit descended from the heights

and sanctified the water as She hovered.

When John baptized Jesus

She left all others and settled on one,

but now She has come down and settled

upon all who are reborn in water of baptism.

 

Of all those that John baptized

the Spirit dwelt on one alone,

but now She has flown down

to dwell upon many.

Rushing to meet the Foremost who went up first from the Jordan,

She embraced him and dwelt upon Him.

It is a wonder that the Purifier of all

should have gone down to the water to be baptized.

The seas declared that river blessed,

in which You, Lord, were baptized.

The waters, too, that are above the heavens

were envious that they had not been held worthy to wash You.

Thus we pray to make the water that of Jordan.

It is a wonder, Lord, now as well

that, though the springs are full of water,

only the baptismal font

can wash clean:

the seas may be mighty with all their water,

but they have not the power to wash.

(“Hymns on Epiphany,” Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 249-250)

The River Jordan Meets Its Creator

The River Jordan in the scriptures plays a mystical role in the history of Israel.  It is a boundary which Israel must cross over to reach their physical and spiritual destination.  For example, in Joshua 3-5, Israel coming to the end of its 40 year desert sojourn comes against this boundary which it crosses only with God miraculously parting the waters.  There are many lessons for Israel to learn at the Jordan:  1) Israel must pass through this particular way and no other – it is how they will know they are on the right path (3:4).  Every single one of God’s people has to pass through the Jordan (3:17).  2)  God is with Joshua (3:7).  3)  That they might hear God’s voice (3:9).  4)  That they may know God is there with them – in their midst (3:10).  5)  God Himself will rest in the River Jordan and its waters will stop their normal and natural flowing 3:13).  6)  The experience of the Israelites at Jordan was to be a witness to all the world about God (4:24).  The event was not for Israel’s benefit alone.  7) This was not only a total covenant renewal for all of Israel but a regeneration of Israel, a new birth (5:6-7).

These lessons are paralleled and fulfilled in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.  Jesus insists with John that it is necessary for the baptism to happen (Matthew 3:15).  God is with Jesus and the voice of God is heard at Christ’s baptism.  God is present with them – standing in the Jordan is God incarnate.  John is Christ’s witness, but all Christians witness to the world of the transforming power of baptism.  Baptism is part of the new covenant relationship with God which is offered to the entire world.

The events of Joshua and the people of God crossing the Jordan was memorialized in Psalm 114 –

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Israel’s crossing the Jordan is frequently mentioned in the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church, and Psalm 114 is referenced extensively in the liturgical hymns of the Feast.  In the Feast, the event of the Ark of the Covenant touching the waters of the Jordan and changing them/ their course is a foreshadowing of Christ’s entry into the Jordan for His own baptism.  Christ too changes not only the natural flow/purpose of the Jordan but reveals its spiritual significance for the salvation of the world.   The events of Joshua 3-5 are a prophetic foreshadowing of the events of Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan.  One of the pre-Feast hymns says:

Why do you stop the flow of your waters, O Jordan?
Why do you make your streams flow back?
Why do you not follow your natural course?
“I cannot bear the fire which consumes me,” it said.
“I am amazed and shudder at the extreme condescension.
I have not learned to wash the pure or cleanse the sinless.
I have learned only to wash the filthy garment.
Now Christ, Who is baptized in me,
teaches me to burn the thorns of sin.
And John, the voice of the Word, bears witness with me.
He cries out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sin of the world.’”
Let us the faithful cry to Him:
“O God, Who shone forth for our salvation, glory to You!”

In the hymn the River Jordan is anthropomorphized, so it can speak and describe its encounter with the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ when He stepped into the waters to be baptized by John the Forerunner.  The Jordan experiences Christ as fire which is transforming the River.    It is Christ who imparts to the river waters the power to destroy sin.  In meeting its Creator, Jesus, the Jordan realizes the event of the incarnation.  God the Creator is present in Christ, yet the Jordan is not destroyed/burned up by this encounter because God is incarnate.  God’s divinity is united to and contained by Christ’s humanity.  This has purified human flesh and human nature.   So in Christ the Jordan has no one to clean or to wash their garment, but rather is experiencing a new cleansing itself, along with all creation.

Take Delight in All Things

Your own of Your own we offer to You on behalf of all things and for all things.” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)

… when You open Your hand, they are filled with good things.”  (Psalm 104:28)

“Take delight in all things that surround us.  All things teach us and lead us to God.  All things around us are droplets of the love of God –

both things animate and inanimate,

 

the plants and the animals,

the birds and the mountains,

the sea and the sunset and the starry sky.

They are little loves through which we attain to the great Love that is Christ.

Flowers, for example, have their own grace: they teach us with their fragrance and with their magnificence.  They speak to us of the love of God.

They scatter their fragrance and their beauty on sinners and on the righteous.”  (Elder Porphyrios, WOUNDED BY LOVE, p 218)