Holy Myrrhbearing Women

As the true friends of the Creator were saying this,

Mary, who was following, said,

“Initiates of the Lord and his truly fervent lovers, do not think like this;

but be patient, do not lose heart.

For what has happened was a dispensation,

so that women, as those who were the first to fall,

might be the first to see the risen One.

He wishes to grant to us who mourn the grace of his ‘Rejoice!’,

he who grants resurrection to the fallen.”

On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 170)

Frequently, the Patristic writers see the Gospel events as an “undoing” of the Fall of Eve and Adam.  In the poem above, St. Romanos the Melodist, explains  that the Women Disciples of the Lord learn about the resurrection before the chosen Apostles so that woman would be given the opportunity to “reverse the curse”.  Eve fell before Adam, but now the women get to share the Good News with the men.  All sin is forgiven in the resurrection as humans are put on the path to the Kingdom of God and allowed to enter into Paradise again.

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Humans Were Created for Christ

St Nicholas Cabasilas  says that we humans were created by God with our unique set of characteristics precisely that we might know Christ. Adam was created with Christ already “in mind”  –  God didn’t send Christ into the world in response to a broken Adam, rather God created Adam in Christ’s image so that Christ could become incarnate as a human.   The human was designed to be capable of bearing God.   God knew where He was going with these creatures created in God’s image – with mind, desire, reason and memory.  God the Trinity was planning for the incarnation of God the Son from before the humans were ever first created.  Adam was not the model for Christ, but rather Christ was the Archetype which made the particular human characteristics necessary so that God could be incarnate as a human.  God knew what was needed in a creature for the incarnation to take place, and God created us accordingly to prepare us and the world for the incarnation.

“It was for the new man that human nature was created at the beginning, and for him mind and desire were prepared. Our reason we have received in order that we may know Christ, our desire in order that we might hasten to Him. We have memory in order that we may carry Him in us, since He Himself is the Archetype for those who are created. It was not the old Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old, even though it is said that the new Adam was generated according to the likeness of the old (Rom 8:3) because of the corruption which the old Adam initiated.

The latter Adam inherited it in order that He might abolish the infirmity of our nature by means of the remedies which He brings and, as Paul says, so ‘that which is mortal might be swallowed up by life‘ (2 Cor. 5:4).”   (The Life in Christ, p 190)

Knowledge and Keeping God’s Commandments

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26, a man asks Jesus, Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”  Jesus tells him, “… if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.

Of course there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so the man seeks further clarification, so he asks Jesus:

“Which ones?”

Jesus said, “’You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ’Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’“

Jesus names five of the Ten Commandments and then adds another commandment from the Torah that he must love his neighbor as if the neighbor is his own self (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus neither limits God’s commandments to the Ten, nor does he treat this other commandment as any different or less than the Ten.

St. John of Kronstadt comments on keeping the Commandments:

“One definite commandment was given to Adam and Eve, in order that by fulfilling this one commandment – which was, moreover, a very easy one – men might acquire the habit of fulfilling the will of God, the fulfillment of which constitutes the whole well-being of creatures, and might be strengthened in the love of God.

If we turn our attention to the contrary – to the non-fulfillment of the will of the Creator and the fulfillment of our own will, in opposition to the Creator’s – we observe that little by little a man changes for the worse and perverts his own right nature, created after the image and likeness of God, and becomes God’s enemy. So important is the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and so destructive is their non-fulfillment! By giving to the first men His definite commandment not to eat the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Lord God revealed Himself as the Guide of the newly-created reasonable creatures, of His children by adoption. Whose fault was it that this guidance was rejected, and that man preferred to be governed by his own will? Even until now, notwithstanding all the progress in sciences and arts, notwithstanding all the treasures of human wisdom, neither the man of ancient nor of modern times can educate himself, because he rejected even from the beginning the guidance of God; for, say, who but God should be our guide? And both at present and in the past only those men successfully completed their mental and moral education who trusted in God and lived in accordance with His commandments, or who now live in accordance with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, submitting themselves to her guidance. This is useful for all modern teachers to remember.

“Science” – Library of Congress

We have many sciences, but the result obtained is small; our youths have much in their heads, whilst in their hearts they have little – very little and often, alas! Even nothing. Life, then does not correspond with education and science. But ‘though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.‘ (1 Corinthians XII. 2, 3.).”   (My Life in Christ, pp. 150-151)

Thorns and Thistles: Reminder of Paradise Lost

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And to Adam God said, “Because you have … eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  (Genesis 3:17-18)

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According to Genesis 3, thorns and thistles became abundant because human sin had caused the ground to be cursed.  Those noxious weeds which are a plague to farmers and a toxin to cattle proliferate without any nurturing agriculture to help them.  While humans struggle to grow crops, noxious weeds seem able to thrive in the world of the Fall.   But, from another point of view, other than that of the farmer who is trying to cultivate crops, even the noxious weed has a beauty to it – a delight to the eye of the photographer.   Does it possess beauty because it too is a creation of God?  Or is that simply part of the deception which hides from our eyes the dangers of our spiritual disobedience?

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Remember that Eve “… saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.”   Tempted, enticed and seduced by a plant.  She forgot God and His commandment to embrace the world and all that it would give her.  It gave her and us more than she or we ever bargained for.  And yet, to this day we continue to look away from God and want to find immortality and eternity in a world which is passing away.

“Since by God’s grace we have renounced Satan and his works and have sworn our baptism . . . it is also our natural duty, for since we were originally created by God as ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31), we owe it to God to be such. Although sin entered us through our negligence and introduced into us what is contrary to nature, we have been reclaimed through God’s great mercy, and renewed by the passion of Him who is dispassionate. We have been ‘bought with a price’ (1 Cor. 6:20), namely by the blood of Christ, and liberated from the ancient ancestral sin.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 10556-71)

Show Mercy to the Unfortunate

Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  (Galatians 6:1)

St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin.  Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them.  Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with.  For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them.  If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them.  Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin.  St. Basil writes:

“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.”   (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)

A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control:  poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control).    Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.

For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control.  Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth.  In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy.  His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy.  He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way.  Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy.   Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones.  My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy.  We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us.  We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us.  Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day.  In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires.  In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us.  Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science.  In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another.    The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.

 

Fasting Before Christmas

“’When a man begins to fast, he straightaway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.’  (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 171)

‘Fasting was the commandment that was given to our nature in the beginning to protect it with respect to the tasting of food, and in this point the progenitor of our substance fell. There, however, where the first defeat was suffered, the ascetic strugglers make their beginning in the fear of God as they start to keep his laws. And the Savior also, when he manifested himself to the world in the Jordan, began at this point. For after his baptism the Spirit led him into the wilderness and he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Likewise all who set to follow in his footsteps make the beginning of their struggle upon this foundation. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? And if the Lawgiver himself fasts, who among those who keep the law has no need of fasting?’ (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)

Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness
Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness

‘What weapon is more powerful and gives more boldness to the heart in the time of battle against the spirits of wickedness, than hunger endured for Christ’s sake?…He who has armed himself with the weapon of fasting is afire with zeal at all time.’ (St. Isaach the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)”

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p 231)

 

God Became Human So that Creation Would Serve Humanity

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.   (Romans 8:19-23)

The Nativity of Christ, sometimes in popular thinking gets reduced to warm fuzzies about a manger and a baby.  However, the context of that story is the creation of the cosmos, and the Fall of Adam and Eve – their committing the ancestral sin.  Creation was meant to serve humanity, and humans were meant to have a leadership role in creation – to be the mediator between God the Creator and the created order.  All of creation, including the angels, were meant to find their proper relationship to God through humanity.

But, when humans sinned against God and rejected their God-given role, all of creation fell into an unnatural relationship with humanity and with God (see Romans 8 above).  The restoration of the cosmos, the transfiguration and redemption of all Creation, this is the context and content of the Christmas story.

“ ‘When all of the created world which God had brought out of non-being into existence saw Adam leave Paradise, it no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, nor the stars to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow. The very air itself thought about contracting and not providing for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savage against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly on him, and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back.’

But God’s love for man intervenes in this truly cosmic catastrophe: ‘He restrains everything by His own power and compassion and goodness, suspends the assault of all creation and straight away subjects all of it once again to fallen man. He wills that creation serve man for whom it was made, and like him become corruptible, so that when again man becomes spiritual, incorruptible and immortal, then creation, too, will be freed from its slavery….and, together with man, be made new, and become incorruptible and wholly spiritual’ (cf. Rom. 8:20-1). God’s compassionate intervention limited the consequences of man’s rebellion. Man and the cosmos then had to wait for the blessed coming of the Lord. As long as God’s peace was absent, the world ceased to be a cosmos, an adornment of God: ‘When it ceased to be at peace, it also ceased to be a cosmos.’

But with the coming of Christ, divine peace returned to the world and the world became once again God’s adornment. The created world too is invited to the festival of the new creation: ‘Let creation be glad, let nature dance….Dance, you mountains, for Christ is born!’ IN Christ Jesus, the cosmos and man coexist in peace.” (Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, pp 126-127)

 

Adam’s Death And God’s Mercy

One aspect found in Patristic writings is that the authors always viewed God through the lens of “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).   This was considered to be an unvarying, non-negotiable truth, never up for interpretation or revision.  So all the passages in Scripture in which God appears to be only just or even cruel or capricious were viewed by them through the lens that God is love.  They felt the problem was not God appearing to be different in different bible passages, but our inability to understand God or to read the Scriptures correctly.  We are limited, one-sided creatures, and so we write about God and interpret Scripture to mean that God is something other than love.  We even have a need for this at times to justify our own actions.  These Patristic writers, however, felt we had to hold to the truth that God is love even when that truth seems to conflict with what the Scriptures literally say.  The very fact that God is Trinity, testified to them all that God is love, for the Three Persons of the Trinity abide in a unity of love.  They felt the literal reading of the text was the problem, God remained love no matter how we read the text.  So we see St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 389AD) reading the passage in Genesis 3 where Adam is expelled from Paradise and in which death becomes part of human existence.  While reading the words of the passage, he still sees the text as bearing witness to the love and mercy of God.  He does not see this as a passage about God’s justice and anger, but rather how God limits evil in our lives.  Death prevents us from sinning eternally.  Death prevents us from moving away from God forever.  Death prevents sin and evil from becoming eternal powers in our lives.  Thus for St. Gregory, even when God appears to punish, it turns out to be another form of God’s love and mercy.

“This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honored him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law, was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the The Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandments which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from The Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.”  (Gregory of Nazianzos, On the Birthday of Christ, p 7)

Defying Our Self-Loving Nature

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?   (Mark 8:34ff)

Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky comments:

“Suffering is repulsive to a natural person. Almost all his life consists in applying solicitude to solicitude in order to avoid suffering. But then the Apostle tells him that he rejoices in sorrows, that he glories in them. The Gospel blesses those who are banished, dishonored, or beaten, calling everyone to follow a narrow path which few travel. It demands that one renounce oneself, that one despise one’s life. The Gospel foretells woe to the wealthy, the satiated, those who laugh and are spoken well of by all men. In order to follow such teaching, we must defy our self-loving nature. What will rouse is up to this?” (The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith, pp 90-91)

As Metropolitan Anthony says we must “defy our self-loving nature” not deify it!

 

The Sting of Death

“According to Fr. Sophrony, physical death and, especially, the accompanying fear of physical death corrupts human agency and fuels our willful tendency for selfishness, individualism, and sin. In a telling passage he writes, ‘Until man attains his resurrection in Christ everything in him is disfigured by fear of death and consequently by servitude to sin, also’. Fr. Sophrony here suggests that the tragedy of physical death fuels the further tragedy of sinful action; the condition of mortality lies at the core of humanity’s ethical predicament because fear of physical death is a basis for enslavement to sin. Fr. Sophrony cites a passage from the Letter to Hebrews (2:14-15) to support his view of the fall, which comports with several other voices within the Orthodox tradition. For example John Romanides states: 

The power of [physical] death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the life… Man does not die because he is guilty for the sin of Adam. He becomes a sinner because he is yoked to the power of the devil through death and its consequences.

For Romanides, Fr Sophrony, and other recent Orthodox thinkers, the two primary consequences of the fall are death and the fear of death; the disaster of sin in the world stems from the principal catastrophe of mortality. …  Death is the enemy because it violates the human identity as a creature made in God’s image, made for eternal existence. In addition, Fr. Sophrony affirms the biblical promise that the resurrected life will be an embodied life, although he refrains from making specific claims about the nature of resurrected bodies, other than those present in the New Testament record. Thus, the resurrected life satisfies the fundamental human yearning: it removes death’s finality, adding a new chapter after the tragic denouement of physical death and entailing the salvation of the entire human being – both the physical and the non-physical dimensions.” (Perry T. Hamalis in Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pp 208-209 & 210-211)