God Makes the World Make Itself

“When we contemplate the physical creation, we see an unimaginable complex, organized on many planes one above another; atomic, molecular, cellular; vegetable, animal, social. And the marvel of it is that at every level the constituent elements run themselves, and, by their mutual interaction, run the world. God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it. And this in spite of the fact that the constituents are not for the most part intelligent. They cannot enter into the creative purposes they serve. They cannot see beyond the tip of their noses; they have, indeed, no noses not to see beyond, nor any eyes with which to fail in the attempt.

All they can do is blind away at being themselves, and fulfil the repetitive pattern of their existence. When you contemplate this amazing structure, do you wonder that it should be full of flaws, breaks, accidents, collisions, and disasters? Will you not be more inclined to wonder why chaos does not triumph; how higher forms of organization should ever arise, or, having arisen, maintain and perpetuate themselves?

Though a thousand species have perished with the mammoth and the dodo, and though all species, perhaps, must perish at the last, it is a sort of miracle that the species there are should have established themselves. And how have they established themselves? Science studies the pattern, but theology assigns the cause: that imperceptible persuasion exercised by creative Will on the chaos of natural forces, setting a bias on the positive and achieving creatures.”

(Austin Farrer, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 6)

The True Sabbath Rest

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.  (John 5:1-15)

Jesus Christ on several occasions heals the sick on the Sabbath Day, which causes the religious leaders of His day to doubt that His power to heal comes from God since He breaks the Sabbath law.  In John 5:1-15, not only does Jesus heal a paralytic, but He commands the healed man to carry his bed and it is the Sabbath Day.  In these actions, Jesus is challenging the religious authority’s understanding of the Torah and accusing them of being hard-hearted while suggesting that keeping the Torah should lead to loving both God and neighbor.  From the 4th Century we have comments of a Syrian monk who explains in a sermon the true nature of Torah:

In the shadow of the Law given to Moses, God decreed that everyone should rest on the sabbath and do nothing. This was a figure and a shadow of the true Sabbath given to the soul by the Lord. For the soul that has been deemed worthy to have been set free from shameful and sordid thoughts both observes the true Sabbath and enjoys true rest, being at leisure and freed from the works of darkness. There, in the typical Sabbath, even though they rested physically, their souls were enslaved to evils and wickednesses. However, this, the true Sabbath, is genuine rest, since the soul is at leisure and is purified from the temptations of Satan and rests in the eternal rest and joy of the Lord.

Just as then God decreed that also the irrational animals should rest on the Sabbath – that the ox should not be forced under the yoke of necessity, that they should not burden the ass (for even the animals themselves were to rest from their heavy works) – so, when the Lord came and gave the true and eternal Sabbath, he gave rest to the soul of heavily burdened and loaded down with burdens of iniquity, of unclean thoughts, and laboring under restraint in doing works of injustice as though it were under slaver to bitter masters. And he lightened the soul from its burdens, so difficult to bear, of vain and obscene thoughts. And he took away the yoke, so bitter, of the works of injustice, and gave rest to the soul that had been worn out by the temptations of impurity.

For the Lord calls man to his rest, saying, “Come, all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). And as many persons as obey and draw near, he refreshes them from all these heavy and burdensome and unclean thoughts. And they are at leisure from every iniquity, observing the true, pleasing, holy Sabbath. And they celebrate a feast of the Spirit, of joy and ineffable exultation. They celebrate a pure service, pleasing to God from a pure heart. This is the true and holy Sabbath. Let us, therefore, entreat God that we may enter into this rest (Heb 4:11) and that we may be freed from shameful and evil and vain thoughts sot that thus we may be able to serve God out of a pure heart and celebrate the feast of the Holy Spirit. Blessed is he who enters into that rest. Glory to the Father, who is so well pleased, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen. (Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, pp. 204-205)

The true burden the paralytic of John 5 carried for 38 years was his illness and the fact that he had no one to help him.  His paralysis laid upon his heart a burden of bitterness which allowed Satan to torment him, bringing him to doubt and despair. Christ gave him rest from his burden.  Commanding him to carry his bed was proof that his burden had been lifted.  Now on that Sabbath, carrying his bed was not carrying a burden but  was proof that he had entered into the Lord’s rest.  Now the man no longer was burdened by Satan with bitterness, doubt and despair.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Bright Monday (2019)

Bright Monday

Christ is risen!  Truly He is risen!

In order to lead us up to this presence, the Son of God had first to come down to us, to take on himself “flesh and blood”, so as in it to annihilate the power of enmity which kept us from approaching God.

Since the children (of a family) share the same flesh and blood, he too shared ours, so that through death he might destroy him who held the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver all those who through fear of death, were subject to servitude all their lives long [Hebrews 2:14-15].

This beautiful text, as has been noted, is the New Testament passage most frequently quoted by the Fathers of the Church in explaining why Christ had to die. Better than any other, it sums up the victorious struggle against the powers of evil in which, as St. Paul (especially in his last Epistles), the Synoptics (especially St. Mark) and St. John all agree, is to be found the meaning of the Cross.

Yet the author of the Epistle does not go on to devote himself to this aspect. Not that it seems unimportant to him; on the contrary, it is absolutely essential to his vision, with the emphasis that he places on the blood that must be shed to cleanse from sin. But it is the other aspect of the reality that concerns him. To him, freedom from sin, from the devil and from death is not an end in itself. It is the indispensable prerequisite for mankind’s access to the divine presence. This access itself is what he has most at heart. And, we might say, if there is anything purely Paulinian in this Epistle, it is certainly this very idea. A leitmotif phrase from the Epistle to the Ephesians might serve to summarize the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Through him (Christ) we have access to the Father” [Eph 2:18]  

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 144-145)

Holy Friday (2019)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHoly Friday: The Crucifixion (Matthew 27)

“The explanation given in the Gospel account is simple if we only listen to it closely, reflect on it, accustom ourselves to it: they reject Christ, they hate Christ, they crucify Christ, not because of some one thing, not because of those fabricated misdemeanours for which He is falsely and slanderously denounced to Pilate. Pilate himself rejects these lies and slanders, even while condemning Christ to a humiliating and terrible death. No, this is not some misunderstanding, this is not some kind of accident. Christ is crucified because His goodness, His love, the blinding light that pours from Him, is something the people cannot stand. They cannot bear it because it exposes the evil they live by, which they conceal even from themselves. This is the horror of the fallen world, that evil not only has dominion, but poses as something good, always hiding behind the mask of good. Evil guarantees its domination of the world by parading itself as good! Now in our own day as well, it is always in the name of good, of freedom, of concern for mankind that people are enslaved and murdered, deceived, lied to, slandered and destroyed. Every evil screams only one message: “I am good!” And not only does it scream, but it demands that the people cry out tirelessly in response: “You are good, you are freedom, you are happiness!”

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Yes, the crowds followed Christ as long as He helped, healed, worked miracles. And it was these same crowds that discarded Him and shouted, “Crucify Him!” They knew, with all of evil’s terrifying intuition, that in this perfect man, in this perfect love, they were exposed. They knew that through His own love, His own perfection, Christ was demanding from them a life which they did not want to lead – a love, a truth, a perfection they could not stand. And this witness had to be silenced, exterminated.

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It is only here- and this is the entire meaning, all the depth, of the cross and crucifixion – in this apparent triumph of evil, where in reality good is triumphant. For the victory of good begins precisely here, with the exposure of evil as evil. The high priest knows he is lying. Pilate knows he is condemning to death a man who is totally innocent. And hour after hour, step by step, within that terrible triumph of evil, the light of victory begins to burn more and more brightly. The victory can be heard in the repentance of the crucified criminal, in the words of the centurion who led the execution: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mt. 57:54). The man dying on the cross has completed His testimony.  And through it, from within – no, not yet on the outside – evil is destroyed, for it was exposed, and is now eternally exposed as evil. I repeat, the cross begins that victory which is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Crucified One.

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Christ “suffered…” says the Symbol of faith. Why this repetition, since surely the word “crucified” can be understood to include suffering? The answer to this question needs to be put as follows: in saying “crucified,” we are primarily speaking about those who crucified Christ, we are speaking about evil, about that visible triumph and victory of evil expressed by the Cross and crucifixion; and by exposing evil as evil, Christ’s crucifixion strips evil of all its masks and begins its destruction. But when we say “and suffered,” we are speaking about Christ, we are focusing our inner, spiritual sight on the Crucified One and not on the crucifiers. If Christ did not suffer on the Cross – as was taught by certain false teachers condemned by the Church – if He did not go through physical and emotional suffering, then absolutely everything about our faith in Christ as Savior of the world would be completely different. This is because we would be removing from our faith that which is most essential: faith in the saving nature of this voluntary suffering itself, in which Christ gives Himself up to the most terrible, most incomprehensible, most inescapable law of “this world,” the law of suffering.”    (Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, p. 80, 81, 82)

The Cross and Our Salvation

“The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,

for a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.

The sting of Death and the victory of Hell were nailed to it.

But you appeared, my Savior, crying to those in hell:

“Be brought back again to Paradise.”

(St Romanos, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 155)

Icons: To See Beyond the World into the Kingdom

We have arrived at the First Sunday in Lent.  Saying “we have arrived” keeps up the imagery that we are travelling – the spiritual journey of Great Lent.   We are doing what Christ calls all of His disciples to do, as we heard at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson:  “Follow me.” (John 1:43).  We can follow Christ only by being on this spiritual sojourn.  Spirituality, being a Christian, is not a state of mind or the soul, but our movement toward the kingdom of God.  To follow Christ we have to move ourselves towards God.

We still have a long way to travel, just to get through Lent.  At the midweek services this past week, I mentioned to you about how God’s call to Israel to leave Egypt behind was a wakeup call.  For though we usually think of the Hebrew people as being slaves in Egypt, there is another spiritual reality there.  They had voluntarily and willfully entered Egypt to escape their own poverty and famine in order to benefit from the wealth of Egypt.  They left behind their lives of being desert nomads for a life in the great civilization of Egypt.  And they had enslaved themselves to the all that Egyptian empire had to offer.  Moses comes to awaken them from their dream and delusion, but he doesn’t call them to overthrow their Egyptian overlords in a slave revolt and to take over that society.  Rather God calls them to leave society, culture and civilization behind and to go into the desert to worship God and to see the glory of God.  It is not a civil war to which they are called but a war against the flesh, their own desires and comfort.

They are asked to leave behind the glory of human civilization – all that they knew about the world – and to walk into the great unknown of the barren, lifeless and desolate desert.   They were called to leave the known and to seek the unknown.  And all week long I’ve told you that is what Great Lent is supposed to be to us – leave behind all that you know and love about your lives – your food, your entertainment, your beds, all that comforts you, your couches and clothes, all that enriches you and attracts you and satisfies you – and practice the abstinence, the self-denial, the fasting which Great Lent, which the great desert demands of you.  When we enter into Great Lent we are called to wake up out of the delusion that our lives are so wonderful and blessed and comfortable, and to see that there is an entire life available to us – a spiritual life, a life in God, which we miss because we are so busy pursuing comfort, careers, pleasure, the good life, the American dream.   Great Lent reminds us this life we so value really is a dream and will pass away.  The American dream does not last forever for it belongs to this temporary earth.  One day we will awake from this dream because we hear Christ calling us to wake up and arise.  And when we do we shall see God and realize all we so valued in this world was not that important or helpful. We in effect are called to join our spiritual ancestors to make an exodus into the desert of our lives.

This awakening happened to Moses as we heard at the beginning of today’s Epistle:

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Moses refuses the dream of being Pharaoh’s grandson and embraces the reality that the pampered life of the elite is really enslavement to the world.  Moses looked  to this spiritual reward, and to do so he had to see beyond the great empire of which he was in the ruling class.  He lived a privileged life, and yet it was a dream deluding him.   And here we see another great theme of Lent, besides sojourning, besides fasting, we are to see God.

So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD . . .  And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.  (Exodus 16:6-10)

It was only when these people looked away from the grand empire of which they were a part did they see the glory of God.  God was not seen by them in the greatest nation on earth but in the wilderness where there was no city, no culture, no comfort, no power, no wealth.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus say:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  (John 1:51)

The story of God’s people, of our exodus from Egypt, our sojourn through Great Lent is so that our eyes might be opened and so that we not be so dazzled and seduced by all the riches this world has to offer, and that we consider the glory of the Lord.  We are called to see the depth and riches of the Kingdom of God which are invisible to us when we focus only on life in this world.

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-22)

That great cloud of witnesses to God’s glory is visible to us in the icons all around us.  Icons open heaven to our eyes and our eyes to heaven.  They tell us to see with the eyes of our heart, don’t just look at the external, but see the reality that these people and events represent.  Look into the hearts of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said we will see heaven wide open but also that our eyes would be open wide by what we see.

Our eyes can be opened to God’s revelation, to understanding salvation, to the Kingdom of God if our hearts are open and receptive to what God reveals to us.

And what do we see with the eyes of our heart?

A loving God, a forgiving Father hoping for us to seek Him no matter how far away we may feel we are from Him.

We see where and in whom heaven and earth meet.

An icon shows us our salvation comes when God is united to humanity.

Icons remind us the Kingdom of Heaven is not a distant place but, rather, is right here right in our midst. As Jesus Christ said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

Christ is in our midst!

I Worship the Creator Who Became Matter

“But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through  matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter that wrought my salvation.”

(St. John of Damascus from Eugen J. Pentiuc’s The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 263).

 

Seeing, Nay Seeking, Christ in Others

Two poems related to themes found in Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).  The first poem, untitled, is by St Maria Sobtskova.

I searched for singers and for prophets

who wait by the ladder to heaven,

see signs of the mysterious end,

sing songs beyond our comprehension.

And I found people who were restless, orphaned, poor,

drunk, despairing, useless,

lost whichever way they went,

homeless, naked, lacking bread.

There are no prophecies. Only life

continuously acts as a prophet.

The end approaches, days grow shorter.

You took a servant’s form. Hosanna.

(Pearl of Great Price, p. 51-52)

For St. Maria, if we seek Christ or the holy ones who follow Him, we might be surprised whom we find or in whom we find Him, the Lord God who makes Himself a servant and washes the feet of the least of His brothers and sisters.

In the second poem, “DE Way T’ings Come”, American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar writing poetically in an English dialect he sometimes used puzzles over how unlike the Good Samaritan we can be – working to feed those who are well fed  and avoiding those in need.

De way t’ings happen, huhuh, chile,

Dis worl’ ‘s done puzzled me one w’ile;

I ‘s mighty skeered I ‘ll fall in doubt,

I des’ won’t try to reason out

De reason why folks strive an’ plan

A dinnah fu’ a full-fed man,

An’ shet de do’ an’ cross de street

F’om one dat raaly needs to eat.

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar,  Kindle Location 5587-5591)

(For the poetically and dialectically challenged, the poem’s last lines are:  I just won’t try to reason out the reason why folks strive and plan a dinner for a full-fed man, and shut the door and cross the street from one that really needs to eat.)