The Tranquility of Creation

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his book describing the creation of humans, ON THE MAKING OF MAN, gives us a very idyllic picture of the world in the moment before humans arrived on the scene – the calm before the storm.

“Now all things already arrived at their own end: the heaven and the earth (Genesis 2:1), as Moses says, were finished, and all things that lie between them, and the particular things were adorned with their appropriate beauty;

the heaven with the rays of the stars, the sea and air with the living creatures that swim and fly, and the earth with all varieties of plants and animals, to all which, empowered by the Divine will, it gave birth together;

the earth was full, too, of her produce, bringing forth fruits at the same time with flowers; the meadows were full of all that grows therein,

and all the mountain ridges, and summits, and every hillside, and slope, and hollow, were crowned with young grass, and with the varied produce of the trees, just risen from the ground, yet shot up at once into their perfect beauty;

and all the beasts that had come into life at God’s command were rejoicing, we may suppose, and skipping about, running to and fro in the thickets in herds according to their kind, while every sheltered and shady spot was ringing with the chants of the songbirds.

And at sea, we may suppose, the sight to be seen was of the like kind, as it had just settled to quiet and calm in the gathering together of its depths, where havens and harbors spontaneously hollowed out on the coasts made the sea reconciled with the land;

and the gentle motion of the waves vied in beauty with the meadows, rippling delicately with light and harmless breezes that skimmed the surface; and all the wealth of creation by land and sea was ready, and not was there to share it.”  (pp 20-21)

St. Gregory pictures the perfect creation, tranquilly settling in from the more violent creation which brought the chaos under control, separating the waters from the land and causing the dry earth to emerge.  That tumult and turmoil lasted only a brief moment for St. Gregory – things instantly attained their finished state – trees reaching their heights instantaneously.  In his understanding, the first trees grew but not over years but immediately attaining their height.  His view is that the world we are in today emerged both spontaneously but not yet in completed form.  Things had to grow but did so instantly.  Things didn’t have to follow what we now know as the order of nature in those opening days of creation – they were exempt from the laws of nature that we know.

Humans were created last to be the crown of creation – the earth was a Paradise created by God for His human creatures.  Humans were not made to wait for the world to emerge – it was all there, perfectly, before humans were placed in it, according to St. Gregory.  Humans had nothing else to do but maintain the  pacific serenity and blessed placidness.  They, however, were about to undue all that God had planned.

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Early Autumn

You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.  (Psalms 104:19)

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The first day of fall 2017 came on September 22.   The Autumnal Equinox marks the beginning of autumn with there being approximately the same amount of daylight and nighttime darkness.  We have been in a dry spell with unseasonably warm temperatures.  So far the color change has been slow in coming.  Though I do see brown, dry leaves on the ground, the trees are still mostly green with color only slowly appearing among the leaves.

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Daniel said:
“Blessed be the name of God from age to age,
for wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons…
(Daniel 2:20-21)  

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I really do enjoy fall weather – the passing of high humidity days brings a drier warmth and pleasing breezes.  I love to see the colors of the leaves as they mark the passing of the seasons.  They are a harbinger of winter but I enjoy their current beauty, not what they are pointing to.

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For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars…  (Wisdom of Solomon 7:16)

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I walk in the woods, enjoying God’s creation and the changing nature of the world.  I have lived through more than half of century watching summer end replaced by autumn’s tones.  It is always the same and yet each season is new and wonderful.

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Science and Experience

“It is one of the laws of life that new meaning must be lived before it can be known, and in some mysterious way modern man knows so much that he is the prisoner of his knowledge. The old dynamic conception of the human spirit as something living always on the frontiers of human knowledge has gone. We hide behind what we know. And there is an extraordinarily angry and aggressive quality in the knowledge of modern man; he is angry with what he does not know; he hates and rejects it. He has lost the sense of wonder about the unknown and he treats it as an enemy. The experience which is before knowing, which would enflame his life with new meaning, is cut off from him.

Curiously enough, it has never been studied more closely. People have measured the mechanics of it, and the rhythm, but somehow they do not experience it.”  (Sir Laurens Van der Post, found in Stephen Muse’s When Hearts Become Flame, p. 75)

Christ’s Death on the Cross

The Savior came to destroy death by His own death. ‘The ultimate reason for Christ’s death must be seen in the mortality of man.’  Redemption is the ‘liberation of man from the ‘”bondage of corruption”.’ However, this means that ‘the Cross is more than merely suffering Good.’  ‘The death on the cross was effective, not [simply] as the death of an Innocent one, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord. ‘We needed an Incarnate God; God put to death, that we might live’ – to use a bold phrase of St. Gregory of Nazianzus.” Here we see Florovsky’s a-symmetrical Chalcedonianism at work: as he writes, ‘It may be properly said that God dies on the Cross, but in his own humanity.’

The death of Christ is of necessity for salvation precisely because through it, eternal life enters the realm of death. Thus, Holy Saturday itself is ‘the very day of our salvation.’ As the icons suggest, Christ enters hades as Victor despoiling death.”(Matthew Baker, On the Tree of the Cross, 114-115).

The Exaltation of the Cross (2017)

The [Feast of the] Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross … (September 14).   The association of the words ‘feast’ and ‘Cross’ is a paradox: the Cross, to the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks a folly, yet ‘to those who are called, the power and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:23-24).  We commemorate the Passion and the Crucifixion not as ugly episodes inspired by a sordid politicking, but as the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of God who became man to save us.  therefore the liturgy of the Cross is not a lamentation over a dead hero, the wailing of devotees working themselves up to a paroxysm of frenzy, but the memorial of an event of cosmic significance, reaching beyond the limits of history.

The Cross stands while the world rolls . . . proclaims the motto of the Carthusian hermits.  We see in the cross a reason for hope, and the Resurrection makes this hope to become the unshakable assurance of our Christian faith.”  (Georges Barrois, SCRIPTURE READINGS IN ORTHODOX WORSHIP, p 142)

Jesus, the Wisdom of God

Icon of Christ the Wisdom of God

“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).

Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).

Moses, Seeing God and the Transfiguration

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“In Exodus 33 we find the paradox of intimacy and distance, knowledge and ignorance, presence and transcendence. Moses in the Tent of Meeting seeks guidance from the Lord for his work as leader of the people of Israel; he is told, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest’ (v. 14); but Moses wants more, and asks to see the glory of God. To this request comes the reply, ‘You cannot see my face; for man cannot see me and live’ (v. 20). As this incident unfolds we see a distinction between what Moses does see and what he is unable to see: ‘And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’” (vv. 21-23). The mystery remains, and Moses is not able to see God face to face. But the Israelites are aware of the effect of Moses’ time in the presence of God, for the face of Moses shines ‘because he had been talking with God’, shines with a brightness so great that his face had to be veiled (Exodus 34:29-35). Here we have an early example in the Scriptures of the human face transfigured because of close contact with God; it is an experience that is repeated in the lives of many saints. Much of what we see in the life of Moses we see also in the lives of other Old testament prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6), so it is not surprising that these Old Testament episodes become ‘types’ which help to interpret later events, and which find greater significance in the light of the subsequent developments.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa used the life Moses as a starting point and framework for his exposition of Christian ascetical theology, and from Gregory derives a while tradition of apophatic theology which uses the imagery of darkness to articulate the Christian experience of living with the mystery of God’s presence. The theophanies involving Moses and Elijah are included in the Scripture readings at Vespers for the Feast of Transfiguration .”   (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 60-61).

The Feast of the Transfiguration (2017)

“These are the divine prodigies behind the present festival; what we celebrate here, on this mountain now, is for us, too, a saving Mystery. This sacred initiation into the Mystery of Christ, this public solemnity, gathers us together. So that we might come inside the ineffable sanctuary, and might enter the place of Mysteries along with those chosen ones who were inspired to speak God’s words, let us listen to a divine, most sacred voice, as it seems to invite us from the peak of the mountain above us inviting us with strong words of persuasion and saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, on the day of the Lord – in the place of the Lord and in the house of our God.” [Our hope is] that, bathed in a vision of him, flooded with light, we might be changed for the better and joined together as one; and that, grasping hold of the light in light, we might cry out: “How fearful is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”

This is the place towards which we must hasten, I make bold to say, since Jesus who dwells there and who has gone up to heaven before us, is our guide on the way. With him, let us also flash like lightning before spiritual eyes, renewed in the shape of our souls and made divine, transformed along with him in order to be like him, always being deified, always changing for the better – leaping up the mountain slopes more nimbly than powerful deer, soaring higher than spotless doves, lifted up to the summit with Peter and James and John, walking on clouds with Moses and Elijah – so that the Lord might say of us as well: “There are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of man coming” to them “in the glory of his Father” (Anastasius of Sinai, Homily on the Transfiguration, Light on the Mountain, pp. 167-168).

 

 

The Blessing of Fruit

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Many Orthodox have the practice of blessing grapes or fruit at the Feast of the Transfiguration.   We find mention of the Christian blessing of fruit already in the early 3rd Century in THE APOSTOLIC TRADITION of St. Hippolytus of Rome.   He offers no explanation as to why some things may be blessed but doesn’t allow certain things to be brought for a blessing, even though all food is to be received with thanksgiving.

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Hippolytus doesn’t connect this blessing to a particular feast but writes:

Fruits indeed are blessed, this is grapes, the fig, the pomegranate, the olive, the pear, the apple, the mulberry, the peach, the cherry, the almond, the plum; but not the pumpkin or the melon, or cucumber or the onion, or garlic or any other vegetable.

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But sometimes flowers also are offered.  Let the rose and the lily be offered, but not others.

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And for all things which are eaten they shall give thanks to God, eating them to His glory.”  (pp 54-55)

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Being of One Mind: Satisfaction Guaranteed

Sermon Notes from Sunday, 30 July 2017

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? ….

St. Paul frequently in his Epistles calls the Christians to  prevent divisions within the community and to be of one heart and mind, something we pray for at the Liturgy [“Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.”  AND  “And grant that with one mouth and one heart we may glorify and praise Your all-honorable and majestic Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”]

When we install a new Parish Council, they take an oath of office that among other things says they promise to work to preserve the unity of the community.  Unity is not given to us automatically by God at our baptisms.  We have to work for , and the leadership of the parish is especially entrusted with this task.

We know it is hard to have a community of people agree on everything, and Christian history shows us how often Christians have failed to maintain the unity of the faith – not only on the local level but sometimes at the level of the entire Church.  Divisions have plagued us Christians, and it is incumbent on each of us to work hard to preserve unity within the Church.  I say this, not because we have any pressing division we are facing, but we all know there are countless issues that we disagree on, some very minor, but still it is a task, and no easy one to maintain unity.

Jesus prayed:  “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will* believe in Me through their word;“that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.“And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:“I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (John 17:20-23)

Paul’s wish that we be of one mind, without disunity, is telling us to fulfill Christ’s prayer for us.

In an unusual way, the oneness of heart and mind has a segue with today’s Gospel lesson.

Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22
And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were satisfied, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

In the rock opera JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, Judas sings about Jesus:

Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.
Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.

One can wonder why Jesus came when He did, 2000 years ago.  We think we would like to walk with Him and hear him today, thinking then we would know for sure if He was true or not, unlike those Palestinian backwater rubes who were easily taken in by “miracles.”

But if Jesus came today and wanted to assemble 5000 men besides women and children, it would be no easy task to arrange.  There would be permits which would be needed, and sanitation and security.  There would have to be plans for emergencies, first aid stations, water bottles, bathrooms, and the authorities wouldn’t allow that many people to assemble with no food in sight.  What kind of parking area would be needed for the cars for all those people?

And then when Jesus promised to feed everyone, and all He gave was bread, there would be mass complaining.  Some would say they are on special diets – high protein, low carb, glutton free, there would be complaints about allergies.  Some would want something with the bread, not bread alone.  Butter and jelly, or perhaps meat and cheese for sandwiches.  And condiments.  Humans can’t live on bread alone!  That is not a balanced diet.  There would be a lot of unhappy people who would not be happy that all they were given is some bread.

Maybe the biggest miracle that Jesus did comes in the line, “So they all ate and were satisfied“.  Amazing, He satisfied 5000 men plus women and children.  Everyone was satisfied, and all they got was bread. [though the Gospel passage mentions the disciples also had fish, it only mentions Christ blessing and distributing the loaves, the fish aren’t mentioned as being distributed].

We can imagine what would happen if at our Fellowship Hour, all we had to offer was bread!  People would demand at least donuts!  And coffee!

But in the Gospel lesson, they are satisfied with bread.  Maybe that is why Christ came 2000 years ago.  He looked into the future, into the 21st Century and realized no one today would consider being offered only bread – after being with Christ all day out in the open, exposed to the weather –  as that wonderful.  Perhaps He looked into our century and realized all He would get is complaints.

Back then, they stayed with Christ all day and witnessed healing miracles, and then Jesus fed them bread.  What happened next?  He told them goodbye – go home!  If they thought that something powerful was going to happen to the world right then and there – the Kingdom of Heaven or the New Jerusalem – Jesus disabused them of those ideas.  He dismissed them.  He didn’t encourage them to stay, didn’t offer an encore.  He didn’t encourage that some kind of shrine be built there.  He moved on.

He wanted them to look beyond the bread they received, to think about the Kingdom, not about making Him king.  The miracle was to be a sign of that greater reality, God’s Kingdom.   Jesus left that spot because the Kingdom wasn’t there and He wanted everyone to look not for some benefit in this world but to look beyond this world.

In our church we have many icons of saints, but if we read there lives we will see precious few of them looked to Jesus for the bread of this world.  They all were looking for something else, something more.  The Myrrhbearing Women go to the tomb, not looking for bread in this world, but looking for Christ.  It is Christ whom the saints were seeking, and it Christ whom they realized they needed.

If we listen to the Gospel of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, and all we get out of it is that we wish we could see a miracle, or we wish we could get some free bread, then we miss the entire lesson of the Gospel, for we miss seeing Christ.  None of those who ate that bread that day were so satisfied that they never hungered again.  That bread fed them for a day, not for a lifetime, not for eternity.

Christ, however, does offer us bread that feeds us for eternity – His own Body and Blood which we receive in the consecrated Eucharistic Bread and Wine. We need to seek Christ like the saints, not mere bread like the crowd. In this, we need to be of one heart and mind.