Finding the Hidden Lord

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Today in Orthodoxy we begin the Nativity Season.  Of course, in Orthodoxy the season begins with a fast that lasts 40 days and 40 nights.  All around us, cultural Christmas is gearing up its shopping season with sales, Christmas decorations and sweet treats.  We are supposed to stand with Christ.

St. Mark the Ascetic writes:

The Lord is hidden in His own commandments, and He is to be found there in the measure that He is sought.   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3420-21)

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Looking to gift wrap, presents, festal deserts and Christmas decorations will not help us find Christ.  He is hidden in His commandments.  So we need to seek the Gospel commandments of Christ to find Christ this Christmas season.  He will be found in those commandments to that degree that we seek Him.  If we seek first the Kingdom of God, we will find Christ first.  If He is last on our list, He will be hard to find.

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If we believe He is Lord, we will seek His commandments to do His will, and then we will find him.  To keep His commandments, we have to know what they are and where to find them.   Time to read the Gospels and go to church.   This is the first day of the Nativity Season and Fast.  We are just beginning the search.

As St. Maria of Paris said on the verge of World War II, living as a Russian refugee in France having fled the Bolshevik revolution :

8187082426_c5b1c05faf_n“... we must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, or even any piety.  Ultimately Christ gave us two commandments: on love for God and love for people.  There is no need to complicate them, and at times to supplant them by pedantic rules.  As for Christ, he is not testing us at present by our deprivations, by our exile, or by the loss of our accustomed framework.  He is testing us – when we find ourselves deprived of our previous living conditions and our way of life, when we are granted our awe-inspiring freedom – to see whether we can find him there, where earlier we had never thought to seek him.”  (Pearl of Great Price: the Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, p 73)

To Be Human Is To Be Like God

We can begin to expand on this by looking at what it means to say humanity is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), a metaphor that is scarce in Scripture but that has come to play a huge part in Christian discussions of the uniqueness of human beings. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’” (Gen. 1:26). Today there is fairly widespread agreement that, as used in Genesis at least, image does not refer to a possession or endowment (like mind, reason, free will) but is a relational term. That is, it makes no sense without considering our relation to God – as God’s unique “counterpart” or covenant partner (we can know and love God in return) – and because of that, to other creatures, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate.

Crucial also is the notion of representation: as God’s counterparts, human beings are God’s earthly representatives, his vice-regents, in the way that an ancient monarch was seen to represent a god or a physical image to represent a king. Bound up with this is the idea of resemblance or similarity: as God’s partners, humans are in some sense like God (hence the pairing of image with likeness). In short, to say that we are created in God’s image is to say that we are created as God’s unique counterparts and hence God’s representatives on earth, embodying, as creatures and alongside other creatures, the action and presence of God in and to the word.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth, p. 202)

Christ with Everyone

I shall not be jealous, my Son, that You are both with me

and with everyone. Be God

to the one who confesses You, and be Lord

to the one who serves You, and be brother

to the one who loves You so that You might save all.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, p. 149)

St Ephrem writes that God the Father recognize that Christ is with every human being.  The Father wishes His Son to save all.   St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22
that he has “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”   It isn’t God’s wish that only some be saved (see for example Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11).
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people”  (Titus 2:11).

The Woman With a Divine Touch

Who touched Me?

Today, in our society the question implies sexual overtones and misconduct accusations.  Not long ago there were clear lines about what was “proper” touch, even in dancing.  But as our social mores continue to change, lines can become both blurred and sharp.   There is still good touch in our society, people do know how to be tender and affectionate with one another.  There are medical massage people and nurses who understand the importance of touch in healing, as do many compassionate human beings.  But it is true that our current generation is “wrestling” with what constitutes good and proper touch, and numerous celebrities have felt the sting of improper touch, whether as victims of it or the perps.

Our modern sensitivities about touch, a necessary society-wide examination of our behaviors, values and morality, do not enter into the picture presented to us in the Luke 8:41-56.  There is a lot of touch going on in the narrative, but the lesson is focused on one tiny touch which though inappropriate by the standards of that society was neither sexual nor evil.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is being jostled by a crowd and then suddenly stops and asks:

Who touched Me?

Each person in the crowd is shouldering his or her way in the throng, trying to get close to Jesus.  Elbowing and butting their way to be right next to Christ, to get a hand on Him.   The text implies they are crushing Him.  And, when Jesus asks “Who touched me?“, quite humanly everybody who is pushing and shoving to get next to Jesus immediately denies that they touched Jesus!  “Wasn’t me!” could be heard all around.  Peter sees the absurdity of the situation (perhaps is even nervously embarrassed for the Lord for asking the question) and points out the obvious – every single person there is pressing on Him.  “We are all squashing you and sticking to you, sorry.  Are you being facetious in asking who touched you?”

Jesus, however, is not asking who was jostling Him or elbowing Him or banging into Him or grabbing Him.  He particularly wants to know who gracefully touched Him in faith?   Who, in other words, has the divine touch?   Jesus knows the difference between being poked and prodded on the one hand, or, on the other hand, touchingly making a human connection – a holy touch. {And many of us know what it is to be truly touched by what someone else does for us}.  Jesus recognizes the difference between an accidental touch and one done with the intention of making a human connection.   Jesus tells this person that her faith healed her – Jesus felt her faith.   Interesting because with everyone else bumping into Him and pushing against Him, what he feels is the one who touches the hem of His garment, but not His body.  He doesn’t claim He healed her, He really is saying it was her touch which brought healing into her life.  This women neither bumped into Him unintentionally as part of the crowd’s pushing and shoving nor grabbed Him or grasped onto Him to get Him to pay attention to her.  Jesus could feel that difference – He felt Her faith in Him and His power flowing into Her.

The 3rd Century theologian and biblical scholar Origen insightfully comments that it is this woman who has the divine touch:

The outer human being has the sensible faculty of touch, and the inner human being also has touch, that touch with which the woman with a hemorrhage touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (cf. Mark 5.25-34 parr). She touched it, as He testified who said: Who touched me? (Mark 5.30). Yet just before, Peter said to Him: The multitudes are pressing upon you and you ask, ‘Who touched me?’ (Luke 9.45 parr). Peter thinks that those touching are touching in a bodily, not spiritual manner. Thus, those pressing in on Jesus were not touching Him, for they were not touching Him in faith. Only the woman, having a certain divine touch, touched Jesus and by this was healed. And because she touched Him with a divine touch, this caused power to go forth from Jesus in response to her holy touch. Hence He says: Someone touched me: for I perceive that power has gone forth from me (Luke 8.46). It is about this healing touch that John says: Which we have touched with our hands concerning the word of life (1 John 1.1). (Treaty on the Passover, p. 72)

It is spiritually possible to be in the crowd pressing against Jesus and not be touched by Him, nor for Him to be touched by you.  If we want our Lord to be touched by our prayer, we need to learn from this woman how to approach Christ- not grasping Him so that He must pay attention to you, nor unintentionally bumping into Him by mindless, scattered prayer, but rather by complete, self-effacing humility and focused faith.  Seeking to touch Him as your Lord not as your servant in order to be healed by Him, not to prove one’s worthiness or to be able to boast of one’s blessings, but rather in recognition of His being Lord, God and Savior.  The woman didn’t seek to make Christ her servant, she didn’t try to alter or interrupt His mission.  She did not see herself as worthy of His attention.  She faithfully wanted His healing holiness to flow into her life without bothering Him at all.  She doesn’t grab a hold of Jesus, no graspingness in her at all, but in touching His garment she connects with Jesus.  This woman’s touch creates a union, communion, with the incarnate God.   That is what we seek in prayer.  It is what we should be seeking when we receive Holy Communion – connection with Jesus Christ our Lord.

For the woman with the hemorrhage, she would not even be able later to boast about what happened to her, for her very presence in the crowd was religiously immoral and anti-social, disrespecting everyone around her.  She would have found herself even more shunned by angry neighbors if she told them what she did – they would see her as defiling Jesus, not being healed by Him.  What she was hoping would happen to her was something nobody would believe later if she told them.  They would not believe that God would heal a person in the moment she is violating the Law and contaminating everyone around her with her uncleanness.  She didn’t belong there bodily by rule and ritual.  So amazingly, she could be there only spiritually by faith, hope and love.  It was her spiritual presence that was holy and connected her to Christ.  If we want Christ to hear our prayer – to be touched by our prayer – we have to make ourselves fully spiritually present to Him.  Not just bodily present – but fully present in soul and spirit, heart and mind.  And this union with Christ and this prayer can be offered anywhere at any time even when it otherwise seems inappropriate.  We can always be seeking Christ even in a crowd, even when in a hostile situation, even when we are someone who is unwanted by all those around us.

She came to touch God but discovered that she had the divine touch!  It was her inner self and disposition which had allowed God to enter into her life and open her to the healing grace of Christ.  The divine power in Christ was at home in her, so readily flowed from Him to her.  Unlike the chosen Apostles, she didn’t seek to sit at the right hand of Christ in order to rule others.  She was content to receive Him into her life, but He pointed her out as a model of faith, capable of receiving divine peace.

Jesus said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

There is also  an entire Scriptural background to this narrative.   In Leviticus 15 we are given the commandments concerning a woman with a flow of blood whether normal menstruation or due to some medical condition.  In part the Law reads:

“When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. . . .  If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.  . . .  But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting. And the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the LORD for her unclean discharge. Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”  (Leviticus 15:19-31)

Anyone who touches a woman with a flow of blood is made unclean by that contact.  But what happens if someone unclean touches something that is holy?  This menstruating and thus, at least by the religious standards of that day, ritually unclean woman wants to touch Christ in order to be healed.  She has a faith which goes way beyond what the Scriptural Law dictates.  No one is to touch her, but what happens if she touches someone?  The Prophet Haggai offers this (Haggai 2:11-13) :

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests to decide this question, ‘If one carries holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and touches with his skirt bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy?'” The priests answered, “No.” Then said Haggai, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered, “It does become unclean.”

Holiness and uncleanness seem to flow in one direction – if you touch the garment which has holy flesh in it, does the holiness flow into you so that you become holy?  The priests answer: NO, holiness does not flow in that direction.  However, uncleanness does flow from a defiled object to the thing the unclean touches.

Interestingly enough in the Gospel lesson we see something new transpiring.  The need for the Law is changing.  Something greater than the Law is now present in Israel.    The women’s uncleanness does not spread to Christ or to the crowd.  But Christ’s holy power does flow to the unclean women.  Something new and holy is present in Christ.  What the priest’s in Haggai’s day thought impossible has come to pass.  Christ is not made unclean by the touch of the menstruating woman, but that woman is made whole and holy by touching Christ, the incarnate God.  Christ as the new High Priest of the new revelation shows the emptiness of the Levitical priesthood.  The Levitical priests were powerless to bring holiness to others.  Christ reveals His power in that He makes all things Holy. [This entire Gospel lesson also tells us it is proper for menstruating woman in faith to receive Holy Communion.]

The Levitical Law made it clear  that there is a need to keep the unclean separate from the rest of Israel because uncleanness present in the midst of the people will make the tabernacle in their midst itself unclean.

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (Leviticus 15:31)

But when Christ is in their midst, tabernacling with them, He is not made unclean by contact with the woman, but rather holiness flows from Him into the woman and heals her.  The tabernacle is no longer defiled by the uncleanness or sin of the people, but rather God’s holiness is now flowing from the incarnate Christ into the lives of the people and even the unclean are being restored to Israel.

In Genesis 3:3,  Eve expressed a thought that even if they were to touch the Tree of Good and Evil, they would die.  Holiness is taboo and deadly to the touch.  She apparently did not believe creation was a means to experience and know God.  The Woman with the flow of blood on the other hand believed in the life-giving nature of God, even God in the flesh.  The Law of her day also opposed her touching Jesus or any human.  But this time, the woman’s touch is divine and holy for it connects her to God rather than separating her from God.  Christ has not only opened Paradise to us, for in the incarnation He made it possible for us to touch God.

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Deliver Us From Evil

“The awesome force of evil does not lie in evil as such, but in its destruction of our faith in goodness – our conviction that good is stronger than evil. This is the meaning of temptation. And even the very attempt to explain evil by virtue of rational arguments, to legitimize it, if one can put it this way, is that very same temptation, it is the inner surrender before evil. For the Christian attitude towards evil consists precisely in the understanding that evil has no explanation, no justification, no basis, that it is the root of rebellion against God, falling away from God, a rupture from full life, and that God does not give us explanations for evil, but strength to resist evil and power to overcome it. And again, this victory lies not in the ability to understand and explain evil but rather in the ability to face it with the full force of faith, the full force of hope, and love that temptations are overcome, they are the answer to temptation, the victory over temptations, and therefore the victory over evil.

Here lies the victory of Christ, the one whose whole life was one seamless temptation. He was constantly in the midst of evil in all its forms, beginning with the slaughter of innocent infants at the time of his birth and ending in horrible isolation, betrayal by all, physical torture, and an accursed death on the cross. In one sense the Gospels are an account of the power of evil and the victory over it – an account of Christ’s temptation.

And Christ didn’t once explain and therefore didn’t justify and legitimize evil, but he constantly confronted it with faith, hope, and love. He didn’t destroy evil, but he did reveal the power of struggle with evil, and he gave this power to us, and it is about this power that we pray when we say: “And lead us not into temptation.”

The Gospel says about Christ that when he was suffering alone, at night, in the garden, abandoned by all, when he “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (Mt. 26:37), when all the force of temptation fell on him, an angel came from heaven and strengthened him.

It is about this same mystical assistance that we pray, so that in the face of evil, suffering, and temptation our faith would not waver, our hope not weaken, our love not dry up, that the darkness of evil not reign in our hearts and become itself the fuel for evil. Our prayer is that we can trust in God, as Christ trusted in him, that all the temptations would be smashed against our strength.

We pray also that God would deliver us from the evil one, and here we are given not an explanation but one more revelation, this time about the personal nature of evil, about the person as the bearer and source of evil.”   (Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 78-81)

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
Selah

that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Selah

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.

May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

The Theotokos Weaves our Salvation

In a famous fifth-century homily delivered at Constantinople (the centre of fine weaving in the eastern Roman world) St. Proclos called her [the Theotokos]

The awe-inspiring loom of the Incarnation on which the weaver, the Holy Spirit, ineffably wove the garment of the hypostatic union. The overshadowing power from on high was the interconnective thread of the weave; the ancient fleece of Adam was the wool; the undefiled flesh from the virgin was the threaded woof; and the shuttle – no less than the immeasurable gracefulness of her who bore him. Over all stood the Logos, that consummate artist.”

(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History Doctrine and Spiritual Culture, p. 222)

Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

Environmental Theology

Previous:  Creation: God’s Gift to Us

Some years ago Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declared September 1  as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment.  This declaration was also endorsed by the other Orthodox Primates as well as by the Pope of Rome.  In honor of this day, here is a meditation on Environmental Theology or, if you prefer, ecological spirituality.

First, Chrysostom argues that the image of God is reflected in humanity’s control and authority over the natural world.  As Chrysostom expresses it, “God created the human being as having control over everything on earth…nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls.” This authority and control is a gift of love, given to humanity to be exercised responsibly. Indeed, the exercises of a responsible dominion, Chrysostom believes, rebukes the fallen human tendency toward irresponsibility, laziness and self-indulgence. Responsible care for the environment is to be a “stabilizing influence” in our lives, forcing us to look beyond ourselves toward the well-being of our broader world with all its varied inhabitants. To exploit or ignore that environment is to deface God’s own image in us.

Second, God has exhibited, as Chrysostom puts it, an amazing “prodigality” or extravagance in God’s creation of the world. Certain characteristics of the natural order – the seasons and their rhythms, for example – have been created to facilitate humanity’s life and understanding of God’s love and care. Other aspects of nature – reptiles and wild beasts come to mind – illustrate the abundance of God’s creation, an extravagant prodigality designed to “overwhelm” us and teach us “that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.

Even if we struggle to identify all of nature’s utility and benefit, we are called to preserve it in its entirety.”

(essay by Christopher A. Hall, from Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, pp. 36-37)