Not Seeing And Believing

In Matthew 9:27-31, we encounter Jesus and two unusual followers:

When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”

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I call them unusual followers because these two men are both blind and yet are able to follow Jesus.   Apparently it is not hard even for these two humans who can’t see Jesus to find Jesus and to follow Him!  Why is it that we who have eyesight find it difficult to find Him let alone follow Him?  The Gospel really is for us who can’t see Jesus – Jesus calls blessed those who haven’t seen and yet believe.

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.  (John 20:28-31)

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The Gospels were written for those of us who cannot see Jesus.  We have opportunity to believe in Him through the experiences of others who did see Him.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.  (1 Peter 1:8-9)

The New Testament and the Church both exist to give new people opportunity to hear about Jesus, believe in Him, to receive eternal life from Him, and to obtain salvation through Him.  But we are not required to see Him, and as becomes obvious in the Scriptures many who saw Him gained no advantage from that experience for only in the resurrection, in the proclamation of the Good News and in the Eucharist did they come to believe in Him.  The two blind men of the Matthew 9 follow Christ without being able to see Him.  They believe in Him without being able to see Him.   They pray to Him even though they can’t see Him.  Jesus shows to everyone that you don’t have to see Him to believe in Him.

And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened.

Jesus asks the two blind men if they believe He can give them sight – even though they can’t see Him or see what He does.  Jesus responds by really saying, “well, let’s see if you believe it or not.”  The issue isn’t whether Jesus can give them sight or not but if they believe he can or not.   Jesus puts the onus on them – let it be according to what you really believe.  Only because they have faith in Jesus are their eyes opened and they see Jesus.

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And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it.” But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.

What is it that Jesus wants them to keep secret?  That Jesus healed them?  That they could now see would become obvious to anyone who knew them.  Was Jesus telling them not to boast about their own faith – as if they had the power to heal themselves?  Or not to boast about having been favored by God for healing as if they were more righteous than those not healed?   In any case they do go forward to tell everyone about Jesus, not about themselves.  Now that they can see who Jesus is, they don’t talk to Him, but rather they tell others about Him.

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Those two people who followed Jesus when they were blind, no longer follow after Him once they can see, for after being given sight, they go out to proclaim what they know about Jesus Christ the Son of God.   Because they now can see they do not have to live where they can physically see Jesus, for now they know who He is.

And Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  (Mark 8:29)

Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”   (John 11:27)

Even if we cannot see Jesus today, we can find Him, follow Him, and pray to Him for mercy.   We can do all the same things that those described in the Gospel did and we too can proclaim the Good News about Christ to everyone we know.

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Heaven and Earth are Full Of God’s Glory

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.   (Psalms 33:6)

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  (Psalms 19:1)

His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.   (Habakkuk 3:3)

One of the most wonderful things to contemplate from the Scriptures are relationships.  We have of course the mysterious relationship between Creator and creation.  Then within the Godhead there is the relationship of the Three Persons of the Holy TrinityFather, Son and Holy Spirit.  Each of the Persons of the Trinity has a relationship with creation.  In Genesis 1:1-3, the Spirit (the Breath of God) hovers over the face of the earth and when God speaks the Word (the Son of God), Light comes into existence, but not the light of the sun which does not yet exist.

“It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth . . .”   (Exodus 31:17)

Then there is the relationship between heaven and earth and the relationship of both heaven and earth to the Creator.   Heaven is the mysterious abode of God, and yet it is related to the rest of creation, all of it together is “not God” but created by God.  According to Christ, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matthew 24:35), they are not eternal and yet God the Eternal One fills them with His glory and becomes united to them.   Heaven and earth are both dwelling places.  Dwellings are temporary places, and yet significant to our eternal God.  We see the mystery in these two statements by father and son.  King David declares part of the wonder and glory of God on earth, while his son Solomon realizes the inadequacy of the earth for fulfilling its role.

King David says: “O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.”  (Psalms 26:8)

King Solomon says: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  (1 Kings 8:27)

The exact relationship of God the Creator to God’s own creation defies easy explanation and yet we still can experience it, as we sing in the Liturgy:

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. “

Heaven and earth, though created, are full of God’s glory.  Both heaven and earth are full of God’s glory and both proclaim God’s glory to all beings who are capable of hearing and seeing.

 Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.  (Jeremiah 23:24)

Not only does God’s glory fill heaven and earth, the Lord God fills heaven and earth.  God’s glory is not something other than God.   Creation, that which is “not God” is filled by God’s glory by God’s existence.  The relationship between God and that which is “not God” is a mystery indeed.  For how can God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) fill the heaven and earth which are created and circumscribed by God?  We are in God and God is in us! A relationship fully exemplified by Mary the Theotokos.  Mary like Christ, each in their own way, personify the mystery of the interpenetration of Creator and creation.

Then we have St Irenaeus saying: “The glory (shekinah) of God is a human being fully alive.”  So how can heaven and earth be full of a human being?  The mystery deepens for  it is Christ as the incarnate God  who fills the universe with Himself.  So St Paul can write:  “and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . . that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”  Christ fills not only the entire universe but each of us.

all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD   (Numbers 14:21)

Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth.  Amen and Amen.   (Psalms 72:19)

Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  (Isaiah 6:2-3)

Our very existence makes us part of the mystery of God’s own relationship with all of creation.  We experience the glory of God, perhaps most intently and clearly in the Liturgy, but that should open our eyes to seeing God’s glory in all of creation including in our fellow human beings.  It is also why the Fall, sin  and the fallen world are so painful to us for they obscure the glory of God reducing everything to mere materiality void of its natural spirituality.

Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all.   (1 Chronicles 29:11)

Birth of the Friend of the Bridegroom

In John 3:29, John the Baptist calls himself “the friend of the Bridegroom.”  Jesus said no man born of woman was greater than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28).  John fulfilled the high calling of becoming a human friend of God, something the Lord wanted from the time God had created humans.  The Patriarch Abraham is one of the few people identified as a friend of God (James 2:23).  And in Exodus 33:11 Moses is said to have spoken with God “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.”  God’s friends were few and far between.

Jesus identified Lazarus, who He raised from the dead, as “our friend” (John 11:11).  After Judas had left the company of disciples at the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus called His disciples “my friends” (John 15:13-15).  Christ also does call Judas “friend” immediately after Judas kisses him in the garden – at the moment the crowd came to arrest Him (Matthew 26:49-50).  As Jesus knew, not all God’s friends really are (John 6:64, 13:11).  John the Forerunner being the friend of Christ the Bridegroom is incredibly special in the history of salvation.  Fr Sergius Bulgakov writes:

“What then is the significance of the Forerunner, whose coming into the world is closely  linked with the coming of the Messiah Himself and the Incarnation?  The coming of the Forerunner is associated with the ‘fullness of time‘ (Gal 4:4; cf Eph 1:10), which must be fulfilled before the Son of God, the Son of man, can come into the world.  This fullness – which is the fullness of the whole of the Old Testament holiness, and in general that of the holiness that is attainable by man – consisted not only in the appearance of the Most Pure Virgin who was worthy of being the Mother of God but also in the appearance of a man worthy of meeting the Lord as a friend, of becoming the friend of the Bridegroom. Becoming man signified for God not only being born of the Virgin, becoming incarnate, but also being received by the human race in the person of the Forerunner.  Once born, the Lord was not to remain solitary among men.  Not even His Most Pure Mother could free Him from solitude, for in Her divine maternity She was one with Him as it were and for this reason could not have entered into a relationship of otherness to Him, could not have become His friend (a ‘third person’, as we tend to say).  Such an ‘other’ in relation to the Savior, capable of meeting and receiving Him before and on the part of all humankind, and worthy of being called the friend of the Bridegroom, should naturally be the greatest of those born of women.  For there is no higher calling and no higher dignity for a man that to be the friend of the Bridegroom.  The Lord wishes to find in man a friend who would be a god according to grace, a creaturely image and likeness of God.  But since the fall, when man stopped being God’s friend and became a child of wrath (see Eph 2:3), his return to God’s friendship, his reconciliation with God, has become the express task of the divine economy of our salvation.  And just as the long history of the Old Testament Church was the condition of the blossoming of the Edenic lily of the Mother of God on the trunk of this tree, so the fullness of the Old Testament holiness was the condition for the blossoming alongside Her of the Forerunner of the Lord, ‘like a fragrant bud, like a sweet-smelling cypress’ (Canon of the Forerunner, 9th ode, 2nd tr.).” (THE FRIEND OF THE BRIDEGROOM, pp 8-9)

John the Forerunner was able to consider himself the friend to the incarnate Son of God.  He is the human whom God has desired to find … a friend.  As God’s friend, like Abraham and Moses, before him, John tries to show people the way to also be God’s friends.

“John saw his mission to call the people out into the wilderness of purification and renewal, out to the Jordan across which they had entered the land that God had promised them in the first place, to renew their Covenant with Him.  In the course of their daily lives, in an era of increasing economic tensions and apprehensions about the future, they had lost sight of the only way they could survive: a return to the observance of the Covenant that God had made with their forefathers at Sinai.  And they would seal their renewed commitment to the laws and traditions of Israel with a single act of immersion … a one-time public acknowledgment of a new, life-long commitment, administered in the flowing waters of the Jordan by John ‘the Baptizer’ himself. . . . To ‘the multitudes’ John reportedly instructed, ‘He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.’  . . . John the Baptist was offering crowds of people who lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives.  John’s baptism was not a panacea but a symbol of something much more important: a personal pledge to return to the way of life that God had decreed for the People of Israel.  In fact Flavius Josephus knew only of John’s practical teachings, not his apocalyptic visions, reporting … that John was a good man who ‘had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God.’ And Josephus understood that John required a commitment from the people to whom he offered baptism, that ‘they must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as consecration of the body, implying the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.’  That right behavior was a commitment to participate in a national revival of righteousness and renewal of the Covenant of Israel.  And that, of course, meant a forthright and practical rejection of the new kind of world that Herod Antipas was trying to build.”  (R. Horsley & N. Silberman, THE MESSAGE AND THE KINGDOM, pp 33-34)

 

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)

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“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)