Ignore Evil. Look to Christ.

God has placed power in man’s soul. But it is up to him how he channels it – for good or for evil. If we imagine the good as a garden full of flowers, trees and plants and the evil as weeds and thorns and the power as water, then what can happen is as follows: when the water is directed towards the flower-garden, then all the plants grow, blossom and bear fruit; and at the same time, the weeds and thorns, because they are not being watered, wither and die. And the opposite, of course, can also happen.

It is not necessary, therefore, to concern yourselves with the weeds. Don’t occupy yourselves with rooting out evil. Christ does not wish us to occupy ourselves with the passions, but with the opposite. Channel the water, that is, all the strength of your soul, to the flowers and you will enjoy their beauty, their fragrance and their freshness.

You won’t become saints by hounding after evil. Ignore evil. Look towards Christ and He will save you. Instead of standing outside the door shooing the evil one away, treat him with disdain. If evil approaches from one direction, then calmly turn in the opposite direction. If evil comes to assault you. Turn all your inner strength to good, to Christ. Pray, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ He knows how and in what way to have mercy on you. And when you have filled yourself with good, don’t turn any more towards evil. In this way you become good on your own, with the grace of God. Where can evil then find a foothold? It disappears!

(Elder Porphyrious, Wounded by Love, p. 135)

God: The Cause of Our Wonder

You make darkness, and it is night…   (Psalm 104:20)

…even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.  (Psalm 139:12)

He bowed the heavens, and came down;

thick darkness was under his feet.

He rode on a cherub, and flew;

he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.

He made darkness his covering around him,

his canopy thick clouds dark with water.  (Psalm 18:9-11)

 

And so it proves to be for each one who follows the spiritual Way. We go out from the known to the unknown, we advance from light into darkness. We do not simply proceed from the darkness of igno­rance into the light of knowledge, but we go forward from the light of partial knowledge into a greater knowledge which is so much more profound that it can only be described as the “dark­ness of unknowing.”

Like Socrates we begin to realize how little we understand. We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progres­sively aware of a mystery.

God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder. Quoting Psalm 8:1, “O Lord, our Lord, how wonderful is thy name in all the earth”, St Gregory of Nyssa states: “God’s name is not known; it is won­dered at.”

(Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 16)

Fire-Starter

Christ has been called a “fire-starter.” He came “to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt. 3:11; Lk 3:16). He once said: I came to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled” (Lk. 12:29). On the day of Pentecost, the fullest moment of divine revelation, the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ followers. Divine grace came to rest on them like “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). Christianity began as a spiritual movement through baptism by divine fire.  

What is the Orthodox way of life? How can we live it with full awareness? . . . the essence of the Orthodox Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.   Authentic Orthodoxy, not as an abstraction but as reality, is not merely a religion of rituals, rules and regulations, but the personal self-disclosure of the living God, His self-giving to us in love.

(Theodore Stylianopoulos, The Way of Christ, p. 174)

Acts 2:1-11

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?

Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

34358291504_beaf717427_nIn the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy, we confess our belief that Jesus Christ became incarnate… for us [humans] and for our salvation.”  The Creed professes a belief that all that Christ did was for the salvation of all humans, not just for Christians or for the Orthodox.  We repeat this same line on feast days in the Orthodox Church  when at the final dismissal the priest blesses the congregation saying, “may He who for us (humans) and our salvation, Christ our true God…”   Orthodoxy is very clear that Christ Jesus did everything for the life of the world, for the salvation of all humans – for all who are created in God’s image and likeness, whether everyone believes that  or not.

This sense that everything is moving us toward this salvation is also clear in the Church’s celebration of PaschaAscensionPentecost.  All three events are for our salvation and necessary for our salvation.  In the resurrection, Christ unites even the dead to God, filling all things with Himself, even the place of the dead.  Christ raises the dead with Himself, and then ascends bodily into heaven, bringing our created nature into the Kingdom, into God’s presence.  Then Christ sends the Holy Spirit upon all flesh at Pentecost, restoring the Holy Spirit to humanity.  We are thus not saved just by the death of Christ on the cross, but by the continuous work of Christ who lifts us from Hades to Heaven.  Both the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit restore humanity’s union with divinity.   We sing about all of this throughout the Pascha-Pentecost cycle of services.  On the Monday of the Holy Spirit, one hymn proclaims:

COME, O FAITHFUL, LET US CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF THE FIFTIETH DAY,
THE DAY WHICH CONCLUDES THE FEAST OF FEASTS;
THE DAY ON WHICH THE PRE-ORDAINED PROMISE IS FULFILLED!
THE DAY WHEN THE COMFORTER DESCENDS UPON THE EARTH IN TONGUES OF FIRE;
THE DAY OF THE DISCIPLES’ ENLIGHTENMENT!
THEY ARE REVEALED AS INITIATES OF HEAVENLY MYSTERIES,
FOR TRULY THE LIGHT OF THE COMFORTER HAS ILLUMINED THE WORLD!

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Salvation, the restoration of human communion with God, fully occurs in all of the events of Pascha-Ascension-Pentecost and as we participate in these events through life in the Church, especially through baptism and the Eucharist.  In Christ, we are saved from sin and death and by the Holy Spirit we are enlivened and enlightened.  We are thus saved – restored to being fully human – by both the work of the Son/Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

With Pentecost we see a full restoration of what was lost by our sins.  In Genesis 6:3, the grieving Creator says of us humans, the focal point of His creation:

“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God withdrew the Divine and Holy Spirit from us, and with this separation from God’s Spirit, death became part of our condition on earth.

With the coming of Christ, this ‘curse’ is lifted from us as John the Baptist bears witness:

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”  (John 1:29-35)

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In the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit also remains on a human, which was the sign for John the Baptist that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  At Pentecost, that Spirit which came to dwell in Jesus and remain on Him, comes to dwell on all humanity.  The curse from Genesis 6:3 is lifted, and humanity is restored to full communion with God.  The salvation of us humans is brought to completion in this complete cycle of incarnation, resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit to humanity.

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The Holy Spirit as a Dear Mother

The Day of the Holy Spirit

“O Merciful Lord, teach us all by Thy Holy Spirit

to live according to Thy will that we may

everyone of us in Thy Light know Thee, the true God,

for without Thy Light we cannot comprehend

the fullness of Thy love.

Enlighten us by Thy grace,

and Thy grace will kindle our hearts to love of Thee.

O gracious Lord, mercifully seek out Thy creation, and shew Thyself to Thy people in the Holy Spirit, as Thou shewest Thyself to Thy servants.

Rejoice every afflicted soul, O Lord, by the coming of Thy Holy Spirit. Let all who pray to Thee know the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is very much like a dear mother. A mother loves her child and has pity on it; and the Holy Spirit likewise has pity on us, forgives and heals us, enlightens and rejoices us. And the Holy Spirit is to be known through humble prayer.

The man who loves his enemies soon comes to know the Lord in the Holy Spirit, but of the man who does not love his enemies I have no wish to write. Yet he is to be pitied, for he is a torment to himself and others, and will not know the Lord.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 291, 293-294)

Pentecost and Babel

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.  (Acts 2:1-4)

The description of the day of Pentecost reminds me of Ezekiel 43:1-5.    It is not that Acts quotes Ezekiel, but more there is an echo, a parallel between the passages. Adolfo Roitman notes:

“… fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the return of the Divine Presence to the Temple, originally enunciated during the Babylonian Exile: ‘And there, coming from the east with a roar like the roar of mighty waters, was the Presence of the God of Israel, and the earth was lit up by His presence . . .  The Presence of the Lord entered the Temple by the gate that faced eastward.  A spirit carried me into the inner court, and lo the Presence of the Lord filled the Temple’ (Ezek 43:1-5).”  (ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE, p 87)

What Ezekiel hears  is something “like the roar of mighty waters” (see also Psalm 93).  The rushing of water was perhaps one of the noisiest and mighty sounds known in the ancient world before machinery became common place.  Ezekiel wants us to understand that the sound he heard was a mighty roaring which would have drowned out all other sound.  For the Apostle Luke, writing in Acts, he describes the sound to be a mighty, rushing wind, the howling tempest.  He too uses the word “like” – he is searching for a proper comparison, but we get the idea of this mighty sound which accompanies the Presence of God entering His temple, and also entering His disciples.  In the Acts account, it is now the disciples who represent the temple of God, as really does the entire world, for Pentecost is the outpouring of God’s Spirit on the world.  Ezekiel also describes the earth being “lit up by His presence“- so too in Acts there is the distribution of the tongues of fire.  Ezekiel and Luke are both looking for the proper metaphors to help us understand what God’s returning to His temple, coming upon His disciples, filling the world with His Spirit is like.  They both are making comparisons but not necessarily telling us literally what happened.  Words will not suffice for what was experienced (like trying to explain snow to people living at the equator  who don’t even know refrigeration or have never experienced anything freezing – what is snow like?).

And if we think comparing Ezekiel 43 and the Temple with Acts 2 and the Apostles is far fetched, we only need to remember that the Orthodox Church for centuries has read Ezekiel 43:27-44:4  and its description of the Temple as a reference to Mary, the Theotokos, and we read it at three of the Feasts of the Theotokos –her Nativity, Entrance into the Temple, and Dormition.  The Theotokos becomes the Temple of the Lord.   Add to that St. Paul’s own words: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? . . . For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) and  “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Corinthians 6:16).   The New Testament is clear that the Jerusalem Temple is to be replaced: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”  (Revelation 21:22).

The Pentecost experience is not only described in terms comparing it to what it is like (Acts – Ezekiel, Temple – Apostles), but also it is contrasted with the narrative of the account of Babel in Genesis 11, an event that also involved a cacophony of sound.

“The account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is frequently used in the Liturgy for Pentecost as a foil.  Babel is the ‘anti-Pentecost’ whose effects can only be undone by Holy Spirit-empowered Pentecost.  The first is a curse, the second a healing.  … The survivors of the flood … said ‘Let us build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens…’ (11:4).  The Lord saw their pride and unwillingness to do as He had told them and said,

Look, they are one people. And they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do . . . let us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech (11:6-7).

And so the Lord scattered them.

This confusion of language has often been seen as a curse: God punishing the people for their act of defiance, for setting themselves up like gods and trying to reach the heavens.  This may have been the people’s grand wish, but it is tiny in comparison with an all-powerful God, who had to ‘come down’ from heaven to get a closer look at the tower being built by the people (11:5).  The people may have thought they were becoming immortal, but God knew they were not even close.

The Pentecost liturgy takes a slightly different tack.  With its ‘When the Most High came down he confused the tongues, divided the nations; but when he parted the tongues of fire, he called all to unity…’, it instead hints at the confusion of language being an act of caring discipline by God.  It was a scattering  so that He could unite them in His own time and plan.  The people of Babel were trying to create their own unity, but had left God out of that unity.”  (Kathryn Wehr, “Notes and Comments: The Pentecost Liturgy as a Call for Unity and Mission”, SVTQ Vol 59 #2  2015, pp 236-237)

Biblical scholar N T Wright comments further:

“… the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11).  Human arrogance reaches a height, quite literally, with the building of a tower to make a name and create security.   God comes down to look at the puny little tower (the passage is full of ironic humor), and confuses human languages so that the human race won’t be able to carry out its arrogant ambitions.

What is God doing about evil?  On the one hand he is confronting it, judging it and doing something to stop it from having its desired effect.  On the other hand he is doing something new, beginning a new project through which the underlying problem of the curse and the disunity of the human family will be replaced by blessing.  How Abraham’s family will reverse the curse of Babel is not clear . . .  When the promise of Genesis 12 comes through into the New Testament we discover its effect, of course, not least on the day of Pentecost. (EVIL AND THE JUSTICE OF GOD, pp 48-49)

Laughter – The Great Weapon Against Anger

St. Gregory of Nazianzus personifed Anger as a wicked friend – someone who is always nearby so quickly summoned into our hearts and minds, and yet someone we shouldn’t want in our lives and should readily expel from our hearts and minds.  He also felt becoming enraged was itself allowing oneself to become possessed by a demon.  The person in a fit of rage behaves as if he or she has lost their mind.  Gregory felt laughter was the best weapon to dispel rage when it wells up within us.   We might imagine all the monkish saints as being austere and humorless, yet Gregory sees laughter as a a medicine, an antidote to anger.  He wrote in one of his poems:

For laughter is the greatest weapon against an assault of rage.

. . .

What then is the mildest of all things? God.

. . .

Otherwise I vow that you, O wicked friend [Anger],

the wretched supporter and protector,

who make men swell up and give them to the gates of Hades,

to submit this day to God and to the Word,

O Anger, you boiling, fullness of homicide,

eminent ugliness of the face, storm of the heart,

drunken gadfly who drive men off cliffs and send them to Tartarus.

O legion of spirits, evil composite,

who tear up bonds and fetters with their shackles, Christ . . .

himself wants you to flee as quickly as possible from here.

Go out and fill the depths of your swine.

They will readily receive you as you cast yourself into the sea.

Depart from all of us who are dear to God.

(Poems on Scripture, p. 119)

In Glory Christ Ascended

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.   (1 Timothy 3:16)

One of the surprising insights of the Feast of the Ascension is that in glory Christ ascends from the earth to heaven.  In other words, Christ does not ascend to get to His glory, He is already in glory before He begins to ascend.  Glory (shekinah) is not something that Christ has to go to heaven to get or to return to.  As St Irenaeus wrote: “The glory (shekinah) of God is a human being fully alive.” Christ is in glory on earth in His humanity.  Indeed He is the King of Glory.   The fact that in glory He ascends, amazes the Bodiless Powers, for they are in wonder that God’s glory is ascending from earth to heaven rather than the other way!  As we sing in one of the Vespers hymns for the Ascension:

Not parted from the Father’s bosom, O sweetest Jesus,
and having lived among those on earth as man,
today You have been taken up in glory from the Mount of Olives,
and exalting in Your compassion our fallen nature,
You have seated it with the Father.
Therefore the heavenly ranks of the Bodiless Powers were amazed at
the wonder, and beside themselves with fear;
and seized with trembling, they magnified Your love for mankind.

Some of the earlier church fathers who believed in a tiered universe thought it is exactly because Christ is in glory on earth that He can ascend bodily through the aerial demonic realms unscathed on His way to heaven.  His glory conceals from the demons the incarnation and His humanity. Thus in this ancient worldview, the demons who stood as guards to prevent humans from bodily entering the spiritual realms don’t realize humanity has just passed them by and entered into heaven at the Ascension because they see in the ascending Christ only glory.  The angels in heaven are amazed as they see humanity enter into the spiritual realm of heaven – the divinity of Christ now hidden by His humanity.

When You ascended in glory, O Christ our God,
while the Disciples looked on.
The clouds received You with Your flesh;
the gates of heaven were lifted up;
the choirs of Angels rejoiced with gladness;
the higher Powers cried out, saying:
“Lift up your gates, you princes,
and the King of Glory will come in!”

Christ doesn’t ascend to glory or to his glory, He has the glory on earth and in glory He ascends in.  The incarnate Christ gives the proper glory to humanity as He says to the Father:  “The glory which you gave me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one; I in them and you in me…” (John 17:22-23)

The notion that Christ is in His glory as the incarnate God, as a human, and that in glory He ascends from earth to heaven (rather than ascending from earth to attain His glory)  is paralleled in the Third Antiphon of the church when we sing: Remember us, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom (not into your kingdom as some versions mistakenly have it).  Christ comes in His kingdom, in his glory – his glory and kingdom are wherever He is; it is not the case that He has to come into His kingdom (as if He is ever outside the Kingdom and has to wait until the day that he enters into the Kingdom).

May the glory of the LORD endure for ever, may the LORD rejoice in his works… (Psalms 104:31)

 

Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council: Defending Jesus

“It was with a spirit of reverential fear that the Fathers were then compelled to defend the divinity of the Son at the council of Nicea in AD 325. They sought to remind Christians that Christ’s coming into the world was a true manifestation of the eternal God and that his Incarnation opened the way to the fullness of salvation and of deification: ‘[God] was made man,’ said St. Athanasius, following St. Irenaeus, ‘that we might be made God.’ But such insistence on the eternal unity of the Father and the Son risked compromising or minimising the uniqueness, or irreducible specificity, of each of the divine persons. The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis.’ This term settled the trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person,’ which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.”   (Boris Bobrinskoy, “God in Trinity,” The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 50)

The Ascension of Humanity to Divinity

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ completes  cycle of salvation in which God became  human in the incarnation of the Word (John 1: ) and then the incarnate Word ascended bodily into heaven.  Thus all that divided humanity from divinity came to an end (see my post The Ascension: No Barrier to Heaven Ever Again).  God who always wished to dwell with and in us humans, whom God created in His own image and likeness, dwells with us in the incarnation and brings us to dwell with God in the ascension.  Salvation is thus by definition the elimination of all barriers to God’s unity with us and the establishment of this eternal communion between humanity and divinity. This definition of salvation was expressed in various ways from the earliest days of Christianity.  Norman Russell in his book, FELLOW WORKERS WITH GOD: ORTHODOX THINKING ON THEOSIS (pp 38-39) offers a collection of quotes from early church fathers which repeat this truth.

The Son of God ‘became what we are in order to make us what he is himself’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5, pref.).

‘The Word of God became man so that you too may learn from a man how it is even possible for a man to become a god’ (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 1.8.4).

‘He became human that we might become divine’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54).

‘He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity’ (Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 5.7).

‘Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.5)

The Word became incarnate ‘so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Refutations 11).

‘The Son of God became the Son of Man that he might make the sons of men sons of God’ (Augustine, Mainz sermons 13.1).

‘He became like us, a human being, that we might become like him, I mean gods and sons.  On the one hand he accepts what belongs to us, taking it to himself as his own, and on the other he gives us in exchange what belongs to him’ (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 12:1)

‘God and man are paradigms of one another, that as much as God is humanized to man through love for mankind, so much has man been able to deify himself to God through love’ (Maximus the Confessor, Amgibua, 10).