Holy Tuesday (2017)

The events of Christ’s life some 2000 years ago are remembered in order to make Christ alive for us today. The events are history, but their importance lies not so much in being ancient history, but because they are alive in the Church today and help orient all believers to the coming Kingdom of God.   Our Gospel proclamation is: “Christ is risen!”  We don’t celebrate that He was risen but rather that He is risen and is alive right now, as of this moment.  His life means the power of death is overthrown. We remember the life of Christ to seek Christ, because Christ is alive now, and because He seeks us.

In the days of Holy Week we remember Christ coming again, as a Bridegroom seeking His beloved – seeking us! – inviting us into His Paschal Banquet.  Our orientation is toward the eschaton, and life in the world to come, far more so than toward past events.  The past has happened and can’t be changed, but the present and future are becoming reality, and in our interactions with God, we are shaping that reality.

“In a series of marvelous images, St. Makarios told us why Christ was born, lived on earth, suffered, died, was buried, and rose. Why? In order to stand and knock at the door of our heart (Rev. 3.20). The fact that he knocks is a sign the He does nothing without our consent: He cannot enter unless I want Him to. Christ seeks us out and knocks on our door, waiting patiently outside like a stranger seeking warmth and shelter. In so doing, He creates within us the sense and experience of His kenosis, His self-emptying (Phil 2.7).

Why does the God of the universe stand outside in the cold, day after day, knocking on our door? Because He can’t do without us. Just as a married woman can’t do without her husband, or a married man without his wife–because each partner is integral to the identity of the other–so too has Christ arranged things so that He can’t do without us. Without us, He is naked, hungry thirsty, and has no place to rest his head (Mt 8.20). He has made us His food and drink, His clothing and shelter: He has made our hearts His only place of repose. And when we open the door and welcome Him in, He fills us with His life and light. But make no mistake: without Him we are dead; a dark, empty place, designating only His absence.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 249)

Christ is our food – we eat His Body and drink His blood. We are today His hands and feet and eyes and ears in the world. We carry out His work and ministry. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, we are doing this to and for Christ.  The practice of Lenten self-denial has the goal of freeing ourselves from enslavement to the self so that we can serve others.  Abstinence and asceticism have the goal of freeing us from enslavement to the self so that instead of being self oriented and engaging in constant self-love, we can become like Christ and live to love and serve others.

 

God’s Love and Loving God

“This has taught me never to condemn anyone: as the prayer says: ‘There is no man who lives and does not sin.’

Remember, all our faith is based on our love of God and of the Mother of God and on our veneration of the saints. We can express all this by loving all people and by never refusing them help. I always tell everybody the words of the Gospel, ‘Love your God with all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.’

Do you find yourself lonely? You have icons in your apartment–icons of Jesus Christ, of His Holy Mother, of our Saint Anastasia, of the Guardian Angel, of Archangel Michael, and probably you have others as well. If you feel seized by feelings of despondency, walk over to an icon and pray, and the dark forces will step away.

Read a chapter of the Gospel every day. In the Four Gospels there are eighty-nine chapters, so in the course of a year you will be able to read the whole Gospel four times. I started reading a chapter of the Gospel every day from an early age. I have been a heiromonk for fifty years and I celebrate the liturgy almost every day, but every time I read a chapter I find something new in it, something good and inspiring.

Be with people and help them, whoever they are. They can be your colleagues, your friends, or your relatives. Help everyone and those who around you will understand what a Christian is and will come to the Church, to God. ”

 (Father Arseny, A Cloud of Witnesses, pp. 109-110)

Perseverance and Persecution

“’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Mt. 5.10-11). In saying these words, Christ promised that those who would follow Him would certainly be persecuted. This is a central prediction of the Gospel and an essential condition of those who accept it.

Martyr Juvenaly of Alaska

Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.’”  If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know Him who sent me.’  (Jn 15.20-21).

            True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ’s sake. They will be persecuted with Christ and like Christ, for the truth that they speak and the good that they do. The persecutions may not always be physical, but they will always be spiritual and psychological. They will always be mindless, unjust, violent, and “without cause” (Ps 69.4, Jn 15.25). They will always be painful and the cause of much suffering. For ‘indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12).

           A person embarking on the spiritual life must expect persecution and slander. He must be wary, however, of any false persecution complex, and must be absolutely certain that the suffering he meets is solely ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and not because of his own weakness and sins.”  (Thomas Hopko, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 50)

God as the Prodigal’s Father

The Prodigal’s father watched for his son’s return and while the Prodigal was still a long way from home the father saw him and ran to meet him.  So too God is always watching for our repentance.  In Great Lent Christ calls us to confess our sins and return to God our Father.

“It is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. When God sees that we suffer grievously in multifarious trials, this gift penetrates into our thought, lest we should depart from life in the midst of all these calamities and afflictions, having reaped no profit from this world. Our lack of understanding is not due to the difficulty of temptations, but to our ignorance. Often it happens that while some are in the midst of these trials, they depart from the world laden with guilt, since they did not confess, but rather denied and blamed. But the merciful God waited with the hope that somehow they might be humbled, so that He might forgive them and make for them a way of escape. And He would not only have provided them with a way of escape from their temptations, but would have forgiven them their transgressions by reason of the brief confession of their hearts.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian: Homily 74, pp. 262-263).

Living The Kingdom of God

In the book Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (page 124), Michael Plekon, building upon the writings of Paul Evdokimov, notes:

 “For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is

‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive.  In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”

 

Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Loves You – No, I Mean You!

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:47)

Even if there had been only one human who ever sinned, died and went to Hades, Christ would have become incarnate, died on the cross to save that person.   Jesus is the Good Shepherd and would leave the 100 billion who never sinned to find that lost sheep.  Christ would do this because He is God, and God is love.  God loves every single human being who has ever come into existence.

If you were the only one who ever sinned, Christ would die on the cross to save you from your sin and death, because He loves you.  It is true that God loves humanity, but that love is always personal.  God loves you, not just humanity.  God may love you because you are human, but God loves you personally.

The Son of God dies for you, not just for humanity, on the cross.  Christ is willing to go to hell even for one sinner.  His love is that personal.  He comes to call you by name to raise you personally from sin and death.  We may exalt Christ for dying because of the sins of the world, but He dies for my sins, even if they are the only sins in the world.

It matters little how many or how few sins others commit.  Christ’s love is for you personally, He dies on the cross because of and for your sins and to give you eternal life.

Christ seeks each sinner personally.  So in Lent when the hymns of repentance paint “me” as being the foremost or chief among sinners, or of having sinned more than David the adulterous murderer or anyone else, they are also pointing out that even if that is true, Christ still loves me and dies for me and raises me up from hell itself.

As St. Gregory the Theologian confesses about Christ: “For He pleads even now as man for my salvation . . .”  (ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, Editors: M Baker, S Danckaert, N Marinides, p 12)

However grave or great my sins may be, Christ still loves me enough to die for me and to continue to intercede before the Father on my behalf.  The hymns which portray “me” as a great sinner are also, and more so, pointing out the greatness of God’s love for me.

I need only to accept His love, and renounce my sins and my sinfulness.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:36-47)

If I feel I have sinned little or rarely, then I do not feel much need for Christ.  I will therefore love little, as Christ predicts.  Only when I see myself as the foremost of sinners will I be able to love as Christ loves me.  When I realize that even if I were the only sinner, Christ would die for me – then do I realize the depth of His love for me.  Then I realize how grave my sins really are – not compared to what sins I might commit – but the price that is paid for them:  the death of God the Son on the cross. The Son in His love continues to ask God to forgive me my sins.

 

Sunday of Orthodoxy: The Doctrinal Significance of Icons

The first Sunday in Great Lent also commemorates the acceptance by the Church of icons as theologically essential for proclaiming the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There was a very long dispute about the use of icons that lasted more than a century, but eventually the Church declared icons were Orthodox and should be in churches and venerated by the faithful.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast  [those who rejected the use of icons] dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules [those who accepted icons as Orthodox] held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: ‘no one has seen God at any time’ (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who for my sake effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshiping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.”  (The Orthodox Church, pp. 31-32)  

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)

Lost Innocence

A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee  (Luke 18:10-14) .   There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content.   The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human.  Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.

Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil.  This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve.  The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves.  They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation.  So the first hymn says:

I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;

then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.

But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity.   Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all.  God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.

The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation.  In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17).  She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.

You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;

the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,

for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,

and bring mortal men up to heaven.

Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament.  God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself.  This promise turns out to be the Theotokos.  In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.