Learning the Skill of Charity

One person has the skill to hammer brass into the most exquisite shapes and to engrave elaborate patterns on to it.

Another has the skill to make furniture, joining together different pieces of wood so firmly that no one can break them apart. A third person can spin the finest yarn, while a fourth weaves it into cloth.

A fifth craftsperson can lay stones one on top of the other to build walls, while a sixth puts a roof on top of the walls to make a house. Indeed there are so many different skills, each one requiring many years to attain, that it would be impossible to list them all.

So what is the skill that rich people should acquire? They do not need to fashion brass or wood, or to build houses. Rather, they must learn how to use their wealth well, to the good of all the people around them. The ordinary craftsperson may think that that is an easy skill to learn. On the contrary, it is the hardest skill of all. It requires both great wisdom and great moral strength. Look at how many rich people fail to acquire it, and how few practice it to perfection.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 14)

The Faith of a Physicist: The Incarnation

Christ the Divine Wisdom

“Yet the redeemer is not a gnostic Christ imparting the secrets of divine wisdom, who could indeed be a heavenly figure in human disguise.  The mystery of our redemption is something altogether deeper than that.  It proceeds, not from the outside by illumination, but from the inside by participation.  We need transformation, not information.  That is why docetisim is so totally unacceptable to Christian thought.  The Saviour must be truly and fully human.  In Gregory of Nazianzus‘ famous words, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed.’  A heavenly figure could be of no redemptive  significance for us.  We should have no share in him.”   (John Polkinghorne, THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST, p 136)

The Nativity Fast: Why Humility is Essential

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion.  On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ.  On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose.  As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.

The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil  that saves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:

‘What makes you come out? Is it fasting?’

They would say: ‘We neither eat nor drink.’ ‘

Vigil?’ he would say –

and they: ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘

Withdrawal from the world?’

And they would say: ‘We exist in the deserts.’

‘What then makes you come out?’

and they would say: ‘Nothing conquerors us other than humble-mindedness.’ Do you see that humble mindedness is victorious against demons?” (Amma Theodora, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 129)

St Mary of Egypt

The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart.   As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!].  It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.

If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons.  The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart.   For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting.  For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide.  What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.

“Every genuine  confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

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)

2017 Nativity of Christ (PDF)

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I have gathered all of the 2017 posts from my Blog related to the Nativity Fast and the Feast of the Nativity of Christ into one PDF, which is now available at 2017 Nativity Posts (PDF).

Each year I gather related posts into a PDF  for the Nativity, Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes.   You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

The Incarnation of God is Our Salvation

“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:

‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’  (AH 5.1.1)

Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.

‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”

(John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 62 & 63)

Destroying

This week in the news we learned of yet another attack in Egypt by Muslim extremists against the Coptic Orthodox Church.  Men from the so called Islamic State attacked a church in order to kill some Christians.  There is little doubt if these people had their way, they would destroy the Christian Church.

And yet they are not the first or only people who ever wished to destroy Christ and Christianity.

We heard St. Paul himself say in his letter to the Christians as Galatia:  For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.  (Galatians 1)

St. Paul’s initial reaction to Christianity?  He wanted to destroy it.  God in His omniscience did not stop him from aiding those who attempted to destroy the nascent Christian movement.  Paul was present when the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death.  Paul was there to aid in the killing of Christians.  He declared himself to be an enemy of Christianity.

Despite Paul’s murderous intentions and hatred for Christianity, God was still able to call Paul and have him become the evangelist to the Gentiles.   Imagine if the Christians in reaction to Paul and in defense of their fellow Christians, had killed him?  The Church would have been deprived of one of the Apostolic leaders.  God was willing to wait for Paul’s conversion in order to bring Paul to salvation.

Let us pray that God will find the way to use all who would persecute us Christians!  Our prayer should never be for their death but for their conversion.  Whatever their intentions are against us, we should pray that they be saved and unite themselves to Christ.

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Even before St. Paul willed to destroy the Church, we know in the Christmas Gospel story that King Herod wanted to destroy Christ as well.

Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” (Matthew 2)

And despite the fact that Christ was a mere infant, as helpless as any human baby is, Jesus was not destroyed.  In fact, God destroyed no one in protecting the infant Jesus.  The killing was done by the enemies of Christ.

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While we contemplate the effort to destroy the Christ child, remember also what salvation is:  Christ from his conception in the womb of the Virgin unites God to creation, divinity to human beings, heaven to earth, the spiritual to the physical.   Salvation consists in the restoration of communion between God and creation.  And when Jesus was but an infant, the salvation of the universe was no larger than that baby.  Yet in that child, the reconciliation between God and humanity was already accomplished.   The Kingdom of Heaven began on earth as a seed and slowly has grown and spread into all the world.

Jesus told this parable:   “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”   (Mark 4:30-32)

The Kingdom of God did not come from heaven to obliterate the earth, replacing the things of the earth with the things of heaven.  The kingdom of God did not come on earth as some tsunami eradicating everything in its path.  Rather the kingdom of heaven entered into earth as a child in the womb of Mary.  If God used a normal human egg to begin the process of the incarnation, then the Kingdom of God started in this world only .1 mm!  The Kingdom of Heaven begins as a tiny seed, becomes a zygote and eventually an embryo and then a fetus.  The size of God’s Kingdom could actually be measured at a point in history.  It has grown slowly like the mustard shrub, transfiguring and transforming people one by one.  Reclaiming humanity from the inside.  The Kingdom of God is not an external force that smashes the universe to rid the cosmos of anything that is not part of the Kingdom.

And yet, when this kingdom of God was still no bigger than the infant Jesus, the world was seeking to destroy Him and thus to end salvation, to end our reconciliation with God, to end our communion with God.  The Kingdom of God did not come to destroy the world, but the world was seeking to destroy the Kingdom of God.  “The world” 2000 years ago, like today sets itself in opposition to the reconciliation and communion which God offers to the world.  God in love works to reconcile with humanity, humanity is still interested in its own way and cares little for the Communion which God offers.

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Imagine – at one time the salvation of the universe was no larger than a human baby, and was contained in that child and was happening in that infant.    And the salvation of us all was fragile, as fragile as a child.  Yet this is the route God choose to enact the salvation of the world.  God choose such a fragile method, fraught with the possibility of failure, for life is fragile and it is not that difficult for an infant to die.  God the Father entrusted His Son to human parents.  The Holy Trinity’s plan for the salvation of the world required human care and cooperation.  Mary and Joseph actually had to care for this child to make salvation possible.

The mystery of God and God’s infinite love being contained in a little child –  that is the wonder of Christmas.  Our salvation hinged upon the Christ child living in a world in which the Jewish King and the Roman Empire wanted him dead.

O, the mystery of God’s way!  We want God to come and smash His enemies (or maybe more truthfully our enemies) with nuclear weapons which annihilate them.  Instead, God enters the world as a child, vulnerable to all the wickedness of the world.  God’s plan for eternal salvation involves a helpless baby capable of being killed in a second.

When we think about that we come to understand something about our God, and we realize there is a lesson there about why the world continues the way it does and why God doesn’t just annihilate everything and everyone God is unhappy with.  God’s desire is that we all be saved.   “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”   (Ezekiel 33:11)

It is for the same reason that God kept St Paul alive and did not destroy him in his wickedness.  God waited for St. Paul to convert rather than destroy him.  “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  (1 Timothy 2:3)

God patiently awaits our repentance and conversion.  He is patient even with those who want to destroy Christ.   “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

We end up experiencing exactly what God’s chosen saints in every generation experienced:

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect”  (Hebrews 11:37-40).

We will be made perfect only with all those who are to be saved.

 

The Eucharist and Christmas

“In his worldly obedience he emptied himself, and his emptying is the only example for our path.  God who became a child, God who fled into Egypt to escape Herod,

God who sought friends and disciples in this world, God who wept from the depths of his spirit over Lazarus, who denounced the pharisees, who spoke of the fate of Jerusalem, who drove out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, who finally, and most importantly gave his flesh and blood as food for the world, lifted up his body on the cross between the two thieves – when and at what moment did his example teach us about inner walls that separate us from the world?  He was in the world with all his Godmanhood, not with some secondary properties.  He did not keep himself, he gave himself without stint.  ‘This is my body, which is broken for you‘ – shed to the end.  

In the sacrament of the eucharist, Christ gave himself, his God-man’s body, to the world, or rather, he united the world with himself in the communion with his God-man’s body.  He made it into Godmanhood.”  (St. Maria of Parish, Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 78)

 

Old Testament Images of Christ’s Birth

PREPARE, O BETHLEHEM, FOR EDEN HAS BEEN OPENED TO ALL!   ADORN YOURSELF, O EPHRATHA, FOR THE TREE OF LIFE BLOSSOMS FORTH FROM THE VIRGIN IN THE CAVE!  HER WOMB IS A SPIRITUAL PARADISE PLANTED WITH THE DIVINE FRUIT: IF WE EAT OF IT, WE SHALL LIVE FOREVER AND NOT DIE LIKE ADAM.  CHRIST COMES TO RESTORE THE IMAGE WHICH HE MADE IN THE BEGINNING!

In the five days before Christmas, one finds in Orthodox hymns for the pre-Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  These pre-Festal hymns shed light on the Feast and our understanding of who Jesus is and how He is our salvation.   There were three hymns that caught my attention with beautiful imagery.   Above, the hymn parallels the creation of the first Adam in Paradise with the birth of New Adam, Jesus,  from the Virgin Mary.  The Paradise which God planted for Adam is superseded by the Theotokos who is a spiritual Paradise.  If Paradise is some heavenly place, Mary becomes a spiritual heaven – the place where God abides on earth.   The Tree of Life which was in the middle of the original Paradise now is able to blossom forth from the Virgin.  Christ is the Divine Fruit planted in her womb, and Christ is the Tree of Life.  We can eat of this Tree of Life in Holy Communion.  The Tree of Life is no longer closed to us but is now able to give us eternal life.  Adam and Eve had lost access to the Tree of Life by their rebellious sin.  Christ again offers to us the fruit of the Tree of Life – namely Himself.  No longer will we be denied access to immortality – we are restored to the fullness of humanity that God intended for us from the beginning.

IN YOUR WOMB, ALL-BLAMELESS THEOTOKOS,
WE BEHOLD THE RICH THRESHING-FLOOR OF WHICH SOLOMON SANG.  YOU BEAR THE EAR OF GRAIN THAT GREW WITHOUT BEING SOWN;  YOUR CHILD IS THE ETERNAL WORD:
IN A WONDERFUL MANNER YOU WILL GIVE BIRTH TO HIM IN THE CAVE OF BETHLEHEM, HE WILL LOVINGLY FEED EVERY CREATURE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD, FREEING THE HUMAN RACE FROM DEADLY HUNGER.

The above hymn keeps to a theme of food – from harvesting the grain to being fed.  First there is mention of the threshing-floor.  Threshing is the process of taking a plant and separating the edible grain from the inedible straw and husk.  The threshing floor is the place where this separating process takes place.  More interestingly, the threshing floor became a rich symbol of a place where God meets His people.  Our encounter with God turns out to be a threshing process – perhaps God’s own separating the wheat from the chaff, but also the required effort on our part to take God’s revelation to us and to discover what we need to get from it for our own nutrition.  The scriptures for example always require interpretation – this is a threshing process because God’s full message is sometimes hidden in the text.  We have to separate the edible grain (what we can understand and digest) from the inedible husk (the written word which contains the grain).  It is the grain which gives us life.

In 2 Samuel 24, King David purchases the threshing-floor as the very location to build the temple.  It is on this exact place – the threshing floor – where Solomon actually built it according to 2 Chronicles 3:1.   The Theotokos is compared in the hymn to this threshing-floor, or in her womb divinity is enclosed in humanity, but also that incarnation is revealed to the world.  Christ becomes the food of the world who gives eternal life to all who eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Christ is the spiritual food which if we eat we will not hunger again.  Christmas is the Feast in which God feeds His people with the manna of heaven.

CHRIST, WHO IS THE INFINITE WISDOM OF GOD,
HAS WONDROUSLY BUILT A HOUSE FOR HIMSELF FROM THE VIRGIN; SHE COMES INTO THE CAVE AND MANGER OF DUMB BEASTS: THERE SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH IN THE FLESH TO HIM
IN A MANNER BEYOND ALL UNDERSTANDING.

Proverbs 9:1 states that Wisdom built a house to abide in (Proverbs 9:1).  Christ is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24).  According to the Prophet Baruch (3:37), a prophecy we read at Christmas, Wisdom walks on earth.   The “house” which Christ/ Holy Wisdom built is Mary, the Virgin Mother.  God becomes incarnate in her, and takes up his abode on earth.  He dwells in her bringing about the salvation of the world.

The Old Testament is full of images about the incarnation – prophecies of many different kinds, some predicting the coming of God in the flesh, and some foreshadowing the events.

Strange Birth

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”   (Matthew 25:35)

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Seeing this strange birth, let us become strangers to the world and set our minds on things in heaven; for God descended to earth as lowly man to raise to heaven those who cry to him: Alleluia!  (Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2444-2446)

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He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John 1:10-14)