In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 4:13-27, he writes:
For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. (Revised Standard Version)
The Revised English Bible translates 4:13 as:
“It was not through the law that Abraham and his descendants were given the promise that the world should be their inheritance, but through righteousness that came with faith.”
St. Paul’s point is clear – his reading of the Torah is that God didn’t make His promise to the Jews through Moses, after giving Moses the Law. It was not through the Law, or in relationship to it, that God would fulfill His promise or that the Jews would inherit the world. The promise was given long before the commandments were given to Moses. The promise was given to Abraham and required a response of faith/faithfulness. As St. Paul reads the Torah, the promise of God to inherit the world ultimately is a promise about the Messiah and His eternal Kingdom. The point is clear that the promise of God, namely the Messiah, does not come through faithful adherence to the Law. The promise is given to those who respond in faith, for it is those who live by faith who are truly God’s people and the inheritors of God’s promise.
Those who continue to try to conform to some law, whether Torah or Christian tradition, are still trying to live by adherence to the law rather than by faith – they are following Moses rather than Abraham, and for St. Paul Christ is faithful like Abraham, not a law giver like Moses.
“He ranges the mountains as his pasture, and he searches after every green thing.” (Job 39:8)
It is not only the Lord who searches “after every green thing.” In Genesis 1, God gave every green leaf to be food for humans and for animals alike.
“And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:30)
Green, the color of chlorophyll, is the color of life for plants and the life giving process of photosynthesis. Maybe it is life giving and sustaining qualities associated with green that causes God as Creator to seek our and value things green.
He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. (Proverbs 11:28)
Green is not the color of money in the Bible, but the righteous will flourish like the well watered green leaf. I am amazed when walking in the woods about all the shades of green present in any one small portion of land. The shapes, sizes, contours of the leaves are abundantly varied. Even though the shades of the color vary so greatly, yet everyone of them is still green. Not all greens are identical.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
I do not know when or why green became the color identified with Pentecost in Orthodoxy, but it is the color of abundant life in the plant world. Traditionally in Orthodoxy the only mention of color with a feast was whether vestments should be bright or dark, but an exact color was not assigned to a feast, so I can only guess that the use of green with Pentecost must be a recent practice. I also don’t know when or why churches began decorating with tree branches and green leaves for Pentecost. It is possible that this too is a relatively recent practice.
And to Adam God said, “Because you have … eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. (Genesis 3:17-18)
According to Genesis 3, thorns and thistles became abundant because human sin had caused the ground to be cursed. Those noxious weeds which are a plague to farmers and a toxin to cattle proliferate without any nurturing agriculture to help them. While humans struggle to grow crops, noxious weeds seem able to thrive in the world of the Fall. But, from another point of view, other than that of the farmer who is trying to cultivate crops, even the noxious weed has a beauty to it – a delight to the eye of the photographer. Does it possess beauty because it too is a creation of God? Or is that simply part of the deception which hides from our eyes the dangers of our spiritual disobedience?
Remember that Eve “… saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” Tempted, enticed and seduced by a plant. She forgot God and His commandment to embrace the world and all that it would give her. It gave her and us more than she or we ever bargained for. And yet, to this day we continue to look away from God and want to find immortality and eternity in a world which is passing away.
“Since by God’s grace we have renounced Satan and his works and have sworn our baptism . . . it is also our natural duty, for since we were originally created by God as ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31), we owe it to God to be such. Although sin entered us through our negligence and introduced into us what is contrary to nature, we have been reclaimed through God’s great mercy, and renewed by the passion of Him who is dispassionate. We have been ‘bought with a price’ (1 Cor. 6:20), namely by the blood of Christ, and liberated from the ancient ancestral sin.” (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 10556-71)
This past Sunday, the 7th after Pascha, we commemorated the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council as is the practice in Orthodoxy these days. We might ask ourselves what exactly can we take from that Council that we need to teach today? While to some the issues of the Council might seem like purely academic debates about abstract theology, the debate of that Council touches the very heart of what and who we understand God to be. The Council is about God, and it is about the confessional and dogmatic theology of biblical Judaism. The Council focused on Deuteronomy 6 and how we Christians interpret the central tenet of our Old Testament Scriptures. Here is an excerpt from that passage that gives us the central point (emphases in the text is mine):
Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe . . . so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. . . .
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. . . . and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you . . . When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”
Deuteronomy 6 which contains the Shema of Israel, the central tenet of Judaism which our Lord Jesus Christ Himself taught.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)
The truth of theology, the truth of the ecumenical councils and the truth of the bible are the same truth. Deuteronomy 6 gives the basic theology tenet of Judaism and Christianity in the form of the greatest commandment. We are to preach and teach to our flocks the decisions of the 1st Ecumenical Council precisely because they are our understanding of Deuteronomy 6, of the Shema of Israel, of God Himself. And as is clear in Deuteronomy 6, it is the duty of God’s people to teach this true theology to our children and grandchildren. Not only does Deuteronomy 6 teach theology, it commands religious education! We are to influence, to shape and to form the theological experience and understanding of our membership and our families and children. Ecumenical Councils were debating theology, but not just for academics, but for every man, woman and child of the Church. We are to teach and preach in evangelism, in apologetics and in education – portraying God as God chose to reveal Himself, and in defending the very way and words we use to explain God.
“After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).
The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).
The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.
We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).
Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.” (Fr. Thomas Hopko, Doctrine and Scripture, Vol. 1, pp. 106-107)
The true focus of every Christian is not their salvation, but God. We are supposed to love God first of all, and then, secondly to love neighbor. An obsession with one’s salvation is far more an act of self-love rather than true love.
For true love, the love which God exhibits towards us, and which Christ commands us to do, is focused not on the self but on the other – God first, and then neighbor. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:
“What should we be interested in? God. Beautiful, marvelous, magnificent, splendid, glorious God Almighty. And His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, born of a virgin on earth; and the all-holy, life-creating Spirit who proceeds from God, dwells in the Son, and is breathed upon us. In God is life, reality, truth, peace, and joy. We need to be interested in the God who saves us, not in salvation as such. We need to be interested in loving God. Life is about God. The Bible is about God. Church is about God. Sacraments are about God.” (The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 230-233)
Humans often think themselves into a corner, or into a box, from which they can see no way out. Sometimes we do that to ourselves, sometimes others force us into that box.
At the incarnation, God put Himself into such a box. He willfully limited His omnipotence in becoming fully human. God accepted all the limitations having a body and living in creation puts on any of us, including death. God ended up not only as a human on earth, but as a corpse buried in a tomb. That tomb was sealed by a heavy stone. God thought Himself into such a “box” even finding His way to Hades, the place of the dead from which no one ever escaped.
Except God was not limited by any of these boxes – not the earth, not His body, not the tomb, not Hades.
Today’s Epistle concludes with the Apostles also in a box – The Sadducees have them arrested and put in a prison. This is the case of others putting us in a box of their choosing. And yet that box, the prison, was not able to contain the Apostles – God helped them think outside the box!
Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
In those days, through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch. Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly. And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed. Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”
Before the Apostles were put in that prison, they had put themselves in another box, but this was their own choice. The Apostles were terrified after the crucifixion of Jesus. Terrified that they too might be killed, so they went into hiding. They closed themselves in a room and locked the doors. They thought themselves into this box and could see no way out.
Gospel: John 20:19-31
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His 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.
We Christians can think ourselves into such boxes. We think the society is against us and we can choose to hide in our churches or in our homes or in our hearts. Each – church, home, heart – can become a box. We might go into that box, like the Apostles into the upper room – for safety because we fear the society around us.
But there is another reality which the Scriptures teach us. ANY box which we find ourselves in – whether it is one we chose to go into for safety, one we thought our way into and can’t see a way out of, one that is imposed on us by those who against us – still is part of this creation and so still is within God’s realm. “God is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28). Whatever “box” we find ourselves in – God is still not far from us, and we are still in God. All “boxes” humans experience – all limitations whether self-imposed or imposed on us by others – are still within God’s grace and power. They cannot separate us from God.
And as the Apostles discovered – even if in a box – Christ can still find His way into that box and be with us. So not only are our “boxes” always still in God with God close by, but Christ is able to enter into our boxes and be with us.
The Apostles discovered that Christ does not prevent them from boxing themselves in, nor does He promise them that there is nothing to fear out in the world, but He enters their box and tells them to go into the world anyway even if that world is terrifying.
We humans find ourselves in boxes of many kinds and we often think there is no way out of the box, or maybe even there is nothing outside the box! God is there. We might think our way into a box out of fear, depression, loneliness, overwhelmed by problems, or because others are imposing that box on us for their own (even nefarious) reasons. People these days think their way into political boxes as well, and this is often a self-imposed box. We allow ourselves only to read or think about ideas we agree with and we become afraid of everything and everyone outside our boxes and hate them as threats to our thinking. Political boxes also exist within God’s world and don’t contain it. And just as Christ came to His Apostles in their locked room, he challenged them to live the Gospel. He challenges us to do the same and not retreat into the imagined safety of our boxes.
We can remember Thomas and the Apostles and how Christ came into their presence – Christ entered into that upper room where they were hiding and was them with them in their box, in their fear, in their depression as they hid for their own safety and He helped them out of that box. He didn’t bless them to stay hidden or afraid. Neither did He tell them “there is nothing to fear” because He after all was crucified by this world.
The truth remains: no box humans create is ever outside of God. Every box and every prison is a human construct. When we are in them, we still are within God’s creation and are still living and moving and having our being in God. Even those who are in a tomb or in Hades are not outside of God, and Christ comes to them in their boxes and saves them.
“… we are led to give thanks to our Benefactor through the good things of this world, by which I mean
progress in all things,
a peaceful life,
the enjoyment of honors,
all the other supposed blessings of this life.
We are led to love Him and to do what good we can, because we feel we have a natural obligation to repay God for His gifts to us by performing good works. It is of course impossible to repay Him, for our debt always grows larger. On the other hand, through what are regarded as hardships we attain a state of patience, humility and hope of blessings in the age to be; and by these so-called hardships I mean such things as
the fear of loss,
and so on. Indeed, not only in the age to be, but even in this present age these things are a source of great blessing to us.” (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA , Kindle Loc. 28948-67)
In the quote above, St. Peter of Damascus (whose Namesday it is today, February 9) gives us a long list of blessings which lead us to God. These are blessings in this world and in this life – blessings even monastics, who are not supposed to live for this world alone, recognize and appreciate. Even hardships (of which he also makes a long list, and monastics and non-monastics alike can agree they are things we want to avoid) become a blessing because they can increase certain virtues in us as we deal with them in faith, hope and love.
All of the above was simply an introduction to the good news I can share about my own health. First, let me thank all of your for your continued prayers as indeed the last 4 years have been difficult with 4 major surgeries plus chemotherapy for cancer. This week I had both an oncology appointment and a 3-month post operative appointment with my neurosurgeon. The good news in oncology is no news – labs continue to show no change (I continue to be anemic but that seems expected due to the surgeries and the on-going chemo). I will have my next CT scan in about a month as they keep vigilant watch for any new tumors. There have been none since the lung resection surgery in May of 2015.
The neurosurgeon is totally happy with the spinal fusion which seems to be holding in place. I can walk without a cane and have none of the crippling back pain that led me to accept surgery. I will have to live with a number of physical limits, but I no longer need the back brace (pictured above, in case you can’t recognize what it is). That back brace first hugged me on November 8 and embraced me like a python 23.5/7 ever since. My cane (pictured here) – I was able to lay aside immediately after surgery. It now stands in a corner awaiting a new walking partner. The good news is for the time being I need neither of those devices, though I have a handful of other tools and devices which help me pick up things, reach things, get my socks and shoes on and the like. My back will never be what it was years ago, and will never be “normal” (though it is now a “new normal”) but I am able to continue to function, for which I am grateful daily.
I have learned to rejoice in the blessings of life and to see blessings in the hardships as well. I have learned to admire those who cope with and even overcome disabilities. I am ever thankful for those who have invented the medical devices that made my surgeries possible as well as those who improved them through engineering. I am grateful for all of those who have learned to use technology in the medical sciences – doctors, nurses and technicians.
I give thanks to God that God has entrusted such wisdom in the sciences to help us all. God has made it possible for us humans to remove all obstacles to our being healed by God. Medical science removes the physical obstacles to our healing, and repentance removes the spiritual obstacles to our becoming whole and human. Medicine and confession are thus both gifts from God which make healing possible. Both require human help and intervention.
I have accepted that in this life there are trials and illness. A few have asked me as to why instead of healing us, God doesn’t just prevent disease and injuries in the first place. I can only speak about reality – in this world, we have sickness, sorrow and suffering. Perhaps in some other world it doesn’t exist, but in our world it does, and it can serve a purpose, even be beneficial to us, though it doesn’t always seem so. I can ask why is grass green instead of being orange or purple? Maybe in some other world it is, but in this world, the only reality I know, it is green and must be so of necessity. Photosynthesis requires it, we and animals depend on it for food and oxygen. I also am reminded of a quote from St. John Cassian:
“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me (cf. Luke 22:42). Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.” ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1326-29)
O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your anger, Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled; But You, O LORD—how long? Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake! For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks? I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears.
(Psalm 6:1-6, Of David, A Prayer of Faith in Time of Distress)
King David, was loved by God, and yet in the Psalms he composed, he offers woeful lamentations about the suffering he experienced in his lifetime. His Psalms certainly speak to those of us who have suffered, as well as expressing the sorrows of our hearts. Distress, pain, sorrow, and suffering can all seem to go on forever with no end in sight. We do wonder with David, how long will God let the suffering go on?
We can also have the same experience of endless suffering just by listening to the news. And depression itself can come upon us like a darkness which will not go away.
What brought this all to mind was the words of St. Paul:
“It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
As I mentioned in the previous blog, Light Shines in Darkness, I realized what hope we have in the God who shines out of darkness. God is there present in the darkness. God doesn’t have to shine light into the darkness, for in the darkness we will find God, even if hidden, and we realize we don’t have to get out of the darkness to find our Lord. He is there where we are. The darkness is not darkness to God (Psalm 139:12)
I also realized that while suffering and worry seem to go on forever, there is another scale of time within which I can understand my own existence or even the times we are in. It is the time of the The Cosmic Calendar. The Cosmic Calendar tries to give us a graphic view of time from the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago) as science calculates it, to the present day. It takes this long history of the universe and puts it all into a 1 year calendar. Assuming the Big Band occurred at 1 second after midnight on January 1, and then showing when other things appeared in the universe, based on scientific calculations and assumptions. Here is just a very brief glimpse at when some things appeared in our world:
January 1 – 13.8 Billion years ago The Big Bang
Not until December 25 – is the Age of the Dinosaurs
December 31, 23:59:49 – Invention of the Wheel
December 31, 23:59:55 – Jesus Christ walks on earth December 31, 23:59:59 – The past 500 years
When viewed in this perspective of the universe, we realize that relatively speaking nothing we humans have experienced has lasted all that long. In fact all of human history and experience lasts less than a minute on the Cosmic Calendar. Even if one doesn’t believe in the Big Bang, or thinks the universe is younger than these scientific claims, still we come to realize how whatever we experience in the world is still a very small part of the whole, no matter how much of our thinking and lives it occupies. When we think things last “forever”, or when we worry about why God lets some event happen, we can see things from the perspective of the Cosmic Calendar and realize on the grand scale of things, our troubles are a minuscule part of time.
In the perspective of eternity or of the eternal God, we begin to understand the wisdom of Scripture:
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9)
In the absolute immensity of space and boundlessness of time , God shines forth out of the darkness. God is there. The darkness may obscure God to us. The vastness of space and the of enormity of time, may hide God from our eyes, causing us to see only darkness. Sometimes events occur which make us feel the darkness will last forever. But out of this darkness God will shine, illuminating all of time with eternal light and divine love.