A Jonah Moment

 

The Holy Prophet Jonah is perhaps best remembered for trying to flee from the Lord, so that he wouldn’t have to do the Lord’s will since he found it disagreeable that the Ninevites, enemies of Israel,  might be given opportunity by God to repent and be saved.   As we read in the Book of Jonah:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.  ...  (Jonah 1:1-4)

Try as he might to flee from the presence of the Lord, Jonah discovered God is everywhere, one is never away from the presence of the Lord.  And though we have free will to choose in life anything other than God’s will, God is able to outlast us in any game of hide and seek or in any staring contest we might want to engage with God.  It is pretty hard to beat an eternal being in time, though we often are willing to try to play the game.   What is amazing about God in the Jonah story is that God saves Jonah from the belly of the whale while Jonah is trying to flee from God (the belly is certainly a symbol of Sheol – the place of the dead, and the whole story is a resurrection story and a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection, at least as Christ and His followers read Jonah) .  Jonah is not saved because he is trying to do God’s will, but is saved despite his effort to thwart God’s will.  Think about that – Jonah is saved despite clearly rejecting holiness.  Jonah has worked his way to his Sheol, just like Adam did – by disobeying God.  Yet, Jonah is saved from the consequences of his own behavior.  No eternal punishment for the disobedient in this prophecy.

In the writings of the desert fathers, Abba Issac has his own Jonah moment, though in the end he agrees to God’s will a lot more easily than Jonah ever did.  Even saints do not always want to do the will of God, and some do it only grudgingly.  Humans are headstrong and strong willed to their deaths.  So we read in the desert fathers:

Once they came to make Abba Isaac a priest. When he heard, he fled into Egypt, went into a field, and hid amidst the crop. The fathers went after him and, when they got to the same field, sat down to rest a little there, for it was night. They set the ass free to pasture, but the ass went and stood by the elder. When they sought the ass at dawn, they found Abba Isaac too. They were amazed and wanted to bind him but he would not let the. “I am not running away any more,” he said, “for it is the will of God and no matter where I run away to, I will come to it.”   (Isaac of the Cells, Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

No matter where we might run to get away from God, we will find God present there.  That is the mercy of an omnipresent God!

Jonah’s complaint with God is that God is too forgiving and merciful, and Jonah makes it clear that he disapproves of God’s nature:   But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “I pray you, LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”    (Jonah 4:1-2)   While it is true of God that:  “He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever” (Psalms 103:9), that was not true of Jonah who was unforgiving of the Ninevites and hoped they all would be destroyed and perhaps sent to hell for all eternity.  Fortunately for us, God is far more loving, forgiving and merciful than his saints!  We may never find reason to forgive someone or their offense in our lifetime.  On the other hand, since God is not bounded by time, God can afford to be eternally patient with us and forgive us in the world to come.

We  commemorate the Holy Prophet Jonah on September 22.

There Is No Other Way to Learn the Things of God

“For in no other way could we have learned the things of God, unless our Master, existing as the Word, had become man. For no other being had the power of revealing to us the things of the Father, except His own proper Word. For what other person knew the mind of the Lord, or who else has become His counselor? (Rom 11:34). Again, we could have learned in no other way than by seeing our Teacher, and hearing His voice with our own ears, that, having become imitators of His works as well as doers of His words, we may have communion with Him…”

(St Irenaeus, from The Christian Life in the Early Church, p. 12)

Truth is Truth

“‘Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and while Orthodox Christianity does claim uniquely to teach the fullness of truth, it does not claim a monopoly on truth. On that basis, Orthodox Christians are open to mutual learning and mutual transformation. This step may sound radical. But once we admit that truth exists outside our own faith, and especially if we say that everything that is true is true because it reflects Jesus Christ (who is Truth), then we must be open to the ways in which God’s truth has been found even in faiths that do not share our belief in Christ.’ (Peter Bouteneff)”

“‘[Justin] says that all truth belongs to Christians because God, through the Word, is the source of all truth, and the Word who took on human flesh in Christ is the fullness of all human truth. But those who even unwittingly have participated in this truth are in some sense in communion with it however imperfectly, and this is because ‘seeds of the Word (logos)’ [logos spermatikos] are found everywhere.’ (John Garvey)”

(Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 50 & 60)

Heaven and Earth are Full Of God’s Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Makes the World Make Itself

“When we contemplate the physical creation, we see an unimaginable complex, organized on many planes one above another; atomic, molecular, cellular; vegetable, animal, social. And the marvel of it is that at every level the constituent elements run themselves, and, by their mutual interaction, run the world. God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it. And this in spite of the fact that the constituents are not for the most part intelligent. They cannot enter into the creative purposes they serve. They cannot see beyond the tip of their noses; they have, indeed, no noses not to see beyond, nor any eyes with which to fail in the attempt.

All they can do is blind away at being themselves, and fulfil the repetitive pattern of their existence. When you contemplate this amazing structure, do you wonder that it should be full of flaws, breaks, accidents, collisions, and disasters? Will you not be more inclined to wonder why chaos does not triumph; how higher forms of organization should ever arise, or, having arisen, maintain and perpetuate themselves?

Though a thousand species have perished with the mammoth and the dodo, and though all species, perhaps, must perish at the last, it is a sort of miracle that the species there are should have established themselves. And how have they established themselves? Science studies the pattern, but theology assigns the cause: that imperceptible persuasion exercised by creative Will on the chaos of natural forces, setting a bias on the positive and achieving creatures.”

(Austin Farrer, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 6)

Ezekiel 33:11

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; see also Ezekiel 18:31-32)

St. Romanos the Melodist offers us Christian insight into Ezekiel‘s prophetic words:

“Now I shall make all known to you and I shall prophesy to you, All-Holy, unblemished.

For fall and resurrection,

your Son is set, the life and the redemption and the resurrection of all.

The Lord has not appeared so that some may fall while others rise,

for the All-Compassionate does not rejoice at the fall of mortals.

Nor has he now come to make those who stand fall,

but rather he is here hastening to raise those who have fallen,

ransoming from death what he himself fashioned,

the only lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 31)

And from the desert fathers we find a very motherly and earthy understanding of the Ezekiel prophecy:

A brother asked Abba Macarius, “My father, I have fallen into a transgression.” Abba Macarius said to him, “It is written, my son, ‘I do not desire the death of a sinner as much as his repentance and his life’ [see 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9].

Repent, therefore, my son; you will see him who is gentle, our Lord Jesus Christ, his face full of joy towards you, like a nursing mother whose face is full of joy for her child when he raises his hands and his face up to her. Even if he is full of all kinds of uncleanness, she does not turn away from that bad smell and excrement but takes pity on him and lifts him up and presses him to her breast, her face full of joy, and everything about him is sweet to her. If, then, this created person has pity for her child, how much greater is the love of the creator, our Lord Jesus Christ, for us!   (St. Macarius The Spirit Bearer: Coptic Texts Relating To Saint Macarius, Kindle Location 269-279)

The unconditional love of a mother for her child is a most exquisite image of God’s love for us.  God is not repulsed by the filth of our sins but desires to embrace us with God’s eternal love if only we will allow ourselves to be so embraced.

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

A Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Going through old papers which I saved over the last 40 years,  I rediscovered this prayer attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian in a folder.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember where the prayer came from, but share it for all who may be in need of just such a prayer – those being crushed by their own failures, mistakes, sins and sense of sinfulness.    The prayer makes several references to the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son  from Luke 15:11-32, the text of which I have included at the bottom of this post just for reference.

I find this prayer a good balance or alternative to those prayers and piety which make us into nothing but a dung worm deserving being squashed by God before being tossed into hell.  It is a prayer intending to comfort and give hope like we find in the Akathist: Glory to God for All Things:   “No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You, Lord, can restore a conscience turned to ashes. You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!”

St Ephrem’s Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve.  Pronounce not over yourself a final judgement for the multitude of your sins.  Do not commit yourself to fire.  Do not say the Lord has cast me from His face.  Such words are not pleasing to God.  Can it be that one who is fallen cannot get up?  Can it be that he who is turned away cannot turn back again?  Do you not hear how kind the father is to a prodigal?  Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly, “I will arise and go to my father.”  Arise, and go!   He will accept you and not reproach you but rather rejoice at your return.  He awaits you, just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as Adam did. 

It was for your sake that Christ was crucified.  So will he cast you aside?  He knows who oppresses us.  He knows that we have no other help but him alone.  Christ knows that man is miserable.  Do not give yourself up in despair and apathy assuming that you have been prepared for the fire.  Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire.  He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.  Imitate the prodigal son – leave the city that starves you.  Come and beseech Him and you shall behold the glory of God.  Your face shall be enlightened and you will rejoice in the sweetness of Paradise.  Glory to the Lord and lover of mankind who saves us!   Amen.

Then the Lord told this parable:

A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired servants.’  And he arose and came to his father.  But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.  Now his older son was in the field.  And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’  But he was angry and would not go in.

Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ “   (Luke 15:11-32)

A Thanksgiving Prayer 2018

An After Dinner Thanksgiving Prayer 

And after you have been filled, give thanks as follows:

We thank you, Holy Father, for your holy Name

which you have made to dwell in our hearts

and for the knowledge and faith and immortality

which you have made known to us through Jesus your Servant.

Glory to you forever!

You, Almighty Master, created everything for Your Name’s sake;

You have given food and drink to men for their pleasure,

so that they might give you thanks.

and to us you have graciously given spiritual food and drink

and life eternal through Jesus your Servant.

Most of all, we thank you because you are mighty.

Glory to you forever!

(from the Didache, The Apostolic Fathers, pp. 314-315)

Strengthening Christ

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

The particular scene described by St. Luke in the Garden of Gethsemane presents all kinds of challenges for Trinitarian believers who see Christ as the incarnate God.  Not the least of which is that an angel strengthens Christ!  Of course all kinds of explanations are offered always trying to balance the two natures in Christ – sometimes His divine nature is being portrayed and sometimes His human nature.  I  cannot resolve all those issues, and want only to mention one thought that this event brings to my mind.

In his agony in Gethsemane, we see that Christ knows what it is to be human and knows what it is to have His heart crushed by the weight of life in this world.  He realized in this moment, in his humanity, why humans fail, why they fall in temptation and despair, why life seems more than many of us can bear.  Even His divinity could not spare Him from feeling all that we humans feel.  Perhaps even the angels could see and empathetically feel the crushing effect of the weight of the world on their Lord.  It is too much for them to bear.  But if He as Lord could not bear this weight, what could they do to help Him?  One thinks about Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6)!

The image of Christ bearing our sins and realizing the limits of human nature is moving indeed.  “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17) and “he  himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24).  His agony is despite being God, He is experiencing our world, our life, our lives.

I recently finished the book RED RISING, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I didn’t read it for any theological reason, but purely because one of my sons gifted it to me.  I read it for fun.  But there was one scene in the book which I thought theologically profound.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I am going to talk about something in the book which if you plan to read the book you may not want to know.  I will be a bit vague about this, and some of what I write here is what I read into the scene and how I reacted to it rather than just what the author said.]

The novel is placed in our dystopian solar system in which humans have managed to inhabit most of the planets.  But there is one class of people which rules the solar system with an iron fist.  It is a vile and violent rule and solar system where might = right, and the end justifies the means.  As one character is trying to earn his right to be in the ruling class, he realizes he has to do something spectacular to get the people to follow him instead of the other strong  and potential rulers.  He chooses a method which I was totally not expecting in the book.  He is faced with having to discipline one of his soldiers for raping another soldier.  The whole system is built on power and abuse.   All those with him are watching to see what he will do and he realizes no matter what he does, some may leave him and some may decide to betray him.   He orders the man to be beaten with 20 strokes, but then comes the amazing part – which I was not expecting at all.  He then says that they must also beat him with 20 lashes because as the leader, the failure of his followers are his failures as leader.  No one will be punished without him receiving an equal punishment.  And in the book he suffers from the punishment he receives, there is no symbolic beating.  They inflict serious pain on him.   His method so astounds everyone that they come to realize he really is special as a leader.

Needless to say, one sees Christ in this.  By His suffering, Christ says all the punishment that should be meted out to every sinner is to be meted out on Him.  Of course, Christ goes even further then the novel’s character as He takes on the punishment instead of us being punished, not in addition to it.  Additionally, this character in the story can be heroic but he also can be arrogant and foolish and wrong.  Nevertheless, in the story, the moment when he orders them to mete out his own punishment is profound.  It really allowed me to understand from a new perspective what it is that Christ has done for us.

And in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross, Jesus bears the full weight of all this punishment for the sin of the world.  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).