Rejoicing and Weeping and the Last Judgment

One week before Great Lent begins, the Sunday Gospel lesson in the Orthodox church is Matthew 25:31-46, the Last Judgment.  In this surprising parable of Jesus, the final judgment of all humans by God is not based upon sins we have committed or avoided, nor upon whether or not we fasted during Lent, nor on how often we attended church or kept a spiritual discipline, nor on whether we kept the Ten Commandments, but rather God’s final judgment of us is based solely on whether or not we have loved the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The only question to be asked at the Last Judgment is whether or not we showed mercy and charity to those to whom we could have done so.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) comments:

“Listen and be glad, all of you who are poor and needy, for in this you are God’s brethren.  Even if you are poor and lowly against your will, with patience and thanksgiving voluntarily turn it to your own good.  Listen, all you who are rich, and long for blessed poverty, that you may become more truly heirs and brethren of Christ than whose who are involuntarily poor, for of His own free will He made Himself poor for our sake.  Listen and groan, all you who overlook your suffering brethren, or rather, Christ’s brethren, and do not give the poor a share of your abundant food, shelter, clothing and care as appropriate, nor offer your surplus to meet their need.  Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of this passion.  While many shiver and go without, I am well fed and clothed.  But more grievously to be mourned over are those who have treasures in excess of their daily needs, who hold on to them and even strive to increase them.  They have been commanded to love their neighbors as themselves and have not even loved them as dust, for what are gold and silver, which they loved more than their brethren, other than dust?

But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have.  If we prefer not to empty out all we possess for the love of God, let us at least not callously hold on to everything for ourselves.  Let us do something, then humble ourselves before God and obtain forgiveness from Him for what we have failed to do.  For His love for mankind makes up for our omissions, that we may never hear the horrifying voice: ‘Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed’ (Matt. 25:41).  How great a horror!  Be ye removed from life, cast out of paradise, deprived of light.’” (Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, pp 30-31)

Preparing for Confession: Consider the Prodigal Son

Sermon notes for The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 2017)

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

1]  “… the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord” –  no dualism here.  Jesus does not save souls.  The body belongs to the Lord.  In one famous old movie the sergeant barks, “his soul may belong to Jesus, but his a– (a certain part of his anatomy) belongs to me.”   St. Paul would vehemently disagree.  Even the Christian’s body belongs to the Lord – the resurrection is about the deification of the entire human being, including our bodies.  Bodily sins, sexual sins are sins against the Lord.  This is also why fasting is a spiritual exercise and spiritual asceticism involves the body.  My body becomes through baptism a member of Christ, part of Christ’s body.   This is spiritual, but involves the physical body.

2]  The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – we are to glorify God not by escaping our body but by using the body to glorify God.  We can achieve a victory for God in and through our bodies.  Thus sexual morality is essential.  Thus the importance of fasting, self control, self denial.  The body is not God and we should not treat it as if it is – it should not control our lives and selves.   We are to be masters of our own desires, not slaves to them. (The body belongs to the Lord but note also:  “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” – says st. Paul in Philippians 3:18-21).  We practice gaining mastery over our bodies in order to submit our entire life to God.  That is the goal of Great Lent – transforming our lowly body to conform to His glorious body.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
St. Seraphim of Sarov

Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Then the Lord Jesus 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. 

1]  The parable, now placed before Great Lent, is commonly seen in Orthodoxy to be one of repentance, exile and return, reconciliation and restoration.   In the beginning of this parable, we don’t actually encounter any breaking of any law – it is not illegal for the son to ask for his inheritance.  He isn’t sinning against civil law, probably not against Torah either.   In a culture in which the first born son is favored by the inheritance process, the younger son might even be wise to take what is his while there is something to get, before the elder brother lays claim to everything.   Besides, the Father could have said, “NO!”, to the younger son’s request.  But the father is the most consistent person in the parable.  He is loving, merciful, forgiving.  But to this point, probably no sin is committed by the younger son – if sin is considered mostly as breaking of some law.   We have to take this into account when we prepare ourselves for confession.  Of what are we repenting?  Sin is not always breaking a law.  The story so far does not tell us much about the inner nature of the younger son – what are his motives? why is he doing this?  We have to speculate to add those details, or perhaps we need to wait to see where the parable is headed.

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.’

2]  It quickly becomes obvious the younger son has no plan regarding the inheritance.  He doesn’t use it wisely, makes no provision for the future, does not establish himself as he has seen with his own father who had some wealth, a livelihood, a path to follow in life.  The younger son is foolish.  He burns through his resources immediately and quickly finds himself on the verge of starvation.  He is incredibly wasteful, thoughtless and foolish.  He “gathered” all his possessions from his father and then “scattered” them in wasteful prodigality and recklessness.  Still, in the parable we don’t know exactly what the prodigal did with his wealth.  He wasted it, though we can imagine all manners of sin as probably necessary for burning through his wealth so quickly, he might just have been foolish, throwing big parties, spending as if there is no tomorrow, enjoying life with his friends.  Even if what he did involved no sin as such, he was a fool, and his folly left him penniless and friendless.  No one who enjoyed his prodigality is there to help him in his time of need.

It is his hunger, his need, his poverty which wakes him up.  He has nothing left, and nothing to lose.  Now he remembers his generous, kind and loving father.  He realizes even being a servant or slave in his father’s mansion is better than the freedom of total poverty.  He was feeding pigs – a form of slavery with few rewards.  He was willing to trade one form of servanthood for another – the servants in his father’s house did not live in poverty, in famine, in pigsties, in starvation.  Better a servant in his father’s house, than a free son in a pigsty.  His “repentance” as such is self serving, but no matter, the forgiving, loving father will embrace him.  Even if his father takes him in as a servant, he still is better off than his current situation.  So of what is he repenting?  Poverty, hunger, degradation?  He is abandoning his folly and embracing wisdom.  Whatever terms his father might lay down, still he will be better off being in his father’s house.

In the icon detail: The prodigal has to raise himself above the pigsty mess he is in to see what to do.  Often we can’t see our way out of our sinful messes, we are trapped, so we need clairvoyance – clear vision – a new perspective to see Christ, to see the love of God.

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.

3]  The loving, forgiving father is over joyed to have his son back.  He doesn’t even give his son the chance to express his contrition.  The father has been ever watching and hoping for his son’s return.  All the son had to do was get himself back into the presence of the father.  His father did all the rest.  The father’s love is unconditional, full of grace, not dependent on the son making a proper confession and apology.  The father’s love is not a reaction to the son’s behavior.  The father is loving, he doesn’t wait for the son to beg forgiveness, it is already granted.  We can ask ourselves again, of what do we need to confess?  Of what should we repent?   Are we willing to leave our past indiscretions behind?  To abandon prodigal living and instead live as servants of the father?    Or do we hope to be able to continue at least in part our wasteful, self-centered pleasure-seeking, while at the same time enjoying the father’s estate?   The parable says you can’t have the father’s estate AND a pleasure-seeking attitude in the world.  We have to leave that part of our life behind – not because we have no more money to spend in the world, but because we need to live with and for the father, even if we have an abundance of goods.  Repentance – we are repenting of our self-centered, self-serving life styles.  We are denying ourselves in order to take up our cross!  We don’t repent in order to be able to continue pleasuring ourselves, but to take up the cross.

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.'”

4]  When we call this the parable of the Prodigal, we lose sight of the fact that the parable doesn’t end with the prodigal’s reconciliation with the father.  Jesus was only 2/3rds done with the parable at that point.  The parable goes on, there is another son in this who does not like his father’s willingness to love and forgive the prodigal.    The father remains consistent, loving both of his sons, but the older son seems to think that he is loved if he is the only one loved by the father.  He doesn’t feel loved if his father also loves the other son.  This is where the parable began – the younger brother, unsure of the father’s love (or of his brother’s love), takes his property and leaves not wanting to have to share with another.  Both brothers are selfish and self-centered.  The older brother is also not breaking any law in his attitude, but his thoughts are not those of his father.  He does not love.  It is only with the older brother that we hear the accusation that the younger brother spent his money on prostitutes.  This was not mentioned earlier in the parable.  Is the older brother speaking the truth or just making an assumption and accusing his younger brother of sin?   How does he know what his younger brother has done, for all the younger brother did was done in a country far away.

So, as we prepare ourselves for confession, for true repentance, of what do we have to repent?  Sin, as the parable shows, is not just a matter of breaking the law, the Ten Commandments, or the Torah or Tradition.  We have to think about love and relationships.  For what do we live?  Is life mostly about good times and pleasure?  Are we ever willing to deny ourselves in order to serve God?  Do we avoid serving God so that we can rather serve ourselves?  Are we willing to live in the world as God’s servants rather than as free and independent individuals who get the most we can for ourselves out of life?

The Stages of Sin and Repentance

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The Gospel lesson of Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father, has become in the Orthodox Church the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, used to help prepare us for keeping the season of Great Lent.   Below is the text of the Gospel Lesson itself interspersed with comments from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware taken from The Lenten Triodion (p 46).

Then the Lord Jesus 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. 

“The parable of the Prodigal forms and exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger.” 

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.

“Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go…’ (Luke 15:18).” 

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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.

“To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.” 

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.'”

 

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Interestingly in the parable, the older brother of the Prodigal plays as big a role as the Prodigal himself – at least in terms of the length of the text.  One can repent and seek reconciliation with our merciful and forgiving God.  Sin however is never just between the sinner and God, for it affects all of one’s relationships.  God may forgive, but we may find those around us unable or unwilling to be reconciled with us.  Repentance involves a tremendous amount of energy, working on our relationships, and learning to deal with how others judge us for what we have done.  Even the Father could not force his elder son to be reconciled to the younger brother and prodigal.  We can find our way back to God, but still find ourselves estranged from community.  This is because our sins cut us off from our brothers and sisters and cut into our relationship with them.   Repentance, our confession of sins, needs to acknowledge all of those whom we have hurt through our shallow, selfish and self-centered sinfulness.  We need to acknowledge not just that our sins cut us off from God, but that they also showed a callous disregard for our friends and family.  We are the cause of their hurt.  Our sins may have damaged permanently our relationships on earth, and we must humbly accept the consequence of that.  It may not be until the Kingdom comes that we find ourselves having in heaven the relationships we desired on earth when we repented.

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The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this;, rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e. himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

St. John the Theologian

On Monday, September  26 we remember in the Church the death of St. John the Theologian.  John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.

St. John writes to us:    “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.   In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”  (1 John 4:7-21)

Brothers Cain and Abel
Brothers Cain and Abel

A Brief History of the Feast of the Transfiguration

In the book, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN (Translated by Brian Daley)  there is some information about when the Feast of the Transfiguration was first served in the Church and how it became a universal and Major Feast of Orthodoxy.  The Feast commemorates the events in Christ’s life described in Matthew 17:1-8 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).

“… the Transfiguration was first celebrated liturgically in Jerusalem and in the Churches of Palestine and Syria. . . .  the Greek Church in Jerusalem from the mid-seventh century, lists Scripture passages for August 6th as specific to ‘the Transfiguration of the Savior, which took place on Mount Tabor’; this is the earliest attestation of such a feast within the Chalcedonian Churches.”  (p 19)

“The Georgian calendar of Jerusalem, which represents the liturgical celebrations of the Church in Palestine in the middle of the seventh century, already lists a feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord for August 6 … The celebration was adopted throughout the Eastern Empire, at the latest by the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911)…”  (p 161)

“The celebration of the feast on August 6, first attested for Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century, apparently had spread widely through the Church of the Eastern empire in the century that followed, and seems to have been universally accepted in the Greek-speaking Church by the end of the ninth century.”  (p 180)

“… Nikon of the Black Mountain, and Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople (1084-1111) – tell us that people had begun, during Leo the Wise’s reign, to interrupt their preparatory fast for the feast of the Dormition on August 15 in order to celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6.  Some have seen here evidence that Leo himself introduced this feast, originally celebrated in Palestine, to the Church of Constantinople…” (p 234)

In many ways, I’m surprised about how late in history this Feast first appears and how late in history it is before it spreads throughout the Orthodox world.  It is a feast which theologically seems to lend itself so well to viewing salvation as deification.  I would think it fit well with hesychast tendencies as well, but perhaps rather than feeding hesychast tendencies, it grew slowly along with them which led to its rise in importance in the feasts of the Church.

It has always seemed strange to me that such an important Feast of Christ was celebrated in the middle of the fast for a feast of the Theotokos.  But the two events appear to have slightly different histories and the Transfiguration was already being celebrated locally on August 6, and became a universal Feast in Orthodoxy only after the Dormition Fast had been established.

The Gospel Narrative and Us

The Epistle reading for the Sunday of All Saints is Hebrews 11:32-12:2.  In it we are being given a narrative in which to understand the heroic accomplishments as well as the suffering and martyrdoms of God’s chosen people.  The author of Hebrews is telling us that the Old Testament story is not complete – at least not apart from us!  Their story continues beyond their time and flows into our time and incorporates us into the narrative.

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Here is the text of the Epistle for All Saints:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. 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.    

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Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The text is presenting these men and women of Hebrew history in a very particular light – creating a narrative about them, their heroics, their hope and vision even in the face of suffering. AND by saying they were not made perfect apart from us, invites us to join that narrative, and make it our own and carry it forward.  We are woven into their story, and they become a living part of our lives.  This is of course important in helping us continue to be faithful in our day; for like these our spiritual ancestors we find that we too are looking forward to a future fulfillment of God’s plan.  The saints of the Old Testament were looking forward to the day of Christ’s coming, and we are awaiting the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven, so we continue to look to an eschaton not yet realized.

The Saints of the Old Testament are part of a narrative that stretches from their day right through our current century.  Their story makes no sense apart from our own.  Our current story is part of a narrative that stretches back to the beginning of humanity and reaches into the Kingdom of God which is to come.  Thus what we experience in a life time is but a portion of the much longer narrative of God’s creation.  Our experience is a glimpse of the narrative, but not the entire picture.  We always have to keep that in mind when we struggle with life in a given moment, on a given day, or through a lifetime.  As long as our life might be (even if we live to a Methuselahian age – nearly a millennium!), our life is but a small portion of the narrative of creation – a paragraph in a chapter in a book in a library.

There are always many narratives running through our our minds and hearts.  These narratives exist on different levels, with varying degrees of influence, which enter our thinking at different periods of our lives.  Some are meta-narratives, involving many people – being American for example is such a narrative which teaches us certain hopes and dreams and a way to interpret the world.   Some narratives are given to us through family or genetic identity – being Slavic-American or Latino, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks.  Other narratives are quite personal – I’m lovable, talented, or unwanted. Narratives may in fact not represent a true vision of reality, but they do shape our experience of reality and of how we constitute reality. We may come to believe along the way that “nobody likes me” – that may be far from reality, but it colors our experience of reality and does then come to effect how we constitute reality. Such narratives may be true or false, real or imagined, good or bad – and we are not always aware of them, nor of how they influence us.   It is possible to become aware of them (takes great mindfulness!) and we can reject some of them and replace them with other narratives – thus conversion, repentance, forgiveness are all possible. We can change the narratives guiding the way we see the world – the way we constitute reality.

While there are always several narratives running through our minds and hearts, we can also choose to embrace a meta-narrative which can come to override or interpret our many internal narratives. Or sometimes the competing narratives in our brains run into conflict and cause cognitive dissonance – which sometimes we choose to live with, and sometimes becomes so uncomfortable that we change narratives.

Sometimes we cannot find a meta-narrative which makes sense of all the other narratives or of a particular narrative. That can cause us to seek out that meta-narrative, to seek for some truth to help us deal with all else that we think, feel, believe, experience. The seeking itself can become the meta-narrative which guides us. We realize there is mystery, that searching and seeking may not find answers, but only help us frame questions.

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Some meta-narratives help us gain insight into ourselves, and into reality itself.  How we understand ourselves as humans or as Christians are really meta-narratives which help us cope with life and constitute reality.

For me, the Orthodox Christian meta-narrative is very attractive, but I realize that it is sometimes in competition with other powerful narratives – the American meta-narrative for example which gives us certain myths about America which can be powerfully attractive and wonderful but which are in direct opposition to the Gospel narrative.  Some people even blend these competing narratives, blurring the distinctions and assuming they are the same narrative.

Meta-narratives in the world are always changing, but sometimes they change faster and we become more aware of the narratives or the changes that are occurring in them.  Right now in the world several meta-narratives are in the process of change.  Islam actually is constituted by several competing narratives that are literally at war with each other and the rest of the world.    America’s meta-narrative is in the process of changing as the world itself changes.  Brexit, terrorism, nationalism, exceptionalism, China, etc, are all changing the world’s narratives.  Some find these changes terrifying and they want to go back to a time when they felt safer – so they try to grasp onto a world that is passing away.  They are not really grasping reality, but just the meta-narrative they embraced as true or which comforted them and made sense of the world.  Politicians try to feed the meta-narratives they believe are most alluring to people.  Like the narratives themselves, what the politicians say may not be reality, but they resonate with the voice already at work in people’s minds.

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The Apotheosis of George Washington

For us as Christians, we have a meta-narrative that is always focused to the eschaton – drawing us forward to the Kingdom of God.  The world’s meta-narratives are ever changing, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).  This Gospel meta-narrative is supposed to simultaneously strengthen us, comfort us, inspire us, challenge us, give us hope and make sense of the world around us.

For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. (1 Corinthians 7:31-32)

Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.  (1 John 2:8)

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The River From Eden Yields the Four Gospels

“The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.  And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  . . .  Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;’but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:8-10, 15-17)

When I read Genesis 2, I do find Source Theory to be helpful in understanding the various currents of thoughts that make up the chapter.  Basically this theory in Biblical Scholarship says that some of the books of the Bible or chapters within a book show signs of having been written by different authors and then were placed together by an editor at some point in history.  It still is inspired Scripture and we receive the text as it is even if we can analyze it into its various parts.

So Genesis 2:8-10 begins the narration of the Garden which God planted in Eden (as we see in the opening text of this blog).  This narration flows perfectly from vs. 10, continuing in vs 15-17 as can be seen above.   Between vs. 10 and 15 verses 11-14 seem to completely disrupt the narrative with no direct connection to verses 8-10 or 15-17.     If you remove verses 11-14, you see verse 15 flows seamlessly from verse 10.  This fact is accounted for by Source theory:  vs 11-14 are in fact from a different hand/narrative but have been placed into the text and so now form our Scriptures.   Here are the verses 11-14:

“Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.  The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which goes around the whole land of Cush.  The name of the third river is Hiddekel; it is the one which goes toward the east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:11-14)

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Perhaps the point of verses 11-14 is to give some geographical connection between Eden and earth occupied by those ancients who composed and edited the text.  In any case they don’t add to the narrative and in some ways defy a spiritual interpretation.  The Orthodox Church however makes very interesting use of those verses in a Holy Friday Matins hymn.

“From Your live-bearing side, O Christ, a fountain flows forth as from Eden, giving drink to Your Church as to a living Paradise.  From there it divided to become the four rivers of the Gospels, watering the world, gladdening creation, and teaching the nations to worship Your Kingdom in Faith.”  

In the above Holy Friday hymn, Genesis 2:11-14 and the river flowing from Paradise is connected to the wound made in Christ’s side when he hung dead upon the cross.  According to John 19:34, blood and water flowed from the side of Christ when He was pierced with the spear.  That Gospel verse is interpreted in the hymn in the light of Genesis 2:11-14.

In Genesis 2, the narrative of Adam in Paradise (vs. 8-10, 15-17) is interrupted by unexpected mention of this flowing river which originates in Eden and becomes the source of 4 other rivers (vs 11-14).  Such river bifurcation is fairly rare in nature but where it exists sometimes waters and forms an entire delta region, a fertile crescent as it were.   The life-giving nature of these deltas – giving birth to a rich abundance of wildlife is used in the imagery of the hymn above.  But now in the hymn, Christ’s pierced side, like the Garden of Paradise, becomes the source of the life-giving river which in turn is the riverhead of the four rivers which are the Gospels watering the world.  The fourfold Gospels flow from the side of Christ bringing Good News to all nations.  The imagery is rich indeed and makes a very creative use of what might otherwise be seen as an odd anomaly interrupting the flow of Scripture.  The flow of the river from the Garden of Eden which is the riverhead of 4 other rivers helps us appreciate  the depth of the Gospel verse mentioning the flow of blood from the side of the crucified Christ.

Bright Monday 2016

The crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Christian Gospel.  In Orthodoxy, these earthly events are given an eternal significance by the fact that it is the incarnate God the Word who lived and died for us.  The crucifixion in itself is not the significant event. Many righteous men and women were put to death by various means through history.  Their deaths did not ontologically change creation, for they died as all mortals die.

It is Who is crucified that makes all the difference in the world (and in heaven too!).  It is not just any man who dies on the cross for us – rather it is the God-man.  It is God the Son, incarnate in Jesus Christ who dies on the cross for our sins who is resurrected from the dead for our salvation.  In Christ, God and creation, heaven and earth, the spiritual world and the physical world, are united, and so are the dead and the living.  All things become united in Christ, restored to their God-given natural beauty.

In this entire week after Pascha, known as Bright Week we celebrate each day as if it were the same day, the day of resurrection, the Eighth Day, the Pascha of the Lord.

“The key point here is that faith is not a form of interpretation, one perspective among others, but a seeing of what there is to see, and hence a form of knowing. Recall the opening words of the First Epistle of John: ‘We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seem with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us…’ First John states the primal truth that Christian faith rests on witness to what has happened in history, hence the honored place of the martyrs (witnesses) in Christian memory. Yet the witness to what was ‘seen’ is never a testimony simply of what has happened in the past. In his Commentary on 1 John, St. Augustine noted a curious feature of its opening words. John does not simply say that he is bearing witness to what he has seen and touched; he says that he is bearing witness to the ‘Word of Life’. It does not escape Augustine that the phrase ‘Word of Life’ does not refer to the body of Christ which could be seen and handled. ‘The life itself has been manifested in flesh – that what can be seen by the heart along might be seen also by the eyes for the healing of hearts. Only by the heart is the Word seen; flesh is seen by bodily eyes. We had the means of seeing the flesh, but not of seeing the Word: the Word was made flesh which we could see, that the heart, by which we should see the Word, might be healed.’” (Robert L. Wilken, Remembering the Christian Past, pp 56-57)

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