The Samaritan Woman: Coming to Faith and Ending Religion

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”  Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:5-42)

Fr. Alexander Men referring to the end of the Gospel lesson when the Samaritans come out to see Jesus writes that today we are all like these Samaritans in how we come to faith in Christ:

Samaritans surrounded the Jewish traveller, not caring that He was from a hostile nation, and led Him to their village; we do not know what happened then, but the most important thing in this story is the result. After listening to Him, they said to the woman: “Now we see the truth; no longer because of what you said, but because we have seen for ourselves.

So now all of us are in the same position: at first we believe in the words written in the Scriptures and in other books, then we believe in what other people tell us. But the happiest moment in our spiritual lives is when we come to know the mystery of God, the mystery of the Lord Jesus, as revealed in our hearts, no longer through the words of others but through our own instincts and our own profound experience. We, like the Samaritans, guess at what is true and ponder on it. But He is near us, He reveals His word to us. Only we must also be ready to hear Him – like that simple woman of Samaria, like everyone who has ears to hear and hears. Amen. (Awake to Life!, p. 78)

Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the Gospel lesson and how it shows that Christ was declaring an end to religion not creating a new one for Christ is calling us to life itself:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him’” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity present as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. (For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20)

Bearing the Burden of Being Christian

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

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Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.   (John 5:1-15)

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Jesus said:  And he said to all, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.   (Luke 9:23)

The Paralytic in John 5 is commanded to rise, take up his bed and walk.  It turns out that his cross, the cross on which he had been crucified, is his own bed to which he had been nailed for 38 years of paralysis.   He picks up that cross so that he can walk with Christ and  follow Christ wherever Christ may go.

5729454201_3fe7828dcf_nToday’s Gospel lesson shows us how “taking up the cross” might be a very different experience than we usually imagine it to be – and it is possible that taking up the Cross is a blessing rather than a burden.  For most of us, there are enough trials and temptations each day of our life to make life difficult, and some would feel almost impossible to accomplish.  Why then would we want to take up the Cross to add to our burdens, sorrows and troubles?

What we learn from today’s Gospel lesson is that there are two kinds of burdens – the ones we should lay down and not carry because we follow God’s blessed Sabbath rest, and the burden we must carry In order to follow Christ – the cross that it is necessary for us to carry to follow Him. The issue is whether we can see what is the cross in my life that I have to take up in order to follow Christ. There are some burdens we must bear as Christians to be faithful to our Lord.

It is also true that in taking up the Cross we can find ourselves liberated from our own heavy burdens – our thoughts and ideas of justice, revenge, repentance, forgiveness, hatred and retribution.  These are the burdens we can lay down in order to hear and obey Christ.

Additionally, If we allow it to, the Cross can carry us through some of life’s trials.  Yet, this thought makes us squirm with discomfort for we are terrified at the thought of being lifted up on the Cross and we prefer an easier way in which there is no pain and no cost to us.

Today’s Gospel reaffirms the truth that God’s commandments are not heavy and difficult burdens.  God liberates us from our wearisome burdens.

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place at the sheep pool called Bethesda – a pool of water near one of the gates allowing passage into Jerusalem.  The sheep gate is first mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, written about 450 years before the time of Christ.  Nehemiah records the building of the sheep gate.  He is one of the prophets who advocated that Israel must keep the Sabbath Day holy:

 When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden might be brought in on the sabbath day. (Nehemiah 13:19)

10352434244_7eaf34629c_nNehemiah’s prohibition against carrying a burden on the Sabbath day near one of the city gates is the basis of our the Gospel lesson in John 5.   The people in the Gospel account were practicing what Nehemiah commanded the to do when they confront the paralytic for carrying his bed on the Sabbath near the city gate.  They probably thought he was a bed salesman carrying his wares!   The Prophet Jeremiah adds:

Thus said the LORD to me: “Go and stand in the Benjamin Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the LORD: Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. ‘But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited for ever.   (Jeremiah 17:19-25)

No wonder the people were so upset with this paralytic carrying his bed on the sabbath!

So why would Jesus, the Son of God, tell this paralyzed man to carry his bed on the Sabbath at the very place where God had said through His prophets that it shouldn’t be done?

10238223875_e053b8a548_nThe answer becomes clear when Jesus asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?   Do you want to become healthy?”

For Jesus the paralyzed man’s burden is not his bed, but his paralysis.  His burden is also that though he is part of the people of God, he has no one to help him.   His sickness is the burden of His life.  And on that Sabbath Day, Jesus gave the paralyzed man rest from his burden for Jesus freed him of his paralysis.  [see my post The True Sabbath Rest]  When the paralyzed man picked up his bed, he was also finally laying down his burden, his paralysis and was given health.  For his paralysis had also burdened the man with bitterness and doubt, opening his heart to the oppression of Satan.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Yet some of those people in Jerusalem could not see how Jesus freeing the man from carrying his burden, his paralysis, was keeping God’s law.  That is why Jesus said to them:

I ask you, is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  (Luke 6:9)

And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:3-5)

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Carrying a bed on the Sabbath as is shown in the Gospel might not be a violation of the Sabbath but rather might be a sign that one is entering into the Lord’s rest.  The burden which concerns God might surprise us, as Jeremiah says:

“When one of this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.’    (Jeremiah 23:33)

The people’s mistaken understanding of the Torah made them into a burden, which this paralyzed man also had to bear in addition to the burden of his paralysis.  But the paralytic shows himself to be following God’s command because he listens to the words of Christ and obeys them:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.   (John 5:24)

We have to discern what are the burden we carry from which God will free us?  Our sins, our debts, our guilt, our desire for revenge.

Sometimes, however, we act as if our burdens are prayer, fasting, confession, Sunday worship, reading scripture, forgiving others, apologizing for our sins, giving to charity, seeking forgiveness, being generous.

24878356506_e63d42795a_nWe ask: Do I have to come to church on Sunday?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I need to tithe to the church?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to go to confession?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to forgive those who sin against me?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to fast and pray and practice self-control?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I really have to stop looking at pornography or stop getting drunk or stop my bouts of anger and rage?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask:  Do I have to stop hating people who are worthless and do I need to show mercy and be kind to those I don’t know and don’t like?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

Jesus says to us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Sometimes we wrongly believe that the way out of our problems, our passions, our sins, is more effort on our part.  If only we have more faith or fast more or pray more, then God would help us.  But the paralyzed man couldn’t save himself, no matter how hard he tried, his problems were insurmountable to him.  He couldn’t get into the pool of water first no matter how much he wanted to.  This man had plenty of faith, after all he had been waiting at the pool for 38 years for someone to help him get into the water and be healed.  He believed God was present there and continued in this hope for 38 years!  Nonetheless, his salvation lay outside himself.  It wasn’t more effort on this part that were needed – he needed Christ, he needed to wait on the Lord, he needed Jesus to be his spiritual partner.

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It is possible, my brothers and sister, that there are people all around us, like this man paralyzed for 38 years and patiently waiting for help – people for whom we can be Christ and reach out to them and help them.  And it is possible that we have been struggling with some burden for many years feeling there is no one to help me, and the solution might be outside of myself – in seeking help from a neighbor or a stranger.  The lessons for us in this Gospel periscope are many, we need to know when we are to be Christ to another and when we need someone else to be Christ for us.  As St Paul said:  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  (Galatians 6:2)

The True Sabbath Rest

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.  (John 5:1-15)

Jesus Christ on several occasions heals the sick on the Sabbath Day, which causes the religious leaders of His day to doubt that His power to heal comes from God since He breaks the Sabbath law.  In John 5:1-15, not only does Jesus heal a paralytic, but He commands the healed man to carry his bed and it is the Sabbath Day.  In these actions, Jesus is challenging the religious authority’s understanding of the Torah and accusing them of being hard-hearted while suggesting that keeping the Torah should lead to loving both God and neighbor.  From the 4th Century we have comments of a Syrian monk who explains in a sermon the true nature of Torah:

In the shadow of the Law given to Moses, God decreed that everyone should rest on the sabbath and do nothing. This was a figure and a shadow of the true Sabbath given to the soul by the Lord. For the soul that has been deemed worthy to have been set free from shameful and sordid thoughts both observes the true Sabbath and enjoys true rest, being at leisure and freed from the works of darkness. There, in the typical Sabbath, even though they rested physically, their souls were enslaved to evils and wickednesses. However, this, the true Sabbath, is genuine rest, since the soul is at leisure and is purified from the temptations of Satan and rests in the eternal rest and joy of the Lord.

Just as then God decreed that also the irrational animals should rest on the Sabbath – that the ox should not be forced under the yoke of necessity, that they should not burden the ass (for even the animals themselves were to rest from their heavy works) – so, when the Lord came and gave the true and eternal Sabbath, he gave rest to the soul of heavily burdened and loaded down with burdens of iniquity, of unclean thoughts, and laboring under restraint in doing works of injustice as though it were under slaver to bitter masters. And he lightened the soul from its burdens, so difficult to bear, of vain and obscene thoughts. And he took away the yoke, so bitter, of the works of injustice, and gave rest to the soul that had been worn out by the temptations of impurity.

For the Lord calls man to his rest, saying, “Come, all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28). And as many persons as obey and draw near, he refreshes them from all these heavy and burdensome and unclean thoughts. And they are at leisure from every iniquity, observing the true, pleasing, holy Sabbath. And they celebrate a feast of the Spirit, of joy and ineffable exultation. They celebrate a pure service, pleasing to God from a pure heart. This is the true and holy Sabbath. Let us, therefore, entreat God that we may enter into this rest (Heb 4:11) and that we may be freed from shameful and evil and vain thoughts sot that thus we may be able to serve God out of a pure heart and celebrate the feast of the Holy Spirit. Blessed is he who enters into that rest. Glory to the Father, who is so well pleased, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, forever. Amen. (Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, pp. 204-205)

The true burden the paralytic of John 5 carried for 38 years was his illness and the fact that he had no one to help him.  His paralysis laid upon his heart a burden of bitterness which allowed Satan to torment him, bringing him to doubt and despair. Christ gave him rest from his burden.  Commanding him to carry his bed was proof that his burden had been lifted.  Now on that Sabbath, carrying his bed was not carrying a burden but  was proof that he had entered into the Lord’s rest.  Now the man no longer was burdened by Satan with bitterness, doubt and despair.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

The Incarnation and the Resurrection

Through His Resurrection, Christ put an end to death, changing it into a necessary passage to immortality. Seen in this perspective, death frees us from the demands and conditions of the fall. Death, the fruit of corruption and “corruptibility,” allows us to move beyond time, which in turn abolishes the corruptibility of death. There is one condition, however: that this movement be an entrance into the Kingdom already present in this world. This is what allows Death to open onto eternity.

According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons:

This is why God cast [Adam] out of Paradise and sent him far from the tree of life; not because He kept this tree of life form him out of jealousy, as some have dared to maintain, but He acted out of compassion, so that man might not remain in sin forever, so that the sin which weighed him down might not be immortal, so that evil might not be without end and thus without remedy. He kept him from his transgression, therefore, by introducing death…giving him an end through the dissolution of the flesh which would take place in the earth so that man, having “died to sin” [Rom 6:2], might be “alive to God” (Adv. Haer., III, 23, 6).

Through His Incarnation, the Logos of creation penetrated matter, His own work. The Infinite became incarnate and subject to space; the Eternal entered time. By coming into the world Christ transformed time and space, effecting a revolution with profound consequences. As God-Man He did not merely assume the corporeal limitations of our condition, He surpassed them. Destined to die by virtue of His Incarnation, whereby He entered into time and space, the crucified Christ bears the suffering and death of every person throughout time and space. Through His Ascension and Resurrection, He leads us beyond the cycle of time, to the never-setting sun.”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, p. 210)

Visions of the Liturgy: Old (Testament) and New (Children)

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

While Jesus taught that we have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God, through history theological reflection tended not to see the Kingdom from a child’s point of view.  Theology made ideas of the Kingdom ever more complex.  Even the Liturgy which is to reflect the Kingdom was not understood from the point of view of the child but became increasingly complex with layers of meaning that no child could even see let alone understand.  The Liturgy seems not to have been developed with the child in mind, and today many people do not appreciate children in the Liturgy because they are noisy, distracting, disruptive while they want an experience free of childlike behavior.   And yet we cannot enter that Kingdom unless we become like a child for the Kingdom and the Liturgy which reflects it are not the constructs of theologians, scholars, mystics and the highly educated experts, but are the revelation of and from God for those who can be children.

The late great liturgical scholar Robert Taft summarized the Orthodox Liturgy this way:

“In the cosmic or hierarchical scheme, church and ritual are an image of the present age of the Church, in which divine grace is mediated to those in the world (nave) from the divine abode (sanctuary) and its heavenly worship (the liturgy enacted there), which in turn images forth its future consummation (eschatological), when we shall enter that abode in Glory.  Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429), last of the classic Byzantine mystagogues, has synthesized this vision in chapter 131 of his treatise ON THE HOLY TEMPLE:

The church, is the house of God, is an image of the whole world, for God is every where and above everything.   .  .  .  The sanctuary is a symbol of the higher and super-celestial spheres, where the throne of God and his dwelling place are said to be.  it is this throne which the altar represents. … The bishop represents Christ, the church [nave] represents the visible world.  .  .  .

I mention the apostles with the angels, bishops and priests, because there is only one Church, above and below, since God came down and lived among us, doing  what he was sent to do on our behalf.  And it is a work which is one, as is our Lord’s sacrifice, communion, and contemplation.  And it is carried out both above and here below, but with this difference: above it is done without any veils or symbols, butt here it is accomplished through symbols. . . .

In the economic on anamnetic scheme, the sanctuary with its altar is at once: the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle decreed by Moses; the Cenacle of the Last Supper; Golgotha of the crucifixion; and the Holy Sepulchre of the resurrection, from which the sacred gifts of the Risen Lord — His Word and His body and blood — issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world.     . . .

In the iconography and liturgy of the church, this twofold vision assumes visible and dynamic form.  From the central dome the image of the Pantocrator dominates the whole scheme, giving unity to the hierarchical and economic themes.  The movement of the hierarchical theme is vertical: ascending from the present, worshiping community assembled in the nave, up through the ranks of the saints, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, to the Lord in the heavens attended by the angelic choirs.  The economic or ‘salvation-history’ system, extending outwards and upwards from the sanctuary, is united both artistically and theologically with the hierarchical. ”  (THE BYZANTINE RITE: A SHORT HISTORY, pp 69-70)

The Liturgy and the Church are about ranks of bishops, apostles, angels, priests, saints, prophets and patriarchs.   What is missing?  Children.  We cannot enter the Kingdom without them or without being one of them.   We don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Liturgy.  We need the eyes of a child.  If the received Tradition forgets that, it has forgotten a key to the Kingdom.  We can do the Liturgy perfectly rubrically correct, according to the Typikon, with every ritual required.   We still need to have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom.

It also is interesting that the received Tradition turned to and returned to the Old Testament for its liturgical meaning, rites and symbols rather than exploring themes suggested by the Gospel.   In the Old Testament, we understand, everything was in shadows and symbols:  “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…”  (Hebrews 10:1)   Christ came and revealed the Light opening Paradise to us, opening our hearts and minds and eyes to see clearly no longer in shadows: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  (Matthew 4:16)   But now according to Taft’s description it is the nave of the church and the non-clergy who live in the world of symbols (the shadowy world of the Old Testament!).  It is all that the Church permits for the non-clergy.    Behind the icon wall, reserved for the clergy is the Kingdom opened.  The Gospel, however, proclaims that we no longer sit in darkness or in shadows for the Light has come.   There is another effect of this return to the shadows of the Old Testament – the hierarchy serves to further distance the Savior from the people He saved!  It is moving away from Christ who ended all of the dividing walls and opened Paradise to all.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

Bright Wednesday (2019)

Bright Wednesday

Christ is risen!  Indeed He is risen!

First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.”  (2 Peter 3:3-4)

While the resurrection of Christ brings us great joy when we celebrate Pascha, we still face the fact that sin, sickness, suffering and even death are part of our daily experience.   The glory of the resurrection can seem like “pie in the sky” for the resurrection of Christ did not remove us from the reality of the fallen world.  One can wonder, how is the world any different today than it was 2000 years ago before Christ came into the world, exactly as St. Peter reports some scoffers questioned in his own lifetime.  The resurrection is a triumph of God, yet we are still left with questions for which our answers are not satisfactory to many.

In the 4th Century St Macrina, who was teacher to both St Basil and St Gregory of Nyssa, admitted that there are some things which are hidden from us, including what life after death is like or  what the future world will be like.  She felt faith and hope require us not to speculate about things which the Scriptures are pretty silent about.  No matter how convinced some are that they know what happens to the soul after death, she warned against putting much stock in such discussions.  The future will eventually be revealed, and then we will know what things are like – so speculating now is worthless.

  The truth about this is stored up in the hidden treasury of wisdom and will be disclosed at the time when we are taught the mystery of the resurrection in deed, when we will no longer need words to reveal what we hope for. If at night wakeful people discuss at length what the light of the sun is like, the grace of the rays by its mere appearance makes vain the verbal description; in the same way every reasoning which conjectures about the future restoration will be proved worthless when what we expect comes to us in experience. (St. Macrina, from St Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection, p. 24)

The resurrection of Christ has not revealed everything to us, but it has revealed some things, things which we don’t need to speculate about but for which we can give thanks to the Lord.

“But the resurrection has revealed that the modus operandi of God in the salvation of both Israel and the world is to love rather than destroy enemies, to absorb rather than inflict violence.

God loved us while we were enemies, responding to our own violence and other sins, not with the infliction of violence but with the absorption of violence on the cross. A life of nonviolence and reconciliation is therefore an integral part of Paul’s vision of justification and of participatory holiness – theosis.”  (Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, p. 143, 165)

In the Nicene Creed, we are offered little doctrine about life after death, but are given the foundation of our faith:  I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Bright Tuesday (2019)

Christ is risen from the dead,

trampling down death by death

and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Bright Tuesday   Luke 24:12-35

St Gregory the Great writes:

You have heard, dearly beloved, that the Lord appeared to two disciples while they were walking on the road. They were talking about him, even though they did not believe. He did not show them an appearance which they could recognize, but the Lord behaved before the eyes of their bodies in accord with what was going on inwardly before the eyes of their hearts. Within themselves they were both loving and doubting; and the Lord was present to them out. outwardly, but did not show them who he was. He manifested his presence to them as they talked about him, but hid the appearance by which they would recognize him on account of their doubts. He did indeed talk with them, reproving the hardness of their understanding and opening to them the mysteries of holy scripture concerning himself: and yet, because as an object of faith he was still a stranger to their hearts, he made a pretense of going on farther. One can make a pretence as one can make a pot. On this occasion the perfect Truth did nothing deceitful; he was only manifesting himself to them materially as they were thinking of him. It had to be shown whether those who did not as yet love him as God were at least able to love him as a stranger. Since those with whom Truth was walking couldn’t be alien to charity, they invited him, a stranger, to be their guest.

But why do I say they invited him, when it is written that they compelled him? We must surely infer from this example that strangers are not only to be invited to be guests but even forcibly persuaded. They set the table, brought food, and recognized in the breaking of the bread the God they did not know as he explained the sacred scriptures. They were not enlightened by hearing God’s commandments, but by their own actions, for it is written, It is not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but doers of the law will be made righteous. Let anyone who wishes to understand what he has heard be quick to fulfil in action what he has already been able to understand. The Lord was not recognized when he was speaking, but he deigned to be recognized as he was being fed.”

(Forty Homilies, pp. 176-177)

Holy Wednesday (2019)

Holy Wednesday: The Sorrowful Woman (Matthew 26:6-16)

As we move through Holy Week, we realize that all the events that happen, all that Christ does, is because of us and for us.  He is going to suffer torture and execution because of our sins.  He is going to suffer torture and execution for us, to free us from the burden of our sins.   Our response is not meant to be inflicting suffering on ourselves, or feeling shame and guilt, or even focusing on His suffering as wondrous as that is.  Our response is to be that of the woman who washes His feet – we are to be moved with tears of joy that the burden of our sins is taken away and we are to wash the feet of the our fellow Christians, even the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ.  Doing that would certainly mean we had a good Lent.

33237467784_4acf78e180“This image of interior cleansing through the water of humility is mirrored in the encounter between Christ and fallen woman recorded in Luke’s Gospel, in which she approaches Christ from behind as he is dining with the Pharisee and washes his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair (Lk. 7:36ff.). St. Ambrose sees an icon of the Church and the relationship of its members to Christ in this encounter:

The Church, then, both washes the feet of Christ and wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with oil, and pours ointment upon them, because not only does she care for the wounded and cherish the weary, but also sprinkles them with the sweet odor of grace…Christ died once, and was buried once, and nevertheless He wills that ointment should daily be poured on His feet. What, then, are those feet of Christ on which we pour ointment? The feet of Christ are they of whom He Himself says: “What ye have done to one of the least of these ye have done to Me” [Mt. 25:40]. These feet that woman in the Gospel refreshes, these feet she bedews with her tears; when sin is forgiven to the lowliest, guilt is washed away, and pardon granted. These feet he kisses, who loves even the lowest of the holy people…in these the Lord Jesus Himself declares that He is honored.

37138541772_ccdc56f9f5_nThe unnamed woman of St. Luke’s Gospel, in all her brokenness and sorrow, already has learned the lesson Christ is teaching his disciples. Her humble repentance, driven by great love, has brought her to the feet of Christ. Like St. Peter, she does not hold back. Her tears of repentance, flowing as living water (Jn. 7:38), wash the feet of One who needs not cleansing but who nonetheless welcomes her with joy.”  (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 78)

Faith, Hope and Trust in the Lord

The Gospel lesson of Mark 9:17-31:

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nThen one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”

This Gospel lesson  is centered on an idea of faith or belief: what is faith?  how does belief manifest itself? and what power can faith bring into one’s life?  Unfortunately we can be tempted to think faith is just a way to get miracles into our life, kind of like a faucet which we can turn on and off to get miracles to come out whenever we are thirsty for them.  Or some in Christianity like to see themselves as miracle workers who can dispense miracles at will, so they see themselves as being the faucet which controls the powers of God to miraculously change the normal and mundane events of life.  Jesus for His part dispels such shallow understandings of miracles, and always uses miracles to get us to see and think beyond this world, to look for the Kingdom of God – not to look for miracles in this world but to open the eyes of our heart to see beyond this world.  Otherwise we are at risk to be so enamored with the glamour of miracles that we seek out the miracles rather than the God who gives ever good and perfect gift.   Miracles it turns out are nothing but signs that the Kingdom exists, but miracles are not the main point, rather they point to what is truly important – namely the Kingdom of God.  If we wonder why there aren’t more miracles in our lives, it is because we aren’t looking for the Kingdom to which the miracles point.  It is because we wrongly want the miracles rather than the reality to which they point.

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Miracles not only point to the Kingdom of God, they invite us to respond to the Kingdom, and in the Gospel, the response to the Kingdom is repentance not seeking miraculous powers or more miracles.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  (Luke 10:17-20)

We can see in the Gospel lesson of Mark of Mark 9:17-31 that the ability to perform a miracle is not everything.  The 12 Disciples are not able to overcome the one demon possessing the boy.  Last Sunday, the Sunday of the Cross, we proclaimed the total destruction of all evil, of demons, and today we see the disciples stymied by one demon.  Now we learn of the struggle we face in this world.  The spiritual life is rightly described as spiritual warfare, and in warfare even if there is victory there can be casualties, dangers, defeats, even for the chosen saints.  The Cross means victory for us, but we still must persevere in life.  We are promised blessings in the world to come, the trouble is we are still in this world, a fallen and sinful world.  Here we do not always find victory, joy and ease.  We do find sickness, suffering, death, failure, frustration.  Here the cross is something we must sometimes carry as a burden.  Jesus says the lesson is we need to pray and fast,  but we want the miracles without having to give up anything ourselves.  The disciples were brokenhearted by their failure, but they aren’t the only failure in the Gospel lesson.

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Jesus tells the dad of this sick boy:   “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”     Here is the moment of metanoia in the dad – for up to this point he has accused the disciples of being failures – “I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”    Suddenly, confronted by Jesus, he realizes the failure is his own – he has not believed it possible for anyone to help his son.  The failure is not in the disciples alone, but the man must be willing to trust in God, work with God, not just dump it on God and blame God and his followers for the failure.  The dad accepts his responsibility in what happens, he undergoes a conversion and begins to cooperate with God.  The dad was demanding help but not praying, the dad’s heart had to be changed, he had to become a man of prayer, not just a man demanding that his wishes be granted, but a man humble enough to realize his own helplessness and his dependence on others for help.

And all of this helps us understand that faith as such is not a faucet which we turn on and off to get what we want.  Faith is a relationship with God, a total life commitment to the God we are hoping in, trusting, believing and relying on.  When we manage to live in relationship to God, then we have faith.  Faith it turns out is also about our relationship with the entire Body of Christ, all believers, and how we relate to them.

At the beginning of Lent I commented that Israel in being called out of Egypt and into the desert was called to trust in the Lord, to put their faith in God, and not rely on the material resources that civilization could provide them.  Israel had to renounce their dependence on the mighty Egyptian Empire to which they had become enslaved.  Israel was not called to start a civil war to take over the empire, they were called to leave civilization and move into the hostile and inhospitable desert of desolation.  They were called to abandon all  that civilization had to offer them and to go into the desert where there is nothing awaiting them except for God.   This is what Great Lent calls us to do – civilization and all its pleasures, foods, entertainment are all around us, but God calls us out of that and to look for God in the wilderness, where there is hunger and deprivation and self denial is necessary just to survive.   In the desert, deprived of the comforts, the advantages of technology, of society, of civilization, we are confronted by whether we really trust God or not.    Salvation is not going to come from the greatest and richest country in the world.  Rather it comes from God.  We have to find God and not become enticed by wealth and power of the nation.

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We are to live in a covenant relationship with God, not seeking out miracles here and there, but adhering to faithfulness to God.  Great Lent calls us away from all the “blessings” which we so love and says do you really want God, the Giver of every good and perfect gift, OR do you really just want the abundance?   Would you give up God in a second if you could find abundance on your own?  Do you only seek God for what you can extract from Him?

“When the Church calls us to her truth, she does not hold out some theoretical theses Which must be accepted in principle.  She invites us to a personal relationship, to a ‘way’ of life which constitutes a relationship with God or leads progressively and experientially to a relationship with Him.  This way transforms our entire life from individual survival to an event of communion.  The Church is a body of communion, wherein the members live, not each one for himself, but each one in an organic unity of love with the rest of the members and with the head of the body, with Christ.  ‘I believe in the truth of the Church’ means that I agree to be included in the ‘bond of love’ which constitutes it; I trust in the love of the saints and of God, and they accept me with faith and trust in my person.”  (Christos Yannaras, ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 14)

The faith that the dad needed in today’s Gospel lesson, the faith the disciples needed, the faith that we need is this relationship with God and admitting our dependence on God and need to trust God.  Think about today’s Epistle reading:

“that … we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. ”  (Hebrews 6:18-20)

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Hope it says is an anchor to the soul  and it is this hope which enters the Presence in the Holy of Holies.  Hope it turns out is a person, Jesus Christ.  Christ is the way, truth and the life.  Christ is our hope.   Our faith it turns out is to be united to Christ with all our soul, mind, heart, body, strength.  Faith, hope and trust all are ways that we relate to Christ our God, not mental contortions we use to extract from nature the things we crave.  Faith is a living relationship with God.

St Isaac the Syrian says our life is a spiritual warfare for which we can be prepared to engage in:

“Before the war begins, seek after your ally . . . and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and he will hearken to you.  Before you stumble, call out and make supplication …    The ark of Noah was built in the time of peace, and its timbers were planted by him a hundred years beforehand.  In the time of wrath the iniquitous perished, but the ark became the shelter for the righteous man.” 

In Lent we endeavor to establish our relationship with God, to seek an ally in this world.   Because Lent doesn’t keep us away from the world but prepares us to go back into the world with God in us daily always and in all ways.  The journey into the desert for Israel was that time period they needed to prepare them as a people to enter into the Promised Land.

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)