Holy Saturday (2019)

26430278807_d989b54226Holy Saturday: Victory Over Hell

Holy Saturday is the Great and Holy Sabbath on which God rested from His work (Genesis 2:2-3).  God rested before the Eighth Day began – the new day of the new creation. It is a day of anticipation and vigilance for believers as we wait for what we know God does: rise from the dead.  Our faith is not in an uncertain and unknown future which may or may not happen, but in what we know and proclaim: Christ is risen! In Christ God became human, humbling Himself to raise us up to heaven.

“And His whole life was an ongoing self-abasement, an unending self-emptying, from the moment of His conception until his death and burial and beyond. In the extreme humility of His descent God did not stop at the clouds. Neither did His journey end on earth. He went all the way to hell. In His extreme humility, He descends to the extremity of man’s damnation, and stretches forth His hands to those sitting in the darkness and the shadow of death (cf. Lk. 1:79). In stretching forth His hands, He embraces all: those who loved Him, and those who hated Him; those who stood by Him throughout His life, and those who denied Him. He extends His open hands to all, so that anyone who wants can take hold of Him, and He will pull them out of Hell. Lower than this, there is no place for man or God to go.

In light of God’s descent, everything has changed. When the highest entered the lowest, when God entered the realm of hell, everything there was turned upside down. The Devil was defeated. Death yielded to life. Darkness was swallowed up by light. Fallen man ascended into heaven. In union with Christ, human nature now sits on the throne of God, being filled with the Holy Spirit. God has descended, and reduced himself for our sake, while redeemed humanity has become a great mass, exalted, so high as to surpass heaven itself. In his sermon on humility, St. Basil says that “from a state of nothingness, man has expanded into the heavens’” And all of this can be ours, if only we humble ourselves.” (Archimandrite Amilianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 310-311)

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“Commenting on the psalms used in the paschal vigil, Gregory [of Nyssa] brings out the manner in which the incarnation is also rightly seen as a war, in which Christ emerges as the Victor who brings benefits of peace to his followers:
Let us imitate the prophetic hills and mountains and leap for joy (Ps. 113:4). Come let us rejoice in the Lord who destroyed the power of the Enemy and for our sake set up his standard of the cross over the very corpse of the foe. Let us raise a cry of victory, for cheers are fitting shouts of triumph raised by victors over the vanquished. And since the enemy line has collapsed, and the very one who commanded the evil army of demons has gone, has vanished, and has been brought to nothing, then let us join in saying: “The Lord is a great God” (Ps. 94:3) and “a great king over all the earth” (Ps 64:12) and has gathered us into his spiritual choir in Christ Jesus Our Lord, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”  (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, pp. 230-231)

Holy Thursday (2019)

On Holy Thursday we commemorate the the institution of the Mystical Supper of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-32,  Matthew 26:2-27:2).  Now in and through the Eucharist we are able to personally participate in the incarnation of God and to experience our salvation.  We the Christians become the Body of Christ continuing the incarnation throughout time. The Mystical Supper is instituted as part of Christ’s own diaconal service to us all for He first washes the feet of His disciples to give us the example of what salvation is and means.  Salvation is God’s love incarnate not in Christ alone but in and through the Body of Christ. Salvation is not merely that we cease sinning but that we become united to God. We all participate in this salvation and are to incarnate this love in our life and our world.

In sum, the Gospel of John understands the Eucharist not as a mere “cultic” and “sacramental” act, but primarily as a diaconal act and an alternative way of life with apparent social implications. For in those days, the washing of a disciple’s feet was more than an ultimate act of humble services and kenotic diakonia; it was an act of radical social behavior, in fact, a rite of inversion of roles within the society. To this should be added Jesus’ admonition to his disciples and through them to his Church: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The diaconal implication of the Johannine understanding of the Eucharist becomes quite evident.

It is almost an assured result of modern biblical and liturgical scholarship that the Eucharist was “lived” in the early Christian community as a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. It was experienced as a proleptic manifestation, within the tragic realties of history, of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, entailing no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between men and women. (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Sacred Text and Interpretation, p. 156)

Following the footwashing and the Supper, Christ and the disciples sang a hymn together – believed to be Psalm 118.  

Psalm 118, which is one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire Psalter. It is also one of the most simple….  It goes without saying that all the psalms are important to us. Yet Psalm 118 is especially important, since according to tradition it was the psalm sung by the Lord with His disciples at the Mystical Supper (cf. Mt. 26:30), moments before He handed Himself over for the life of the world. It is, then, a preeminently Eucharistic psalm, a psalm of thanksgiving.”  (Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 300)

Christ prepares Himself and His disciples for the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion by singing a hymn of Thanksgiving with them.  So for us every Divine Liturgy is Eucharistic – a thanksgiving to God for all that God has done and is doing for us and with us. On the very night Jesus is arrested He gives thanks to God as we commemorate every time we serve the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

For when He had come and had fulfilled all the plan of salvation for us, in the night in which He was given up – or rather, in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world – He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed it, and hallowed it, and broken it, He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying:Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.

Amen.

And likewise, after supper, He took the cup, saying:  “Drink of it all of you! This is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.

Amen.

Do this in remembrance of Me! Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the Second and glorious Coming.

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)

Great and Holy Tuesday (2019)

Holy Tuesday: The Procession of the Wise Virgins

30917710458_8ae1f75175_nThe second wedding parable from the Gospel is that of the Wise Virgins ( Matthew 25:1-13). Here the emphasis is not put on the laying aside of bad dispositions, but rather on the positive preparation for coming to the marriage-feast. Applied to the sacraments, the parable points out the dispositions necessary to take part in the Eucharistic banquet; and liturgically, the procession of virgins going to meet the Bridegroom with their lighted lamps reminds us of the procession during the paschal night in which the newly-baptized, carrying their lighted candles in their hands, were led from the baptistry to the church where they were to take part in the Eucharistic banquet. This double aspect is recalled by St. Cyril, when, at the beginning of the Procatechesis, he presents the process of initiation as a whole: “You carry in your hands the lamps of the wedding procession, these lamps which are the desire of heavenly blessings, the firm resolution and the hope which accompanies it” (XXXIII, 333). The eschatalogical waiting signified by the lamps of the wise virgins is applied to the waiting for baptism initiation which is an anticipation of the Parousia and a meeting of the soul with Christ the Bridegroom.

12228541873_b6afd22a40_nThis connection between the procession of the paschal night and of the wedding parable is made explicitly by Gregory Nazianzen: “The station that you will make, just after Baptism, before the great throne, is the prefiguring of future glory. The chant of the Psalms with which you will be received is the prelude to the Psalmody of heaven. The lamps that you will light are the sacrament (mysterion) of the resplendent procession of heaven with which we will go before the Bridegroom, souls virginal and resplendent, with the burning lamps of faith. Let us not allow ourselves by negligence to become drowsy, so as to let Him for Whom we are waiting go by us when He comes unexpectedly, and let us not remain without sustenance and without oil, for fear of being excluded from the bridal chamber. There is no room there for the man who is proud and negligent, nor for him who is clad in a stained garment and not in the wedding-robe” (XXXVI, 426 B-C).

This passage shows us that the baptismal procession is a figure of the procession of the elect at the time of the Parousia. Or, better still, this procession is the sacrament, the visible sign of the heavenly liturgy. (Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, pp. 218-219)

While Holy Week makes us think about events on earth, what is being opened to us is Paradise, Heaven, the Kingdom of God!  The Liturgical services are endeavoring to help us experience what we sing at Pascha: “For from death to life and from earth to Heaven has Christ our God led us as we sing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead!

Holy Monday (2019)

Holy Monday

3754756949_e22514974b_nA theme of the first several days of Holy Week is the coming of Christ, the Bridegroom who comes to claim His wife, the Church.  The imagery is taken from Christ’s Parable in Matthew 25:1-13 in which the Bridegroom comes at midnight rather than at an expected hour, and we are all called to be ready to join Him – to be vigilant and watchful until He comes. The imagery of God’s marriage to Israel from the Old Testament caused the early Church to interpret Christ’s wedding parables to be about us and our relationship to Christ.

The synoptics make clear that God’s reign comes into history through human response; it is not a theophany that reorders the world by sovereign power. The parables about the wedding banquet communicate the indispensable necessity of responding to the invitation: if the invited guests fail to respond there will be no banquet. The king who wants the celebration will be frustrated if no one shows up (see Matt. 22:1-10). God’s mercy and justice are extended into the world through human response and witness to this radical invitation. Unless it is responded to, there is no gracious relation initiated: God does not reign over us unless we agree to let it happen. Mark relates how unbelief can frustrate the power of God. When Jesus returns to Nazareth, “he could do no deed of power there except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. He was amazed at their unbelief” (6:5-6). He wanted the world according to God; they preferred it the way it was, and they got their wish. (William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise, pp. 84-85)

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Holy Week gives us time to think about our response to God’s invitation to follow Christ to the Kingdom.  God has prepared a banquet for us, but we have to be willing to attend, which means we must cooperate with God.  Salvation isn’t all on God, we have to accept God’s invitation and choose to celebrate the wedding feast. In the wedding feast parable (Matthew 22:1-14), we have to put a wedding garment on, this is our part of the process.   St. John Chrysostom writes:

But you have been invited to a spiritual wedding, and a royal banquet; consider then, what sort of wedding garment you should buy. On the other hand, there is no need for you to buy it, because he who has anointed you cannot offer your poverty as an excuse. Guard, then, the garment you have received; if you ruin it you will not be able to borrow another. There is no place where this kind of garment is for sale. (What the Church Fathers Say Aboutp. 23)

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The days of Holy Week invite us to consider our relationship to Christ and what we are willing to invest in this relationship.  Are we willing to live for Christ? It is not an easy question for it means losing one’s life. The references to the wedding garment remind us that we have a role to play in the process.  We have to care for the garment given to us at baptism and preserve it undefiled throughout our lifetime to the very day when Christ returns (which is exactly what we pray at the baptismal service). Following Christ requires synergy – we have to be co-workers with Christ for our salvation.  The wedding garment is our responsibility to secure and preserve so that we will have the glorious garment to wear when we enter the heavenly wedding banquet in the Kingdom of God.

Holy Thursday (2018)

On Holy Thursday we contemplate the institution of the Mystical Supper – we realize that Christ gave His Body and Blood for the life of the world so that we can partake of salvation! The institution of the Eucharist by our Lord is something we not only think about, but actually receive when we come to the Liturgy this evening.

O how manifold and ineffable this communion! Christ became our brother, partaking of the same flesh and blood with us, and through them became like us. Through his blood He has redeemed us for Himself as true servants. He has made us His friends (cf. John 15:14-15) partaking of this blood He has bound and betrothed us to Himself as a bridegroom his bride, and become one flesh with us. He feeds us not only with blood instead of milk, but with His own body, and not only His body but also His Spirit. In so doing, He always preserves undiminished the nobility given to us by Him, leads us towards greater longing, and grants us to fulfill our desire, not only to see Him but also to touch Him, to delight in Him, to take Him into our hearts, and for each of us to hold Him in our inmost selves.

Come, He says, those of you who have set your heart on eternal life, eat My body and drink My blood (cf. John 6:53), that you may not only be in God’s image, but, by clothing yourselves in Me, the King and God of heaven, you may be eternal and heavenly gods and kings, feared by demons, admired by angels, beloved sons of the celestial Father, living forever fairer than the children of men (cf. Ps. 45:2), a delightful dwelling place for the sublime Trinity. (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 464-465)

Holy Wednesday (2018)

It was common in the early church to personify Death and Hell especially in contemplating the crucifixion of Christ.  Death, Hell and Satan were often portrayed having a conversation trying to understand what the death of Christ meant for them – their victory over God, or, as they belatedly realized, the dead Christ was the seed of their own destruction.  Life burst forth from the tomb of Christ, bringing an end to Death’s power over humanity.

Three crosses Pilate fixed on Golgotha,

two for the thieves and one for the Giver of life,

whom Hell saw and said to those below,

“My ministers and powers

who has fixed a nail in my heart?

A wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am being torn apart.

My insides are in pain, my belly in agony,

my sense make my spirit tremble,

and I am compelled to disgorge

Adam and Adam’s race. Given me by a Tree,

a Tree is bringing them back

again to Paradise.

(St. Romanos, On the Life of Christ, pp. 155-156)

The personified Death, Hades and Satan all become mortally wounded by Christ’s own wounds.  They become weakened and sickened by the healing power of Christ’s resurrection.  Simultaneously, for us humans, we are being restored to health by Christ’s wounds.  “Those who repent with all their heart and cleanse themselves of all their aforementioned evils, and add nothing more to their sins, will receive healing from the Lord for their previous sins...”  (Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 8:77:1-5)  Far beyond forgiveness of our sins, God gives us the gift of healing of soul and body through the suffering of His Son.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Peter 2:24)

Holy Tuesday (2018)

 

Eschatology” is the name given to the understanding by religion of the ultimate destiny of the world and of man, the doctrine of the so-called “last things.” Everyone agrees that the early Church was eschatological par excellance. Her whole faith, her whole life, was shaped by her joyful and confident expectation of Christ’s return in glory, her anticipation of the common resurrection, and the consummation of all things in God. “Come, Lord Jesus: Maranatha!” This is the ultimate expression of her faith and worship in the liturgy, in prayer. This eschatology can be termed “cosmic,” for it is distinct, as such, from the individual or personal one.

To put it differently, and in somewhat over simplified terms, eschatology’s interest lies not in what happens to me when I come to the end of my life and die; rather, it is concerned with what will happen to the entire creation when Christ returns in glory and, according to Saint Paul, “All things shall be subjected unto him, and he himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, 120-121)

Holy Monday (2018)

The Antiochian biblical commentator, Theodoret of Cyrus, writing in the  5th Century makes a comment that Christians have thought in almost every century since the time of Christ: things are so bad now that it has to be the “end times.”  During Holy Week the Church reminds us  through its Gospel readings and hymns to think about the “last things” – our world which rejected its Creator and God and nailed Him to a cross is facing an impending judgment.   Commenting on the words of St. Paul in one of his epistles, Theodoret’s words resonate with many 21st Century Christians:

Then he  foretells the coming ruin of most members of the churches, teaching him not to be upset by the indifference of some, as those coming later will be in a far worse plight. Be aware of this, that in the last days there will be the threat of difficult times: there will be people who are lovers of themselves, lovers of money, arrogant, blasphemous, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, loveless, implacable, slanderous, licentious, unfeeling, uninterested in the good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, in love with pleasure rather than God, bearing the semblance of piety but denying its efficacy (2 Timothy 3:1-5). In my view he has this age in mind in his prophecy: our lifetime is full of these vices, and though we don the trappings of piety, we are building the idol of wickedness in our works.

I mean, we have become attached to money rather than devoted to God, we embrace the slavery of the passions, and to put it in a nutshell, you could find us all in the other vices the divine apostle cited. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, pp. 243-244)

It is pretty hard to imagine that life in the 5th Century was as devoted to money as is our current age.  We measure everything in terms of money and value things above people and set the worth of people almost entirely by what they can produce.  Even churches see their success in terms of how much money they can raise.  What is the value of godliness?