The Rich Ruler Considers the Value of Poverty

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world;

but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.   (1 Timothy 6:6-11)

In Luke 18:18-27, we are given a record of a conversation between a wealthy man who also had some political influence and Jesus Christ.  It is a rare Gospel lesson in that it does directly mention the man’s inner, emotional reaction to a teaching of Christ.

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

In Luke’s version of this story, we are told that the rich man became very sorrowful when told to give away his wealth.  We are not told whether he ever acted upon what Jesus told him.  The man in Luke’s Gospel is not referenced again.  We can surmise based on the other Gospel versions of the narrative (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31) that the man walked away from Christ grieving.  Mark additionally notes that Jesus  actually loved the man for keeping the commandments and spoke to him out of love for him.  Be that as it may, the man still walks away from Christ.  Luke, however, does not have the man walk away from Christ.  Whatever the man’s inner grief was in thinking about giving up his wealth, we aren’t told what he actually did.   Did this rich man actually think about the value of poverty or the spiritual bankruptcy of wealth?  Luke does not tell us.  It is possible the man grieved but then did what Christ directed him to do.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann at one point in his writings considers the phrase from this Gospel lesson, “It is difficult for the rich…”

“It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty!–there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something–that is ugliness–but in being content with what there is.”   (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 50)

The rich ruler of the Gospel lesson was not sure he could be content with having nothing.  His contentment was based on his wealth.  His spiritual dilemma was that in being told to give away his possessions, he thought this was giving away his contentment and his self worth.  Without his wealth, he couldn’t see himself as having any value.

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Being a Member of Christ’s Body

But the victory – let us repeat it again and again – has been achieved on the Cross; and His Cross is not only the supreme revelation of the boundless condescending Love of God, but also the center, the backbone and pivot of our own new life. We enter this new life only by participating in the Cross of Christ, crucifying thereon our “old Adam” and partaking in the perfect obedience of Christ.

Christianity is therefore much more than a message: it is a new reality, a new life, a painful and courageous transfiguration of the old man into the “new creature,” into a “member of the body of Christ.” “The old things have passed away. Behold! Everything has become new!” It is a promise and a beginning of – let us repeat it – a New Reality, already revealed and given to us in the coming, the death and the resurrection of Christ, which are the “leaven” of the new order of being. This leaven has to permeate the whole lump. (Nicholas Arseniev, Revelation of Life Eternal, p. 87)

Ordaining Women Deacons

 
 St. Phoebe the Deaconess
Reports earlier this year on the Internet stated that the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria ordained some women deacons.   There have been conflicting stories as to what exactly the Patriarch did and whether or not these women were ordained as deacons following an ancient rite or whether the Patriarch had in fact created a new office in the church.  Recently, a number of American and Greek Orthodox liturgical theology professors offered opinion supporting the Patriarch of Alexandria in his decision to ordain women deacons in Africa:   https://publicorthodoxy.org/2017/11/17/support-alexandria-deaconess/ .

While whatever one Patriarchate does always has some implication for all Orthodox, so far no other Patriarch has claimed that they will follow suit and also ordain women deacons.  Although the action of the Alexandrian Patriarch seems controversial to some, he did not do anything forbidden by the Orthodox canons and as the liturgical theology professors note in their letter he is only restoring something that used to exist in Orthodoxy.   Orthodox Patriarchs are not known for being innovative nor for acting unilaterally on such issues.  So one would think he probably sounded out this idea with at least some other Orthodox bishops before doing it.  When it comes to liturgical practices, the Patriarchs are conservative and tend to preserve the current received tradition and rarely try to revive something that disappeared in the past.    The Patriarch’s decision to ordain the deaconesses is reminiscent of how the office of deacon came into existence at the time of the apostles.  There was a need and the Church creatively met the need by creating a new office:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.  (Acts 6:1-7)

The Church created a new office to meet its current need.   It needs to be noted that it is the ordination of deacons that leads to the first martyrdom in the Church.   St. Stephen one of the first deacons is the proto-martyr of the Church.  Creating a new ministry in the Church created a new category of saint, the martyr.  Orthodoxy claims the Church is founded on the blood of the martyrs.  It was not the apostles who were martyred first, but a deacon.  The Church was glorified by creating the new ministry in the Church.
Time will show us whether this action is being guided by the Holy Spirit and will bring benefit to the Orthodox Church throughout the world and will bear glorious spiritual fruit for the Church.   The restoration of the women diaconate has been discussed on and off in Orthodox for the last 100 years.  The Russian Church was discussing the issue in 1917 before the communist revolution took control of Russia and forced the Church to stop talking about issues that would make the Church more engaging in society.  The Greek Church had a few women deacons at the beginning of the 20th Century ordained by St. Nektarios.   More recently the discussion has been taken up by  the St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess.    I think such discussion is healthy for the Church.  This is a discussion about restoring an office that once was part of the Orthodox Church.  It is not about creating something that never existed in the Church.  This is not following societal trends, but rather making the Church, the Body of Christ whole.  St. Paul said if one member of the Body suffers, we all suffer.  If we the Church have lost a vital ministry, we all are suffering that loss, and healing the Body and restoring the ministry would be a good thing.  St. Paul writes:
On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.   (1 Corinthians 12:22-31)
We all need to pray for the Church that God will provide for us the ministries that we need to witness to the world today.  God has appointed us to carry the Gospel to the world, and we need all the members of the Body to be working and working together.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (Matthew 9:37-38)

The Purpose of Fasting for the Nativity

“In a remarkable little book entitled Body of Death and of Glory, the French Orthodox theologian and historian, Olivier Clément, speaks of the fundamental reason for Christian asceticism

Asceticism can only be understood in the perspective of the resurrected, liturgical body. Asceticism signifies the effort to strip away our masks, those neurotic identities that usurp our personal vocation. It is an effort based not on will-power, but on a ceaseless abandonment of oneself to grace…. Asceticism is the struggle, the self-abandonment of openness and faith, which allows the Spirit to transform the anonymous body of our species into a body of ‘language’ that expresses both the person and communion among persons. Thanks to this ascetic struggle, we are gradually transformed from an acquisitive body, that treats the world as its prey, into a body of celebration, that unites itself to the ecclesial liturgy and thereby to the cosmic liturgy.

The aim of the Church’s ascetic practices is to effect this change, a radical transformation of the person, from a body of death to a glorified body, a body of celebration.”  (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 139)

The Incarnation, Christmas, The Nativity

Through the years as I was blogging, I sometimes gathered all the posts related to a particular theme from a given year into a PDF.  If you are interested in finding quotes from the Fathers or other Orthodox authors related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas or the incarnation, you might want to glance through the PDFs listed below.  These are posts I used either during the Nativity Fast (Advent) period or following the Feast of the Nativity itself.

Twelve Quotes for Christmas

2010 Christmas Blogs

2011 Christmas Blogs

2012 Christmas Blogs

2013 Christmas Blogs

2014 Christmas Blogs

2015 Christmas Blogs

2016 Christmas Blogs

Correcting, Not Judging Sinners

St. John Chrysostom had very strong words for Christians who want to convert others to Christ or who want to confront a Christian who has fallen into sin.

Do not trample, but admonish. Do not revile, but advise. Do not assail with pride, but correct with tenderness. These commandments offer great blessings to the obedient, but great evil for those who ignore them.

‘All right,’ you say, ‘if one commits fornication, may I not say that fornication is a bad thing and correct the person who fornicates?’  Yes, correct him – but as a physician providing medicines, not as an adversary exacting a penalty. Be not bitter in pronouncing sentence.

If you judge your brother, be sure to judge yourself first. Care about the one you judge, and judge him not for things you yourself are guilty of.”  (Homily on “Judge not, that you be not judged”, p. 3)

Mary: A Spiritual Heaven

Theologically, Christmas is a Feast of the Incarnation of God, something which is easily lost in all the cookies, parties, gifts, decorations, piles of wrapping paper which have come to dominate the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.  For those Christian who take time to find that place of holy silence (“Silent Night, Holy Night!”) there is still the ability to be awed and overjoyed by the mystery of God entering into the human condition.

Toward the beginning of the Nativity Fast, we Orthodox celebrate another theological Feast: the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21.  It is another day for us to contemplate the mystery of God incarnate by focusing on the human side of the equation: God became human so that the human can become God.  The incarnation as God chose to do it, required a human mother from whom God received His human nature.  God does not miraculously manufacture a completely novel, virginal and sinless human nature for Himself in the incarnation – to protect Himself from being tainted by sin and the fallen world.   No doubt God could have done that.  Instead, God enters into the human condition as all humans do – through conception in a mother’s womb, growing through gestation and then being born into the world.  He receives human nature from his mother including  genes and flesh – all that makes us human.   Christ has a fully human nature including a body made up of cells and organs which formed in the womb.  Jesus, who is fully God, becomes fully human.  As St. John says it: “the Word became flesh...”

God dwells in the Virgin‘s womb, and this mystery is the inspiration for many feasts, poems, icons and hymns in the Orthodox Church.  God who dwells in heaven also dwells in the Virgin’s womb.  Her womb becomes heaven, for heaven is the place where God dwells.

One of the hymns from the Entry of the Theotokos states it even more intriguingly:

Heaven and earth rejoice, beholding the spiritual heaven, the only Virgin without blemish…

If heaven is the place where God naturally dwells, the Virgin becomes “the spiritual heaven.”  She is not the “natural” heaven which is distinguished from the rest of creation in Genesis.   God makes use of a human to create a spiritual reality.  In fact it is not possible without her.   A human, a human body, becomes a “spiritual” heaven.  This is a most wonderful turning of a phrase.  And it reflects that reality of the incarnation and of theosis:  God becomes human so that the human can become God.  We might think “heaven” is a spiritual place, but God creates an additional spiritual heaven in order to dwell on earth with us humans.

In another hymn from the Entry of the Theotokos, Anna (Mary’s mother) tells Mary:

Go into the place which none may enter: Learn its mysteries and prepare yourself to become the pleasing and beautiful dwelling-place of Jesus

Again, the wonderful turn of a phrase – Mary is told to go into the place where none can enter – the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple.  But there is a mystery here, for if none can enter, then Mary can’t enter and if Mary can enter than it isn’t the place that none can enter. Lines are being crossed and blurred – which is exactly what happens in the incarnation of God the Word.

Mary is told to go into the place where God dwells in order to prepare herself for God dwelling in her. (see also The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple  2017)    The mutual indwelling of Mary (and thus humanity) in God and God in Mary (and thus in humanity) is realized in the Feast of Christmas.  This is the very concept of salvation in Orthodoxy.

The Sabbath is a Rest from Sin not from Love

According to Luke 13:10-17, Jesus confronted by a synagogue ruler regarding Sabbath laws, confronts the ruler with what the Sabbath is meant to be.

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Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

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But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound – think of it – for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

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Jean Danielou notes Jesus taught a very particular understanding of Sabbath rules and rejected common ideas about the Sabbath held by Jewish leaders.

The other element in the Sabbath is the idea of rest (anapausis). Here also we find a primary typology in the Old Testament, consisting in a spiritualization of this idea of rest. In the prophets, and especially in Isaias, we find the statement repeated by the Fathers of the Church, that the true Sabbath, the true anapausis, is not to cease from physical work, but to cease from sinning. “The new moons and the Sabbaths and other festivals I will not abide, your assemblies are wicked…cease to do perversely, learn to do well…” (Is. 1:13-19). And this passage is the more important because, as we shall see presently, the teaching of Christ is its exact extension. This spiritualization of the idea of the Sabbath rest, which does not, obviously, exclude the idea of the actual practice of the Sabbath, is found again in Philo, transformed by its platonic setting, when he sees in the Sabbath the symbol of the soul “that rests in God and gives itself no more to any mortal work.”

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The Jews of the time of Christ, in their exaltation of the Sabbath, thought that God Himself was subject to it. We find such an idea expressed in the Book of Jubilees (II, 16). The word of Christ formally condemns the application to God of the Sabbath rest understood as idleness. In God there is no idleness; but His activity which, as St. Clement of Alexandria says, is identical with His love, is exercised without ceasing. And this is of great importance: the idleness, otium, of the Sabbath appears henceforth as a literal and inferior notion, giving room for seeking its spiritual meaning. The Fathers of the Church used this text to condemn the Sabbath rest by showing that it is not the law of the universe and that Christianity is the reality of which this idleness is the figure. Origen, using the same text of St. John, writes: “He shows by this that God does not cease to order the world on any Sabbath of this world. The true Sabbath, in which God will rest from all His works, will, therefore be the world to come. The working of Christ is seen to be the reality which comes to replace the figurative idleness of the Sabbath.”   (The Bible and the Liturgy, pp. 224 & 227)

 

The Theotokos: Image of Every Christian

St. Justin the Martyr writing in the 2nd Century shows how early in Church history Christians were contemplating the Virgin Mary and her role in salvation.

The Son of God became human by the virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God‘; and she replied, ‘Let it be to me according to your word‘ [Luke 1:35, 38].”  ( A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 877-81)

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Christians right into the 21st Century have continued to reflect on Mary’s significance to each Christian today.  Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says:

“Images of  Mary remind us of  God’s favor. Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.”   ( Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Kindle Location 1042-1043)

Thanksgiving 2017

A prayer for Thanksgiving Day

O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, the God of all mercies and compassion,
Whose mercy cannot be measured and Whose love for mankind is without limit: As unprofitable servants we bow down in reverence and fear before Your gracious majesty, and we humbly offer You this Thanksgiving for all the benefits You have bestowed upon our nation and our Church.

We glorify, praise, hymn and magnify You as our Lord, Master and Benefactor.  We bow down before You in Thanksgiving for Your immeasurable and priceless loving-kindness.

We pray that in the same way that You already blessed us, heard our prayers and fulfilled them, so also in the time to come as we flourish in love and virtue as a result of Your blessings grant always to accept our thanksgiving supplications and grant that we may bring glory to Your Holy Name each day that we walk on this earth.

Deliver our Church and our nation from every evil circumstance, and continue to accept, bless and prosper the work of our hands.
O Lord, grant us peace and tranquility so that we may live in godliness all the days of our lives. Count us always worthy to offer you thanksgiving, to tell about your wonderful blessings, and to sing praise to You for all the benefits you bestow upon us.

In humble gratitude we praise Your Name together with Your Father who is from everlasting and You Most Holy, good and consubstantial Spirit.  Amen.

Thanksgiving morning, 23 November 2017, there was a rainbow in the sky just at day break. A beautiful sight for Thanksgiving morning.

 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”    (Genesis 9:12-16)