Following Christ from the Desert to the Crucifixion

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From the beginning of Great Lent this year I have been framing the Great Lenten experience as a journey.  I mentioned Israel’s departure from Egypt into the desert as a model for our own journey into Great Lent.  And today the Gospel reading reminds us that the journey of Great Lent takes us to other destinations even to Jerusalem, not the heavenly one, but the city in which Christ will be crucified.    As Mark 10:32-33 reports:

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. 

We might imagine many reasons why the disciples were both amazed and afraid as they follow Jesus, the text only tells of their spiritual and emotional state without giving us an explanation as to why.  They are clearly walking behind Jesus, who is leading them to Jerusalem where he tells them He is going to be killed.  But we don’t know if they follow reluctantly or are trying to slow their journey down.  We know there will be a surprising welcome for Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and no doubt that gave the Disciples a moment to hope that maybe things would not be as a bad as they feared.

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In one of the hymns we sing from Monday of Holy Week, we are given an interpretation of this Gospel lesson in which we ourselves participate in the events.

AS THE LORD WAS GOING TO HIS VOLUNTARY PASSION, HE SAID TO THE APOSTLES ON THE WAY, BEHOLD, WE GO UP TO JERUSALEM, AND THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE DELIVERED UP, AS IT IS WRITTEN OF HIM.  COME, THEREFORE, LET US ALSO GO WITH HIM, PURIFIED IN MIND.  LET US BE CRUCIFIED WITH HIM AND DIE THROUGH HIM TO THE PLEASURES OF THIS LIFE.  THEN WE SHALL LIVE WITH HIM AND HEAR HIM SAY: I GO NO MORE TO THE EARTHLY JERUSALEM TO SUFFER, BUT TO MY FATHER AND YOUR FATHER, TO MY GOD AND YOUR GOD.  I SHALL RAISE YOU UP TO THE JERUSALEM ON HIGH IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. 

Like the Twelve Disciples, we too might both be amazed and afraid when we consider that we are going to Jerusalem not to watch Christ die for us but rather so that we might die with Christ.  We are going there in the words of St Paul to have the world be crucified to us and ourselves to the world  (Galatians 6:14).  Crucifixion even if it is intended to mean spiritually crucified, still means death,  which should give us pause and cause us to cringe at the thought that to follow Christ means we must choose to die with Him.

We Christians do not come to Holy Week to be spectators watching a passion play unfold like a nicely done drama, we are here to die with Christ.   The annoying inconveniences of the Great Fast were reminding us that death involves the body and the soul.

St. Paul says in Romans 5:6-8 –

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

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Indeed He died for us, the sinners, but not so that we could enjoy a passion play each year, but so that we too would die to sin, die to the world, die to ourselves, so that we might live with Him.

Our Lenten sojourn takes us like the Israelites out of the great Egyptian empire into the desert to encounter our God free of the distractions and temptations of civilization.   In the desert we are able to free our minds of all the cultural and nationalistic ideas about God  – the One who has unlimited power sending forth His invincible armies, or the One who destroys His enemies in the eternal fires of hell, or the One and pours out unending abundance upon His people.  In the desert where there are no comforts of civilization to prop up these ideas of God, we are freed of our false images of God so we can encounter the God of love who humbly dies on the cross for sinners.  Not only is He nailed to the cross and executed like a common criminal, He invites us to share in His death!  We are to die to the world in order to live with Christ.

The Lenten sojourn, however, doesn’t keep us in the desert but rather the desert is the way to Jerusalem, where Christ is crucified.  We don’t like this idea of a crucified, suffering Lord any better than the Twelve did.  We like them don’t want to go to that Jeruusalem in which God is crucified.  We want the triumphant Jerusalem where God reigns in power from on high, not nailed to a cross.  We prefer not to think about it.  We prefer victory, triumph, blessings and glory, but the Way who is Christ is through the Cross.  Through the Cross joy  comes into all the world.

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If we want to follow Christ, we have to listen to what the Lord Jesus actually taught, and then we will know our life will not be one of being served and pampered or of having all our needs met or of having all our prayers instantly answered, but rather our life in Christ will be one of constantly looking in love to serve others, which means we each have to practice self-denial and put others ahead of our self.  Lent tries to free our minds from the images we receive from the culture about God and to encounter the God who is revealed dying on the cross.   For example, America does give us an image of God and it usually is an image of prosperity and power as in “God bless America”, but the Gospel calls us to see the God revealed in the Scriptures.  The God who humbles Himself and dies on the cross for all sinners.

We should be able to discern that the images of God which are shaped by the culture are often distorted and serve the purpose of the culture.

Thomas Merton once commented about the monastic movement of the 4th Century which started as a reaction not against pagan culture but against imperial, prosperous Christianity.  The men and women who fled the conveniences and comforts of the Roman Empire also moved into the desert, in imitation of Israel of old, in order to find God who was not subverted by the state nor subservient to the state.

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“Society … was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.   . . . These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.    . . .   The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world. And thus to leave, the world, is in fact, to help save it in saving oneself. This is the final point, and it is an important one. The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them. . . . We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.”   (Thomas Merton)

The call to leave Egypt, civilization, the greatest nation on earth, and go into the desert (Great Lent) reveals to us the nature of civilization itself.  Culture wants to shape us into its own ideal about what it is to be human or Christian, and into people who are willing to serve the needs of the culture, and to enslave themselves to it.  Nations want us to accept their nationalistic ideas of God, so that God too serves the goals of the nation.  This is why the desert fathers thought the society was a shipwreck and the only way to find their true self, the self which God intended each of us to be, was to separate themselves from all of the benefits, temptations and allurements of society.  It is only when we get a new perspective and aren’t totally immersed in or dependent on our culture that we come to understand the Gospel of Christ, not the Gospel mediated by the culture.  Republicans and Democrats both think they know best what the Gospel really means.  We as Christians need to hear Christ, not what others say about Him.   An example of this is to think about Christ’s words to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, 35).  Christ’s words are simple and straightforward, but our culture will do its best to explain away the most straightforward meaning so that the words are practical, doable, sensible and reasonable and made to justify and serve the values of the culture.  But the cultural understanding and explanation is not necessarily the one offered by Christ in the Gospel.

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Some years ago, I read the book A STRANGER TO MYSELF: THE INHUMANITY OF WAR, in which a young German man describes how he was shaped from what he was, a youthful German citizen into a cog of the Nazi war machine. He was brutalized in order that he would be brutal – dehumanized so that he would be inhuman for the benefit of the Third Reich.   He indeed became a stranger to himself, and not only to himself but lost all feeling for the people around him whom he no longer saw as humans.  He was willing to serve the war machine no matter what it did to himself or to others.    He did what he needed to do to survive in that state.  He became the person the state needed him to be for the state to attain its goals.   He tried to save himself by adapting to what the state demanded of him, but in this process he lost his soul and lost any shred of humanity.  His story is exactly what the monks feared was happening to themselves even as the Roman empire became Christian – the Empire told them it was OK to be Christian, but only to be Christian to the extent and in the way that the Empire approved in order that they be the kind of citizens that benefited the Empire.

Great Lent challenges us to think like the desert fathers thought as they contemplated the empire they lived in.  They had to ask themselves if they could in fact be Christian if they limited themselves to what the “Christian” Empire defined and approved?   They asked themselves whether being a Christian simply meant serving the Roman Empire, or did they have allegiance only to the Kingdom not of this world? They were in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16).   They questioned whether accepting the protection and Lordship of Caesar meant that they no longer lived under the sole protection and Lordship of God.   They had to find a way to remember the self-sacrificing love of Christ rather than see love as self-serving or a way to benefit the empire’s insatiable needs.

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These are the same questions we need to ask ourselves. We still live in the same world that the apostles and desert fathers lived in.   Many like to think about America as being a Christian nation, but does that serve the Kingdom of Heaven or does it mostly serve the goals of America?   Some might say but it’s not an either or, why can’t it be both?

And then we hear the Gospel:  “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24)

It is because of the Gospel that the Roman Government persecuted the Christians, the Muslims persecuted the Christians, and the communists persecuted the Christians.    All of these governments heard the Gospel as a challenge to their authority and power.  And the Christians did not work to overthrow those governments, rather they chose to live as lights to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world.  No wonder the disciples were afraid as they followed Christ into Jerusalem.  They accepted Jesus as Lord, but were walking into a City in which Caesar and Herod both laid claim to that title, and the religious authorities were beholden to Rome and Herod for maintaining their own positions.

It is not only the state that wants us to temper the Gospel to meet the goals of the state.  Our own self-interest can demand that we make the Gospel subservient to our own personal interests.

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John and James ask of Jesus:  Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”   Isn’t that so like us and how we pray and approach God?  God give me what I want, what I demand, what I lust for, what I think I’m entitled to.  Be my servant God, do my bidding and do it now.  We make ourselves our own Lord and Master and demand that God serve us.

We convince ourselves that discipleship, faithfulness to Christ, certainly will be rewarded in this world not just in the world to come.  Christ reminds us of the cross, that He came to serve, not be served, and we are supposed to imitate Him.

And when we realize that Jesus tells us that to follow Him means to love one another, to deny the self, to die for Christ, then we might decide like Peter that we want to follow Christ but only at a safe distance: Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance …  (Luke 22:54)

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Or we might decide that we really want to live for Christ, with Christ and in Christ.  And that will help put all other values and blessings in perspective, and we will live by and for the eternal Kingdom of God.

Asceticism: For the Love of God

Cassian John“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’”   (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

The Joy of Repentance

 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes this as the sorrow that pervades the Lenten services that lead up to Pascha. He calls it “bright sadness.” Is not Lent itself a joyous gift from God? The Church Fathers refer to it not as a season of misery but of joy, a “springtime of the soul.”

It is a time to weed out the passions that trip us up on life. It is a time to focus on Christ and to find in Him our greatest joy. It is a time to ask God to heal us of all those things we hate about ourselves, all those things that mess up our lives and destroy us. Let us rejoice every time we discover a new imperfection because through repentance and godly sorrow that imperfection (sin) can lead to forgiveness, joy and newness of life. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that the purpose of repentance “is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God, I can yet become.”

Lent was not given to us by the Church to make our lives miserable. It is a God-given opportunity to remove from our lives all those passions that enslave us to set us free to experience “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It is this “joy-creating sorrow” or “bright sadness” that leads to repentance which, in turn, leads to salvation and explodes with joy at Pascha.

(Anthony M. Conairis,Holy Joy: The Heartbeat of Faith, p. 36-37)

 

Perfection is Not a Plateau, It’s the Striving

In the imagery of the spiritual life as climbing the ladder of divine ascent, there is a limited number of rungs to climb and one can fall back or off the ladder.  St Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand envisioned the spiritual life as endless growth.  There was no plateau to reach, one simply keeps progressing, and it is the continued growth itself which is perfection.  It is a very dynamic view of the spiritual life because the spiritual life is growth in one’s relationship to God and God is without end so one’s relationship with God never ceases growing.

 

“Gregory [of Nyssa] went on to make progress itself perfection…  ‘the one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit,’ there is no stopping place in the racecourse of virtue (I, 5-6; cf. II, 242). Perfection is unlimited, and so unattainable; hence, perfection is redefined: ‘The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness’ (I, 10)… ‘Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the good brought to an end because it is satisfied’ (II, 239). Moses ‘always found a step higher than the one he had attained’ (II, 227). Participation in virtue dilates the capacity for more virtue. The flesh can know satiety, but the spirit cannot (II, 59ff., 230).

…Gregory once more reiterates that the only perfection available to men in this life is to be found in progress toward perfection (II, 305-314): ‘The continual development of life to what is better is the soul’s way to perfection.’

Although Gregory makes much of the sequence of events in Scripture, this fact should not be pressed in an absolute sense. Moses’ life is not made to fit a schematized progression of spiritual experience. Some things do logically precede others in one’s spiritual development, but the experiences of life may not be reduced to a formula. The stages of Moses’ life are a pattern not so much in their order as in their constant going on to new things.”

(from the introduction, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, pp. 12-13)

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 Ladder of the Kingdom is Within You

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac …”  (Genesis 28:12-13)

“Be at peace with your soul and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Endeavor to enter the treasury within you and you will see that treasury which is in heaven. The former and the latter are one and through a single entrance you will see both of them. The ladder of that kingdom is hidden within you, within your soul. Dive away from sin into yourself and you there you will find the steps by which you may ascend.”   (St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, p. 34)

The Many Graces of Baptism

“When you come to the sacred initiation, the eyes of the flesh see water; the eyes of faith behold the Spirit. Those eyes see the body being baptized; these see the old man being buried. The eyes of the flesh see the flesh being washed, the eyes of the spirit see the soul being cleansed. The eyes of the body see the body emerging from the water; the eyes of faith see the new man come forth brightly shining from that new purification. Our bodily eyes see the priest as, from above, he lays his right hand on the head and touches (him who is being baptized) our spiritual eyes see the great High Priest (Jesus) as He stretches forth His invisible hand to touch his head. For, at that moment, the one who baptizes is not a man, but the only-begotten Son of God.

For this reason, when the priest is baptizing he does not say, “I baptize so-and-so,” but, “So-and-so is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this way he shows that it is not he who baptizes but those whose names have been invoked, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pp. 120)

True Lenten Charity

He gave Himself up for the life of the world (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

“Strive to acquire humility, and charity – the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates.”  (Macarius, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 56)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  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.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  (Genesis 9:8-17)

God’s covenant relationship is not just with the chosen people, but with all creation, which God repeats again and again as God talks to Noah:  with every living creature (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16), with the earth (9:13),  with all flesh (9:15, 16 and 17).  If God so loves the world which He created, shouldn’t we?