Double Vision: God and Human

St. Ephraim the Syrian, poetically captures the mystery of the incarnation of God which we celebrate at Christmas.  Look at Christ, then look again.  We can see Him as both God and human, but also as either God or human.  It is, as I’ve noted before for me as a photographer – I can pay attention to the big picture, the landscape, only at the expense of the smaller details.  My lens widens my view.  Or, I can use the macro-lens and focus on the detail, but only at the expense of losing sight of the big picture.  My lens through which I see the world won’t let me view fully both at the same time.  Both views can be beautiful and worth capturing in pictures, but I need to switch between lenses and so can only really view one at a time.  My mind knows both views exist and appreciates both, but isn’t able to picture both simultaneously.

St Ephrem lyrically expresses the theology of Christ:

We come to see You as God,

and, lo! You are a human:

we come to see You as human,

and there shines forth the Light of Your Godhead!

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3039-40)

The mystery of the incarnation is that we see the God-man Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.  It is also true though that in most encounters with Christ people tend to focus on His divinity or His humanity.  We do this not because we can’t accept the truth but because the truth is beyond comprehension.  If we know the theology of Christ, we can only marvel at how it is possible for Jesus to be both God and human.  The mystery and marvel of who Jesus caused many to wonder whether His mother gave to birth to God or to a man.  Holding the truth together was the constant challenge in early Christian theology.  God in the flesh – God becomes that which is not God.  God able to do what seems impossible.

Keeping All the Commandments

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'”

And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. 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 sad, for he was very rich. Jesus looking at him 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.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) comments:

Again, to the rich young man He said ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and come and follow Me’ (Matt. 19:21). It is with reference to this incident that St Basil the Great observes that the young man lied when he said that he had kept the commandments; for if he had kept them, he would not have acquired many possessions, since the first commandment in the Law is, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul’ (Deut. 6:5). The word ‘all’ forbids him who loves God to love anything else to such an extent that it would make him sad were it to be taken away. After this the Law says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), that is, ’you shall love every man’.

But how can he have kept this commandment if, when many other men lacked daily nourishment, he had many possessions and was passionately attached to them? If, like Abraham, Job and other righteous men, he had regarded those possessions as the property of God, he would not have gone away sorrowing. St John Chrysostom says the same thing: the young man believed that what was said to him by the Lord was true, and this was why he went away full of sorrow, for he had not the strength to carry it into effect. For there are many who believe the sayings of the Scriptures, but have not the strength to fulfill what is written.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 29316-39)

The Crowded Church

When I think about images of the Church, I often think about the scenes in the Gospel where there is a crowd around Jesus.  These are the people following Him.  But that crowd is a very mixed group for in it are not only disciples but women, political zealots, nationalists, the sick, sinners, the insane, the possessed, the curious, the deformed, the blind, the hopeless and the hopeful, doubters, rebels, the irreligious, the establishment as well as the enemies of Christ.  Just think about two passages in the early part of Mark’s Gospel – Mark 1:23-34 and Mark 2:1-17.

It is the Sabbath Day in the first passage.  Jesus and his disciples have entered a synagogue.  And there in the synagogue is a demon possessed man.  Apparently, synagogues allowed even demoniacs to enter the community, to hear the scripture lessons, to pray and to seek rest from their affliction {that is something parish communities should think about, especially when we feel justified in judging the synagogues in Jesus day!}.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost, the possessed, the sinner.  He wants to be in their presence and wants them to come into His presence.  The man screams: Have you come to destroy us?   But Jesus is there on a peace mission.  He is not there to destroy sinners or the demon possessed.  Rather, He is there to save them.  Jesus commands the demon to be silent.  ‘You don’t know what you are talking about.  I am God but I am not here to destroy life or cast anyone into hell.’ The thief may come to kill and destroy, but Jesus claims, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).   Jesus does not seek a crowd of perfectly well behaved and obedient followers.  He would not be able to accomplish His mission or God’s will if that is all who came to Him.  Really, the righteous, well behaved and those who are healthy don’t even really need Him at all.

Jesus then heals Peter’s mother-in-law at the home of Peter and Andrew.  “That evening,” according to Mark’s Gospel, “at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together about the door.”   Again, we see a crowd coming to Jesus, not fleeing from him, of people who are variously sick, wretched, needy, insane, maimed, demon possessed.  Jesus ministers to them.  This is His crowd, the Church.  It is not just respectable people or believers, the moral and the pious, priests and monks.

Jesus then travels to Capernaum, to His home.  Again, a crowd assembles where he is.   Four men are desperate to get help for their friend.  Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins.   But then, look, who is sitting with Jesus?  The scribes! “Now some of the scribes were sitting there…”    Jesus’ rivals and enemies are sitting next to Jesus and criticize Him in His own home for healing someone.  It is the scribes who seem to have the seats of honor in Jesus own home.  They don’t even have to crowd into the room – they get to sit next to Jesus.   Imagine a parish letting the enemies of Christ and the critics of Christianity sit in the front pews, closest to the altar.  That’s what Jesus did!

Jesus then goes to the house of Levi, a hated tax collector.  Mark says: “And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.”   Table fellowship with sinners!  Jesus doesn’t condemn them and kick them out, rather He sits down with them at table and eats with them.  This of course gets disapproving comments from the scribes, those opponents of Jesus.  If Jesus invited sinners to His table today or sat with sinners at their table, who would be raising their voice in disapproval today?   Probably the same kinds of people as the scribes.  Why in the world would Jesus eat with sinners when there are decent people, upright, godly who would rather sit with Him?  Yet that is what Jesus did.

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’

The crowd, the church – if it is following Christ – has sinners in it.  In fact, the church should be inviting them in and having table fellowship with them, as Christ did, for these are the very people He seeks and calls.  These are the very people who need to be forgiven and given the spiritual nourishment to be able to follow Christ.

If the Church saw itself as the crowd which followed Christ, it would be a crowded Church.  It’s not the righteous who need Christ, nor did He come to seek and save them.  If churches are losing membership, perhaps they are hanging out with the wrong crowd.

A Kingdom of Men and Women Priests

When I was a parish priest I would be asked from time to time if I thought the Orthodox Church would ever have women priests.

My initial reaction was always the same – ever is a long time, and I don’t really know what is in store in the forever.  But I didn’t think it would happen in the Orthodox Church in my life time.

But saying that there aren’t women priests in the Orthodox Church has to be qualified.  All who are baptized into Christ share in the holy and royal priesthood of all believers according to St. Peter, the head of the Apostles:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” and “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall”; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-10)

Peter speaks to the collective “you” (in the plural), the people of God, all the members of the Church, both male and female: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…”   Of special note, this is not just a New Testament idea.  St Peter is quoting Exodus 19:6, from the Septuagint, the Word of God in which God is speaking to the “house of Jacob” and “the children of Israel” – not just to the men, but to all the people of God. “... you shall be for me a people special above all nations.  For all the earth is mine.  And you shall be for me a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (NETS).  St Peter, the chosen head of the Apostles not only believes all of God’s people, both men and women, are to be priests, but that this is the vocation God has chosen for us.  When we are God’s people, we all are priests.  In this sense, yes, there are women priests since there are women believers, women disciples, women saints, women martyrs.  St Peter does not limit this priesthood to males only.  He never discusses an ordained priesthood, so I don’t know what he thought about an ordained priesthood that all believers do not share.  The only priest described in the New Covenant is Jesus Christ.  He is not a priest like the Levitical priests, but a special priest in the order of Melchizedek.

There is another fact that has to be taken into account in Scriptures.  In the book of Revelation, which is notoriously difficult to interpret, there is further claim that all believers – which would include women – are priests.  We encounter the idea first in Revelation 1:5-6.  Here St John claims that Jesus Christ has made us a kingdom and also made us all priests:

and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (emphases not in original text)

This is not something claimed for males only – it is for “us”, all believers, to be priests in God’s kingdom.  All those loved by Christ and saved by Christ are made priests.  The word “made’ as in created as God did in Genesis 1.  God creates us as priests in the new age to come.  This is part of His making all things new rather than making all new things (Revelation 21:1-5).   This connection between God’s kingdom and our being priests is repeated twice more in Revelation.  In Revelation 5:8-10 (emphases not in original text), we read:

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.

Again, it is Christ, the Lamb, who makes us a kingdom and priests to God.  All believers participate in this priesthood.  More intriguing is that St John says that believers of this kingdom, the priests, shall reign on earth.  This would be all believers, male and female as priests sharing in Christ’s reign on earth because Christ recreates us as priests – not just some of us, not just males, but both men and women.  [As an aside, I wonder if part of the reason iconographers often only portray males in icons of the Kingdom is that they knew we are all priests in the Kingom, but didn’t know how to portray that as they felt reluctant to have women priests in icons and so show only males in the Kingdom?  If they do include women they don’t portray them as priests, but why?, since that is what Revelation makes of all believers in the Kingdom.]

In Revelation 20:6 we read yet another claim, which again surely implies all believers, not just males.

Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.

ALL who share in the first resurrection are priests of God and of Christ.  Since Orthodoxy certainly believes both men and women can share in the first resurrection, then Orthodoxy does believe men and women are to be priests of God and of Christ in the promised Kingdom.

So, will women ever be priests in Orthodoxy?  The answer has to be “yes, women  will be priests” – in the Kingdom, in heaven, though St. John suggests also on earth.  So might it ever be on earth as it is in heaven?  God knows.

Fr Schmemann thought the very God-given vocation of every human being is to be a priest.  Logically, that means all males and females. Thus from the beginning God created humans as a race of priests and so intended even women to be priests.  We all fulfill our vocation when we become that holy and royal priesthood which St Peter proclaims.

Sometimes when I would hear the question, “will the Orthodox Church ever ordain women?”, the lesson from scripture that came to my mind was Numbers 11:26-9 in which God comes and takes some of the Spirit which Moses has and gives it to 70 other men.  It is an interesting ordination imagery – for God doesn’t simply give them God’s Spirit, God takes some of the Spirit which Moses has and gives it to the 70 men.  It is a synergistic moment.  Ordination does not belong to God alone.  Rather God is using something in a human (something Moses has) to  increase ministry among His people.  However, then, something unusual happens – two other men not among the 70 also unexpectedly receive the Spirit.  Joshua, one of the recognized leaders of the people is alarmed by this sudden turn of events and worrying that two ‘outliers’ also have the Spirit even though not chosen by Moses, tells Moses about this.  Joshua apparently thinks Moses should be concerned or that this spreading of the spirit beyond what Moses had ordained is somehow a threat to Moses’ authority.  The text says:

Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested upon them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, forbid them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” 

Moses’ response to learning that some ‘others’ who are unchosen have been gifted with his spirit is “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!”  Moses feels no need to protect his office or to forbid others from sharing in his ministry or divine calling.  Rather, he wishes all God’s people were prophets and had this spirit.  This is the same Moses to whom God said the people of God are a royal priesthood.  God’s will is that all of us should be priests. This seems to be the vision of Revelation regarding the priesthood.  In the Kingdom of God, finally God’s will is accomplished: all the Lord’s people are to be priests, prophets and kings – to be all that God willed for us from the beginning when God made male and female.  We don’t have to fear the sharing of this calling, ministry, office, divine gift – even among women.

The Sabbath Rest


Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright comments on how ‘the Law’ could be misunderstood or misapplied in life.  Torah was not meant to oppose ritualistic law to virtues – compassion, mercy, love.  One however could find oneself in the troubling position of having to choose to help someone (show mercy) on the Sabbath but the very thing you need to do would violate the Law of Sabbath rest, and would be so interpreted by some Jewish leaders.  Mercy should win out in such cases.  This is what Jesus taught – there is no conflict with the Sabbath rest if someone needs your mercy.  Mercy is not opposed to rest for it gives rest to the one in need.  Wright comments:

Within this, a major theme emerges in which the sabbath principle and command find a new focus, though with echoes of the Deuteronomy principle (sabbath as liberation for the slaves). The sabbath becomes the sign of God’s justice and care for the poor, and even for slaves and animals. Thus, in Exodus 23:11, the sabbath is the chance for the poor to rest; this includes slaves and animals too. This principle blossoms, importantly, into a theme which looks quite different to begin with but actually belongs very closely with the sabbath: the Jubilee.   (Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, Kindle Loc 2108-12)

The Sabbath was given as a day of rest for all including slaves and animals from their labors, troubles, burdens.  This is the principle to which Jesus appeals in the synagogue:  You are supposed to give rest to slaves and animals on the Sabbath, does not this apply to relieving any human in need as well?   In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus is being very specific about one person: does not this woman, a faithful Israelite, deserve rest from her burden on the Sabbath as well?  If my action of mercy gives her rest from her burden on the Sabbath, is not my action righteous?

 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien, may be refreshed.”  (Exodus 23:12)

Healing on the Sabbath thus fulfills the law not violate it according to Jesus.  Note in Luke 13:10-17 the way the ruler of the synagogue words his criticism – he aims it at the woman (“come on those days and be healed) not at Jesus the Healer.  He blames her for violating the Sabbath not Jesus.  He criticizes the one who now has rest, not the one who has given her rest.  Maybe he felt he could not criticize someone who had just performed a healing miracle in the synagogue.  Or maybe it was just a misogynistic comment and had nothing to do with miracles at all.  In any case, Jesus not only heals the woman but defends her as a daughter of Abraham.  She is not just some foolish or troublesome woman, she is part of the chosen ones of God!  The people in the synagogue should be honoring her, not criticizing her.  Jesus will not accept a “good ol’ boy” comment from the synagogue ruler.  He rebukes the patriarchal paternalism of religious leadership.

Furthermore, we can see in Mark 1:23, a demon possessed man is in the synagogue – for all we criticize the Pharisees, we can see that they had sinners in their assemblies.  Even the demon possessed came into the synagogues where Jesus is.  We should think about that in terms of our Sunday Liturgies.  Do we exclude sinners from coming to Christ for healing?  Which assembly is Christ most likely to attend – the one with demoniacs, sinners and the sick, or the one which excludes such people from their assembly?

St. Mark the Ascetic offers an interpretation of the Sabbath commandment which moves away from a literal understanding of it.  For St Mark the six days of work simply means to do works of kindness, charity and mercy – that is the normal labor of Christians in our daily lives.  A Sabbath rest from such work comes when you follow the command of Christ to give all your possessions away to follow Christ.  Only then are you no longer obligated to do works of charity since you now own nothing and have nothing to give away.

The Law figuratively commands men to work for six days and on the seventh to rest (cf. Exod. 20:9-10). The term ‘work’ when applied to the soul signifies acts of kindness and generosity by means of our possessions – that is, through material things. But the soul’s rest and repose is to sell everything and ‘give to the poor’ (Matt. 19:21), as Christ Himself said; so through its lack of possessions it will rest from its work and devote itself to spiritual hope. Such is the rest into which Paul also exhorts us to enter, saying: ‘Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest‘ (Heb. 4:11).   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3886-94)

Apparently for St Mark it is those of us who aren’t in monasteries who are obliged to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love, give in charity, show mercy, kindness, compassion and care for the poor and needy.  Those who enter the monastic life can rest from those labors as they have given everything away – they can then devote themselves to prayer and fasting.  Those of us committed to the married life and to our families have the additional obligation, responsibility and work of caring for the poor and needy.  It is through acts of charity, almsgiving, mercy, kindness and  generosity that we follow Christ and live as the holy ones of God.

As St. John Cassian notes:

And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)

For St. John Cassian fasting is a voluntary labor, but hospitality is commanded by Christ in the Gospels.  Not everyone can fast but everyone can be merciful.  St Gregory the Great says:

My friends, love hospitality, love the works of mercy. Paul said: Let the love of the brotherhood remain, and do not forget hospitality; it was by this that some have been made acceptable, having entertained angels hospitably; and Peter told us to be hospitable to one another, without complaints; and Truth himself said: I needed hospitality, and you welcomed me. And yet often we feel no inclination to offer the gift of hospitality. But consider, my friends, how great this virtue of hospitality is! Receive Christ at your tables, so that he will receive you at the eternal banquet. Offer hospitality now to Christ the stranger, so that at the judgement you will not be a stranger but he will accept you into his kingdom as one he knows.” (Be Friends of God, pp 62-64)

The Son of God Became the Son of David

St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD) wrote a great deal about salvation and from him we can understand just how theologically minded they were in the early Church.  We also see how early in Christian history he writes for when Irenaeus says “the fathers,” he still means the Jewish Patriarchs of the Old Testament, not the church fathers.  Irenaeus himself is destined to become one of the church fathers quoted frequently by future generations of Orthodox theologians. But in the nascent church when they spoke of the scriptures they might still mean what we today call the Old Testament.

Writing about Jesus, he says:

Thus then He gloriously achieved our redemption, and fulfilled the promise of the fathers, and abolished the old disobedience. The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death.   But God the Father was very merciful: He sent His creative Word, who in coming to deliver us came to the very place and spot in which we had lost life, and brake the bonds of our fetters.

And His light appeared and made the darkness of the prison disappear, and hallowed our birth and destroyed death, loosing those same fetters in which we were enchained. And He manifested the resurrection, Himself becoming the first-begotten of the dead, and in Himself raising up man that was fallen, lifting him up far above the heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father: even as God promised.  (The Proof of The Apostolic Preaching, Kindle Loc 616-24)

For St Irenaeus there are two births of Christ.  First He, the timeless and pre-eternal Word of God, is born of the Virgin as Son of David, a human yet God, in the flesh.  Second Jesus becomes the first born of the dead in His resurrection. Christ does this in order to give us a new birth as well.  We too are born in the flesh but also because of the flesh we are mortal and die.  In being united to Christ in baptism we are born again.  Christ thus both redeems our first birth in the flesh and gives us the new birth to eternal life.  Just as Christ has two births and sanctifies them both, so He as our Creator has given us two births, the first into this world and the second into eternal life in the world to come.

Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2019)

A blessed Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple!

Hail, from whom alone there springs the unfading Rose;

Hail, for thou hast borne the sweetly-smelling Apple.

Hail, Maiden unwedded, nosegay of the only King and preservation of the world.

Hail, Lady, treasure-house of purity, raising us from our fall;

Hail, Lily whose sweet scent is known to all the faithful;

Hail, fragrant incense and precious oil of myrrh.

(Akathist Hymn to the Most Holy Mother of God from The Lenten Triodion)

The Feast of Female Taper Bearers

A Blessed Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!

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Something that stands out to me about many icons of this Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is the portrayal of women taper bearers.  In the iconography, they are portrayed not as small children like the Virgin Mary but perhaps teenagers as they are portrayed slightly smaller than Joachim and Anna but larger than Mary.  It is amazing to me that so many modern Orthodox have such a strong reaction against girls serving in the altar, when we have a Major Feast which portrays exactly that – young women serving in the temple, carrying candles.  Altar boys are basically taper bearers, carrying candles, which at least in Orthodox iconography girls are permitted to do.

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I have heard numerous times that in fact girls are permitted to serve at the altar in some Orthodox churches in the Patriarch of Antioch.  I have never seen this myself, but have heard it from several witnesses.   Women do serve at the altar in convents as was permitted even by some Orthodox saints.   In some traditions girls do serve as “myrrhbearing women/girls” during liturgical processions such as at Holy Friday.  I remember reading that St John of Kronstadt in 19th Century Russia had girls serve as taper bearers for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the temple and he used them in a procession to celebrate the Feast.  Seems like a right practice based on the icon of the Feast.

The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

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Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.