Living The Kingdom of God

In the book Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (page 124), Michael Plekon, building upon the writings of Paul Evdokimov, notes:

 “For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is

‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive.  In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”

 

The Cross as a Weapon of Peace

“The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.

When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.

This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.

But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.

(John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 38-39)

Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

A Poetic Phrasing of St. Ephrem’s Prayer

Poet Scott Cairns gives us a fresh look at the Prayer of St. Ephrem in his poetic rephrasing of the Great Lenten prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life,

remove from me this languid spirit,

this grim demeanor, this petty

lust for power, and all this empty talk.

endow Thy servant, instead,

with a chaste spirit, a humble

heart, longsuffering gentleness,

and genuine, unselfish love.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant

that I may confront my own offenses,

and remember not to judge my brother.

for You are–always and forever–blessed.

(Love’s Immensity, pp. 17-18)

 

Lenten Images

GOD‑BEARING APOSTLES, CHRIST WHO IS THE VINE BROUGHT YOU FORTH AS CLUSTERS OF GRAPES 

GIVING THE WORLD THE NEW WINE OF SALVATION!

THEREFORE, I ENTREAT YOU, DELIVER ME FROM THE DRUNKENNESS OF SENSUAL PLEASURES; GRANT MY SOUL TEARS OF COMPUNCTION ON THIS HOLY DAY OF THE FAST, THAT I MAY GAIN LIFE AND SALVATION!

The hymns above and below are taken from the Triodion from Thursday, 2nd Week of Great Lent.  Above, the hymn stays with a theme – vine, grape clusters and wine versus drunkenness which are metaphors for Christ, the apostles and salvation/sacrament versus sensual pleasures.  There is a beautiful and natural gift from God to us for our salvation, or we can choose like Adam to use God’s gifts for selfish pleasure rather than for communion with the Creator.

Below the hymn puts forth a theme not overly stressed during Great Lent in the Orthodox Church: repentance isn’t attained only by enumerating our sins in confession.  Rather we can apply ourselves to doing good deeds as a sign that we have repented of our self-centeredness.

IF WE SET OUR HANDS TO DOING GOOD, THE EFFORT OF LENT WILL BE A TIME OF REPENTANCE FOR US, A MEANS TO ETERNAL LIFE, FOR NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED.  ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH. LET US EMBRACE THIS, FOR IT HAS NO EQUAL; IT IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE OUR SOULS!

The hymn has very strong words in it:   “nothing” does more for our soul than giving charity to the needy!  Rather than obsessing over food during Lent, we should be striving to give to those in need.  We should spend more time and energy on providing for the needy than merely denying ourselves food.  Alms-giving is to be inspired by fasting, but it is the charitable giving not the fasting which deliver us from death for this is true love and obedience to Christ’s commandments.  Giving to charity saves our souls by being the sign we really have turned away from spending money on selfish pleasure and wish rather to love the neighbor in need as the Lord teaches us in the Gospel.  This is the purpose of Great Lent!

Lenten fasting isn’t achieved by providing gourmet Lenten meals or buying more expensive organic foods.  It is rather achieved by spending less time and money on our selves and instead giving that money to the poor.  If you are spending more money on groceries during Lent or spending more time preparing meals, you might have missed the point of Lent:  Spend time and money on the needy.

Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Loves You – No, I Mean You!

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:47)

Even if there had been only one human who ever sinned, died and went to Hades, Christ would have become incarnate, died on the cross to save that person.   Jesus is the Good Shepherd and would leave the 100 billion who never sinned to find that lost sheep.  Christ would do this because He is God, and God is love.  God loves every single human being who has ever come into existence.

If you were the only one who ever sinned, Christ would die on the cross to save you from your sin and death, because He loves you.  It is true that God loves humanity, but that love is always personal.  God loves you, not just humanity.  God may love you because you are human, but God loves you personally.

The Son of God dies for you, not just for humanity, on the cross.  Christ is willing to go to hell even for one sinner.  His love is that personal.  He comes to call you by name to raise you personally from sin and death.  We may exalt Christ for dying because of the sins of the world, but He dies for my sins, even if they are the only sins in the world.

It matters little how many or how few sins others commit.  Christ’s love is for you personally, He dies on the cross because of and for your sins and to give you eternal life.

Christ seeks each sinner personally.  So in Lent when the hymns of repentance paint “me” as being the foremost or chief among sinners, or of having sinned more than David the adulterous murderer or anyone else, they are also pointing out that even if that is true, Christ still loves me and dies for me and raises me up from hell itself.

As St. Gregory the Theologian confesses about Christ: “For He pleads even now as man for my salvation . . .”  (ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, Editors: M Baker, S Danckaert, N Marinides, p 12)

However grave or great my sins may be, Christ still loves me enough to die for me and to continue to intercede before the Father on my behalf.  The hymns which portray “me” as a great sinner are also, and more so, pointing out the greatness of God’s love for me.

I need only to accept His love, and renounce my sins and my sinfulness.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:36-47)

If I feel I have sinned little or rarely, then I do not feel much need for Christ.  I will therefore love little, as Christ predicts.  Only when I see myself as the foremost of sinners will I be able to love as Christ loves me.  When I realize that even if I were the only sinner, Christ would die for me – then do I realize the depth of His love for me.  Then I realize how grave my sins really are – not compared to what sins I might commit – but the price that is paid for them:  the death of God the Son on the cross. The Son in His love continues to ask God to forgive me my sins.

 

Walking the Lenten Path

The hymns from the Lenten Triodion do give us some ideas about how the Church in tradition understands the reasons for fasting and its purpose in the spiritual life.  So we find the hymn below, from the Praises in Matins of Cheesefare Sunday things for us to consider as we make our way through the Great Fast.

ADAM WAS DRIVEN OUT OF PARADISE FOR EATING FOOD IN DISOBEDIENCE BUT MOSES WHO CLEANSED THE EYES OF HIS SOUL BY FASTING WAS GRANTED THE VISION OF GOD.

It is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that Adam was given only one commandment in Paradise – abstain from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  It was a fasting rule, and the only commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Eve and Adam disobeyed that fast which led to human mortality, a life of separation from God.  Sometimes in Orthodox hymns it seems as if it was the particular act – eating the forbidden fruit – which is as significant as the fact that it was an act of disobedience.   Fasting from food reminds us that eating got Adam and humanity into trouble with God.  Fasting is our effort to show God that we really do want to undo that original act of disobedience and all of its consequences.  Our fasting cannot save us, but it is our way of showing God we recognize how such sin cuts us off from the Holy Trinity.

Orthodox hymns note how frequently humans are willing to choose the wrong for the sake of food.  The hymns also note how frequently fasting in the Scriptures are associated with individuals experiencing a revelation from God.   So Moses saw God face to face, in Orthodox thinking it was fasting and the resulting purity of heart which made this possible for him.

IF WE THEN LONG TO DWELL IN PARADISE, LET US ABSTAIN FROM ALL UNNECESSARY FOOD; IF WE DESIRE TO SEE GOD, LET US, LIKE MOSES, FAST FOR FORTY DAYS.

double-cheeseburgerThe hymn gets to the heart of fasting – it is to eliminate unnecessary food.  Fasting never forbids us to eat what is necessary for life.  Strict practitioners of fasting can push the limits to discover what is really needed, but fasting is not meant to make us sick.  Rather it acknowledges that eating is what made us humans sick to begin with!  In some ways for us modern Americans, fasting is a call back to sanity in terms of eating – eat the quantity necessary to sustain life.  Our huge portions of food are not necessary, and often are harmful to our health.  We can show God we really do want to return to Paradise – and we can do it by abstaining from over eating in this world.  We remind ourselves that it was such eating which got us expelled from Paradise.

The hymn takes the theme to the next step – Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments, so too we can fast like him (for forty days, not necessarily how he kept the fast).  Perhaps God will bless us with a clear vision of the Holy Trinity.

LET US PERSEVERE WITH SINCERITY IN PRAYER AND INTERCESSION; LET US STILL THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL;
LET US STILL THE REBELLIOUS INSTINCTS OF THE FLESH.

The important things to do during Lent – prayer for others, self control over our own passions and desires.  It is not foods themselves which are so important.  It is learning to control our desires and wants, so that we can serve God rather than ourselves.

LET US SET OUT WITH A LIGHT STEP ON THE PATH TO HEAVEN, WHERE THE CHOIRS OF ANGELS WITH NEVER SILENT VOICES SING THE PRAISES OF THE UNDIVIDED TRINITY!  THERE WE SHALL BEHOLD THE GREAT BEAUTY OF THE MASTER!

The return to Paradise is the path forward to God’s Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a joyous journey and so we should find Lent, the beginning of our sojourn to be joyous.  The restored life of God’s redeemed people means we will reside with the angels and join them in worshiping the Holy Trinity.  We will be given the beatific vision – seeing Christ our Lord and Savior.

SON OF GOD, AND GIVER OF LIFE: WE SET OUR HOPE IN YOU!
COUNT US WORTHY THERE OF A PLACE WITH THE ANGELIC HOSTS, AT THE INTERCESSIONS OF THE MOTHER WHO BORE YOU, O CHRIST, AND OF THE APOSTLES, MARTYRS AND ALL THE SAINTS!

It is Jesus Christ who will give a place in heaven to His redeemed people.  We hope to be able to join His Mother, the angels and all the saints, whose prayers have guided us as well as interceded for us before the Lord.

 

 

Returning to the Beautiful Paradise Lost

St. Ephrem the Syrian used poetry as the venue for expressing theology. He wrote many brilliant, beautiful poems.  Since today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, it is good for us to consider what was lost by humanity when we exited Paradise in order to pursue our own way to divinity.  St. Ephrem writes:

Paradise surrounds the limbs

with its many delights:

the eyes, with its handiwork,

the hearing, with its sounds,

the mouth and the nostrils,

with its tastes and scents.

Blessed is that person who has gathered for himself

the company of all

who have kept vigil and fasted;

they, in return for their fasts,

shall delight to graze

upon its luxurious pastures.

At least in the words above, Ephrem gives Paradise a very physical dimension.   Humans used all their senses to delight in the ecstasy of the Garden of Eden.  Or perhaps, he is telling us that spiritual joy is not without a physical dimension.  God gave us our bodies to enjoy His creation and as the means by which we can know Him and communicate with Him.  We don’t escape the body to encounter God.  We are the Church of the Incarnation – God took on human flesh!

We also are reminded that this world is not Paradise.  What perhaps is more challenging for many of us is to think that in Paradise humans did not enjoy gourmet foods, steaks, lobster, spices, sauces, deserts, cuisines, chefs and restaurants.  They ate plants which is the only food God gave them in Paradise!

Ephrem uses an unusual phrase claiming those who keep the fast on earth will enter Paradise and  shall delight to graze upon its luxurious pastures”.  Most of us might imagine a paschal banquet with roast lamb, or glazed ham or steak or fine cheeses and cheesecakes.  Will we delight to graze on its pastures?  Or do we really love this earth without God more than Paradise with God?

Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,

it enriched me as I meditated upon it;

I forgot my poor estate,

for it had made me drunk with its fragrance.

I became as though no longer my old self,

for it renewed me with all its varied nature.

I swam around

in its magnificent waves;

and in the place that, burning like a furnace,

had made Adam naked,

I became so inebriated

that I forgot all my sins there

St. Ephrem in totally enthralled by Paradise.  He is swept up into its glorious beauty and just thinking about it changes his life.  Adam and Eve through sin lost their place in the Garden of Delight, and became stripped of all its beauty and mystery.  Ephrem is made drunk by its magnificent waves.  He is made giddy and was able to forget his sins because of what God made Paradise to be.

Although I was not sufficient

for all the waves of its beauty,

Paradise took me up and cast me

into a sea still greater;

in its fair beauty I beheld those who are far more beautiful than it,

and I reflected:

if Paradise be so glorious,

how much more glorious should Adam be,

who is in the image [ Gen 1:27 ] of its Planter,

and how much fairer the Cross,

upon which the Son of its Lord rode.

Paradise it turns out is not a destination, but rather a bridge to even greater glory.  Our growth in Paradise is not limited, we never peak, we never plateau, but ever grow in glory, from one degree to another says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 3:18).   However wonderful Paradise is, humans were created for even greater glory!  Thus when we sing of the Theotokos that she is more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, we are acknowledging that she does attain to the level of glory that God intended for all humans.  God intended humans to be more glorious than Paradise.

It was not Paradise

that gave rise to the creation of mankind;

rather, it was for Adam alone

that Paradise had been planted,

for to its buds Adam’s heart is superior,

to its fruits his words,

because rational speech has more savor

than the produce of Paradise;

truth in mankind

surpasses its plants,

and love is likewise more comely

than its sweet scents.

(Hymns on Paradise, “Hymn VI,” pp.109-111)

Paradise was created by God to serve humans.  Humans were not created to serve the glories of the Garden.  In what ways are humans superior to the wonders of Paradise?  The human heart is more glorious than the blessed buds of the trees in Paradise, human rational speech exceeds in splendor the produce of Paradise, human capacity for truth surpasses all the God given plants of the Garden.  Finally, human love is more beautiful than the sweetest scents of the Garden.  Humanity is the glory of God, not Paradise.  We may marvel over what Paradise was and is to be, but humanity is more glorious in the eyes of God than Paradise will ever be.

Humanities expulsion from Paradise is an epic tragedy.  Not because we lost our place there, but because we dehumanized ourselves!  We became less than human, we became inhuman, and this was the greatest loss the universe ever experienced.

The incarnation – God taking flesh from the Theotokos is the beginning of the restoration not only of humanity but of the universe itself.

 

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)