Send Your Spirit That We May Know Your Love

O Lord, Thou dost love Thy creature;

and who can fathom Thy love, or delight in it,

if he be not taught of Thee Thyself

by Thy Holy Spirit?

I pray Thee, O Lord, send down on Thy peoples

the grace of the Holy Spirit, that they may know Thy love.

Warm their sorrowing hearts, that

forgetful of the afflictions of this earth

they may glorify Thee in joy.

O gracious Comforter, weeping I beseech Thee,

Comfort the afflicted hearts of Thy peoples.

Let the nations hear the sweet sound of Thy voice

Saying unto them, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Yea, O Lord, it is in Thy power to perform miracles,

and there is no greater miracle.

than to love the sinner in his fall.

A saint is easy to love: he is worthy of love.

Yea, Lord, hearken to our prayer.

All the peoples of the world suffer in distress.

All are cast down by sin.

All are bereft of Thy grace, and live in darkness.

(Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 345-346)

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Is Being Good Enough?

Jesus never taught us “Be good.”  He never said those words.

He taught us to love one another.

He taught us to to serve one another.

He taught us to forgive one another.

He taught us to humble ourselves.

He taught us to do as He did and wash each other’s feet.

He taught us to see our own sins and not to judge others.

He taught us to sin no more.

He taught us to see God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

He taught us the way to the kingdom of Heaven.

He taught us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow Him.

He taught us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect –  in other words – He told us to be like God.

He never said, “Be good” but He did want us to see God, to become God’s people, to participate in the Divine Life which He shares with us.   As St. Athanasius would sum up the Gospel commandments:  “God became man in Christ so that we humans might become divine.

Christ did not come to be the Chief of the Moral Police.  He came to unite us to heaven.  He came so that we could participate in the Divine Life shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  He came to show us how to love like God so that we would imitate God in our love for one another.  When we reduce Christ to some kind of moral detective or prosecuting attorney, we dishonor Him.  Jesus Christ is God.  God is love.  Jesus is love incarnate.  He offers to share the divine life with us, to restore all that humanity and creation has lost due to human sinfulness.

In the Desert Fathers we encounter stories showing how these early Christians imagined imitating Christ by following the Gospel commandments.  Sometimes the stories are quite counter intuitive and they do challenge our modern sensibilities.  Here are two such stories for us to ponder as we discern how to follow Christ in our lives.  Keep in mind these are lessons from people who were both maximalistic and idealistic in their beliefs about what it means to take the Gospel seriously.   They saw the Gospel commandments as what guides life in heaven – yet they were  attempting to live them in this world of the Fall.

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A monk asked a Spiritual Elder: “If I see my brother living in sin, should I despise him?”

The Elder replied: If we cover over the fault of our brother, God will cover over our sins too.  But if we reveal our brother’s sins to others, God will expose our sins to others also.”

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There was a very spiritual monk named Timothy and all the monks in the monastery admired him. One time one of the monks fell into temptation.  The Abbot came to Timothy to ask his advice on what to do.  “What shall I do with our fallen brother?”

Timothy replied:  “Expel him from the monastery.”  So the Abbot expelled him from the community.

That same day the same temptation fell on the holy Timothy, and he spent the entire night crying and weeping, saying: “I have sinned, O Lord, have mercy on me.”  And  “I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me.”

At dawn, God spoke to Timothy and said: “Timothy, this happened to you because you sinned against your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

Our task as Christians is not to be the moral police of those around us.   Our duty is to rid ourselves of all blindness so that we can first see our own sins and repent.  Then we will see clearly God’s Kingdom and walk the way of the Cross to get there, inviting neighbor, family, friend and enemy to join us on the way.

[Having had to deal with sexual abuse in the Church, I will add that the above thought applies to many of our interactions with people.  However there are cases which require extra wisdom, courage and love to discern.  We are not to be foolishly blind to evil, nor are we to ignore or enable sexual predators or abusive leaders – we have a duty to love and protect those who are vulnerable from those who would sin against them or lead them into sin.  And we have to figure out how to love the sinner as well.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t give us a pass from having to deal with evil or  complex problems.]

Knowing God

As we honor the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, we have to consider how they struggled so much with finding a vocabulary to express the revelation of God.  They were trying to put into human words the divine: God’s self-revelation.  This issue of finding a vocabulary to adequately express what God reveals exists in the Scriptures as well.  Scholar Terence E. Fetheim notes:

Thus, for example, one needs to ask what speaking of God’s eyes and ears (2 Kings 19:16) adds to the understanding of the relationship of God to the world that living, seeing, and hearing do not. Such language makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears. At the same time, in ways that people do not, God takes it all in (Jer. 32:19), and not with fleshly eyes (Job 10:4).

Nevertheless, while examining each metaphor in its specificity is important, the general conclusions drawn continue to be significant. In addition to revealing God as living and personal, they testify to the intimate relationship between God and the world. ( The Suffering of God, p. 9)

The vocabulary we use in speaking about God is born from our experience of of God.  God’s revelation is received by us, we encounter this revelation who is Christ and we are changed by it.  The revelation is not ideas about God nor words about God, but rather the experience of God the Word.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity, in Gregory’s estimate, is therefore not an exercise in speculative metaphysical language, but an exposition of how the Church has experienced God within salvation history and, as such, how it prays. (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, p. 188)

 

 

Ascending to God

In this way we live in God. We remove our life from this visible world to that world which is not seen by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and its mode. It was not we ourselves who were moved towards God, nor did we ascend to him; but it was He who came and descended to us. It was not we who sought, but we were the object of His seeking. The sheep did not seek for the shepherd, nor did the lost coin search for the master of the house; He it was who came to the earth and retrieved His own image, and He came to the place where the sheep was straying and lifted it up and stopped it from straying.

He did not remove us from here but He made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth and imparted to us the heavenly life without leading us up to heaven, but by bending heaven to us and bringing it down. As the prophet says, “He bowed the heavens also, and came down” (Ps. 18:10).

(St Nicholas Cabasilias, The Life in Christ, p. 50)

Baptism or Blindness

If we take the Gospel lesson of the Blind man (John 9:1-39) in its context within the entirety of John’s Gospel, we note that in the verses right before John 9:1 from John 8, Christ is in the temple and the Jews get angry with Christ and want to stone him, but Christ is hidden from them (John 8:59), or hides himself .

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.  (John 8:59)

The Greek word “hid” is the same as the word used in Genesis 3:8-10 when Adam and Eve hearing God walking in Paradise hide themselves from God after eating the forbidden fruit.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”    (Genesis 3:8-10)

There are interesting connections between Genesis 3 and John 8, one in the temple and one in Paradise.  We know there is a relationship between the Temple and Paradise – they are interrelated realities.

In Genesis Adam and Eve are like young children covering their eyes and saying to God: “You can’t see me.”  And God even seems to play along with them in Genesis 3:9 –   But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

In Genesis 3 it is clear that though they still hear God after their sin, there is no mention of Adam and Eve seeing Him walking in the Garden.  They think they are hiding from God but it is they who can no longer see God.   The awareness of their own nakedness is directly the result of losing sight of God. – they are exposed despite their trying to hide.

In the temple in John 8 – the people are hearing God in Christ who is speaking to them and they don’t like what they hear.  They angrily want to stone Him but they can’t see Him for He is hid from their eyes.  Christ is God incarnate, standing in the temple – and the temple was to be the place where one could see God’s face (see my Jesus Christ Seen in the Temple), but the people can’t see Him because they don’t want to hear Him.  Eve and Adam were not happy when they heard God walking in the garden after they sinned, but though they still hear Him, they don’t see Him but they childishly think He can’t see them.  We can think about the blind man confronting the temple leaders in John 9:27:

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”  

The blind man comes to the point: the people knowingly and willfully refuse to listen to Christ.  That is why they cannot see Him for who He is.

As we move from John 8 to John 9 we read this:

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.    As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth.  (John 8:59-9:1)

The text moves smoothly and quickly from a group of people in the temple who cannot see Him to the man born blind from birth.  He too can’t see Christ, but he too does hear Him.  The temple is the sign of God’s presence and the place to see God’s presence, but they can’t see Christ in the temple.  They all are blind but not from birth but by choice – blinded by their refusal to hear.  But there is hope – the man born blind can come to see God – he will not only hear God in Christ, at the end of the lesson he sees Christ and so sees God.  If one is born blind not by any choice or because of anything they have done, and yet can be given sight, then those who choose to be blind should also be able to give up their blindness and to see God.

It is in the midst of the people being blind to Christ, that today’s Gospel lesson happens.

Is the Gospel suggesting that this man’s blindness is different than that of the people in the temple?  This man had no choice in the matter, he was born blind – an incomplete creation but not his fault nor the fault of his parents.  Rather, we see that physical blindness is not the obstacle to knowing God that spiritual blindness is.  Spiritual blindness is a choice.   Being physically blind is not an obstacle to seeing the invisible God!

The people in the temple cannot see Christ because of their own choices.   They refuse to believe Him and so he disappears from view.  The man born blind on the other hand is willing not only to listen to Christ but to obey Him.  And once the blind man obeys Christ, he is able not only to see  but to see God!  His eyes are opened as are the eyes of his heart, and so he sees God incarnate.    He is willing to give up his blindness and doesn’t choose to remain blind.  Thus God is able to work in him.

We all need to take note – we can stubbornly hold to our own ideas and remain blind to what God is doing in the world, in the Church, in the Scriptures.  We can angrily reject things Christ says to us because we disagree with them or don’t want to do them, or don’t want to change.

OR, like the blind man we can humbly give up our opinions and choose to obey Christ.

We can take hope that even if we are suffering from some illness, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, that we have not in fact been abandoned by God but that God will work in us to His glory.   AND we can learn compassion for others who are suffering from various illnesses, even if we believe the illness is a result of their own stupid sinfulness – from lust, gluttony, greed or drunkenness – and pray for them that God will work His power in them to God’s own glory.  This Gospel lesson is totally one of hope for those suffering physical ailment, mental illness or spiritual blindness.

We come to understand that Christ works for the glory of God – in having the blind man wash in the pool, we have an image of baptism and we come to understand that we are not baptized only because we are sinners.  We don’t baptize children because they are guilty of sin.   We baptize in order to manifest the work of God in the person.  We baptize infants that they might in fact experience the glory of God and be opened to their own spiritual nature.    Baptism is not God’s reaction to human sin, but God offering to work His glory in each of us.

And note, that the man born blind did not have to know everything before washing in the pool to be freed of his blindness.  Neither do we need to know everything before being baptized – that is why we believe the baptism of infants is essential to their spiritual lives.  In the text we see all kinds of things the man doesn’t know:

He doesn’t know where Jesus is

He doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner or sinless.

He doesn’t know who Jesus is, even when Jesus is speaking to him.

So too we baptize children so that God’s glory can be manifested in them.  Baptism is a spiritual birthing, we grow into it.  We baptize not just because there is sin in the world, but because each of us born in this world through natural birth have the means to be born again in a spiritual birth.

As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  (1 Corinthians 15:48-50)

Today’s Gospel lesson helps us understand the purpose of baptism which is not a reaction to past sin but a door into the future kingdom.  Baptism makes it possible for us to move beyond being merely flesh and blood, beyond being genetic beings or evolutionary beings, beyond the limits of self and society into the divine life, into eternal love, to being fully united to God.

The obstacle to our seeing and knowing Christ is not physical ailment, but spiritual blindness.  It is an obstacle that can be overcome in Christ.

The Man Born Blind is Healed by His Creator

John 9:1-38  Jesus gives sight to the man born blind

St. Irenaeus (second century) interprets “that the works of God may be manifest in him” (John 9:3) as a direct reference to the continuing work of God as Creator of the human person:

‘Now the work of God is the fashioning of man. For, as the Scripture says, He made [man] by a kind of process: “And the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man.” (Genesis 2:7)  Wherefore also the Lord spat on the ground and made clay, and smeared it upon the eyes, pointing out the original fashioning [of man], how it was effected, and manifesting the hand of God to those who can understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust. For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not be seeking out another hand by which man was fashioned, nor another Father; knowing that this hand of God which formed us at the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning back His own, and taking up the lost sheep upon His shoulders, and with joy restoring it to the fold of life…

As, therefore, we are by the Word formed in the womb, this very same Word formed the visual power in him who had been blind from his birth; showing openly who it is that fashions us in secret, since the Word Himself had been made manifest to men: and declaring the original formation of Adam, and the manner in which he was created, and by what hand he was fashioned, indicating the whole from a part. For the Lord who formed the visual powers is He who made the whole man, carrying out the will of the Father.'”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 38-39)

Overcoming Anger

for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:20)

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:31-32)

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St. Paul warns that those who act in anger will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:20-21).   The spiritual literature of Christianity through the centuries kept anger (or one of its manifestations – wrath, rage, revenge, hatred, etc) as one of the deadly sins or passions which Christians were to work to overcome.  And though the New Testament does allow for anger as long as it doesn’t involve sin (Ephesians 4:26), anger was viewed as a dangerous and destructive passion for it often overwhelms the rational thought process and pushes people to act hastily and with force disregarding wisdom or a measured response.

Christ does not want you to feel the least hatred, resentment, anger or rancor towards anyone in any way or on account of any transitory thing whatsoever. This is proclaimed throughout the four Gospels.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 13842-44)

Anger can give us a sense of empowerment – even when we are in the wrong or have not authority in a situation.  Our angry response towards others is often more a measure of our own feelings than a proper evaluation of the wrong we think someone else has done.  Anger can arise in prayer, making us think it is righteous, but often is a sign of our own spiritual illness.

When you pray as you should, thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry. But anger with your neighbor is never right. If you search you will find that things can always be arranged without anger. So do all you can not to break out into anger. Take care that, while appearing to cure someone else, you yourself do not remain uncured, in this way thwarting your prayer.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1302-8)

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The cure for anger?  Humility is a cure all for much of what ails us spiritually in Orthodox literature.  The humble person maintains an even keel no matter what is going on – be it praise or criticism – and does not react to others but carefully chooses their actions.  Humility stops us from getting emotionally charged by everything that happens around us.  But anger can also be overcome by the combination of courage and mercy – which may not seem like they can go together, but they are at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.

Nothing so converts anger into joy and gentleness as courage and mercy. Like a siege-engine, courage shatters enemies attacking the soul from without, mercy those attacking it from within.   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 43079-43081)

 

The Resurrection: Christ Renews Creation

“We have an eloquent testimony to the ultimate restoration of the world from the great Syrian poet-theologian St. Ephrem:

At our resurrection, both earth and heaven will God renew,

liberating all creatures, granting them paschal joy, along with us.

Upon our mother Earth, along with us, did he lay disgrace

when he placed on her, with the sinner, the curse;

so, together with the just, he will bless her too;

this nursing mother, along with her children, shall he who is Good renew. “ 

(from Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, p. 38)

Holy Desire – The Samaritan Woman

John 4:5-42: The Samaritan Woman

One would expect that if  Jesus was trying to convert the world and make everyone be His followers, His disciples, that He would aim to meet with the most influential people around.  When he went into a town, you would think He would try to talk to the village chief, the mayor the town, the high priest or someone of some influence and importance.

Yet, the Gospels tell us that Jesus meeting with important people – The Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod, and the High Priest – did not go so well for Jesus.

It seems Jesus was not much of a top – down thinker, but rather was  one to move from the bottom up.  Or maybe for Jesus there are no real important people contrasted with unimportant people.  For Christ, all people, whatever their age, gender, social rank, skin color, nationality or language are simple people – God’s creatures all of equal value, yet of infinite importance to God.

When Jesus begins talking to the Samaritan woman , according to history her name is Photini,  as he sits by the well in the village of Sychar, He is not being distracted from His true mission.  Christ is there to unite all humans to God.  It’s just as significant to start with one woman, and a sinner at that, as with some man of influence.   Christ redeems us personally as we all form a relationship with Him.

Jesus engages in a serious theological discussion with this “sinful” woman.  She is a  a social outcast.   First of course she is a Samaritan, a kind of people whom the Jews despised.  But then even within the Samaritan people she is an outcast:  Married multiple times, living with a man who is not her husband – coming to the well at Noon instead of in the morning when all the rest of the women of the town were there.

Yet, strangely, and God does work in mysterious ways, by avoiding the crowd, by avoiding the social life, she finds God.

But still, if Jesus wants to convert the world, why is He wasting His time with this social failure and misfit?   She’s not exactly His poster child, nor a good PR spokesperson, nor a person who respectable people would trust.

Jesus Himself is quite willing to speak with her, He is not distracted or annoyed.  He is on task, fully engaged, fulfilling His mission.   Speaking with this woman is not beneath His dignity.  He is not amusing Himself, or her.   He doesn’t leave this task of talking to this insignificant woman to His disciples.  He is fully engaged with her, and wants to give her what He has to offer.  No sense whatsoever that talking with this woman is less important to Him than talking to Jews or to His disciples.

He helps her become a disciple.  And in fact in the Orthodox Church Photini is given the title, “Equal to the Apostles”.  She is a martyr in our church.  A saint, an evangelizer.

Photini comes seeking well water to drink, goes away thirsting for living water.   She comes looking with her body, her feelings, her physical needs, her eyes.  She leaves looking for living water for her soul, seeing Jesus no longer as a Man, Jewish male, but as the Messiah.  Her heart, soul, mind have been awakened – given life.

She realizes that when it comes to the spiritual life, we cannot take every discussion at face value.  The discussion on water, on living water, is not about H2O  but about the Holy Spirit.

Living water.”    Not water having living things in it (like fish), but having life in the water itself, having the power of life, life-giving.  It is flowing, moving water from a spring – the source can’t be seen, it is deep and hidden, yet the water is flowing from it.  It is an image of God.

It is not pond water, or puddles of rain water.  Not even the purest bottled water.  But water that is forcefully moving, has vitality to it.  It moves and can move things.  Like all gushing water it makes sound – it is seen and heard.

Photini comes to know what each of us here has to come to know, a relationship with God is a spiritual relationship which requires me to think in a spiritual way about spiritual things.   Even words like heart, mind, eyes, ears, hands have a spiritual meaning, and we have to be able to move beyond the physical to understand the spiritual.

The Gospel lesson about Photini is about you and me and our relationship to Jesus Christ and to God.

And so we see in the Scriptures that God describes Himself as the fountain of living water:

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You shall be put to shame; those who turn away from You shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for You are my praise.  (Jeremiah 17:13-14)

If we want living water, we have to find God in our lives.  We cannot buy this living water, it’s not a commodity for sale,  for Christ gives it to us freely as a gift.  Our task is to know how to receive it.

And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.  (Revelation 21:6)

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.  (Revelation 22:17)

St. Ignatius of Antioch says this: “My love has been crucified and there is no burning love within me for material things; instead there is living water, which also is speaking in me, saying to me from within: “Come to the Father.”  I have no pleasure in the food that perishes nor in the pleasures of this life.  I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, from the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is imperishable love.”

The living water is tangible, yet completely spiritual!  Women and men, everyone is offered this gift by Christ.  Receive it!  Christ offers this gift to sinners, misfits, failures, people of any race or color, female or male, young or old.  He offers this to all people – to each of us, without exception.

As Isaiah the Prophet proclaimed:

You will say in that day:

I will give thanks to you, O LORD,

for though you were angry with me,

your anger turned away,

and you comforted me.

Surely God is my salvation;

I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the LORD,

call on his name;

make known his deeds among the nations;

proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;

let this be known in all the earth.

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.  

(Isaiah 12:1-6)