St. John the Forerunner

“Divine Matthew describes the Baptism in Jordan in this way: Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad Him, saying: “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” John recognizes Christ, but does not know of His plan of salvation.

There now unfolds a scene unique in human history: God competing in humility with man! John was baptizing sinners to repentance. However, the Sinless One, who had nothing of which to repent, came up to him and demanded baptism of him. John, stronger in spiritual power than all the sinful men around him, suddenly recognized in Christ One mightier than himself.”   (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 78)

Advertisements

Theophany 2018

St. Ephrem the Syrian composed the following poetry as he reflected on the meaning of the Feast of Theophany.  He focuses on part of the prayer of the Feast for the Blessing of Water in which we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon the water and be present in it just as the Spirit was present at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River.

The Spirit descended from the heights

and sanctified the water as She hovered.

When John baptized Jesus

She left all others and settled on one,

but now She has come down and settled

upon all who are reborn in water of baptism.

 

Of all those that John baptized

the Spirit dwelt on one alone,

but now She has flown down

to dwell upon many.

Rushing to meet the Foremost who went up first from the Jordan,

She embraced him and dwelt upon Him.

It is a wonder that the Purifier of all

should have gone down to the water to be baptized.

The seas declared that river blessed,

in which You, Lord, were baptized.

The waters, too, that are above the heavens

were envious that they had not been held worthy to wash You.

Thus we pray to make the water that of Jordan.

It is a wonder, Lord, now as well

that, though the springs are full of water,

only the baptismal font

can wash clean:

the seas may be mighty with all their water,

but they have not the power to wash.

(“Hymns on Epiphany,” Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 249-250)

The River Jordan Meets Its Creator

The River Jordan in the scriptures plays a mystical role in the history of Israel.  It is a boundary which Israel must cross over to reach their physical and spiritual destination.  For example, in Joshua 3-5, Israel coming to the end of its 40 year desert sojourn comes against this boundary which it crosses only with God miraculously parting the waters.  There are many lessons for Israel to learn at the Jordan:  1) Israel must pass through this particular way and no other – it is how they will know they are on the right path (3:4).  Every single one of God’s people has to pass through the Jordan (3:17).  2)  God is with Joshua (3:7).  3)  That they might hear God’s voice (3:9).  4)  That they may know God is there with them – in their midst (3:10).  5)  God Himself will rest in the River Jordan and its waters will stop their normal and natural flowing 3:13).  6)  The experience of the Israelites at Jordan was to be a witness to all the world about God (4:24).  The event was not for Israel’s benefit alone.  7) This was not only a total covenant renewal for all of Israel but a regeneration of Israel, a new birth (5:6-7).

These lessons are paralleled and fulfilled in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.  Jesus insists with John that it is necessary for the baptism to happen (Matthew 3:15).  God is with Jesus and the voice of God is heard at Christ’s baptism.  God is present with them – standing in the Jordan is God incarnate.  John is Christ’s witness, but all Christians witness to the world of the transforming power of baptism.  Baptism is part of the new covenant relationship with God which is offered to the entire world.

The events of Joshua and the people of God crossing the Jordan was memorialized in Psalm 114 –

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Israel’s crossing the Jordan is frequently mentioned in the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church, and Psalm 114 is referenced extensively in the liturgical hymns of the Feast.  In the Feast, the event of the Ark of the Covenant touching the waters of the Jordan and changing them/ their course is a foreshadowing of Christ’s entry into the Jordan for His own baptism.  Christ too changes not only the natural flow/purpose of the Jordan but reveals its spiritual significance for the salvation of the world.   The events of Joshua 3-5 are a prophetic foreshadowing of the events of Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan.  One of the pre-Feast hymns says:

Why do you stop the flow of your waters, O Jordan?
Why do you make your streams flow back?
Why do you not follow your natural course?
“I cannot bear the fire which consumes me,” it said.
“I am amazed and shudder at the extreme condescension.
I have not learned to wash the pure or cleanse the sinless.
I have learned only to wash the filthy garment.
Now Christ, Who is baptized in me,
teaches me to burn the thorns of sin.
And John, the voice of the Word, bears witness with me.
He cries out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sin of the world.’”
Let us the faithful cry to Him:
“O God, Who shone forth for our salvation, glory to You!”

In the hymn the River Jordan is anthropomorphized, so it can speak and describe its encounter with the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ when He stepped into the waters to be baptized by John the Forerunner.  The Jordan experiences Christ as fire which is transforming the River.    It is Christ who imparts to the river waters the power to destroy sin.  In meeting its Creator, Jesus, the Jordan realizes the event of the incarnation.  God the Creator is present in Christ, yet the Jordan is not destroyed/burned up by this encounter because God is incarnate.  God’s divinity is united to and contained by Christ’s humanity.  This has purified human flesh and human nature.   So in Christ the Jordan has no one to clean or to wash their garment, but rather is experiencing a new cleansing itself, along with all creation.

Take Delight in All Things

Your own of Your own we offer to You on behalf of all things and for all things.” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)

… when You open Your hand, they are filled with good things.”  (Psalm 104:28)

“Take delight in all things that surround us.  All things teach us and lead us to God.  All things around us are droplets of the love of God –

both things animate and inanimate,

 

the plants and the animals,

the birds and the mountains,

the sea and the sunset and the starry sky.

They are little loves through which we attain to the great Love that is Christ.

Flowers, for example, have their own grace: they teach us with their fragrance and with their magnificence.  They speak to us of the love of God.

They scatter their fragrance and their beauty on sinners and on the righteous.”  (Elder Porphyrios, WOUNDED BY LOVE, p 218)

The Incarnation of God is Our Salvation

“It is important to note that, in accordance with Irenaeus’s general understanding of the human person, the focus of Christ’s work is located in the flesh: it is in the flesh that Christ suffered, and through it that he reconciled the flesh which was in bondage, bringing it into union with God. Nevertheless, the work of redemption is solely the work of God, the incarnate Son, throughout:

‘The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our soul, his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and men, bringing God down to men through the Spirit, and lifting man up to God through his incarnation, and by his granting to us incorruptibility, firmly and truly, through communion with him.’  (AH 5.1.1)

Again, it is God, who in man, by himself becoming man, accomplishes the economy.

‘…That the manner of Christ’s incarnation preserved the manner of Adam’s formation is due both to the fact that Adam was a type of Christ and to the need for Christ’s flesh to be that of Adam, if he is to recapitulate all in himself, so becoming the head of all those whose ‘head’ had been Adam.'”

(John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, p. 62 & 63)

New Year 2018

For some people the New Year begins with making resolutions as to changes one intends to do in the coming year.  For Christians we are given the opportunity to renew our commitment to Christ, to obey His most basic commandment.

“The commandments to love God and neighbor are found in the law of Moses. They are not commandments for God’s people. They are the commandments ‘written on men’s hearts’ and given ‘by nature’ itself (Rom 2.14–15). They are the commandments given by God, in His Words, to man ‘from the beginning’ (1 Jn 2.7).

In the new covenant Church of Christ, however, there is a ‘new commandment’ (1 Jn 2.8). It is the ‘new commandment’ given by Jesus Himself to those who believe in Him.

A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13.34).

The new element in this ‘new commandment’ is not the teaching of love, for this was written in the law. The new element is that believers in Christ must love as Christ Himself loves. The new commandment is to love ‘as I have loved you.’

Christian love must be the perfect love of Christ Himself which is wholly divine. Christian love must be the totally self-emptying love of the Lord Himself. It must be the divine love of God the Father poured into men’s hearts by the very Spirit of God. It must be the love that is absolutely faithful, perfect, eternal and divine.”  (Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith Vol. IV: Spirituality, pp. 101-102)

Nothing is as Sacred as a Human Being

“There is nothing as sacred as a human being, whose nature God Himself has shared.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas)

“The glory of God is a living human being.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of our God.  And the incarnation is the most amazing act of God – for God sees in humanity something so sacred that God desires to be united to humanity.  The Holy God wishes to share in human nature because God sees in humanity something lovely and holy and blessed.  God chooses to share in human nature.  This is the mystery of the God of love which results in the incarnation – results in the Nativity of Christ.

St. John Chrysostom describes it this way in a homily:

And in what manner was the almighty with her, Who in a little while came forth from her? He was as the craftsman, who coming on some suitable material, fashions to himself a beautiful vessel; so Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the loveliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what he Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

As Chrysostom envisions Christmas, Christ Himself as Creator fashions the body in the Virgin’s womb that He Himself will take for Himself.  God is able to see in humanity something so holy that God wishes to be united to the holiness of humanity.  God chooses to share His natural holiness with the humans created in God’s image and likeness.

Chrysostom goes on:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant’s bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me.”   (St. John Chrysostom)

The mystery and the amazement continues.  For God chooses to unite Himself to humanity while human nature is still subject to the power of sin and death.  God doesn’t choose perfect and sinless human nature before the Fall, but accepts human nature as it is in the world.  God enters into the human condition and does not create a special humanity and a special world free of sin, temptation, violence, evil, suffering, sorrow or death.  God enters into the world that we experience with all of its suffering and sorrow and accepts our human nature.  God enters into our lives and embraces the same life that we all share.  God is not distant and transcendent, but near you where you are .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  (Hebrews 2:14-18)

There is nothing as sacred as a human being.  Even an imperfect human, a sinner, a flawed person, one beset with temptation.  For God every human being is sacred – no matter who I am, no matter what I think about myself, or what others think about me.  In God’s eyes, I am still sacred, holy.  I am to be what God is.  “Be holy for I am holy, ” says the Lord (1 Peter 1:16).  This is why God became incarnate.  God became human because God sees humans as having a holiness to which God wishes to unit Himself.  God did not avoid the fallen, sinful world, but entered into and shared our life in this world.

Old Testament Images of Christ’s Birth

PREPARE, O BETHLEHEM, FOR EDEN HAS BEEN OPENED TO ALL!   ADORN YOURSELF, O EPHRATHA, FOR THE TREE OF LIFE BLOSSOMS FORTH FROM THE VIRGIN IN THE CAVE!  HER WOMB IS A SPIRITUAL PARADISE PLANTED WITH THE DIVINE FRUIT: IF WE EAT OF IT, WE SHALL LIVE FOREVER AND NOT DIE LIKE ADAM.  CHRIST COMES TO RESTORE THE IMAGE WHICH HE MADE IN THE BEGINNING!

In the five days before Christmas, one finds in Orthodox hymns for the pre-Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  These pre-Festal hymns shed light on the Feast and our understanding of who Jesus is and how He is our salvation.   There were three hymns that caught my attention with beautiful imagery.   Above, the hymn parallels the creation of the first Adam in Paradise with the birth of New Adam, Jesus,  from the Virgin Mary.  The Paradise which God planted for Adam is superseded by the Theotokos who is a spiritual Paradise.  If Paradise is some heavenly place, Mary becomes a spiritual heaven – the place where God abides on earth.   The Tree of Life which was in the middle of the original Paradise now is able to blossom forth from the Virgin.  Christ is the Divine Fruit planted in her womb, and Christ is the Tree of Life.  We can eat of this Tree of Life in Holy Communion.  The Tree of Life is no longer closed to us but is now able to give us eternal life.  Adam and Eve had lost access to the Tree of Life by their rebellious sin.  Christ again offers to us the fruit of the Tree of Life – namely Himself.  No longer will we be denied access to immortality – we are restored to the fullness of humanity that God intended for us from the beginning.

IN YOUR WOMB, ALL-BLAMELESS THEOTOKOS,
WE BEHOLD THE RICH THRESHING-FLOOR OF WHICH SOLOMON SANG.  YOU BEAR THE EAR OF GRAIN THAT GREW WITHOUT BEING SOWN;  YOUR CHILD IS THE ETERNAL WORD:
IN A WONDERFUL MANNER YOU WILL GIVE BIRTH TO HIM IN THE CAVE OF BETHLEHEM, HE WILL LOVINGLY FEED EVERY CREATURE WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD, FREEING THE HUMAN RACE FROM DEADLY HUNGER.

The above hymn keeps to a theme of food – from harvesting the grain to being fed.  First there is mention of the threshing-floor.  Threshing is the process of taking a plant and separating the edible grain from the inedible straw and husk.  The threshing floor is the place where this separating process takes place.  More interestingly, the threshing floor became a rich symbol of a place where God meets His people.  Our encounter with God turns out to be a threshing process – perhaps God’s own separating the wheat from the chaff, but also the required effort on our part to take God’s revelation to us and to discover what we need to get from it for our own nutrition.  The scriptures for example always require interpretation – this is a threshing process because God’s full message is sometimes hidden in the text.  We have to separate the edible grain (what we can understand and digest) from the inedible husk (the written word which contains the grain).  It is the grain which gives us life.

In 2 Samuel 24, King David purchases the threshing-floor as the very location to build the temple.  It is on this exact place – the threshing floor – where Solomon actually built it according to 2 Chronicles 3:1.   The Theotokos is compared in the hymn to this threshing-floor, or in her womb divinity is enclosed in humanity, but also that incarnation is revealed to the world.  Christ becomes the food of the world who gives eternal life to all who eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Christ is the spiritual food which if we eat we will not hunger again.  Christmas is the Feast in which God feeds His people with the manna of heaven.

CHRIST, WHO IS THE INFINITE WISDOM OF GOD,
HAS WONDROUSLY BUILT A HOUSE FOR HIMSELF FROM THE VIRGIN; SHE COMES INTO THE CAVE AND MANGER OF DUMB BEASTS: THERE SHE WILL GIVE BIRTH IN THE FLESH TO HIM
IN A MANNER BEYOND ALL UNDERSTANDING.

Proverbs 9:1 states that Wisdom built a house to abide in (Proverbs 9:1).  Christ is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24).  According to the Prophet Baruch (3:37), a prophecy we read at Christmas, Wisdom walks on earth.   The “house” which Christ/ Holy Wisdom built is Mary, the Virgin Mother.  God becomes incarnate in her, and takes up his abode on earth.  He dwells in her bringing about the salvation of the world.

The Old Testament is full of images about the incarnation – prophecies of many different kinds, some predicting the coming of God in the flesh, and some foreshadowing the events.

Strange Birth

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”   (Matthew 25:35)

5692631004_643fa363bf

Seeing this strange birth, let us become strangers to the world and set our minds on things in heaven; for God descended to earth as lowly man to raise to heaven those who cry to him: Alleluia!  (Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2444-2446)

6535024261_49dc873e7d

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John 1:10-14)

Christmas is Trinitarian

Of course, the Son of God did not consign Himself to a material body or mingle human deeds with divine ones on a whim. He did this, together with the miracles that He performed in the body, in order to obey the will of God. But the fact that He could organize and work divine purposes through a human body in a pure and marvelous manner shows that he created Himself as a man with a material body, and thus created all matter with the capacity for being filled and used to manifest His divine Person.

And He raised men through grace to become sons of His heavenly Father through the fact that He Himself was the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father. If there were no Triune God–a God who was the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–He could not have done this. The raising of man from the prison of his nature is possible thanks to the fact that God exists in Trinity. (Dumitru Staniloae, The Holy Trinity, pp. 112-113)