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)

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

31637002632_2b12c08016_w

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)

Image result for icon Theotokos nursing

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.

Basil the Great: Reading Scripture and Creation

Image 1…in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or “cultic” act, but the very way of life. …All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens”, “homo faber”…yes, but first of all, “homo adorans”. The first and basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands at the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God…”  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For The Life of the World)

Fr Schmemann saw the human as basically a worshiping creature.   Yes, we are ingenious at fabricating things, we are sentient and capable of wisdom.  But for Schmemann the human was created by God to be a priest, to worship  the Lord and that is partially what we lost when we humans decided we don’t need God to know our universe.  As soon as we desired to approach the cosmos in a role other than as priest in service of God, when we stopped seeing creation as a means to our maintaining our relationship with God, we lost our unique role as humans in the cosmos and lost our communion with our Creator.

St. Basil the Great saw humans as  ‘homo legitur‘ – the literary beings – the ones, as theologian Stephen M. Hildebrand notes in his biography of the Saint, created by God to be able to read not only the scriptures but the cosmos itself.  Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes this ability to read is what sets humans apart as a species: “Our ability to understand the universe and our position in it is one of the glories of the human species.  Our ability to link mind to mind by language, and especially to transmit our thoughts across the centuries is another.  Science and literature, then, are the two achievements of Homo sapiens that most convincingly justify the specific name” (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 3).  Modern science agrees with St Basil that we are gifted to read.  However, a difference between modern science and St Basil would be that Basil believed God gave us two sets of scripture – the Bible and creation, both written to reveal God to  us.  We need to learn to read both while modern science only wants to focus on the empirical cosmos which it does not see as revealing divinity to us.   Hildebrand writes:

Basil sees man as a reader, but a reader must have a text. Man’s texts, for Basil, are principally two, the Scriptures and the whole of creation, including the human body. The author of man’s two books is God himself. One important implication here is that both the Scriptures and creation, being texts, are full of meaning and significance. The posture that the French poet Paul Claudel took before reality expresses well St. Basil’s too. Claudel in front of a piece of reality—a flower, a mountain, a woman—always felt the need to ask, “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?”‘  We might typically translate this as ‘What does it mean?’ but literally it is rendered ‘What does it want to say?’ For Basil, the Scriptures and the world want to say something, or God wants to say something through them.

So man is the reader, and creation and the Scriptures are the texts, the books. Basil tells his flock, ‘This whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God, announcing through itself the hidden and invisible greatness of God to you who have a mind for the apprehension of truth‘ (Hex. 11.4; 51).  The text, whether creation, the Scriptures, or the human body, calls for a response from the reader.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 657-667)

Basil believed the cosmos, creation, including the human body were a text to be read by humans to understand what God has done, is doing, is going to do.  In every sense of the word, Basil looked beyond the literal to find the meaning and for him the meaning always had to do with discovering the Creator through God’s activity in the cosmos.  “Glory to You [O Lord] spreading out before me heaven and earth, like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”).

I would suggest that St Basil would have been impressed with exactly how much modern science and technology has been able to read from the text of creation including the human body.   Just think about all the things we read in drawing blood samples from people or through pathology, chemical analysis, and especially now through DNA which is literally a language that has been recording all that God has been doing in and through humans for as long as humanity has been on the planet and even in the millions of years before that.  “In the beginning was the word.  The word was not DNA.  That came afterwards, when life was already established … But DNA contains a record of the word, faithfully transmitted through all subsequent aeons to the astonishing present”  (Matt Ridley quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 40).

Just think about ways we read creation today:  paleontology, archaeology, radio waves, molecular structures, laws of physics,  history, anthropology, biological evolution, quantum mechanics, chemical structures and signatures, mathematical equations, binary code,  the remnants of the Big Bang, just to name a few.  Creation has been recording all that God is doing from the beginning, and we are just beginning to learn to read the text which is the cosmos and to understand God’s creation and God’s activity from the beginning of the universe.  God has His hand in creating the cosmos and that cosmos is the record of what God was and is writing.  God’s narrative is God’s creation just as Scripture is – God’s word for those who could read to comprehend what God is willing to reveal.

We can read today so much more from the cosmos and about creation than St Basil ever imagined was possible (as well as countless things he couldn’t imagine at all).  As we sing in the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”: “The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!

Of course, just like in scriptural interpretation there is the danger of reading what we believe into the text rather than seeing what the text reveals.  Eisegesis instead of exegesis is a risk for scientists as it is for biblical scholars.

We are the creatures who have learned not only to read, but also to write, to create literature.  This is part of what Dawkins says sets humans apart.  But in creating  literature, we also are not only using our reading skills, we are participating in creation and in the creative process.  Chemist Peter Atkins who says all creation is moving toward chaos and collapse notes that literature, as well as music and architecture really are ways in which we slow down nature’s slide into chaos.  “The emergence of consciousness, like the unfolding of a leaf, relies upon restraint.  Richness, the richness of the perceived world and the richness  of the imagined worlds of literature and art – the human spirit- is the consequence of controlled, not precipitate, collapse”  (quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 16).

The Genesis creation account has God working against chaos, against entropy, to create [Greek: Poetry] order and bring life into existence.  This is a miracle in the midst of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.   Humans have an ability as God does to bring restraint to the universal move toward entropy.  Our ability to read and write are part of our creative abilities which put restraint, even if only temporarily on the slide to chaos.  God as the original writer or poet of creation gives to us what we can read – God brings restraint to entropy.  We humans can share in that creativity by exhibiting restraint!  And when we are truly creative, we put restraint on entropy as Atkins noted.  ‘Art’ that yields chaos is simply doing what the cosmos does naturally -move toward entropy which in the end is not art at all.  True human genius is restraining to entropy and controlled.

The second law of thermodynamics

Hildebrand continues:

“As Basil says about Genesis 1:26, ‘We have, on the one hand, you see, what looks, in its form, like a story, but is, on the other hand, at the level of power, a theology’ (Hex. 10.4).  God, then, is not concerned merely to communicate so much information, even useful information, about himself or about us. The Scriptures are not just informative, but, if you will, performative, and here the action that God wishes us to perform is the worship of him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a reader, man is constantly called to relate to God and to his own salvation what he finds in the two great books, Scripture and creation, that have been given to him. This is why Basil is never interested in mere history or mere observation.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc  673-678)

Science will only be interested in the informative part of creation, but believers are called to the performative part – knowing the truth, how are we to behave?  This is where St Basil is not so much interested in history or the ‘facts’ as he is in what does it mean, especially in our understanding of God and God’s will.   Basil sees Genesis as story but as a narrative with a message: the revelation of God also known as theology.  It is the message which we ultimately want to know.  To turn Genesis into science or facts or to reduce it to history is to look at creation through the eyes of science rather than the eyes of faith.  Scripture is to open the eyes of our heart to the depths of meaning which God is revealing to us.  The study of creation can have the same purpose which is why Christians should pay attention to nature and science as St Basil recommended.

A Temptation of Wealth

45346953932_8f4c5f4b3b_w

And Jesus told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

The error of the rich fool in Christ’s parable is easy to see.  He assumed life would go on as it is forever.  He forgot he lived in a world defined by change.  And that change includes the fact that we are mortal beings – each life is bound by a beginning and an end.  His great plan came to nothing as his life ended.  There is a lesson to learn: how not to have one’s life end in nothing.  Life will end, we will die, but that doesn’t have to equate with life meaning nothing in the end.  We can live in a way that others will regret when we die, but even that is minor. To live so that in the end nothing is the only thing left might be good in Buddhism, but in Christianity there is a full life in the world to come.  We don’t want to end in nothing but rather in abundant life found in God.   [see also my post Sins and Debts.]

We of course seeing the rich fool’s error might decide that we can avoid his mistake, we can plan to win the lottery and give a sizable portion to charity, not just store up the winnings for our ease.  There is folly in this as well as St John Climacus pointed out.  Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou writes:

Yet St. John of the Ladder warns us that even the idea of charity—the desire to have plenty in order to give to others—can be little more than an excuse for avarice:

Do not say you are interested in money for the sake of the poor, for two mites were sufficient to purchase the kingdom (cf. Luke 21:2). . . .

The pretext of almsgiving is the beginning of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor. The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens. The demon of avarice fights hard against those who have nothing. When it fails to overcome them, it begins to tell them about the wretched conditions of the poor, thereby inducing those in the religious life to become concerned once more with material things.    (Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle 1343-49)

One might be the rare person who would give all their lottery winnings to charity.  But then we might turn out to be like the rich young man who according to Mark 10:21-22 Jesus loved yet despite this who walked away from Jesus when the Lord told to give his wealth away in charity.  “And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”   We might start off believing we wanted the wealth to help others, but how long before we decid to keep back just some for ourselves?  We might read again the Acts 5 account of Ananias and Sapphira.   Money as they saw is a good servant but a bad master.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”   (Hebrews 13:5)