Little Things Add Up

“For if, as they used to say, we do not despise little things and think they are of no consequence to us, we shall not fall into great and grievous things.  I am always telling you that bad habits are formed in the soul by these very small things – when we say, ‘What does this or that matter,’ – and it is the first step to despising great things.  … ‘What does it matter if I find out what this brother is saying or what that guest is doing?’ the mind begins to forget about its own sins and to talk idly about his neighbor, speaking evil against him, despising him, and from this he falls into the very thing that he condemns.

Because we become careless about our own faults and do not lament our own death (as the Fathers put it), we lose the power to correct ourselves and we are always at work on our neighbor.  Nothing angers God so much or strips a man so bare or carries him so effectively to his ruin as calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor.”  (St Dorotheos of Gaza, DISCOURSES AND SAYINGS, pp 131-132)

Anointed to Be Kings and Priests

All the faithful are truly anointed priests and kings in the spiritual renewal brought about through baptism, just as priests and kings were anointed figuratively in former times. For those anointings were prefigurations of the truth of our anointing: prefigurations in relation not merely to some of us but to all of us. For our kingship and priesthood is not of the same form or character as theirs, even though the symbolic actions are the same. Nor does our anointing recognize any distinction in nature, grace or calling, in such a way that those anointed essentially differ one from the other: we have but one and the same calling, faith and ritual. The true significance of this is that he who is anointed is pure, dispassionate and wholly consecrated to God now and for ever.”   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 42025-42032)

For St Gregory (d. 1346), all Christians who have been chrismated are anointed to be both priests and kings.  In Christ, both male and female are each anointed to share in the same kingship and priesthood.  God has now given in baptism to all His people the anointing that previously was bestowed only on a few elect.    See also my post A Kingdom of Priests and Kings

We Will Not Be Punished Because We Have Sinned, But Because We Didn’t Repent

I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

In THE PHILOKALIA, one of the quoted authors is known as St Theognostos.  Modern scholars say this saint remains unknown to us.  Even the dates he wrote are unknown –  In THE PHILOKALIA he is said to be from the 3rd Century yet he quotes St. John of Damascus (7th Century) so must have written in the 8th Century or later.  Some scholars think he lived in the 14th Century.  Regardless of his identity, his writings remain in the collection of honored saints of the Church.

“We will not be punished or condemned in the age to be because we have sinned, since we were given a mutable and unstable nature. But we will be punished if, after sinning, we did not repent and turn from our evil ways to the Lord; for we have been given the power to repent, as well as the time in which to do so. Only through repentance shall we receive God’s mercy, and not its opposite, His passionate anger. Not that God is angry with us; He is angry with evil. Indeed, the divine is beyond passion and vengefulness, though we speak of it as reflecting, like a mirror, our actions and dispositions, giving to each of us whatever we deserve.”   (Kindle Loc 23502-14)

Theognostos seems to acknowledge that our “mutable and unstable” human nature means we are going to sin at times.  Sinning is not the problem.  The real issue is God is loving, merciful, forgiving and patient and God awaits our repentance in order to embrace us back into His fold.  When we don’t repent and don’t seek our way back to God, then we reject God’s love for us.  We show disregard and disrespect for God and God’s plan for us.  God awaits our return and we despise God’s love, moving further away from our Creator, the Source of Life.  For Theognostos, however, none of this is about God’s anger or vengefulness for those terms really are nothing more than our reflecting back on God how we humans feel towards those who offend us.  We treat God as if God is some giant human being with no better moral sense than we have.  When we do this we totally ignore the revelation in Scripture that God is love.  Instead of our imitating God, we reduce God to being nothing more than one of us.

See also my post Seeing Salvation.

Remembering Sin as the Path to Humility

Generally, when it comes to the New Year, we like to forget the bad things that happened in the past year and look forward to positive things in the New.  Or sometimes people take this time of year to remember the best of the previous year.  Orthodox spiritual writers, however, think there is good reason to remember past sins – not to feed shame and self-loathing, but to help us repent.  Repentance means change – to move in a new direction.  Remembering our past sins, reminds us not to be so quick to judge others in their sins and failures.  Rather, remembering our past failures can help us sustain a healthy humility in our selves as well as patience, empathy and mercy for others as we see them wrestle with their own sins and temptations.  We can learn how to bear with one another as well as how to bear one another’s burdens (Romans 15:1; Galatians 6:2).  New Year’s resolutions can include remembering our past sins so that we don’t repeat them but rather learn from them so that we will be the better person from now on.

But, my brethren, let us not forget our offences, even if we wrongly think that they have been forgiven through repentance; let us always remember our sinful acts and never cease to mourn over them, so that we may acquire humility as our constant companion, and thus escape the snares of self-esteem and pride.   (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11216-24)

Remembering God

“At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers, so that when you forget Him, the Lord may remind you.”

(St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2995-96)

One good resolution for the New Year: remember God daily – early and often.  Whenever God crosses your mind, say a prayer – offer thanksgiving, request mercy, or give joyful thanks.  Do this intentionally and with resolve.  Then, in those dark moments when you have forgotten God or feel far removed from the Lord, God will remind you of God’s presence not only in the world but in your life.

St Joseph the Betrothed

“… when Joseph became aware that Mary was with child, and was minded to put her away privily, the angel said to him in sleep: “Fear not to take to thee Mary thy wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. For she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins.” And exhorting him [to this], he added: “Now all this has been done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken from the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel;

thus influencing him by the words of the prophet, and warding off blame from Mary, pointing out that it was she who was the virgin mentioned by Isaiah beforehand, who should give birth to Emmanuel. Wherefore, when Joseph was convinced beyond all doubt, he both did take Mary, and joyfully yielded obedience in regard to all the rest of the education of Christ, undertaking a journey into Egypt and back again, and then a removal to Nazareth.”   (St. Irenaeus of LyonsAgainst Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 6273-80)

We commemorate  St Joseph the Betrothed on the Sunday after the Nativity.

Scripture, Humankind, the Mother of God

Christ is born!   Glorify Him!

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On December 26, the day after Christmas, we commemorate the Virgin Mother of Christ for the role she played in the incarnation of God and the salvation of us all.  St Gregory Palamas perhaps thinking about the genealogy of Christ writes:

“Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then passes through Seth, Noah and Abraham, as well as David and Zerubbabel, those in between them and their successors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God.

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By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion. Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.”   (On the Saints, Kindle Location 298-303)

St Gregory acknowledges that the Scriptures are not the history of all humankind – Scriptures follow those people who lead to the birth of the Messiah and ignore the many other people of the world who were not part of this salvation history.  One will not learn the complete history of the human race by reading the Bible, for it is a book which focuses on our salvation which comes through the incarnation, through the Theotokos and those righteous men and women who were faithful to God for all the centuries leading to the Nativity of Christ.

Ancestors, Ancestral Sin and Christ

The Sunday before the Nativity in Orthodoxy celebrates all of the righteous men and women of the Old Testament who prepared the way for Christ.  They are commemorated in the Gospel lesson of the genealogy of Christ.  The genealogy tells us how we got to the point of Christ’s birth, but the genealogy also reminds us about why we have come to Christ’s birth.  For even before Abraham was, humanity had taken a stance on its relationship to God our Creator.  It is humanity’s broken relationship with God which Christ came to heal and repair.  The ancestors of Christ point to Christ (thus leading us back to God), but also are the link to the ancestral sin which separated humanity from God.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes:

The case of Adam, however, had no analogy with this, but was altogether different. For, having been beguiled by another under the pretext of immortality, he is immediately seized with terror, and hides himself; not as if he were able to escape from God; but, in a state of confusion at having transgressed His command, he feels unworthy to appear before and to hold converse with God. Now, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” the sense of sin leads to repentance, and God bestows His compassion upon those who are penitent. For [Adam] showed his repentance by his conduct, through means of the girdle [which he used], covering himself with fig-leaves, while there were many other leaves, which would have irritated his body in a less degree.

He, however, adopted a dress conformable to his disobedience, being awed by the fear of God; and resisting the erring, the lustful propensity of his flesh (since he had lost his natural disposition and child-like mind, and had come to the knowledge of evil things), he girded a bridle of continence upon himself and his wife, fearing God, and waiting for His coming, and indicating, as it were, some such thing [as follows]: Inasmuch as, he says, I have by disobedience lost that robe of sanctity which I had from the Spirit, I do now also acknowledge that I am deserving of a covering of this nature, which affords no gratification, but which gnaws have retained this clothing for ever, thus humbling himself, if God, who is merciful, had not clothed them with tunics of skins instead of fig-leaves.   (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. Loc. 5005-15)

Adam covered himself with fig leaves because he felt ashamed in his nakedness before his Creator.  Irenaeus interprets Adam’s behavior as penitence for his sin – Adam doesn’t want God to have to look upon what Adam has done.  Adam knows he has lost the ‘garment of sanctity’ with which God had clothed him.  But at Christmas we celebrate God putting on our flesh, accepting the nakedness of Adam as He is born a baby in Bethlehem.  Not ashamed of his body, Christ knows His body means death but He unites Himself to our flesh to give us eternal life.  The ‘garment of salvation’ which Christ put on Himself is our flesh.  God became human, put on flesh, so that we humans could once again share in God’s life.  In putting on the flesh, Christ robes Himself in majesty, restoring all things to their proper place in God’s creation.

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  (2 Corinthians 5:2-5)

Christmas and Baptism

St Gregory of  Sinai says that all who are baptized into Christ share in His life.  He even gives a figurative view of how we who are baptized pass through all of the stages of Christ’s own life.

Everyone baptized into Christ should pass progressively through all the stages of Christ’s own life, for in baptism he receives the power so to progress, and through the commandments he can discover and learn how to accomplish such progression. To Christ’s conception corresponds the foretaste of the gift of the Holy Spirit, to His nativity the actual experience of joyousness,

to His baptism the cleansing force of the fire of the Spirit, to His transfiguration the contemplation of divine light, to His crucifixion the dying to all things, to His burial the indwelling of divine love in the heart, to His resurrection the soul’s life-quickening resurrection, and to His ascension divine ecstasy and I the transport of the intellect into God. He who fails to pass consciously through these stages is still callow in body and spirit, even though he may be regarded by all as mature and accomplished in the practice of virtue.  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 42076-42085)

As we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Nativity of our Savior, we can think about all the events surrounding the birth of Christ and what they might mean for how I live today.  How do I live the Nativity of Christ in my daily life?  How do I change my festal celebration from commemorating some ancient historical event into how I live, think, and act – Christ in me?  Not only do I have to keep Christ in Christmas or Christmas in Christ – perhaps more importantly I have to live so that Christ is in me.  I have to turn the events of the Gospel into my daily life.  Then indeed my entire life will be a life of prayer, and I will pray without ceasing.

Sentience is given to us not just so we feel sentimental about the events surrounding Christ’s birth and/or how we celebrate it, but so that we might perceive and experience that God is with, and within us, and in God we live, move and have our being.

Tertullian: What We Christians Believe

From the earliest days Christianity had very distinct beliefs which it was able to articulate.  Christianity accepted that God chose to reveal the divine nature in Jesus Christ.  Prior to Christ, the true nature of God was a mystery.  But in Christ God reveals not only human nature but also the nature of God as Trinity.  Tertullian in the last 2nd Century composed a list of Christian beliefs to help clarify who the Christians are.

“We … believe that there is one only God, but … this one and only God has also a Son, his Word, who proceeded from himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. We believe that he was sent by the Father into the Virgin, and was born of her – being both man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God – and was called by the name of Jesus Christ. We believe that he suffered, died, and was buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after he had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, he is sitting at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead. He also sent from heaven from the Father, according to his promise, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. (Against Praxeas 2) ”  (Geza Vermes,  Christian Beginnings, Kindle Loc. 3662-68)

It is easy to see in his writings the basic tenets that would be adopted by the Church in the 4th Century as the statement of faith for all Christians.  The Church worked to show that it’s faith was already well known from its earliest days.  A belief in the birth of Christ – Christmas – is traceable back to the First Century, to the Gospel writers.