A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

Old Testament as Images of the New

While many Christians love to defend the literal reading of Scripture, in Orthodox hymns we are more likely to find the richness of Scriptures.  The literal reading of a text is often not seen as the true significance of the text.  For one thing Orthodoxy follows the teaching of Christ that the Old Testament is really about Christ.  “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.”  (John 5:39-46)  For example,  a hymn for Wednesday Matins of the 2nd Week of the Pentecostarion offers our interpretation of Genesis 22 (Abraham’s offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice) and from Jonah 1-2:

ISAAC WAS LED UP THE MOUNTAIN AS A SACRIFICE;

JONAH DESCENDED INTO THE DEEP.

BOTH WERE IMAGES OF YOUR PASSION, O SAVIOR:

THE FIRST WAS BOUND FOR THE SLAUGHTER;

THE OTHER PREFIGURED YOUR DEATH

AND YOUR WONDROUS RISING TO LIFE!  LORD, GLORY TO YOU!

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

Noah: Prophet Preparing Us for the Coming of Christ

During the week days of Great Lent we generally do not read Scripture lessons from the New Testament.  Rather, the daily readings are from Isaiah, Proverbs and Genesis.  This does give us a chance to contemplate a world without Christ and the resurrection – to intensify our sense of being in exile from the Kingdom of God.  We  think about the world of the Fall before the coming of Christ and yet, paradoxically,  our food fasting by denying us the foods of the fallen world enables us to experience the foods available to us in Paradise (Genesis 1:29, 2:16).  And yet . . . we don’t ever read the Old Testament apart from Christ.   We always read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and we believe the Old Testament bears witness to Christ and is about Him.  We read the Old Testament to learn about Christ, not about science or history.  Jesus said of the Old Testament:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.  (John 5:39, 46)

Moses wasn’t writing history so much as writing about Christ!  That is how Jesus Himself reads and understands Genesis.  So the real question for us as Christians is not “what does Genesis teach us about ancient history?”, but what does it teach us about Christ?  What was Moses trying to tell us about the Christ long before Jesus was even born?  Throughout the New Testament, we see how the New Testament authors read Moses as being a prophet, writing about what God is doing and what God is going to do.  Noah in this context too is a prophet, preparing us to know Christ.

So in Matthew 24:36-44 we read Jesus teaching about the end times, the eschaton:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. …  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

 

We read a very similar message in the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-30 where Jesus says:

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.

The story of Noah and the flood is mentioned in the Gospels not to teach us about ancient history, but to prepare us for the future second coming of the Lord.  If reading about the Flood causes you to want to go in search of the ark, you are looking in the wrong direction, for the Gospels says the narrative about Noah is to prepare us for the eschaton and the end of this world.  Noah’s story looks even beyond the time of the Gospel into the parousia when Christ will come in glory.  We are reading the account of Noah during Great Lent, not to learn history but to get our minds geared toward the future coming of Christ.  The story of the flood is thus orienting us toward Christ and His coming again, not to some ancient event or story which may or may not have happened.

In Hebrews 11:6-7, we read:

And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Noah in this text is being upheld as a model of a person of faith, who doesn’t know what is going to happen, but who believes in God.  Again, the lesson is being used to orient us toward this future and what God is going to do.  We need to live by faith in this world in order to be righteous as Noah was righteous – we are awaiting Christ’s coming again, just as Noah had to wait to see what God was going to do.

In 1 Peter 3:18-22, St Peter connects the story of Noah to baptism to help us understand the sacrament and life in the Church.  The Church is like Noah’s ark in which we are saved from the flood, but the flood is no longer drowning sinners but rather the waters are cleansing us from sin.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Photo by Jim Forest

Finally, St Peter also interprets the scriptures of Noah and the flood as a teaching about the future Judgment of the world:

For if God . . . did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:4-9)

There is a “history lesson” to be learned from the Genesis account of Noah and the flood, but the lesson is to help us get through our current struggles in this world and to prepare us from the coming judgment day.   The New Testament interprets and uses the Genesis flood story to show us God’s concern for the righteous in this world and to prepare us for the coming judgment of God.  We should not be caught by surprise about events that are going to take place, because we have been forewarned about Christ’s coming again.  However, if we read about Noah to learn ancient history, we are going to miss the real lesson of Genesis, which is as Christ said about Him not about the past.

Jesus and Moses

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . .  Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  (Luke 24:27, 44)

Bible Reading: Gateway to the Spiritual Life

“Constant pondering on the holy scriptures will always fill the soul with incomprehensible wonder and joy in God.

We should consider the labor of reading the Scriptures to be something extremely elevated, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. For it serves as the gate by which the intellect enters into the divine mysteries, and takes on strength for attaining to luminosity in prayer.

The reading of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead which gives birth to prayer.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p.. 8, 36, 38)

The Covenant of Peace

I recently finished reading Willard Swartley’s book, COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS  , which I thought was an excellent read.  The book takes a serious look at the idea of peace in the New Testament as well as looking at the New Testament through the lens of peace.  The chapters which look at different books in the New Testament are in themselves a superb bible study.  Swartley posits that peace is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the life of all Christians who are to live at peace with each other as well as with all others in the world.

Swartley comes from a peace tradition denomination, the Mennonites, and while that certainly was an inspiration for his study, his content is valuable for all Christians to consider.  As the book’s subtitle suggests, he is concerned that current work in scripture scholarship and ethics underplays the role that peace has in the Gospel and entire New Testament.   For example, biblical scholar James Dunn’s monumental 734 page book THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE, has only one listing in the subject index for peace, but the word “peace” (Greek: eirene) occurs 44 times in the  greater Pauline corpus of writings.  Says Swartley: “Paul, more than any other writer in the NT canon, makes peace, peacemaking, and peace-building central to his theological reflections and moral admonition.” (p 190)

Swartley contends that peace not only is frequently mentioned in the NT but the theme of peace is central to understanding reconciliation and salvation. Christ is bringing peace between God and humans, between Jews and Gentiles, between believers and between humans and the rest of creation.

When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together; and he said to the man that did the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow?”  (Exodus 2:13)

And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and would have reconciled them into peace, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren, why do you wrong each other?’  (Acts 7:26)

Swartley notes that for whatever reason there is a tendency to downplay the role of peace in the New Testatment.  He points out or example that Acts 7:26 – is a reinterpretation of Exodus 2:13 in which Moses intervenes between 2 Jews who were fighting.  St. Luke, the author of Acts, adds a motivation for Moses not mentioned in the Exodus text – Moses tries to be a peacemaker and reconcile the two men.  Swartly points out that Acts 7:26 reads in Greek literally that Moses “appeared to them as they were fighting and sought to reconcile them into peace”  BUT then he notes that almost no English translation includes the phrase “into peace” (eis eirenen).  Most English translations simple say Moses sought to reconcile them but eliminates any reference to peace  (p 156).    Swartley says the Greek mentions both reconciliation and peace which is trying to put emphasis on what Moses did, and yet English translators ignore the emphasis and even don’t bother to include the words  “into peace” in their translations at all.  This for Swartley is part of the evidence that “peace” is missing from much of modern biblical and ethical scholarship.

Additionally, Exodus 2:13 indicates that Moses ‘said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?”’    Moses only addresses the one who was attacking the other.   However, in Acts 7:26, St. Luke has Moses addressing both men as culpable, ‘Men, you are brothers.  Why do you wrong each other?’   Swartley notes: “By these differences Luke takes this event and portrays Moses as a peacemaker among his fellow Hebrews.  Moses is thus presented as reconciler between hostile parties and works to bring unity between two men fighting with each other”  (pp 156-157).  Luke reinterprets the Moses narrative, adding to it a peace dimension, making Moses into a peacemaker (and then strangely, the English translations of Acts drop the very idea that Luke emphasizes in his text!).

Even the New Testament English translators focus on Moses reconciling the two Jewish opponents, yet as Swartley notes ” the word peace appears one hundred times in the New Testament, and reconciliation four times” (p x).  With this overwhelming New Testament emphasis on peace more than reconciliation, it is amazing that the English translators of the New Testament still focus on reconciliation rather than peace.  Brothers being reconciled is a good thing, but for them to live in peace with each other demands a great deal more self-denial and taking up the cross.  Reconciliation is important when relationships are broken, but living in peace requires from us to strive not to break relationships in the first place.

Other “statistics” Swartley notes:

… the phrase, ‘God of peace’ … occurs seven times in Paul, once in Hebrews, and only once outside the NT, in Testament of Dan 5:2.  . . .   Paul’s frequent use of the appellation ‘God of peace’ is most significant … ‘God of hope’ occurs only once (Rom 15:13) and ‘God of love’ only once—in conjunction with ‘God of peace’ (2 Cor 13:11).  . . .  Note also that nowhere does ‘God of wrath’ or ‘God of judgment’ occur as titles for God in Paul.  In light of the prominence of “God as Warrior” in the OT (Exod 15:3), it is striking that no such appellations for God are found in Paul or any other NT writer. . . .  the notion that the God of peace is also the God who delivers/rescues… believers from divine wrath (1 Thess 1:10), from evil (2 Tim 4:17-18), persecution (3:11), and ‘wicked and evil people’ (2 Thess 3:2) lies at the heart of Pauline theology.  (p 208-210)     (n 59 – It is striking that the verb (syntribo) in Rom 16:20 is the same as in the LXX translation of Exod 15:3, where ‘God of war’ in the Hebrew text becomes ‘God crushes war’—an astounding reinterpretation.)

It is pretty amazing that St. Paul who gives warnings about the wrath of God does not declare Him to be the God of wrath, but does proclaim Him to be the God of Peace.  I also found it so intriguing that St. Paul only refers to God as the God of Love once, yet in the Johannine writings that God is love is central to the Gospel.  On the other hand, Swartley also notes: “Nowhere in the Johannine writings (Gospel, Epistles, and Revelation) are Jesus’ followers commanded to love their enemies.  Nor is there an explicit emphasis on reconciliation of enmity relationships  (p 276).”

So while we find in the New Testament both that God is love and that we are to love even our enemies, these two teachings are proclaimed by different New Testament authors.  Both are part of our Tradition, and it helps us to see why we need the diversity of writings and voices found in the New Testament.  It is a good indication as to why efforts to harmonize or homogenize divergent scripture texts are misguided.  The Scriptures do not represent one monolithic human viewpoint, but give us humans insight into the omniscience of God.

One other “statistic” which I found interesting in the book: “The specific term ‘kingdom of God’ is virtually absent from the OT” (p 15).  When we come to the New Testament, the New Covenant, we enter into a new creation as well.   The text of Isaiah 40:9, ‘Here is your God!’ is translated in the Isaiah Targum as ‘the kingdom of God will be revealed’  (p 94).  In Christ indeed God’s Kingdom is finally revealed, for Christ is Emmanuel, and where God is, there the Kingdom is for God comes in His kingdom.

“I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore.”  (Ezekiel 37:26-28)

Swartley says:  “Ezekiel prophesied that God would make a new covenant, a covenant of peace (p xiii).   His contention is:  “The (new) covenant that Jesus makes with his disciples also fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy, where the Lord God says, ‘I will make with them a covenant of peace’ (34:25; 37:26; cf Isa 54:10)   (p 177)

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.  (Isaiah 54:10)

Next: Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ Is Our Peace.

 

The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)

How To Prepare Yourself to Read Scripture

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture.  The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:

“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.

The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).”   (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)

Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel.  Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.

For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit.  Amen.

 

Christmas Changes Us

Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”  (Matthew 2:13-23)

In the long history of Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, the Church has been blessed by the many meanings which have been derived from the texts.  From the earliest days of Christianity (and in ancient Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures as well), commentators noted how the texts can guide and influence our behavior..  Inspiration is thus not only found in the authors of the texts, but also is in those who read the texts.  For example, year after year, we read the Christmas narrative in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but we don’t exhaust the meaning of the texts.  Obviously, insight into the literal meaning may be more limited because that has been explored for 2000 years – that stone has been turned over countless times.  But the text also is capable of giving us insight into our lives today, and to give us further revelation about God’s purposes in unfolding history.  So we know the magi leave the newborn Christ and return to their own country by a route different than the one that brought them to Jerusalem.  This literal reading of the text, provides us insight into our own spiritual sojourn to Christ at the Nativity.

“The Magi, divinely warned in a dream, return to their country by another road. They must avoid Herod. In the spiritual sense, he whom God has led to the crib can certainly go back home, to his own country, to his house; but it will be by another road. That is to say, the motives, the attitudes, the manner of existing, the means used, can no longer be the same. When one has gone to Bethlehem, a radical change takes place.”  (Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior by a Monk of the Eastern Church, pp. 8-9)