Baptism: A Matter of Life and Death 

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… when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. (1 Peter 3:20-22) 

That baptism is related to both life and death is clear in the New Testament. St Peter in the above quote connects baptism to the story of the Great Flood in which humanity is destroyed except for the 8 people in the ark. For Peter the story of the flood is a prophecy and prefiguring of baptism – a narrative about salvation from death.  

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St Paul also famously connects baptism to Christ’s death: 

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5) 

While St Paul connects our baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ, historians note that this connection was not always a main part of Church thinking. For a number of centuries, the emphasis was much more on Christ’s resurrection than on his crucifixion. As noted below Origen is the only Eastern Christian writer in the first 4 centuries of the Church to mention St Paul’s quote above in relationship to baptism. Theology professor Michael Peppard comments: 

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“… one of the ‘big stories’ of pre-Nicean art and ritual is the stunning lack of emphasis – judged the against evidence of later centuries – on the imagery of Christ’s death.’ (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 55) 

[While in modern times the connection between our baptism and Christ’s death and resurrection is commonly made, that was not the case in the ancient Church which tended to focus on Christ’s resurrection. There may have been a pastoral reason for this as noted below.] 

Kilian McDonnell makes the point sharply: ‘What is a matter of surprise is that in the immediate post biblical, the second century, the Pauline paradigm of death and resurrection fell out of Christian consciousness so completely.  . . .   [It] seemingly had fallen through a hole in the memory of the church. To be specific, in the second century [it] is found neither in the Didache, nor in the Epistle of Barnabas, nor in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, nor of Clement, nor in [The Shepherd of] Hermas, nor in Justin or the other apologist, nor in Irenaeus.’ These authors, for the most part, cite Romans in their writings – just not this passage, even when discussing baptism. In fact, Origin of Alexandria was the ‘only Eastern theologian to refer to the text of Roman 6 in relationship to Christian baptism’ before the mid-fourth century. And for Origen, like Paul before him, death-resurrection was just one of many meanings connected to the rite.  . . . 

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Alistair Campbell summarizes this idea: during the era of possible martyrdom, ‘those being baptized hardly needed to be taught through the liturgy of the cost of their commitment. They knew it all too well. What they needed was the assurance of the presence of the Spirit, giving them strength to cope.’ Then after the fourth century, participation in Christ’s death came to be increasingly ritualized through baptism, the Eucharist, and the bodily mortification of the new ascetic movements. (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 121)

[The early Christians realized being baptized and becoming a Christian was life threatening as the Roman government periodically persecuted and executed Christians. So, those Christians did not need a reminder that baptism was related to death. Only after the threat of martyrdom passes does the Church begin to place a greater emphasis on one’s baptism being an experience of Christ’s death as well as His resurrection. ‘Death’ was always part of the understanding of baptism, but the emphasis changes through history. Early on the emphasis was on receiving the Holy Spirit and participating in Christ’s resurrection. Baptism was about salvation, being united/married to Christ the Bridegroom. Later piety emphasizes more our need to die to self and to die with Christ by self-martyrdom (asceticism). However, in the earlier Church… ] 

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The baptismal font is not a grave but rather a bridal chamber that survives the water: it is an ‘ark’ [of] salvation when the watery flood rages.’ (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 132) 

Christian initiation symbolizes a return to paradise – a microcosmic restoration of paradise – not in the western (and mostly later) sense of a drowning of inherited sin, but in the sense of reuniting alienated entities. The theory of atonement at work here may not be sacrifice in place of sin, but reconciliation and restoration in place of alienation and exile. (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 206) 

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The concept of the robe of glory, or robe of light, derives from Jewish thinking and was taken as a reference to the potential divine nature of man at creation.  . . .  The aim of the incarnation, according to Ephrem and other Syrian writers, is to re-clothe mankind in their robes of glory.’  The putting on of the primordial, immortal robe occurs through baptismal initiation, ‘a re-entry into Paradise, not just the Paradise of the beginning of time, but also an eschatological Paradise, of which the church is the terrestrial anticipation.’ Thus Adam and Eve here do not call to mind sin and death so much as incarnation and immortal paradise. (THE WORLD’S OLDEST CHURCH, p 207) 

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Christian piety (especially in the West, but the East often follows the same trend) changed through the centuries from a joyful emphasis on salvation and resurrection to a focus on the impact of original sin on all of humanity and Christians entering into salvation through asceticism, self-denial, taking up the cross and dying to one’s self. Christ’s death became viewed less as God’s victory over sin and death and more as a necessary event because of human sin – whose piety required constant repentance and self-abnegation. 

Sts Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom

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Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom. Here is a quote from each exploring the biblical idea that we humans are created in the image and likeness of God. First, from St Basil we get a warning not to reverse the thinking about humans being in God’s image by reading back from humans to discover what God must be like. Basil wants to be clear that God is not like humans in any way. His writings are perhaps the most theologically abstract of the three Ecumenical Teachers.

39654282863_9f3d11e4a5_wIn what sense are we according to the image of God? Let us purify ourselves of an ill-informed heart, an uneducated conception about God. . . .  Do not enclose God in bodily concepts, nor circumscribe him according to your own mind. He is incomprehensible in greatness.  . . .  He is everywhere and surpasses all; and he is intangible, invisible, who indeed escapes your grasp. . . .  For the shape of a body is corruptible. The incorruptible is not depicted in the corruptible, nor is the corruptible an image of the incorruptible.  . . .  ‘Let us make the human being according to our image.‘ It speaks of the inner human being.  . . .  I recognize two human beings, one the sense-perceptible, and one hidden under the sense-perceptible, invisible, the inner human. Therefore we have an inner human being, and we are somehow double, and it is truly said that we are that which is within. For I am what concerns the inner human being, the outer things are not me but mine. For I am not the hand, but I am the rational part of the soul and the hand is a limb of the human being. Therefore the body is an instrument of the human being, and an instrument of the soul, and the human being is principally the soul in itself.  

Let us make the human being according to our image,’ that is, let us give him the superiority of reason.” (ON THE HUMAN CONDITION, pp 34-36)

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St Basil wants to be clear that God is not simply an infinitely larger human being. God is completely unlike His creatures in terms of nature. God has no physical attributes.  For Basil being in God’s likeness does not refer to anything physical, but rather to our inner, spiritual being as humans. He is warning against returning to pagan ideas about the gods who are often simply like human beings but perhaps with some ‘super powers.’ Basil’s concern is that people will anthropomorphize God rather than deify humans. And he wants to be clear that while we humans have bodies, the body does not define who we are, so therefore could never tell us about God. In Basil’s thinking, we have a body but “we” are distinct from the body we have and God does not have a body and so we should never think about God in bodily terms.

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St Gregory the Theologian emphasizes that humans are indeed a midway point between God and creation and so are mediators between divinity and the created cosmos. Gregory has God saying:

‘Wherefore it pleases me to form a species out of both, midway between mortals and immortals: thinking man, who shall delight in my works, and be a level-headed initiate of heavenly mysteries, and a great power on earth, another angel sprung from the soil, the chanter of my mind and dispositions.’

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Having said this, then, he took up a portion of new-formed earth and with immortal hands set up my shape, to which he then imparted his own life. For into it he shot spirit, an efflux of the unseen Godhead. And from dirt and breath he made a man, image of the immortal: for mind’s lordly nature is in both. And so I feel attachment to this life, through what’s earth in me, but inwardly long for another, through the part that’s divine. Such was the conjoining of the original man. (ON GOD AND MAN, p 65)

Gregory has humans being both made of created material and also with an influx from God of His Spirit which is why humans are drawn both to eternity and to the world since we are composite beings made of both the spiritual and physical.

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St John Chrysostom perhaps has the most ‘down to earth’ understanding of what it is for humans to be created in God’s image and he avoids more abstract speculation on its meaning. Chrysostom is clear that our being in God’s likeness does not refer to any physical feature of humans. Rather, it refers to the authority/power that God has shared with and bestowed on humans in giving them a unique role in creation.

4670428136_3729ceac00_w“So ‘image’ refers to the matter of control, not anything else, in other words, God created the human being as having control of everything on earth, and nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls. 

As the word ‘image’ indicated a similitude of command, so too ‘likeness,’ with the result that we become like God to the extent of our human power – that is to say, we resemble him in our gentleness and mildness and in regard to virtue, as Christ also says, ‘Be like your father in heaven‘ (Matthew 5: 45).” (HOMILIES ON GENESIS 1-17, pp 110, 120)

All three of these Ecumenical teachers agree that it is significant to our comprehending God’s will that humans are created by God in God’s image. Each of the Three Teachers have a slightly different take on to what exactly being in God’s image refers. Basil wants to defend the transcendent nature of God and wants to disabuse people of thinking about God in human terms. Gregory portrays humans as being created by God with divine and created characteristics so that the humans are the mediators between divinity and creation and were created to unite divinity with creation. Chrysostom, more of a moralist, looks at the virtues found in humans as a sign that we are made in God’s image. God has empowered us to do His will.

The views of these three Ecumenical Teachers don’t contradict each other but show a diversity in understanding biblical theology and anthropology. There is a broad unity in their thinking but also significant diversity as they show the depths of Christian thinking.  All three creatively applied theology to address particular pastoral issues and concerns but also to show the depth and riches of God’s revelation to us.

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Meet the New Zacchaeus 

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Today in some Orthodox Churches the Gospel lesson about Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is read. Orthodox theologian Stanley Harakas comments on the pericope.  

Zacchaeus was a new person! A person no longer distorted by sin. A person who was once again whole. The New Testament Greek word for salvation is soteria. The root of this word is soos which means whole or complete. Salvation is wholeness that comes from a complete relationship with God, with neighbor, and with oneself. It requires the right orientation to life. To be saved is to have our humanity, as created in God’s image and likeness, restored. This is one aspect of salvation, and that’s what happened to Zacchaeus, the sinner. 

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Zacchaeus was now clear on the real values of life. Jesus put it definitively in verse 9: ‘Today salvation has come to this house.‘ Zacchaeus was no longer spiritually and morally exiled from the people of God, whether they wanted to recognize it or not… ‘since he also is a son of Abraham.’ He sought out Christ, who welcomed him. He responded to Jesus’ acceptance of him with acts that reflected his new relationship with God. This new relationship with God created a new relationship with his neighbors against whom he had sinned in the past. Jesus was no longer a stranger to Zacchaeus. Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ home, sat down at his dining room table, and ate with Zacchaeus and his fellow tax collectors. It was a new relationship! Zacchaeus had changed! He was a new man!  (OF LIFE AND SALVATION, p 41) 

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“... we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) 

St Ephrem the Syrian

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Today the Church honors the memory of the Venerable Ephrem the Syrian (373-379). Ephrem is especially known for his many theological poems. In one he mentions the cold, long nights of January. St Ephrem lived at a time when the Church did not have one uniform date for Christmas. Ephrem and the Church in Syria celebrated the birth of Christ on January 6 (which is not related to the “Old Calendar” Christmas on January 7) and so he mentions Christ’s Nativity as an event in January.

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In January when the nights are long,

daytime without limit shone forth to us.

In winter when the whole creation is gloomy

the beauty that gladdened all of creation emerged.

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In winter that made the earth barren,

virginity learned to give birth.

In January that’s still the birth pangs of the earth,

the birth pangs of virginity came.

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No one sees the young lamb

at first except the shepherds.

At the moment of his birth the good tidings

of the True Lamb also rushed to the shepherds.

(HYMNS, pp 98-99)

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[Christianity showed a great deal of diversity in pious customs in its early years. Through the centuries various Christian bishops were uncomfortable with this diversity in Christian practices and began imposing uniformity and conformity on the Church throughout the world. There may have been good pastoral intentions in doing so, but it also caused church leaders to demand ever more conformity and obedience throughout the Church, demanding that Church unity be based not in love for one another but in obedience to various rules and to hierarchs. The demand for uniformity actually hardened some divisions in the Church, especially between different ‘ethnic’ Christians such as the Latins, Greeks, Copts and Syrians.]

The Church, the World, the Kingdom 

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But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10) 

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St Peter believed that Christians formed a special society within the world. We belong to the Body of Christ, the Church—we are not Christians alone, but always in relationship to other Christians. Fr John Meyendorff, one of the most profound thinkers in the Orthodox world, writes that we need to be aware of our unique role in the world and what we, together as Church, are supposed to bring to the world: 

However, the truly Christian—and perhaps, the peculiarly Orthodox—responsibility today is to show that the solutions to these problems are found in the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which exists ‘within’ and ‘among’ us since God became man. For the Kingdom of God is not only a reality ‘beyond,’ but it is also a living reality in this world. The function of the Church consists not simply in making this world ‘a little better,’ but to make the Kingdom of God present among men.

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The church does not carry with it a social utopia, but the ferment of a new humanity, a new eternal order for the world. Only in the Kingdom of God and in the person of Jesus Christ himself does one find the norm, the pattern of social action. Only there is the absolute with which one can evaluate any present situation. (LIVING ICONS, p 223)

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The Church is not here to create a utopian society on earth. Rather, it always will be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) and light to the world (Matthew 5:14).  In other words, we are not to take over the world but rather to have a relationship to it even though it is and remains a fallen world. We are here to witness to God’s Kingdom, not to grab power or force our ideas on others. We are to love the world which God so loved as to give His only Son to die for our sins. Even Jesus did not try to force others to obey Him – just note the presence of Judas among His disciples, or how he behaves before Pontius Pilate or the Jewish Sanhedrin.

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Living According to the Will of God 

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Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15) 

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We are taught by our Lord Jesus to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. As Christ’s disciples, we are supposed to discern God’s will and do it. However, in life we daily must make countless choices in seemingly mundane matters in which “God’s will” might not be clear or even meaningful to us. We make countless choices and plans every day and as St James notes above we should always have the mindset that we will do these mundane and social activities admitting that we rely on God’s will to accomplish any of them, and trust that God will allow the activity if it is His gracious will. Archimandrite Sophrony comments on our doing God’s will: 

How are you to know if you are living according to the will of God? 

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Here is a sign: if you are distressed over anything it means that you have not fully surrendered to God’s will, although it may seem to you that you live according to His will. 

He who lives according to God’s will has no cares. If he has need of something he offers himself and the things he wants to God, and if he does not receive it he remains as tranquil as if he had got what he wanted.  

The soul that is given over to the will of God fears nothing: neither thunder nor thieves nor any other thing. Whatever may come, “Such as God’s pleasure,’ she says. If she falls sick she thinks, ‘This means that I need sickness, or God would not have sent it.’ 

And in this wise is peace preserved in soul and body. 

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The man who takes thought for his own welfare is unable to give himself up to God’s will, that his soul may have peace in God. But the humble soul is devoted to God’s will, and lives before him in awe and love: in awe, lest she grieve God in any way; in love, because the soul has come to know how the Lord loves us.  (WISDOM FROM MOUNT ATHOS, p 70) 

St. Gregory the Theologian 

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Today the Church commemorates St. Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople, one of the few saints honored with the title “Theologian.” One of the Old Testament lessons read at Vespers for his feast is from the Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-6 : 

Therefore I appealed to the Lord and prayed to Him, and said to Him with all my heart: “O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy, who have made all things by your word, and by your wisdom have formed humankind to have dominion over the creatures you have made, and rule the world in holiness and righteousness, and pronounce judgment in uprightness of soul, 
give me the wisdom that sits by your throne, and do not reject me from among your servants. For I am your servant the son of your serving girl, a man who is weak and short-lived, with little understanding of judgment and laws; for even one who is perfect among human beings will be regarded as nothing without the wisdom that comes from you.  

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Many saints valued God’s Wisdom, but not only as an intellectual knowledge, but as Jesus who is the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24) and the Patristic writers in general saw God’s Wisdom as God’s special gift to humanity. So Orthodox theologian John Behr writes: 

This is exactly the kind of wisdom that Origen wants to present, the Wisdom that is Christ himself, whose primary title is the Wisdom of God, for Wisdom is the beginning [arche] of [God’s] ways for his works (Proverbs 8: 22; Princ. 1.2.1-3). And as Origen makes clear in the opening and concluding lines of the Preface, the Christian knowledge he intends to expound as a coherent structure is the teaching of Christ, the Word of God who spoke in Moses and the prophets and also in the apostles. . . .  

‘The light contained in the Law of Moses, but hidden by a veil, shone forth at the sojourn of Jesus, when the veil was taken away and the good things, of which the letter had a shadow, came gradually to be known’ (Princ. 4.1.6). 

Irenaeus makes exactly the same point: Christ was hidden in the Scriptures, which could not be understood until the time when the8292671260_cb77e5facd_w things that they had spoken of had come to fulfillment; the book had been ‘shut up‘ and ‘sealed, until the consummation‘ (cf. Daniel 12:4) and so is full of enigmas and ambiguities; those who read it without possessing the proper explanation only find a myth, for the truth that it contains is only brought to light by the cross of Christ, and only reading it in this way do we find our way into the Wisdom of God and ourselves come to shine with the light as did Moses. . . .  

And so, Origen urges us, using the words of Paul, to ‘[leave] behind the teaching of the first principles of Christ, which are but the elementary principles of knowledge, [and] press on to perfection‘ (ibid.; Hebrews 6:1), so that we might receive the wisdom that Paul says he speaks to the perfect (1 Cor 2:6). He concludes, putting together various passages from Paul: ‘this wisdom will be stamped upon us distinctly, according to the revelation of the mystery… which has kept secret through times eternal, but now made manifest through the prophetic Scriptures and the appearance of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for all ages. Amen.'” (ORIGEN: ON FIRST PRINCIPLES, pp xlviii-xlix) 

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‘… and indeed that the Wisdom of God entered into the womb of a woman, to be born an infant and to utter cries like the wailing of infants…’ (Origen, ORIGEN: ON FIRST PRINCIPLES, p 103) 

Be The House of Prayer for All Nations 

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Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Mark 11:17)

One of Christ’s criticisms of the Jewish Temple and religion was that the Jews had failed to make the Temple a place of prayer for all nations. Instead, they limited the Temple to be a space for Jews alone and then turned it into a fundraising bazaar to benefit the religious leaders. The Temple was meant to mark a center point for the entire world and to be a house of prayer for all nations because it represented God’s presence with His human creatures. However, because Israel saw the Temple building as a unique sign of their being the chosen people, the Gentiles were excluded from it. This resulted in the God of all being reduced to a tribal god of the Jews alone. Instead of the Temple being the place where all humans could come into God’s presence and seek God’s mercy, it became a sign of the Gentiles exclusion from God’s presence. The Jews made the Temple like the Cherubim with the flaming sword which God appointed to keep humanity out of Paradise (Genesis 3:24). It was exactly opposite of what the Temple was meant to signify or be.

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Christ’s ‘cleansing’ of the Temple showed this reduction of the Temple to be an offense to God which God wished to sweep away. God didn’t live in a Temple building but in His people. The cleansing indicated that the Jerusalem Temple was inadequate to be God’s house of prayer because the people of God were to be this house, not a building. It was the Temple being reduced to a building which excluded the Gentiles that necessitated the creation of temples, shrines and idols so that the ‘Gentiles’ could also pray to God. Thus, the Jews through their exclusivist attitude reinforced by their idea of the Temple as a building were contributing to the spread of paganism by excluding the nations from praying in the Temple which they were supposed to be (not some building however marvelous it might be).

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Biblical scholar David Instone-Brewer comments on how Jewish prayer customs changed through the time of Christ and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70CE:

Before 70 CE, prayer was normally a private matter, even when it was performed in a synagogue. People went to the synagogue, but they each prayed by themselves, starting at different times according to when they arrived.  . . .  After 70 CE, prayer was increasingly a communal activity, conducted by a prayer leader in the synagogue, especially on a Sabbath when work did not prevent people attending. With this development came the assumption that someone who did not attend synagogue was not performing his prayers. (TRADITIONS OF THE RABBIS FROM THE ERA OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p 65)

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After the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, Judaism moved away from being a religion of One Temple and became more local synagogue-based, its prayer customs changed, becoming more communally oriented. But their exclusivity in prayer continued as they continued to view themselves as the ‘chosen’ and thus different from non-Jews and so refused to pray with them. Christians were to embrace a more inclusive attitude in prayer – prayer with and for all peoples as Christ reformed humanity into one new people instead of two (Jew vs Gentile). Now, in Christ, all people could pray to God. Christ becomes the house in which we all can pray.

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In Orthodoxy on the feasts of the Nativity of the Theotokos and of her Dormition, we read from Proverbs 9:1 which in the Septuagint version says “Wisdom built for herself a house” which seems to refer to Christ’s own incarnation and forming for himself a body in the Virgin’s womb. Thus, Christ is that house of God in whom all can pray. Hebrews 3:6 identifies us believers as the house of God as does 1 Peter 2:5. In the Old Testament “the house of David” was also a reference to the people of God, not a building. God’s true house is His people and His people were to include the prayers of all the peoples of the earth since there is only one God for all the nations. Judaism through its own reductionism lost its role as the house of prayer for all nations. The Temple was destroyed as an inadequate symbol. Christ and Christianity were to become this bold vision of a house of prayer for all people.

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It is up to us believers to make the Church God’s house of prayer for all people. We have to work to make this a reality and we should pray for it to happen in us. Rather than focus on our church buildings, we are to be God’s temple and to bring the prayers of all people to God.

O Maker and Benefactor of all creation! Receive your Church which approaches you. Bring about all that is best for us. Lead everyone to perfection. And make us worthy of your kingdom. By the grace and mercy and love for man of your only Son with whom you are blessed together with your all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. (Prayer of the Entrance, Codex Barberinus 336, 8th century) (Paul Harrilchak, THE LITURGY, p 26)

A Prayer of Hope 

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It is always the right time and a good time to offer a prayer of hope.

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Grant speedy and steadfast consolation to your servants,

O Jesus, when our spirits have become despondent.

Do not depart from our souls when they are in afflictions,

nor be distant from our minds when they be in tribulations,

but do ever go before us. Draw near to us,

draw near, you who are everywhere present;

and even as you were ever with your apostles,

so also unite yourself to them that long for you,

O compassionate one, that, being one with you,

we may praise and glorify your all-holy Spirit.

(the ikos hymn for Pentecost)

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Boldly Seeking Mercy

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Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. (Luke 18:35-43)

St Ephrem the Syrian in one of his poems praises the courage of the blind man to call out to Christ despite people trying to silence him. It is with this same courage that we sinners approach the Lord asking for His mercy in our lives:

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Blessed are you, too, courageous blind man

whose great boldness enlightened you.

For if you had been silent as you were admonished,

silence would have kept you in darkness.

Blessed is your boldness for in it you also offer a type,

that the sinner, if he be bold, will obtain mercy.

(HYMNS, p 331) 

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The New Testament does indicate that at times people believed a person’s ailments (such as blindness) were the result of the person’s own sinfulness. Thus, the lack of sympathy for some that are ill or handicapped. (It’s similar to the modern notion that lung cancer is caused by smoking and so smokers sometimes are not viewed sympathetically if they get cancer. It is also why some are terrified when a non-smoker gets lung cancer as it defies reason and means anyone can get it whether they deserve it or not.)

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The above Gospel lesson does not mention that the blind man’s condition resulted from sin, but the people trying to silence him make me think they had no sympathy for him. Jesus after all often healed the sick and so the crowd might try to get the blind man to Jesus. The crowd acting to silence the blind man tells me the crowd resented him though he was only seeking what many of them were. Even if the blindman was guilty of sin that caused his blindness, he still is the kind of person Christ came into the world to seek, heal and save. As St Paul says to Timothy: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).  Even if his sin led to his blindness, his blindness led him to seek Christ! Christ rewards him for his effort. This person doesn’t blindly seek Christ, he boldly seeks Him.

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When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. (Psalm 34:17)