God’s Son: Listen to Him

. . . lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”   (Matthew 17:5-6)

St John of Damascus writes:

From all that has been said, may you always bear in your hearts the loveliness of this vision; may you always hear within you the Father’s voice: “This is” – not a slave, not an elder, not an angel – but “my beloved Son; listen to him!” Let us, therefore, really listen to him, as he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” “You shall not kill” – but you also shall not be angry with your brother without reason. “Be reconciled with your brother first, and then go and offer your gift.” “You shall not commit adultery” – but you also shall not let yourself be excited by someone else’s beauty. “You shall not swear falsely” – but you shall not even swear at all: “Let your speech be ‘Yes, yes!’ and ‘No, no!’ What lies beyond that is an invention of the Evil One.”

You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit fraud” – but “give, too, to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow,” and do no prevent someone from taking what is yours. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who hate you, and pray for those who threaten and persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Forgive, and you will be forgiven, so that you may become sons of your Father, perfect and merciful as is your Father in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good, and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust.

(Light on the Mountain, pp. 229-230)

On Mount Tabor, O Lord, You have shown today the glory of Your divine form unto Your chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed as the light and at Your face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Your brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: ‘This is My beloved Son, Who has come into the world to save mankind.”    (Vespers Hymn for the Transfiguration)

Advertisements

Jesus Christ Seen in the Temple

51bjegthg4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_As we celebrate the Meeting of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple, I want to offer a few thoughts take from the most fascinating book by biblical scholar Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis.

The Feast is based upon the Luke 2:22-40 account of Mary and Joseph, fulfilling the Torah command, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Jerusalem temple thus fulfilling righteousness – according to our hymns. In Orthodoxy we often see in this Feast the Jerusalem Temple finally fulfilling its destiny – when Christ is brought into the Temple, God finally and fully enters into and takes His proper place in the Temple.  Gary Anderson points out that the temple in so many ways was a type of an “incarnation” of God in the Old Testament.  The Scriptures make several references to people going to the temple to see God, and several verses in scripture make references to seeing the form of God – all this despite another stream of theology which says God cannot be seen.

Anderson writes:

“The first thing the reader must bear in mind is the Bible’s assumption that God has really taken up residence in the tabernacle. Michael Wyschogrod, in an essay on the notion of incarnation in the Jewish tradition, has argued: ‘God has undertaken to enter the world and to dwell in a place.’ But this deeply ‘incarnational’ character of the tabernacle carries a particular danger along with it: individuals will be tempted to co-opt either the building itself (cf. Jer. 7) or its most important artifact—the ark—to their own political and/or religious advantage and so compromise the freedom of God.  (Kindle Loc 420-425)

The artifacts in the temple and the ritual of the temple, gave Israel a way to approach God and to be aware of His presence.  But, there was a temptation to try to manipulate God by claiming to do all the ritual perfectly, thus making God a servant of the ritual – do the ritual correctly and God is obligated to the priests.  Certainly in the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, there is a great emphasis on the fulfilling of the Law, but now it is God who fulfills it when Mary and Joseph bring the incarnate God, Jesus, into the temple.  There is an unexpected turn of events where the fulfilling of the Law in not manipulating God but making God present!  God is present not in some almighty, transcendent form but incarnate in the infant Jesus!

Temple

Anderson goes on to note that whatever the temple represents in terms of God’s own movement into the temple, this same temple always requires human cooperation.  The temple is not God’s alone, but exists in and for the people of God who are essential to the revelation.

“The first thing to be observed is the parallelism between the creation of the world in Gen. 1 and the building of the tabernacle in Exod. 25–Lev. 9. As Peter Schäfer has put the matter: ‘The creation of the world is not, if one accepts this view, solely the work of God but also the work of man: only when Moses erects the tabernacle is God’s created order brought to completion.’ The role ascribed to human agency in this narrative is not to be overlooked. Human actions have become a nonnegotiable part of the way God has chosen to direct human history. A second and closely related point is the manner in which this building project succeeds in capturing the presence of God. Moses opens the rites of the eighth day with the warning to do exactly as God has commanded (Lev. 9:6–7). Aaron complies with complete obedience and succeeds in attracting the divine presence to the sacrificial altar (‘Fire came out from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces,’ 9:24). In allowing the tabernacle to be built and the cult to begin, God has invited Israel to participate in the divine life. But along with this gracious condescension comes considerable risk. Because Israel’s liturgical actions are allowed to attain such theurgic capabilities, God’s freedom is put at risk. Has the priesthood gained the upper hand over the being of God? Can the mastery of cultic law allow the priesthood to conjure the divine presence at will? Mē genoito [May it never be]! As Thomas Hieke puts the matter: ‘This dramatic narrative dispels the misunderstanding that one can compel God to behave in a certain way through human—or more exactly—ritual action.’  (Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 665-679)

The temple always meant a synergy between God and humanity.  Certainly the Feast of the Meeting places a great deal of emphasis on human activity, fulfilling the law, but again not manipulating God, but rather making God present in the temple through human activity.  The incarnate God is not limited in glory or power, but rather holiness, omnipotence  and the glory of God are present in a totally unexpected way.  This is the depth of God’s mystery revealed in Christ.

According to Anderson, the temple’s every detail were so important in the Old Testament because all of the things of the temple in some way make God “incarnate”.

“Menahem Haran has remarked, ‘The priestly writers find [this] subject so fascinating that . . . [they are] prompted to recapitulate the list of its appurtenances time and again. Their tendency to indulge in technicalities and stereotyped repetitions has here reached its furthest limits.’ I suggest that this is because the tabernacle furniture was understood as possessing something of the very being of the God of Israel.”   (Kindle Loc 2731-2735)

Anderson says the list of temple furnishing are repeated no less than six times.  While many modern readers just see unnecessary redundancy and boring repetitiveness, Anderson says the text is so otherwise terse and to the point  that the repetition stands out and tells us something very important is being detailed.  Anderson further notes:

“(1) that the furniture of the temple was treated as quasi-divine in both literary and iconographic sources during the Second Temple period; (2) that the exalted estimation of these pieces of furniture made them dangerous to look at but at the same time, quite paradoxically, desirable or even compulsory to contemplate; (3) that the impossibility of dividing with precision the house of God from the being of God led the early Christians to adopt this Jewish theologoumenon as a means of clarifying how it was that Jesus could be both God and man.”  (Kindle Loc 2740-2744)

12801395774_c4a6564853

The temple in other words was a sign in the Old Testament of the incarnation of God.  The Israelites paid close attention to all the details of the temple because when the temple was properly put together God was present to the people.  God could be seen in some way in the temple properly furnished.  The Israelites could in some way see the face of God in the Temple.  The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord is when God comes face to face with Himself in the temple.

Christ is The Power of the Cross

St. Isaac of Ninevah says the image or sign of the cross because it represents Christ already is imbued with divine power.  It doesn’t matter what materials are used to construct the cross, whether it is three or two dimensional.

“Here too, in the case of the Cross, the moment this form of the Cross is depicted on a wall or on a board, or it is fashioned out of some kind of gold or silver and the like, or carved out of wood, immediately it puts on, and is filled with, the divine power which was residing there at the time, and (so) it becomes a place of God’s Shekhina, even more so than in the Ark.

Just as the ministry of the New Covenant is more honorable before God than the things which took place in the Old Covenant, just as there is a difference between Moses and Christ, just as the ministry which Jesus received is more excellent than the one which was given through Moses, and just as the honor of a human person is greater and more excellent in His creation than (that of) dumb objects – so is this form of (the Cross), which now exists, much more honorable because of the honor of the Man whom the Divinity took from us for His abode; and because this divine good pleasure which is in this Man who completely became its temple is different from the metaphorical good pleasure which of old was in those dumb objects in which was the shadow of these things to come in Christ.” 

(The Second Part, Chapters 4-41 (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium), p. 56)

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2017)

On September 8 we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

“The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it ‘For us men and for our salvation’ is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the other of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the ‘Vessel of Light,’ the ‘Book of the Word of Life,’ the ‘Door to the Orient,’ the ‘Throne of Wisdom’ is being prepared on earth by God himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 2, Worship, p. 132).

The Feast of the Transfiguration (2017)

“These are the divine prodigies behind the present festival; what we celebrate here, on this mountain now, is for us, too, a saving Mystery. This sacred initiation into the Mystery of Christ, this public solemnity, gathers us together. So that we might come inside the ineffable sanctuary, and might enter the place of Mysteries along with those chosen ones who were inspired to speak God’s words, let us listen to a divine, most sacred voice, as it seems to invite us from the peak of the mountain above us inviting us with strong words of persuasion and saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, on the day of the Lord – in the place of the Lord and in the house of our God.” [Our hope is] that, bathed in a vision of him, flooded with light, we might be changed for the better and joined together as one; and that, grasping hold of the light in light, we might cry out: “How fearful is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”

This is the place towards which we must hasten, I make bold to say, since Jesus who dwells there and who has gone up to heaven before us, is our guide on the way. With him, let us also flash like lightning before spiritual eyes, renewed in the shape of our souls and made divine, transformed along with him in order to be like him, always being deified, always changing for the better – leaping up the mountain slopes more nimbly than powerful deer, soaring higher than spotless doves, lifted up to the summit with Peter and James and John, walking on clouds with Moses and Elijah – so that the Lord might say of us as well: “There are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of man coming” to them “in the glory of his Father” (Anastasius of Sinai, Homily on the Transfiguration, Light on the Mountain, pp. 167-168).

 

 

The Unveiling in the Temple

In the Old Testament, the idea of The Temple is a place where the invisible God might meet His people.   Many believe the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 is really God laying out the design for His Temple – which was supposed to be creation itself.  Humans however in wanting a life apart from God forced God to abandon His plans and to expel us out of Paradise, the intended Temple, and put us on earth where we could lives separated from God as we had chosen.

Temple

The Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the original design which God revealed to Moses.  It was still designed to be the place where God met His people, however events on earth made it difficult for this to be realized.  God’s people were not always faithful, the Temple as an earthly building became a target for destruction.

In the Orthodox Church on February 2 we celebrate the Feast of the Meeting of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the Temple.  At last the Temple became the place where humans encountered God.  So we read in Luke 2:25-40 –

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”  And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Simeon the Righteous meets God in stages: 1) He had been told he wouldn’t die until He saw the Lord’s Christ.  He was looking for someone but he didn’t know who or what he looked like.  2)  He is inspired by the Spirit to come to the temple – he whom he had been looking for was now present and could be seen.  3)  He sees Christ as a child.  He sees what the child, the Messiah, is to be and so is able to prophecy about Him.

St. Mark the Ascetic describes a similar three fold encounter with Christ our God:

While we are being strengthened in Christ Jesus and beginning to move forward in steadfast watchfulness.

He at first appears in our intellect like a torch which, carried in the hand of the intellect, guides us along the tracks of the mind;

then He appears like a full moon, circling the heart’s firmament;

then He appears to us like the sun, radiating justice, clearly revealing Himself in the full light of spiritual vision. (The Philokalia,  Kindle Loc. 5707-12)

The Cross: Sign of Victory over Evil

6887712294_7ceb9e74f3

 “You should venerate not only the icon of Christ, but also the similitude of His cross. For the cross is Christ’s great sign and trophy of victory over the devil and all his hostile hosts; for this reason they tremble and flee when they see the figuration of the cross. This figure, even prior to the crucifixion, was greatly glorified by the prophets and wrought great wonders; and when He who was hung upon it, our Lord Jesus Christ, comes again to judge the living and the dead, this His great and terrible sign will precede Him, full of power and glory (cf. Matt. 24:30).

10352421335_b980fd7253

So glorify the cross now, so that you may boldly look upon it then and be glorified with it. And you should venerate icons of the saints, for the saints have been crucified with the Lord; and you should make the sign of the cross upon your person before doing so, bringing to mind their communion in the sufferings of Christ.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46350-46360)

5692627178_1103e33ffe

May Christ our God who died on the cross

for the salvation of the world

bless you and have mercy on you.

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2016)

Nativity of the Theotokos Icon
Nativity of the Theotokos Icon

REJOICE, PEOPLE!
THIS IS THE DAY OF THE LORD!
THE PALACE OF THE LIGHT, THE SCROLL OF THE WORD OF LIFE TODAY COMES FORTH FROM THE WOMB!

THE GATE FACING THE EAST IS BORN.
SHE AWAITS THE ENTRY OF THE GREAT HIGH PRIEST!

SHE ALONE ADMITS CHRIST INTO THE UNIVERSE FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR SOULS.

The above hymn is taken from Matins for the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos.  The images of Mary as Theotokos are wonderful: Christ is the Light of the world, Mary becomes His throne.  Christ is the Word of God, Mary is the scroll upon which the Word becomes visible.  Mary is the gate of heaven and of the temple through which the high priest enters into the world.  She is the unique Mother of God – through her alone does Christ come into His creation.  Salvation for each of us comes into the world through the Virgin Mary, whose birth we celebrated today.

 

The Dormition of the Theotokos (2016)

In the Orthodox Church, Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ and Theotokos, suffers death like all of us.   We remember that event in the Feast of her Dormition on August 15 each year.

In Orthodoxy, all of humanity falls under the power of death – we are mortal beings as a result of sin – ancestral as well as our own.  In the theological reflection of the Church, Mary is viewed as the most unique and special human – the one whom God chose to be the mother of His Son.  What she must have been to be favored and chosen by God is what causes Orthodox theologians to elevate her status among humans.  She is not thought of as being some interchangeable part in God’s mechanical universe.  Orthodoxy does not believe if not Mary, than God would have chose Susanna or Elizabeth or someone else.  Mary was a unique human who lived a godly life and is recognized by God and favored by God because of the choices Mary herself made.  Mary is essential for our salvation.  In human terms, she is the pinnacle of the entire salvation history recorded in the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament.  She represents the best fruit of what humanity was capable of producing.  God works with her for our salvation.  Thus she becomes Theotokos when the Word becomes flesh in her womb at the Annunication.  Her role in salvation is indispensable.  But she is still human, and so she dies, even though in her the incarnation, and thus salvation, has occurred.  It is not because she is sinful that she dies, but because she is human and thus mortal.

Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian writes:

“Orthodox Christianity has not embraced a doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. It seems more consistent with the Gospel story that Mary, like the rest of humanity, was born into the sin of the first Eve. Otherwise, the importance of her humanity is diminished; she becomes merely a predestined instrument of grace, and the exemplary character of her achievements of humility and purity and freely pronounced willingness to be of service to God is less compelling. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate, if not also necessary, to add that by her birth-giving and motherly relationship to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, Mary overcame our sinful condition and became, by virtue of her special holiness, the mother of our salvation.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, raised two important lasting Marian themes: the one of the New or Second Eve, and the other of the Virgin’s fiat. In these, especially, rest the church’s claims about her centrality to the Christian understanding of holiness. Irenaeus writes,

‘And just as it was through a virgin who disobeyed that man was stricken and fell and died, so too it was through the Virgin, who obeyed the word of God, that man resuscitated by life received life. For the Lord came to seek back the lost sheep, and it was lost; and therefore he did not become some other formation, but he likewise, of her that was descended from Adam, preserved the likeness of formation; for Adam had necessarily to be restored in Christ, that mortality be absorbed in immortality, and Eve in Mary, that a virgin, become the advocate of a virgin, should undo and destroy virginal disobedience by virginal obedience.’”  (The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 681-85)

Adam and Eve at heaven’s altar

A Brief History of the Feast of the Transfiguration

In the book, LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN (Translated by Brian Daley)  there is some information about when the Feast of the Transfiguration was first served in the Church and how it became a universal and Major Feast of Orthodoxy.  The Feast commemorates the events in Christ’s life described in Matthew 17:1-8 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).

“… the Transfiguration was first celebrated liturgically in Jerusalem and in the Churches of Palestine and Syria. . . .  the Greek Church in Jerusalem from the mid-seventh century, lists Scripture passages for August 6th as specific to ‘the Transfiguration of the Savior, which took place on Mount Tabor’; this is the earliest attestation of such a feast within the Chalcedonian Churches.”  (p 19)

“The Georgian calendar of Jerusalem, which represents the liturgical celebrations of the Church in Palestine in the middle of the seventh century, already lists a feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord for August 6 … The celebration was adopted throughout the Eastern Empire, at the latest by the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911)…”  (p 161)

“The celebration of the feast on August 6, first attested for Jerusalem in the mid-seventh century, apparently had spread widely through the Church of the Eastern empire in the century that followed, and seems to have been universally accepted in the Greek-speaking Church by the end of the ninth century.”  (p 180)

“… Nikon of the Black Mountain, and Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople (1084-1111) – tell us that people had begun, during Leo the Wise’s reign, to interrupt their preparatory fast for the feast of the Dormition on August 15 in order to celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6.  Some have seen here evidence that Leo himself introduced this feast, originally celebrated in Palestine, to the Church of Constantinople…” (p 234)

In many ways, I’m surprised about how late in history this Feast first appears and how late in history it is before it spreads throughout the Orthodox world.  It is a feast which theologically seems to lend itself so well to viewing salvation as deification.  I would think it fit well with hesychast tendencies as well, but perhaps rather than feeding hesychast tendencies, it grew slowly along with them which led to its rise in importance in the feasts of the Church.

It has always seemed strange to me that such an important Feast of Christ was celebrated in the middle of the fast for a feast of the Theotokos.  But the two events appear to have slightly different histories and the Transfiguration was already being celebrated locally on August 6, and became a universal Feast in Orthodoxy only after the Dormition Fast had been established.