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)

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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

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 “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).

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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)

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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.

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ (2016)

We read about the events of the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven in Acts 1:1-12.  In this text the Evangelist Luke, the author of the book of Acts, writes:

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey.

Fr. Lev Gillet comments on the Ascension:

“Jesus does not return to his Father in isolation. It was the incorporeal Logos that descended among men. But today it is the Word made flesh, at the same time true God and true  man, that enters the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus takes there with him the human nature in which he is clothed. He opens the gates of the Kingdom to humanity. We take possession, in some way by anticipation of the blessings which are offered to us and possible for us. Places are reserved for us in the Kingdom provided we continue faithful. Our presence is desired and awaited there. So the ascension renders the thought of heaven more present and more alive for us. Do we think enough of our permanent dwelling-place? For most Christians heaven is envisaged as a kind of postscript, an appendix to a book of which life on earth constitutes the actual text. But the contrary is true. Our earthly life is merely the preface to the book. Life in heaven will be the text – a text without end.” (A Monk of the Eastern Church in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p 162)

The Annunciation: the Kenotic Mary

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

“The dogma of the Annunciation is not the revelation of a solitary and autocratic God; nor is the Annunciation a story of human subservience to that God.  Mary is called to an act of kenosis (self-emptying, suffering love), imitative of her own Son’s, even before he himself has revealed it to the world. For by conceiving the holy child, she risks humiliation and social ostracism. But whatever the Father asks of the mother, he asks also of his Son, who “emptied Himself… taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5-11, NKJV).

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a reading for the feast of the Birth of the Mother of God. St. Paul argues that the kenosis of the Son of God lights the way toward a religious affirmation of human freedom and holiness. The true end of human freedom is voluntary self-limitation in loving service to others and to God. God holds to this law of love when he condescends to become one of us. Mary is the first human being to obey this command wholly and consummately.”  (Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 702ff)