The Lord Requires Effort More Than Accomplishment

“If, according to the maxim of heavenly truth, we have to render an account of every idle word uttered (cf. Matt 12:36),

 or if, like the timid investor or the greedy hoarder, every servant who was entrusted with a large sum of spiritual grace and then hid it in the earth will incur no little blame on the master’s return  since it was to have been distributed among the moneylenders, and so be multiplied by the increase of interest payments (cf. Matt. 25:14-30); then, very rightly have we grounds for fear lest a return be demanded for our gift of speech, we, to whom has been allowed a modicum of ability, yet having a pressing necessity to lend out to the minds of the people, the eloquence of God entrusted to us; especially since the Lord requires of us the effort rather than the accomplishment.

(St Ambrose of Milan, Early Christian Spirituality, p. 82)

The Myrrhbearing Women Seeking the Lord

There are some, Dearly Beloved, who seem to be seeking the Lord, but since they are slothful, and strangers to virtue, they do not deserve to find Him; nor, when found, to see Him. What however were these holy women seeking at the tomb, if not the Body of the Lord Jesus? And you, what is it you are seeking in the Church if not Jesus, that is, the Savior? But if you wish to find Him, the sun being now risen, then come as these women came; that is, let there be no darkness of evil in your hearts; for the desires of the flesh, and works that are evil, are darkness. They in whose hearts there is darkness of this kind see not like light, and understand not Christ; for Christ is the Light.

Therefore, drive the darkness from you, brethren; that is, all sinful desires, and all evil works, and provide yourselves with sweet spices, that is earnest prayer, saying with the psalmist: Let my prayer, O Lord, be directed as incense in thy sight (Ps. cxl. 2).

(St Ambrose, The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 218)

Holy Wednesday (2019)

Holy Wednesday: The Sorrowful Woman (Matthew 26:6-16)

As we move through Holy Week, we realize that all the events that happen, all that Christ does, is because of us and for us.  He is going to suffer torture and execution because of our sins.  He is going to suffer torture and execution for us, to free us from the burden of our sins.   Our response is not meant to be inflicting suffering on ourselves, or feeling shame and guilt, or even focusing on His suffering as wondrous as that is.  Our response is to be that of the woman who washes His feet – we are to be moved with tears of joy that the burden of our sins is taken away and we are to wash the feet of the our fellow Christians, even the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ.  Doing that would certainly mean we had a good Lent.

33237467784_4acf78e180“This image of interior cleansing through the water of humility is mirrored in the encounter between Christ and fallen woman recorded in Luke’s Gospel, in which she approaches Christ from behind as he is dining with the Pharisee and washes his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair (Lk. 7:36ff.). St. Ambrose sees an icon of the Church and the relationship of its members to Christ in this encounter:

The Church, then, both washes the feet of Christ and wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with oil, and pours ointment upon them, because not only does she care for the wounded and cherish the weary, but also sprinkles them with the sweet odor of grace…Christ died once, and was buried once, and nevertheless He wills that ointment should daily be poured on His feet. What, then, are those feet of Christ on which we pour ointment? The feet of Christ are they of whom He Himself says: “What ye have done to one of the least of these ye have done to Me” [Mt. 25:40]. These feet that woman in the Gospel refreshes, these feet she bedews with her tears; when sin is forgiven to the lowliest, guilt is washed away, and pardon granted. These feet he kisses, who loves even the lowest of the holy people…in these the Lord Jesus Himself declares that He is honored.

37138541772_ccdc56f9f5_nThe unnamed woman of St. Luke’s Gospel, in all her brokenness and sorrow, already has learned the lesson Christ is teaching his disciples. Her humble repentance, driven by great love, has brought her to the feet of Christ. Like St. Peter, she does not hold back. Her tears of repentance, flowing as living water (Jn. 7:38), wash the feet of One who needs not cleansing but who nonetheless welcomes her with joy.”  (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 78)

The Theotokos as an Image of the Church

It might not be surprising that the use of a virgin-mother as an image of the Church began to be paralleled at this time by the use of Mary, virgin and mother, for the same purpose. Preceded by Ephrem in the East, Ambrose was the first to develop this metaphor in the West, and in an important passage he does so in terms that recall his virgin-mother-Church metaphor. After recounting the relationship between Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he comments on its deeper meaning:

Let us address the mystery: She was truly espoused, but a virgin, because she is a type of the Church, which is immaculate but married. As a virgin she begot us form the Spirit, as a virgin she bears us without groaning. And this is perhaps why the holy Mary, although married to one person, was impregnated by another, because the individual churches as well are in fact filled with the Spirit and with grace, while simultaneously being joined under the aegis of a temporal priest.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 112-113)

Fasting and the Defeat of Satan

“The devil said to Jesus: ‘If you are the son of God, command that these stones become bread.’ (Luke 4:3)

Here we learn that there are three principal weapons that the devil likes to carry in order to wound our souls. They are gluttony, arrogance, and ambition. He begins with the weapon with which he has already been victorious. We likewise should begin to be victorious in Christ in the very same area in which we had been defeated in Adam: we should be wary of gluttony. The devious trap is set for us when the table is laid for a royal banquet; it is bound to weaken our defenses.

See what weapons Christ uses to defeat the power of the devil. He does not use the almighty power he had as God: what help would that be to us? In his humanity he summons the help common to all – overlooking bodily hunger and seeking the word of God for nourishment. Whoever follows the Word is no longer attached to earthly bread, because he receives the bread of heaven and knows the divine is better than the human, the spiritual is better than the physical. Therefore, because such a person desires the true life, he looks for that which fortifies the heart by means of its invisible substance.” (St. Ambrose of Milan in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, pp 139-140)

Welcoming the Prodigal Back

The parable of the prodigal son, the loving father, and the unforgiving brother (Luke 15:11-32)

Then Jesus said: “A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.

Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired servants.’  And he arose and came to his father.

But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry. 

Now his older son was in the field.  And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’  But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ “

St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397AD) says of this parable of the kingdom:   

“The parable also teaches us that we should not be troubled when sinners repent and are received by God when we ourselves are struggling, with God’s help, to live a life of righteousness. We must not judge our neighbor’s life – that belongs to God alone – nor God’s bountiful mercy, but we must rejoice with Heaven when a sinner returns to the Father. Thus, as we continue through this preparatory period, the teachings on humility and repentance appropriately prepare us to proceed with a contrite spirit into the great season of compunction.

O Christ our God, through Your

unutterable love for mankind, have mercy

on us and save us. Amen

You can see that the divine patrimony is given to those who ask for it. We are not to think the father is at fault for giving his younger son the inheritance. In God’s kingdom no one is under age, and one’s faith is not measured by one’s years. He who asked certainly thought himself qualified. Indeed, if he had not left his father he would have been unaware of the handicap of his age. But after he left his fathers’ house and went off traveling he began to experience need. Certainly anyone who leaves the Church has squandered his Father’s inheritance. ‘He took his journey into a far country.’ What can be further off than to have withdrawn from oneself? You are separated not by borders, but by behavior; cut off not by lands, but by lusts; for you part company with the Saints and members of God’s household! We who were once far away are now brought close by the blood of Christ. Let us not be grudging towards those making their way back from faraway places.”

(The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, pps. 20-22)

Images of Salvation (VI)

“In Christ we have everything….

If you want to heal your wound, he is the doctor.

If you are burning with fever, he is the fountain.

If you are in need of help, he is strength.

If you are in dread of death, he is life.

If you are fleeing the darkness, he is light.

If you are hungry, he is food: ’O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy are they who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8)

(Ambrose of Milan in the book The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clément, pg.56)

This is the sixth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (V).

As we have already seen, salvation in the Orthodox Christian tradition is not limited to dealing with sin and the punishment for disobedience to God as is emphasized, almost exclusively, in some traditions.   In Eastern Christian thinking, Christ takes upon Himself the sin of the world, not just to pay the price for it, but to destroy sin and its consequence death.  Salvation liberates all humanity from all of the effects of sin.

“… if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;  and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  (1 John 2:1-2, emphasis mine)

The salvation which Christ achieves is not merely to satisfy the demands of justice, but to destroy the judgment against us and to destroy all the power of sin, Satan, death, evil.

“And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.”  (Colossians 2:13-15)

Christ doesn’t just pay the price to satisfy the legal demands of justice, he brings to an end the whole system of legal demands, and establishes the Kingdom of Love which once and for all ends the system of retributive justice (Romans 6, Hebrews 7-10, 1Peter 3:18-20).  And as all of these passages make clear, we participate in this salvation through baptism.

“From this theological perspective we are invited to think of the redemptive act of God in Jesus Christ as a kind of divine therapy.  God’s love and compassionate care have cured our diseased and mortally sickened human nature.  In Fr. Georges Florovsky’s words:  ‘Redemption is not just man’s reconciliation with God.  Redemption is the abolition of sin altogether, the deliverance from sin and death . . . The death of Our Lord was the victory over death and mortality, not just the remission of sins, nor merely justification of man, nor against a satisfaction of an abstract justice.’”   (Vigen Guroian in ANCIENT AND POST-MODERN CHRISTIANITY, p 72)

As David Hart says:

“Christian thought has claimed from the first that in a world in bondage to sin, where violence holds sway over hearts and history, the peace of God made present in Christ is unique; the way, the truth, and the life that alone can liberate the world from the tyranny of greed, cruelty, egoism, and aggression is none other than a particular Nazarene rabbi put to death under Pontius Pilate.  Precisely because the church has always explicitly maintained that the world lies under the authority of thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers whose rule is violence, falsehood, and death, over which Christ and Christ alone has triumphed…”   (David Hart, THE BEAUTY OF THE INFINITE, p 2)

Salvation is liberation: from bondage to sin and death, not simply from the penalty of death for sin.  The Eastern Christian tradition has a rich and deep understanding of salvation and all that it gives to us.  St. Maximos the Confessor  (d. 662AD) writes:

“Of these mysteries that He has granted to men in His boundless generosity, seven are of more general significance; and it is these whose power, as I have said, lies hidden within the Lord’s Prayer/ These seven are theology, adoption as sons by grace, equality with the angels, participation in eternal life, the restoration of human nature when it is reconciled dispassionately with itself, the abolition of the law of sin, and the destruction of the tyranny that holds us in its power through the deceit of the evil one.  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 20394-411)

Salvation is not only restoration, but is oriented toward a new and better future.  Salvation is not looking to the past world that was lost – the golden age of Paradise, for salvation moves us to the future Kingdom of Heaven and a world in which all things are made new (Revelations 21:5).  St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says:

“That even after your losing it out of your own indifference, he gave back to you what was lost – or, rather, not only what was lost but even far more than that:  while you lost paradise, he gave you heaven.  Do you see how much greater is the gain than the loss, how more substantial the wealth?  He gave you heaven so as to give evidence of his characteristic lovingkindness and to vex the devil by showing that even if he devises countless schemes against the human race, it will be of no further benefit to him, God ever leading us upwards to greater dignity.  You forfeited paradise, then, and God opened heaven to you; you were condemned to temporary labor, and honored with eternal life; he bade the earth bear thorns and thistles, and you soul produced for you fruit of the Spirit.”  (OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES Vol 3, p 33)

Next:  Images of Salvation (VII)

Christ is All and in All

“Christianity involves a state of tension, very unlike the ‘relaxation’ of oriental meditations; it is a tension that takes as its model the person of Christ outstretched on the cross. This tension exists between today and tomorrow, between the old and the new, between the world and what is not of the world; it involves being in time and beyond time, in contemplation yet present to one’s neighbor, being detached yet caring for the matters of this world, awaiting Christ yet contributing to culture. The Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost all condition our behavior. If God entered into time so as to lead us out from it, it is not in order to remove us from history, because we must not forget either the Incarnation or human reality. On the contrary, God has opened our existence to eternity, which penetrates and transfigures time. As for the Logos of creation, He is the same in the Incarnation, in the Resurrection and at the Parousia: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’ (Rev. 21:6). Christ is all things for us, as St Ambrose of Milan emphasizes: ‘If you wish to heal your wound, He is a physician. If you have a burning fever, He is a fountain. If you are in need of help, He is strength. If you fear death, He is life. If you are fleeing darkness, He is light. If you are hungry, He is food’.”  (Michel Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, pg. 242)