Chrysostom: Interpreting the Parable of the Prodigal

There were two brothers. Having divided the paternal inheritance between themselves, one remained at home, the other squandered all that was given to him and departed to a distant land because he could not bear the shame of poverty.

I wanted to speak of this parable from the outset so that you could learn that, if we are attentive, there is remission of sins even after baptism. I do not say this to put you in a state of inertia, but to distance you from discouragement, because discouragement produces worse evils among us than inertia. Therefore, this son bears the image of those who suffer the fall after the Laver. That he represents those who fell after baptism is obvious from the parable. He is called “son”; no one can be called a son without baptism. Furthermore, he inhabited the paternal house, and took his share from all the paternal substance. Before baptism no one has the right to receive paternal things, nor to obtain an inheritance, so that through all these events he speaks to us about the status of the faithful. He was a brother of the reputable one; he would not have become a brother without spiritual regeneration. Therefore, what does the one say who fell into the workst wickedness? “I will arise and return to my father.” His father did not hinder him from departing to the foreign land precisely for this reason: so that he could learn well from the experience how much beneficence he enjoyed while remaining at home.

Therefore, since the prodigal son departed for the foreign land and learned from his own experience how much evil it is for someone to be driven out of his paternal house, he returned, and his father did not remember the wrongs that he had committed against him, but accepted him with open arms. Why? Because he was a father and not a judge. Then, there took place dances, sumptuous feasts, and festivals; and the entire house was beaming with joy and exceeding gladness. What are you saying? These are rewards of wickedness? Not of wickedness, O man, but of the return. Not of sin, but of repentance. Not of cunningness, but of change toward the better.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, pp. 11-13)

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Chrysostom: The Many Blessings of Baptism

St. John Chrysostom while addressing newly baptized Christians, tells them there are 10 blessings received at baptism:

“Let us say again: Blessed be God, who alone does wonderful things, who does all things and transforms them.  Before yesterday you were captives, but now  you are free citizens of the Church; lately you lived in the shame of your sins, but now you live in freedom and justice.  You are not only free, but also holy; not only holy, but also righteous; not only righteous, but also sons; not only sons, but also heirs; not only heirs, but also brothers of Christ;  not only brothers of Christ, but also joint heirs; not only joint heirs, but also members; not only members, but also the temple; not only the temple, but also instruments of the Spirit. 

Blessed be God, who alone does wonderful things!  You have seen how numerous are the gifts of baptism.  Although many men think that the only gift it confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten.  It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places for the Spirit.”  

(DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM,  pp 15-16)

Being Orthodox Means Having a Relationship With God

The Orthodox Church is not primarily an institution. Orthodox Christianity is not a series of rules to live by, nor is it a particular structure of church government. Orthodoxy is not a theological system, nor is its fullest expression limited to any particular period of history or cultural environment.

Orthodoxy is nothing less than a relationship with God. Orthodoxy is the expression of the way God interacts with His people. In other words, Orthodoxy is the way God relates to the Church as the Body of Christ, the way He relates to each individual within it, and conversely, a way by which people may interact and interrelate with God.

Orthodoxy begins at or before birth, and it does so as an impersonal relationship between a Creator and His creature. However, when the person participates in the Mystery of Holy Baptism, that relationship enters a new dimension: it becomes personal. In a personal relationship, each person has a name and is recognized when called by that name. Jesus talks about this when He says that He, the shepherd, calls His sheep by name, and they recognize His voice. In the Mystery of Baptism, just as the person dies and rises again in the water, God’s name is revealed, but so too is the name of the person being baptized. God now has a way of getting our attention: He can call us by name.  (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Bread, Wine & Oil, pp. 29-31)

Do You Unite Yourself to Christ? Have You United Yourself to Christ?

In 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, St. Paul writes:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The Word of God became incarnate as a human to unite earth to heaven and reunite humanity to divinity.  Christ by becoming incarnate makes the salvation of the human race possible because He unites us to the Holy Trinity.  This union of God and humanity already occurred in history.

For us Christians – our response to the incarnation – life consists mostly of removing from our own lives all and any of the obstacles to our union with God.  Repentance, prayer, self denial, virtue, worship, participating in the sacraments, charity, forgiveness – all are the ways in which we remove from our selves those things which prevent us from experiencing God’s love and the life in God.  God became incarnate to unite humanity to divinity. Salvation consists of our union with God – our accepting that union which God offers us in Jesus Christ.

In God’s plan for salvation, Mary, the mother of Jesus is the person in whom all obstacles to the union of God and humans are removed.   God finds the way to unite God’s own self to us and this reunion occurs within the Theotokos.  She is the person in whom salvation takes place.  God’s plan for salvation is to unite humanity to God’s divinity, and this begins within Mary’s womb at the incarnation.  God cannot unite Himself to humanity without a human person to whom God can be united.

We respond to God’s salvation – the restoration of communion between God and ourselves by embracing the Gospel.  Baptism is part of the process by which we remove all obstacles to our union with God – by which we remove all obstacles to salvation.   1]  First,  the person hears the Gospel and moves towards God, to embrace God’s love and to be embraced  by it.  The person goes through catechism, to prepare themselves for union with God.  They prepare themselves to lay aside those things which separate them from God, and they embrace all those words, actions and thoughts which make union with God possible.  2]  Then the  catechumen comes to confession and renounces their sins and repents of them – renounces all of their behaviors and thoughts which had separated them from God.  Repentance is a stage in the process of turning away from those things which separate us from God in order that we might experience God’s embrace of us.  3] When the catechumen is ready for baptism, they come to church, and at the door of the church they renounce Satan and all his angels and all his service and all his pride.  They reject everything in the world that separates them from God.  This is the exorcism – expelling the darkness and all those thoughts and deeds which had in fact separated us from God.    4]   Then before they are baptized, they remove their clothes, again removing anything which separates them from God – all that they have clothed themselves in from the world is left behind.  And their clothes do symbolize all that they have taken on themselves from the world.  They show in leaving behind those clothes that they are ready to embrace a new life.

5]  Then in the baptismal font, they are washed of their sins, not so much a physical washing but a spiritual one, again cleansing them of anything which separates them from God , and making them capable of being united to Christ and of receiving the Holy Spirit.   Everything in their life which separated them from God is now left behind – the way of the world in their discarded clothing and their sins in the baptismal font.  Now God enters into them and they put on Christ – clothe themselves in Christ.  Nothing comes between them and God.  They are purified and sanctified and are holy and wholly united to God.  6]  It is no longer they who live but Christ who lives in them.  They now are chrismated, receiving the Holy Spirit as gift, the Spirit of God who comes to abide in the newly baptized Christian.

When we hear the Gospel we realize that just living a better life is not sufficient for salvation.  If it were, then Christ would not have been needed.  The Jews already had God’s law,  if simply keeping Torah was enough for God to unite Himself to humanity, Christ was not needed.  The Gospel itself tells us something more is needed by humanity than simply doing more good deeds.  So in Luke 6:31-36, Jesus teaches us:

And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Just doing good is not even all that special – even sinners know how to be good, especially when that behavior benefits them.   God, for His part, loves expecting nothing in return.  God gives rain and sunshine and all manners of blessing to the entire world, not as a response to us humans or as a reaction to us but purely because God is love.  If we want to live in communion with God, we need to lay aside all those behaviors and thoughts which separate us from God, and to behave as God does – being merciful and generous and kind.  We need to work on remaining fully united to Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Baptism of Infants

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.  (Acts 18:8)

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.  And when she was baptized, with her household…  (Acts 16:14)

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The Orthodox Church, like most of the ancient traditions of Christianity have interpreted passages like those above to mean that everyone in a household was baptized, and that would include the children of all ages.  Those traditions which have a strong sacramental  and incarnational dimension, understand that God works salvation in and through the things of this world because God is interested in the entire human God created – not just their souls, but bodies as well.  This thinking finds support in some other scriptural passages.

For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.  (1 Corinthians 7:14)

The children, even of a mixed marriage between a believer and non-believer, are claimed to be holy, purely by being the child of a believing parent.  We baptize such children in recognition of their holiness – not to make them holy.  We are simply recognizing what God is bringing about in the world.

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At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [2] And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, [3] and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [4] Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.   (Matthew 18:1-6)

Whoever receives one such child in Christ’s name, receives Christ!  So in the Church we do receive such children and thereby receive Christ in our midst.  The child brings Christ to us.  The child is for us an example of greatness – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven according to Christ.  The child shows us the way to enter the Kingdom.  Thus when we baptize the child it is not only that we bring the child to Christ, but the child brings Christ to us.  We not only lead the child to the kingdom, but that child leads us to the kingdom.  The baptism of children is also for our salvation!

 And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. [14] But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. [15] Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Mark 10:13)

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The Kingdom of God belongs to the children who are brought to the Church to be touched by Christ.  The child teaches us how to receive the Kingdom of God.  We have much to learn at and from every infant baptism.

Renouncing Satan – Embracing Christ

Kenyan Catechumens renounce Satan.

The following exhortation is found in some Orthodox books preparing catechumens for reception into the Church on Holy Saturday.   These words are said to the catechumens on the evening before their baptisms/chrismations.  They are final instructions to remind the catechumen what they have agreed to live and do as a result of their choosing to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate All Saints Day in the Orthodox Church, we are reminded that all of us are called and baptized to be saints, God’s holy people.  This requires much from us. 

“This marks the conclusion of your catechesis. The time of your redemption has come. Today, you are about to sign a contract with your faith in Christ. The paper, the ink, and the pen are your conscience, your tongue, and your new habit of life. Therefore, take heed as to how you inscribe your confession. Do not go astray from it, lest you be deceived. They that are about to die put their affairs in order and they designate heirs to their possessions, this one this, and that one that. Well, tomorrow night you are to die to sin. So now put your affairs in order and perform your renunciation as a testament. Assign the devil as heir to sin. Leave to him your sins as his ancestral inheritance. If any of you possesses anything of the devil in his soul, let him cast it at him.

He who dies no longer has authority over his possessions, so let not anyone of you have anything of the devil in his soul. And in so doing, stand and hold out your hands as though being examined by angels.

Let nothing of the devil’s affairs be hidden by you.

Let no one hold on to enmity;

let no one harbor anger;

let no one stand with dissimulation;

let no one listen with hypocrisy.

Cast at the devil all filth and superfluity of evil. You stand here as captives, for such as you does Christ buy back. As each of you sees and hates the devil, so shall each of you blow on him. Enter within your conscience; examine your heart; take heed to what each one has done. If there is anything contrary in you, spit it out with that act of blowing on the devil. Let there not be here any Judas of hypocrisy! Let no one have any doubts about the Mystery. The Word of God examines our hearts, as it is sharper than any two-edged sword. Now the devil has taken his stand in the west, as he grinds his teeth, pulls his hair, wrings his hands, and bites his lips in rage; he laments his loss and loses his faith over your freedom. Now Christ stands before you, over opposite the devil, so that as you renounce him and blow on him, you may take up war against him.

In the west the devil has taken his stand, where is the beginning of darkness. Begin to renounce him and blow on him! Then turn about to the east and align yourselves with Christ. Let no one despise him; stand ye with fear! The present matters are all fearful and awesome. All the powers of heaven stand present here. All the angels and archangels are invisibly writing down your utterances.” (Services of Initiation into the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, pp. 150-151)

Revealing Water

The Sunday Gospel lessons in the weeks following Pascha seem to have baptismal themes to them, which is probably why they are found in the lectionary at this point in the year.  Pascha was a traditional time to baptize catechumens, and in the weeks after their baptisms, the newly initiated Christians were given lessons in understanding the Mystery of dying and living with Christ.  So yesterday’s Gospel (John 5:1-15) reading of the Paralytic being healed at the pool of Bethesda fits well into Gospel lessons used to teach about baptism.  This Gospel lesson however might be contrasting the waters of Bethesda with the waters of Baptism.  It is Christ who makes the difference.  The waters of Bethesda may have been able to hear one fortunate person every so often, but the waters of baptism are able to heal every sinner and restore their full humanity.

In the baptismal liturgy, we pray over the water, and find what it is that the waters which Christ offer us (such that we will never thirst) are:

“But show this water, O Master of all, to be

the water of redemption,

the water of sanctification,

the purification of flesh and spirit,

the loosing of bonds,

the remission of sins,

the illumination of the soul,

the washing of regeneration,

the renewal of the Spirit,

the gift of adoption to sonship,

the garment of incorruption,

the fountain of life.

While some people think baptism is for washing away the guilt of original sin, the prayer over the water tells us the cosmic significance of baptism.  It is not just about an individual, nor is it just about the remission of sins.  Baptism is about redemption, sanctification, purification, illumination, regeneration, transformation,  revelation,  and renewal as well as being made an heir of God’s promises and kingdom.  Baptism is the beginning of the new life in Christ – we start to live at baptism.

For You have said, O Lord: “Wash and be clean; put away evil things from your souls.”  You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. Therefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that

he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed;

 that he (she) may put away from himself (herself) the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh,

and that he (she) may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him (her),

he (she) may receive the prize of his (her) high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.

In the prayers of baptism, we ask God to manifest Himself in the waters of baptism – the baptized have the God who is love reveal Himself to them.  We experience our life as a birth from God!  We are born again in baptism, born of God to become God’s children.  We experience Christ’s resurrection and receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. We experience the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Our task in life is to live this baptism – we go out into the world to live our life and to preserve our baptismal garments.  And, as the prayers say we are to increase the grace given to us.  We are not to hide and protect the received grace from contact with the world, but rather are to increase that grace by our life in the world.  We use the gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of baptism or we lose it.  We use it in our daily life to increase it.  This is the Christian life of loving God and neighbor.

The River Jordan and Paradise

The prayers for the Great Blessing of water entreat God to make the blessing of the Jordan be present in the water in the church font.  In the Vespers service for Theophany, 13 Old Testament Readings are proclaimed.  Four of these reading make reference to the River Jordan:

Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17 (the ark causes the Jordan to stop flowing, so Israel can cross to the promised land on dry ground);

4[2] Kings 2:6-14 (Elisha parts the Jordan after receiving Elijah’s mantle when he ascended into heaven);

4[2] Kings 5:9-14 (Naaman is cured by washing three times in the Jordan);

Genesis 32:1-10 (Jacob reminds God that he became a rich man after crossing the Jordan).

The Jordan River has a virtual mythical quality for Israel, and takes on a mystical purpose and meaning.  Crossing the Jordan is associated with the saving acts of God on earth – with movement that brings one closer to God and God’s Kingdom.   St. Gregory the Theologian reflects on the mystical meaning of the Jordan River.

St. Gregory then comes back to the Jordan:

‘Alone among all rivers, the Jordan received the first-fruits of sanctification and blessing, and has shed the grace of baptism over the whole world, as from a source. And these things are signs of that regeneration which is effected by Baptism’.

This is a very striking definition of a type, that it is an act truly accomplished, and signifying some future action. St Gregory then alludes to the Jordan in its relation to Paradise:

‘The Jordan is glorified because it regenerates men and makes them fit for God’s Paradise’.”

(Jean Danielou, From Shadows to Reality,p 275)

The Jordan is involved in several epiphanies of God, but in Christ’s baptism there is the Theophany of the Holy Trinity. It is Christ’s baptism that gives meaning and power to all baptisms done in Christ.  The Jordan has a mystical quality that is transferred to all who participate in it.

The Incarnation of the Word of God

You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you did comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  (Isaiah 12:1-3)

Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”  (2 Kings 5:10)

In the beginning, God the Father created the world through the Word of God.  In Christ, the Word of God became part of creation.  In Christ’s baptism the Word of God renews creation.  Water is purified by Christ, and in turn becomes capable of washing away sin.  Thus Christ, God incarnate, renews humanity from within by becoming flesh and uniting divinity to humanity, and from without by making water and creation capable of being the means for our salvation.  The body, renewed from within by God, is washed with the waters of salvation.  The inner renewal, and the external washing are both essential in salvation.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (d. 202AD) writes:

“Man was created by God so that he might have life. If now, having lost life, wounded by the serpent, he could not return to life, but was to be fully abandoned to death, then God would be conquered and the malice of the serpent would have overcome His will. but since God is at once invisible and magnanimous, He has shown His magnanimity in correcting man and putting all men to the test, as we have said. Yet, by the second Adam, He has bound the strong man and destroyed his arms, and He has done away with death, bringing life to man who had been subject to death. For Adam had become the possession of the devil and the devil held him in his power, having perversely deceived him in subjecting him to death when he had offered him immortality. Indeed, in promising them that they would be like gods, which was not in his power, he brought about death in them. This is why he who made man captive was himself made captive by God, and man whom he had captured found himself freed from the slavery of condemnation.

The Logos of God was made flesh….to destroy death and to give life to man, for we were in the chains of sin and destined to be born through the state of sin and to fall under (the empire of) death.” (The Spirituality of the New Testament and Fathers by Louis Bouyer, pp 232-233)

St. Gregory Palamas on Baptism

Baptism is one of the commonest themes in [St. Gregory] Palamas’s sermons, as it is in his theological and spiritual writings. The sheer number of his references to Christian initiation shows the importance he attached to it; for him neither Christian experience nor spirituality could exist outside the sacramental grace which, in the Church, communicated the divine life to the faithful. It was ‘to make a new being of us, and to renew us by baptism,’ that Christ was incarnate; ‘he has broken on the cross the record of our sins’ (Col. 2:14), and he has rendered innocent those who by baptism are buried with him (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). Baptism, by delivering us from the original corruption, is a ‘resurrection of our soul,’ and to us, ‘communicates strength to conform to the body of the glory of Christ’ (Phil. 3:21). The triple immersion is a symbol of the three days’ sojourn of the soul of Christ in Hades that it might go out thence, and rise again in the body. At baptism we receive a disposition to do good, and we conclude a pact with God, but it depends on us to give real value to this grace. ‘If a man called obeys the call, and accepts baptism to be called a Christian, but does not behave in a way worthy of the name he bears, and does not in fact accomplish the promises given at his baptism, he is called, but he is not chosen.’ Then the promises are of no avail to him, but rather condemn him.

By baptism all Christians are holy – ‘If the vessel consecrated to God is holy,’ Palamas says, ‘how much more is the man holy who is joined to him by the bath of regeneration’ – and they are sons of God, but they are still required to prove by their works that they have received this gift; ‘Renewal and new creation of the characteristics of the soul are accomplished by grace in the bath of regeneration; they grow and reach perfection through just actions in accord with faith.’” (John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, pp 160-161)