The Cross as the Garment of Salvation

One of the many images we find in the Scriptures are those of garments and their relationship to God and God’s salvation.

In the hymns of the Church and in the writings of many Patristic writers we note that Eve and Adam are stripped naked by their own sinfulness.  A nakedness which God in His love and mercy chooses to cover as God covers both our sin and shame:

In Paradise of old, the wood stripped me bare, for by giving its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death.  But now the wood of the cross that clothes mankind with the garment of life has been set up in the midst of the earth, which is filled with boundless joy.  As we behold it exalted, people, in faith, let us cry out to God with one accord: Your house is full of glory!    (Matins hymn, Feast of the Elevation)

In Genesis 3:21, after Eve and Adam had sinned, it is God Himself who is said to cover their nakedness:

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

It is an act of mercy on God’s part for His human creatures who have through sin rebelled against Him.  But we are pitiable creatures in God’s eyes, and God provides for us so that we can survive in the world of the Fall.  The hymns of the Cross suggest it is through the Cross that we are clothed again with a garment of life.

In Exodus 19, the people of Israel are all told to wash their garments in preparation for the theophany that Moses was to experience on the mountain.  The people themselves are forbidden from even approaching the mountain, and yet they are commanded to wash their clothes in preparation for what Moses would receive from God on their behalf.  The washing of their clothes was a sacramental act as part of their cleansing themselves to meet the Holy God.  In Christianity, we take that all a step further in baptism when we wash not our clothes but ourselves in order to put on Christ.  We strip off our old garments belonging to the fallen world, and put on Christ as a garment as a sign of the new life we have embraced in Christ.

Garments play a significant part the sacramental life of Christians – through baptism we are given a special spiritual garment which we ask God in the petitions to help us “keep the garment undefiled”)  and for which we will have to give an account on Judgement Day (“and preserve the baptismal garment undefiled unto the day of Christ our God”).  This is symbolized in the white garment the newly baptized put on when they come up from the watery grave and rise to the new life.  As it says in Revelation 16:15 –  “Blessed is the one who keeps watch and preserves his garments in order not to walk naked and be shamefully exposed.

So we pray at the baptismal service:

Preserve pure and unpolluted the garment of incorruption with which You have clothed him (her), by Your grace, the seal of the Spirit, and showing mercy to him (her) and to us, through the multitude of Your mercies.

The priest declares immediately after baptizing the person that:

The servant of God, ______, is clothed in the robe of righteousness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

And then everyone at the baptism sings:

Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment.

And

As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

The newly baptized is said to clothe himself/ herself in  Christ our God.  Which also resonates with the the Transfiguration account in which the very clothes of Christ are said to show forth a brilliant whiteness (Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2; Luke 9:22).

Not only is each newly baptized Christian spiritually clothed with the garment of salvation at baptism, but also, the priests who serve God since the time of Aaron in the Book of Exodus, have been commanded by God to wear special garments.  When Aaron is chosen with his sons to serve as priests, one of the first things God commands is:  “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty”  (Exodus 28:2).

In Isaiah 61:10, we read these words which the priest prays as he vests himself with the priestly garments before the Liturgy:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

The garments as a sign of salvation are not just for this world but belong to the eternal life in God.   In 2 Esdras 2:39, we encounter this prophecy of what we will receive in the glorious age to come:

Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord.

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity.   (Contemplating the Cross)

We put on Christ, Christ puts on our humanity.  We are clothed in each other.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stripped us bare when we ate of its fruit.  Now the cross clothes Christ who is stripped naked and nailed to it.  The images of clothing and salvation are common throughout the scriptures.

Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2 Corinthians 5:2-4)

The Unexpected Gospel: To Unstop our Blocked Ears

Then the disciples came and said to Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”   (Matthew 13:10-11)

Luke 12:32

It can be hard for us to feel excitement about the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven, for we hear about it all the time in church, and it loses its newness and attraction to us.  Year after year we listen to the same Gospel lessons and they come to sound so familiar, so ordinary, that we forget how totally unexpected, how original, how startling and exciting was the message of St. John the Forerunner and Jesus Christ and His apostles : “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent!

To get some sense of the newness of the Gospel, let us consider the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We’ve all heard that phrase in church and it seems like that is just common fare from the Bible.  And yet, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” never occurs in the Old Testament.    Not even one time.  And how about the phrase “the Kingdom of God”?     That occurs one time in the  Old Testament, in the Wisdom of Solomon.     A book Protestants don’t even have in their English bibles.

So when the Evangelist Matthew has St. John the Forerunner and then Jesus proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:7), the people were hearing a newly worded message for the first time.    This Gospel belonged to the New Creation for it was new and renewing.  It is no wonder that the apostles didn’t always understand Jesus.  They would not have learned about the Kingdom of heaven growing up or  in any scripture classes they took at their local synagogues.  Jesus was proclaiming a new idea, something strange to their ears, to get their attention.  What is more surprising is that the people don’t ask more often, “What’s the kingdom of heaven?  We’ve never heard of it.  What are you talking about?

And do you think the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven” permeates the New Testament?     The Evangelists John, Luke and Mark  and the Apostle Paul never use the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven”?    Not once.  None of them.

We hear the phrase Kingdom of Heaven and we think, O that’s what the bible is all about  or that is what the New Testament constantly talks about.  But no, there is only one author in the New Testament who uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” and that is St. Matthew.  He uses the phrase 31 times .   But He is the only writer in the entire Bible to use that phrase.  It seems as if he coined a phrase and an idea that he wanted us to hear.  He made the Kingdom of Heaven a central idea to the Gospel.  And he was quite the evangelist, for now we think that phrase occurs throughout the Bible from beginning to end.

However, for us already the newness of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven has worn off.   We’ve heard about it so much that our senses are dulled.   We are at risk to become like the people of the Gospel who turned against Jesus, as St. Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’   (Acts 28:25-27)

We Christians today need constant spiritual renewal to restore in our hearing and in our hearts just how new, exciting and unexpected the Kingdom of Heaven really is.  It is light shining forth out of the darkness.

And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used many images to try to convey to His followers what the Kingdom of Heaven is.   He needed to do this because the constant was new, perhaps even foreign to those listening to Him who had heard the Torah taught as a book of Law.     We are not unlike them, for we Orthodox every summer read through Matthew’s Gospel, learning about the Kingdom of Heaven – repeated 31 times for as many years as we follow the Orthodox lectionary.  It becomes hard for us to hear it as new each year.

Jesus gives us parables to tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  He doesn’t explain to us how the Kingdom of Heaven is like these common experiences, nor if the parable speaks only about the beginning of the Kingdom being like these things, nor if the Kingdom will be like these things but not like any other things, nor if the Kingdom will never change.  Here are His images:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad   (Matthew 13:24-52)

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents   (Matthew 18:23-35)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  (Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  (Matthew 22:1-14)

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.   

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.    (Matthew 25:1-30)

When we realize that His disciples and followers never learned about the Kingdom of God from the Torah or the Tanakh, we realize why Jesus spent so much time explaining ideas about this coming Kingdom.

In the parable found in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son, but the invited guests refuse to come to the feast.  Ultimately, the king commands his servants to bring in what amounts to the dregs of society to fill his banquet hall.  Yet, when the king comes into the banquet hall he sees one man who had no wedding garment.

While the parable is about this unexpected and surprising Kingdom of Heaven, it has one more surprise in the lesson itself – the wedding garment.

Many homilists  assume Jesus must have been referring to a practice that was known in his day so they assume it is true, but most scholars agree that there is absolutely  no known practice of a wedding garment in Israel.  Jesus was telling a parable and may have made up this detail about the wedding garment for the purpose of His parable.  It helps us understand Jesus is using story, not historical fact, to teach us about the Kingdom.  [Another clue that the parable is pure story and not presenting something factual – just think about the time frame it would have taken.  The food is all prepared and sitting on the banquet tables.  The king  sends out his servants initially to bring in the guests, they are rejected, he sends more servants, they are abused and killed.  Send the arm to burn down the city.  Then send more servants to gather all the undesireable – from the thoroughfares, yet the city was burned down! –  then the king finally gets to go to the banquet and the food is still hot on the tables.  All in a few hours apparently.  This could only happen in fiction.]

My “practical” thinking says it is not likely that people provided a wedding garment to everyone who came to a wedding.  The cost would be exorbitant!  Where would people store such garments?  The poor (most of the population) would not have money to purchase their own wedding garments, nor would anyone have had room to store such a garment to be worn only at weddings.

What is possible is that St. Matthew himself wanted us to experience what the disciples experienced when they first heard the parables from Jesus – the parables had details in them which are unexpected and which are not obvious at all and make us say, “What?!?!?”.  They require us to think about them, study them and interpret them.  Maybe St. Matthew wanted us to experience this newness of the Gospel, so that our ears wouldn’t be dull but rather we would hear about this Kingdom of Heaven, and not sure of what it is ,  would want – or more likely, need – to learn more and to seek it out.  The parables are inviting us to seek, not giving us pat answers.

So maybe Jesus or St. Matthew wanted us to think about these mythical or mystical wedding garments – to unstop our ears and to open our hearts and minds to the Gospel.

Maybe because the king had brought in the dregs of the earth to his banquet he provided a wedding garment – not customarily, but especially because everyone was poor and in need.  So the man without the special garment may have refused the special garment or for whatever reason intentionally bypassed accepting the garment and certainly that rejection of the king’s hospitality was noted by the king was already aggravated by his illustrious, invited guests who had jilted him and killed his servants.

In the early church we note how frequently and with great comfort and confidence the Fathers noted any biblical passage may have more than one meaning and the listeners had to decide for themselves which meaning applied to them.

During Holy Week when we pray the Bridegroom Matins, we sing these words:

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

There we make use of the wedding garment imagery.  We use it to remind ourselves that we are not worthy of this blessed Kingdom of Heaven – we can’t enter it by our own goodness.  We realize our own nakedness – even if we are splendidly clothed in posh frocks!  Our chosen clothes from this world, no matter how expensive and tailored, leave us completely undressed when we try to enter the banquet hall without the God-given festal garments.    We are in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And we ask Christ to “enlighten the vesture of my soul“.  We want Christ the Giver of Light to change the garment of our soul into light so that we can enter Paradise.  We are speaking of a spiritual garment here, not a physical one.    “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”   (2 Corinthians 5:2)

Maybe Jesus in His parable reference to the wedding garment reminds us that when we are baptized, we put on a new garment, a white baptismal garment which has a particular symbolic meaning.  For it was the belief of many Jews and Christians in the ancient world that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were given beautiful garments to wear by God.  Garments made of light. They all believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, these beautiful garments of light were taken away from them.  Some also believed that Satan then covered us with dark robes of sinful thinking to help prevent us from seeing the image of God in each other, so that we would forget about the Kingdom Heaven and live only for this world.  Something in which Satan seems to have succeeded quite well.  Satan’s garments blind us, while baptism gives us a new garment which enlightens and illumines us.

Perhaps the wedding garment parable reminds us of that special garment which God gives to us – which we receive at baptism.  A spiritual garment, not a physical one.   The white baptismal garment is but a symbol of the reality.  The prayers of baptismal service say we will have to give account to God for the baptismal garment we received, and how we treated it and what we did with it:

That he/she may preserve his/her baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God, let us pray to the Lord.

So if you don’t know where your baptismal garment is – I’m not talking about the physical clothes, but the spiritual garment, or if you don’t even remember this garment at all, maybe it is time to look for it so that you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven and remain there for all eternity as the King’s invited guest.   You have to start thinking about the garment that adorns your soul, not the garments you buy at the mall.   “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”   (1 Peter 3:3-4)   What St. Peter advised women in his day, becomes Christian advice for all in the modern age – don’t be so concerned with appearance, rather pay attention to the substance of your inner self.

 

 

 

Put on Christ

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  (Galatians 3:27)

Baptism

All things are possible with Christ. Where is the pain and effort for you to become good? Things are simple. You will invoke God and He will transform things into good. If you give your heart to Him, there will be no room for the other things. When you ‘put on’ Christ, you will not need any effort to attain virtue. He will give it to you. Are you engulfed by fear and disenchantment? Turn to Christ. Love Him simply and humbly, without any demand, and He himself will free you.

Turn to Christ and say with humility and hope like Saint Paul, Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?Turn towards Christ, therefore, and He will come immediately. His grace will act at once. (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 135)

Salvation: Putting on Christ

“The gift is made to us because  Christ is ‘heavenly’ and has thus become for us a second Adam, the principle of a total renewal.  This renewal will be completed by the resurrection, causing us to bear the image of Christ as we have borne that of Adam.  Thus what is corruptible in us will be ‘clothed’ with incorruptibility, what is mortal in us with immortality.

This image of clothing, applied to the resurrection, is a favorite one with St. Paul; we find it again the Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

So long as we are in this tent [the transitory tent, skene, of our present body] we groan, weighed down as we are, because we desire, not to be naked, but rather to be reclothed [literally: clothed from above] so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.

The verses that precede, using the imagery of the First Epistle, explain that it is ‘from heaven’ that we await this ‘clothing’, so that we shall not be found naked.

In this last explanation, we find an allusion to the account of Genesis: Adam becoming conscious of his nakedness after he had sinned.  After the resurrection, man will no longer be in this state in which his sin has placed him, reduced to animality: the mortal in him will be as it were absorbed in life, because what is earthly will be absorbed in what is heavenly.  And this will be brought about because the humanity that we have received from Adam will be as it were ‘clothed from above’ with the new, ‘spiritual’, ‘heavenly’, humanity which is that of the risen Christ.

Nor should we imagine that this was only an object of hope for St Paul.  He uses this image of ‘clothing’ again, in connection with us and Christ, not to describe a future but rather a past reality extended into the present, a present which already contains the future in embryo.  For, in the Epistle to the Romans, the first passage concerning Adam and Christ, which we have already studied, leads directly to a development about baptism centered in this statement:

All you who were baptized in Christ were baptized in his death; we were, indeed, buried by baptism with him in death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.

And a parallel passage of the Epistle to the Galatians gives this still more precise formula: ‘All you who have been baptized in Christ, have been clothed with Christ.’

It follows that, when Christ’s death extends its effects in us by baptism, it is already preparing the same effect of resurrection in us that it had in him.  We may go so far as to say that, in a sense, we are already risen with Christ, inasmuch as baptism has united us to Christ dead and risen again.  This is what the Epistle to the Ephesians says explicitly:  ‘God has raised us up together and caused us together to sit in the heavenly places (sunekathisen) in Christ Jesus.’

(Louis Bouyer, THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE FATHERS, pp 68-69)

Baptizing Infants

St. Augustine made the observation that in the Scriptures, circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and His people.  The community did not wait until a man had proven his faithfulness to God before circumcising him.  Baby boys were circumcised and then the community had the responsibility to help them grown into faithful men.  For Augustine, baptism works in a similar way as part of the new covenant – a sign of God’s faithfulness which each person receives and then works on converting their heart to God.  St. Augustine writes:

“In the case of Isaac, circumcision was performed  as a sign of the righteousness of faith on the eighth day after his birth; he then followed the  example of his father’s faith. Thus, the sign of righteousness had come first in the infant,  and the righteousness itself followed in the growing man. In a similar way, the sacrament  of regeneration comes first in baptized infants and, if they later commit themselves to  Christian fidelity, then the conversion of heart follows, for which there was an earlier sign  in their bodies.”   (Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators  by J. Patout Burns Jr., Kindle Loc. 2014-17)

Though baptism has a spiritual antecedent in circumcision, it is still something totally new.

In the Old Testament, physical birth determined whether someone belonged to the chosen people. Only the children of Abraham were heirs to God’s promises. Despite the fact that proselytism was especially strong by the time of Christ’s coming – “You traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23.15) – the neophytes themselves were not regarded in all respects as true members of Israel, but only their descendants. In the New Testament however, it is spiritual birth that determines if someone belongs to the Church: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3.5). Beginning with the first apostolic preaching on the day of Pentecost, the sacrament of baptism by water and the Spirit is the one and only way of entering the Church, without which salvation is impossible. (Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, p. 23)

If the only purpose of baptism was the washing away of sin, then there would be no reason to baptize infants.   But baptism is not God’s reaction to sin, but rather God’s own effort to unite each of us to Himself,  so that we might share in the divine life.  Baptism gives a new birth, a new life to each person – a spiritual life in communion with God in Christ.  A baby is fully human and thus capable of being united to God and to share in the divine life.    [for further thoughts about the baptism of infants see my post Baptism or Blindness]   Baptism is a sign and a sacrament so is rich in meaning.  As biblical scholar Geza Vermes writes:

“For Paul, the baptismal pool had a deep allegorical meaning. It symbolized the tomb in which the crucified body of Jesus was laid to rest and where it remained until the resurrection on the third day. Baptism for Paul is a myth-drama. Being dipped into and lifted from the baptismal pool meant an allegorical identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Through the baptismal ritual, the effects of the cult drama were transferred onto the new Christian. Baptism seen through believing eyes was a sacramental rebirth.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3–4)”   (Christian Beginnings, Kindle Loc. 1708-14)

Baptism or Blindness

If we take the Gospel lesson of the Blind man (John 9:1-39) in its context within the entirety of John’s Gospel, we note that in the verses right before John 9:1 from John 8, Christ is in the temple and the Jews get angry with Christ and want to stone him, but Christ is hidden from them (John 8:59), or hides himself .

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.  (John 8:59)

The Greek word “hid” is the same as the word used in Genesis 3:8-10 when Adam and Eve hearing God walking in Paradise hide themselves from God after eating the forbidden fruit.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”    (Genesis 3:8-10)

There are interesting connections between Genesis 3 and John 8, one in the temple and one in Paradise.  We know there is a relationship between the Temple and Paradise – they are interrelated realities.

In Genesis Adam and Eve are like young children covering their eyes and saying to God: “You can’t see me.”  And God even seems to play along with them in Genesis 3:9 –   But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

In Genesis 3 it is clear that though they still hear God after their sin, there is no mention of Adam and Eve seeing Him walking in the Garden.  They think they are hiding from God but it is they who can no longer see God.   The awareness of their own nakedness is directly the result of losing sight of God. – they are exposed despite their trying to hide.

In the temple in John 8 – the people are hearing God in Christ who is speaking to them and they don’t like what they hear.  They angrily want to stone Him but they can’t see Him for He is hid from their eyes.  Christ is God incarnate, standing in the temple – and the temple was to be the place where one could see God’s face (see my Jesus Christ Seen in the Temple), but the people can’t see Him because they don’t want to hear Him.  Eve and Adam were not happy when they heard God walking in the garden after they sinned, but though they still hear Him, they don’t see Him but they childishly think He can’t see them.  We can think about the blind man confronting the temple leaders in John 9:27:

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”  

The blind man comes to the point: the people knowingly and willfully refuse to listen to Christ.  That is why they cannot see Him for who He is.

As we move from John 8 to John 9 we read this:

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.    As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth.  (John 8:59-9:1)

The text moves smoothly and quickly from a group of people in the temple who cannot see Him to the man born blind from birth.  He too can’t see Christ, but he too does hear Him.  The temple is the sign of God’s presence and the place to see God’s presence, but they can’t see Christ in the temple.  They all are blind but not from birth but by choice – blinded by their refusal to hear.  But there is hope – the man born blind can come to see God – he will not only hear God in Christ, at the end of the lesson he sees Christ and so sees God.  If one is born blind not by any choice or because of anything they have done, and yet can be given sight, then those who choose to be blind should also be able to give up their blindness and to see God.

It is in the midst of the people being blind to Christ, that today’s Gospel lesson happens.

Is the Gospel suggesting that this man’s blindness is different than that of the people in the temple?  This man had no choice in the matter, he was born blind – an incomplete creation but not his fault nor the fault of his parents.  Rather, we see that physical blindness is not the obstacle to knowing God that spiritual blindness is.  Spiritual blindness is a choice.   Being physically blind is not an obstacle to seeing the invisible God!

The people in the temple cannot see Christ because of their own choices.   They refuse to believe Him and so he disappears from view.  The man born blind on the other hand is willing not only to listen to Christ but to obey Him.  And once the blind man obeys Christ, he is able not only to see  but to see God!  His eyes are opened as are the eyes of his heart, and so he sees God incarnate.    He is willing to give up his blindness and doesn’t choose to remain blind.  Thus God is able to work in him.

We all need to take note – we can stubbornly hold to our own ideas and remain blind to what God is doing in the world, in the Church, in the Scriptures.  We can angrily reject things Christ says to us because we disagree with them or don’t want to do them, or don’t want to change.

OR, like the blind man we can humbly give up our opinions and choose to obey Christ.

We can take hope that even if we are suffering from some illness, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, that we have not in fact been abandoned by God but that God will work in us to His glory.   AND we can learn compassion for others who are suffering from various illnesses, even if we believe the illness is a result of their own stupid sinfulness – from lust, gluttony, greed or drunkenness – and pray for them that God will work His power in them to God’s own glory.  This Gospel lesson is totally one of hope for those suffering physical ailment, mental illness or spiritual blindness.

We come to understand that Christ works for the glory of God – in having the blind man wash in the pool, we have an image of baptism and we come to understand that we are not baptized only because we are sinners.  We don’t baptize children because they are guilty of sin.   We baptize in order to manifest the work of God in the person.  We baptize infants that they might in fact experience the glory of God and be opened to their own spiritual nature.    Baptism is not God’s reaction to human sin, but God offering to work His glory in each of us.

And note, that the man born blind did not have to know everything before washing in the pool to be freed of his blindness.  Neither do we need to know everything before being baptized – that is why we believe the baptism of infants is essential to their spiritual lives.  In the text we see all kinds of things the man doesn’t know:

He doesn’t know where Jesus is

He doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner or sinless.

He doesn’t know who Jesus is, even when Jesus is speaking to him.

So too we baptize children so that God’s glory can be manifested in them.  Baptism is a spiritual birthing, we grow into it.  We baptize not just because there is sin in the world, but because each of us born in this world through natural birth have the means to be born again in a spiritual birth.

As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  (1 Corinthians 15:48-50)

Today’s Gospel lesson helps us understand the purpose of baptism which is not a reaction to past sin but a door into the future kingdom.  Baptism makes it possible for us to move beyond being merely flesh and blood, beyond being genetic beings or evolutionary beings, beyond the limits of self and society into the divine life, into eternal love, to being fully united to God.

The obstacle to our seeing and knowing Christ is not physical ailment, but spiritual blindness.  It is an obstacle that can be overcome in Christ.

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)

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.