The Fear of God and God’s Love

In some cases, the sensitivity of the elders toward those who were lost in despair or confusion was such that they were willing to adopt whatever position necessary to lead the others out of their pain. In a story alluded to earlier, some old men who had heard of Abba Sisoes’s reputation for wisdom came to consult him on the matter of the coming judgement. This first two cited texts having to do with eternal judgement, and the third, obviously troubled by the thought of this, asked: “Father, what shall I do, for the remembrance of the outer darkness is killing me.” Sisoes himself was not troubled by these thoughts and tried to encourage the brothers by speaking of his own experience: “For my part, I do not keep in mind the remembrance of any of these things, for God is compassionate and I hope that he will show me his mercy.”

However, the old men were offended by this answer, which seemed to them to make light of the issue of the final judgement, and got up to leave. Realizing the effect that his response had had upon them, Sisoes quickly changed course, and said to them: “Blessed are you, my brothers; truly I envy you. The first speaks of the river of fire, the second of hell and the third of darkness. Now if your spirit is filled with such remembrances, it is impossible for you to sin. What shall I do then? I who am hard of heart and to whom it has not been granted so much as to know whether there is a punishment for men; no doubt it is because of this that I am sinning all the time.” They prostrated themselves before him and said, “Now we have seen exactly that of which we have heard tell.” One could argue that Sisoes was being disingenuous with these old men. Did he really believe what he was telling them in his second response?

In a sense he did – he knew that a constant awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the uncertainty of the judgement to come could kindle real moral acuity. Yet his response is more important for what it shows us about his capacity to empathize with his visitors’ concerns. His desire to reach them and draw them out of their paralyzing fear about the final judgement was stronger than his attachment to any particular position about that judgement. It was Siseos’s willingness to move toward his visitors in love which touched them most deeply. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 284-285)

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

The Many Graces of Baptism

“When you come to the sacred initiation, the eyes of the flesh see water; the eyes of faith behold the Spirit. Those eyes see the body being baptized; these see the old man being buried. The eyes of the flesh see the flesh being washed, the eyes of the spirit see the soul being cleansed. The eyes of the body see the body emerging from the water; the eyes of faith see the new man come forth brightly shining from that new purification. Our bodily eyes see the priest as, from above, he lays his right hand on the head and touches (him who is being baptized) our spiritual eyes see the great High Priest (Jesus) as He stretches forth His invisible hand to touch his head. For, at that moment, the one who baptizes is not a man, but the only-begotten Son of God.

For this reason, when the priest is baptizing he does not say, “I baptize so-and-so,” but, “So-and-so is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this way he shows that it is not he who baptizes but those whose names have been invoked, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pp. 120)

True Lenten Charity

He gave Himself up for the life of the world (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

“Strive to acquire humility, and charity – the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates.”  (Macarius, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 56)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  (Genesis 9:8-17)

God’s covenant relationship is not just with the chosen people, but with all creation, which God repeats again and again as God talks to Noah:  with every living creature (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16), with the earth (9:13),  with all flesh (9:15, 16 and 17).  If God so loves the world which He created, shouldn’t we?

The Cross and Our Salvation

“The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,

for a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.

The sting of Death and the victory of Hell were nailed to it.

But you appeared, my Savior, crying to those in hell:

“Be brought back again to Paradise.”

(St Romanos, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 155)

Lent is Half Over!

“I have observed many persons rejoicing, and saying one to another, ‘We have conquered; we have prevailed; the half of the fast is spent.’ But I exhort such persons not to rejoice on this account, that the half of the fast is gone, but to consider whether the half of their sins be gone; and if so, then to exult. For this is a fit subject of gratification. This is what is to be sought after, and for which all things are done, that we may correct our defects; and that we may not quit the fast the same persons as we entered upon it, but in a cleansed state; and that having laid aside all that belongs to evil habits, we may thus keep the sacred feast, since if the case be otherwise, we shall be so far from obtaining any advantage, that the completion of the fast will be the greatest injury to us. Let us, therefore, not rejoice that we have gone through the length of the fast, for this is nothing great; but let us rejoice, if we have got through it with fresh attainments, so that when this is over, the fruit of it may shine forth. For the gain of winter is more especially manifested after the season is gone by.

Then, the flourishing corn, and the trees teeming with leaves and fruit, proclaim, by their appearance, the benefit that has accrued to them from the winter! Let the same thing also take place with us. For during the winter, we have enjoyed divers and frequent showers, having been during the fast partakers of a continued course of instruction, and have received spiritual seeds, and cut away the thorns of luxury.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Rejoice in the Lord Always, p. 2)

The Cross: The Way to the Joyous Kingdom

NOW THE FLAMING SWORD NO LONGER GUARDS THE GATES OF PARADISE;  IT HAS BEEN MYSTERIOUSLY QUENCHED BY THE WOOD OF THE CROSS!  THE STING OF DEATH AND THE VICTORY OF HELL HAVE BEEN VANQUISHED, FOR YOU, MY SAVIOR, CAME AND CRIED TO THOSE IN HELL: ENTER AGAIN INTO PARADISE!    (Kontakion for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

We come to the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent, the very middle of the Fast, a day dedicated to the Cross of Christ.  We have heard Jesus’ words, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it”  (Mark 8:34-35).  And the common interpretation of these words in Orthodoxy make us think about the self-denial of the fast or perhaps about the passion and suffering of Christ Himself on Holy Friday.  We are often told that the very purpose of focusing on the Cross in mid-Lent is to encourage us to carry on with our fasting and self-denial:   we may be tired of the fast or tired by the fast, but we must shoulder the cross and soldier on.

Yet, there is another connection with the Cross that we can readily note in the Epistle reading:  “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need  (Hebrews 4:15-16).   It is the Cross of Christ which enables us to approach the throne of grace boldly – with the same boldness with which we dare to call God our heavenly Father when we say the Lord’s Prayer during the Divine Liturgy.  Christ’s arms stretched out on the cross are not in our Church hymns portrayed as lifeless but rather are full of strength and are welcoming us into His embrace.

The Cross for us is our sign of victory – it is through the Cross that Christ brought humanity to the throne of the Father.  Through the Cross joy comes into all the world and we are restored to communion with our God.   We hear this in the hymns for this day.  For example from the Matins Canon:

COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE LIFE‑CREATING TREE.  CHRIST, THE KING OF GLORY, STRETCHED OUT HIS HANDS ON IT AND EXALTED US TO PARADISE, FROM WHERE HE HAD BEEN DRIVEN BY THE DEVIL’S INSTIGATION.  COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE TREE.  BY IT, WE ARE EMPOWERED TO CRUSH THE HEADS OF INVISIBLE ENEMIES.  COME, ALL GENERATIONS OF NATIONS.  LET US HONOR THE CROSS OF THE LORD WITH SONGS.  REJOICE, PERFECT REDEMPTION OF FALLEN ADAM.  NOW ALL CHRISTIANS VENERATE YOU IN FEAR AND LOVE, SINGING, HAVE MERCY ON US, GRACIOUS LORD AND LOVER OF MANKIND!

Doing a word count of the hymns that are found in the Matins Canon for this Lenten Sunday of the Cross we see:    the word fasting occurs only once,   abstinence only 3 times, the word sin or passions occurs 10 times, and references to the crucifixion or Christ being nailed to the cross occurs 15 times.    On the other hand words related to resurrection, Pascha, life, the destruction of hell and demons occur 54 times.  Add to those, words about rejoicing, salvation, light, paradise, and Kingdom we find 143 references in the Canon.  More than 80% of the Canon is about Christ’s victory, Christ’s triumph, the destruction of death and the resurrection of the dead.  This is the focus of this Sunday.  The Canon for the Sunday of the Cross has in it all the Irmos hymns from the Paschal Canon and thus today we are already proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two hymns which are good examples of the focus of the hymns for the day:

This is a festival day: at the awakening of Christ, death has fled away; The light of life has dawned; Adam has risen and dances for joy!  Therefore let us cry aloud and sing a song of victory!

Behold, Christ is risen! said the angel to the Myrrh‑bearing women!  Do not lament, but go and say to the apostles: Rejoice, for today is the world’s salvation! The tyranny of the enemy has been destroyed through the death of Christ!

We find this emphasis on the glory and victory of the cross in the writings of the early church fathers as well.   As some church historians have noted, the Cross as a symbol of God’s salvation and love and triumph was the focus of the early church.  Only later in history does the Cross become more a sign of Christ’s passion and  suffering.  And only when this more ascetic theme takes over does the focus of the cross turn away from our participation in Christ’s salvation and turn more toward ascetical themes of personal self-denial, fasting and abstinence.  St. Paul himself writes about how we participate in and benefit by the Cross of Christ:

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.   (Ephesians 2:14-22)

For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…   (Colossians 1:19-22)  [For other Pauline references to the Cross and Christ’s death as the instrument of our salvation see Romans 5:6-6:11, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Galatians 2:19-20, Colossians 2:12-15]

A few more examples of the hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross:

You have risen from the tomb, never‑setting Light, shining upon the world with the bright dawn of incorruption!  In Your compassion You have driven out the dark sorrow of death from the farthest corners of the earth!

You crushed death, O Christ, and rose as a mighty King, recalling us from the depths of hell!  You brought us to the land of immortality, granting us the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven!

Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy as we greet the Cross of the Lord.  Let us sing triumphantly to God, for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!

During Great Lent, we don’t just focus on Christ’s suffering or our own self-denial.  The Cross of Christ reminds us that we are to be united to God our Father and to rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Cross reminds us that Christ has obtained salvation for all.  The Cross is for us has opened the door to Paradise.

A last thought:  Frequently in the early church writings there is mention of the two ways –  the way of the world which leads to death and the way of the Cross which leads to eternal life.      You can follow the way of the world ( for example just keep watching the news  and the news feeds and you will see exactly how the world defines glory, power, what is right – might, political power, military, the kingdom of this world).  Or you can turn the news and news feeds off and  pay attention to the themes of Great Lent, the way of Christ (self denial, humility, tears, broken-heartedness, the cross, a kingdom not of this world).   You can rejoice in the Lord or lament the condition of the world.  That choice is yours.  There are three weeks left in Great Lent, three weeks for you to allow your heart and mind to give up on the way of the world in order to follow Christ.  If you give up on the way of the world –  stop paying attention to the news or new feeds and instead come to the Church services to hear about Christ and the way to the Kingdom.  You will find the way to abundant life and the joy of the Lord God.

Praying the Annunciation

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An archangel was sent from heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And seeing you, O LORD, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:

Rejoice, for through you joy shall shine forth!

Rejoice, for through you the curse shall cease!

Rejoice, recalling of fallen Adam!

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve!

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Rejoice, height hard to climb for the thoughts of men!

Rejoice, depth hard to scan even for the eyes of angels!

Rejoice, for you are the throne of the King!

Rejoice, for you hold him who holds all!

Rejoice, star causing the sun to shine!

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Rejoice, womb of the divine incarnation!

Rejoice, for through you the creation is made new!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 2509-2517)

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)

St Gregory Palamas: A Witness to the Church

“In so far as Palamism was, and remains, true Orthodoxy, we are surely better advised in following St. Gregory’s own and wiser counsel, and seeking to engage with the intellectual issues at a deep and intelligent level. His insistence that theology could not be divorced from prayer is a call for seriousness in the spiritual life, just as much as it is a call to accountability in the theological academy. We, who live in an age when intellectual religious pundits abound with so many offers of different gospels, might well learn from Gregory Palamas, that the truly wise and holy Christian disciple is one who takes from the deep tradition of the Fathers and martyrs, pearls of doctrines that prove themselves in their practical application.

The really authentic Christian theology is that which explains to men and women how to live: how to live freely, how to live joyfully, and above all how to live in the spirit of Christ who transfigures and sanctifies all that he touches by admitting a fragile humanity into the wondrously luminous presence of the living God who deifies his chosen. This is what St. Gregory stands for above all else; and in this, his life and work remains a bright witness to the church.”

(John A. McGuckin, Illumined in the Spirit, p. 260-261)