Great Lent: We Now Begin the Spiritual Contest

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”   (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

St. John Chrysostom at one point describes our spiritual lives as Christians as being like the battles in the Olympic arena with countless spectators watching with excitement the unfolding fight.  The spectators in his metaphor include both fellow Christians and the angels.  Jesus Christ presides over the contest, sitting in the judgment seat.  He, however, is not there to judge us nor is He just an impartial observer, but rather is there to help us in our contest.  It is Christ Himself who through baptism and chrismation prepared us for this battle.  And in so preparing us, Christ has shackled our opponent, Satan, so that the advantage is ours.  His comments are completely apropos the beginning of Great Lent.

“Up to now you have been in a school for training and exercise; there falls were forgiven. But from today on, the arena stands open, the contest is as hand, the spectators have taken their seats. Not only are men watching the combats but the host of angels as well, as St. Paul cries out in his letter to the Corinthians: We have been made a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men. And whereas the angels are spectators, the Lord of angels presides over the contest as judge. This is not only an honor for us, but assures our safety. Is it not an honor and assurance for us when He who is judge of the contest is the one who laid down His life for us?

In the Olympic combats the judge stands impartially aloof from the combatants, favoring neither the one nor the other, but awaiting the outcome. He stands in the middle because his judgement is impartial. But in our combat with the devil, Christ does not stand aloof but is wholly on our side. How true it is that Christ does not stand aloof but is entirely on our side you may see from this: He anointed us as we went into combat, but he fettered the devil; He anointed us with the oil of gladness, but He bound the devil with fetters that cannot be broken to keep him shackled hand and foot for the combat. But if I happen to slip, He stretches out His hand, lifts me up from my fall, and sets me on my feet again. For the Gospel says: You tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. (Baptismal Instructions, p. 58)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Icons: The Transfiguration of Humanity

“If in Christ ‘those who have gone to do their rest’ are not dead but alive in him, then communion in Christ is communion, also, in the fellowship of this body. This is symbolized in Orthodox churches first of all by the iconography of the temple: one is surrounded, on entry into the church, by the images of those persons transfigured in Christ, understood as mystically present in the communion of his body. The continual commemoration of the saints throughout the services (nearly every litany ends with a commemoration of the Mother of God, together ‘with the saints’) unites in liturgical memory the whole human race, brought to the sacrifice of Christ, who offered himself ‘for the life of the world.’ ” (Matthew Steenberg in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Theology, pp 127-128)

A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer

This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.   It is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

The Christian community with its full sacramental/mystical life was seen as living proof of the Divine revelation.  For the early Church, education was based on the revealed truth.  This revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was the content of their teaching.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386AD) says, “Do not believe me unless you have a proof of what I proclaim from the divine Scriptures.  For the saving power of our faith does not come from clever arguments but from proofs from the divine Scriptures… ” (Robert Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, p. 104).  Proofs of the faith were to be experienced and discovered within the revelation of God proclaimed by the Church.   St. Augustine (d. 430AD) exclaimed to his listeners, “Let us hear the Gospel as if the Lord were present… ” (Robert Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church, p. 129).    We must teach and proclaim the Gospel in our com­munities in this same manner.   Our congregations should feel the presence of the Lord in our teaching ministry.  It is in this encounter with the Living God that people’s lives are changed.  It is here that we learn the truth of God.

Keep in mind that in the scriptures, the apostles were sent out as witnesses to the truth.   In other words they were to speak about that which they personally experienced.   Their call to faith was not an appeal to believe in something that cannot be proven, but to believe their witness that Jesus is risen and He is the Son of God, Christ and Savior.    Somehow it was their very life that was the confirmation of the Gospel.   In that sense what was on trial was not their message (and could they prove it), but could they live the life that would convince others that they themselves were believers.   The crux of the argument was not abstract issues between faith and reason, but the effectiveness of their own witness (and thus in effect their own lives and lifestyles).   This means for us today in doing our educational ministry, can we convince others that Christ is risen or that Christ is in our midst?

St. Gregory

In teaching this revelation, the Fathers insist that instruction cannot be impersonal.  Christianity is God reconciling each one of us to Himself.  It cannot be taught by creating one lesson plan for all learners.  The Fathers all recognize that each person progresses spiritually at a different pace.   St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 391AD) explains, “It does not belong to everyone… to philosophize about God….  It is not appropriate to discuss God at all times, nor with all people, nor all aspects of the subject, but there is a proper time, the right people, and a sufficient extent.”  (Robert Sider,  The Gospel and its Proclamation,  p. 227).  Each person requires personalized instruction to bring him or her to the full knowledge of the truth.  This is certainly evident in Proverbs where seemingly contra­dictory bits of wisdom follow one after the other (see for example Proverbs 26:4-5).  Christian instruction is lived out daily by each person in a unique circumstance.  Any lesson might prove harmful for a person of a different level of maturity.  This is not to say that ethical truth is completely situational. Truth is truth.   The teacher’s job is to know the learner in order to know what to teach and when.  The learner’s duty is to learn the lessons and to learn discer­nment – the wisdom of when and how to apply the lesson.  As Matsagouras notes:

“The educational task according to the Desert Fathers, was not an easy routine which could be applied in the same manner to all Disciples, but it was a laborious process, involving many methods, which were to be applied in various manners, according to the nature of the Disciples.  This does credit to the Desert Fathers who, living in a period when little attention was paid to the individual, emphasized by words and actions, the necessity of in­dividualized education.  The variety of teaching methods, and the organiza­tion used by the monks were two of the most important characteristics of the  monastic educational system.”  (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators, p 66)

St. John Chrysostom

What does this mean for our own work in Christian education?  It means the design for our educational programs must incorporate a system structured to support numerous levels of spiritual development.  One-lesson-fits-all curriculums cannot satisfy the goals nor the metho­dolo­gies of the early Church or of our work today.   Before sharing the Gospel, some learners may need more preparatory work than others to be ready to receive the message.   Remember, St. Gregory the Theologian taught that humans originally fell into sin because they had not gone through the educational stages God intended for them.   They were not mature enough to deal with the knowledge for which they reached out.  The knowledge of good and evil was a necessary part of the education of humans; they prematurely took hold of the knowledge and suffered the consequences.   (Constantine Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology,  p. 50).    For modern Christian educators, this lesson ought not be forgotten.   As John Erickson wrote,

…Chrysostom, who regularly emphasizes the good judgment and tact demanded of the preacher/teacher, and by Gregory of Nazianzen, who insists on the need `to give in due season to each his portion of the word.’…  `since the common body of the Church is composed of many different characters and minds…,  it is absolutely necessary that its ruler should be at once simple in his uprightness…,  and as far as possible manifold and varied in his treatment of individuals…’  The spiritual gift of discernment and a proper sense of `economy’ are essential for the exercise of the Church’s `teaching office.   (John Erickson, The Challenge of our Past, p. 59)

Next:  Clement of Alexandria (A)

Reading the Old Testament in Consonance with the Saints

This is the 6th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is How to Read the Old Testament and How Not to Read It.

In the previous blog, we noted that the correct means of reading Scriptures is not to treat it as a book of magic incantations as if we were living in a Harry Potter world:  memorize the appropriate talisman, and then bring it out in the appropriate occasion and voila you get your way magically.  If you think about the Harry Potter stories, you come to realize it is not magic that wins the day for Harry and his friends.  All the wizards and witches have the same magic at their disposal.   There is no magic however that can make you courageous, virtuous, willing to suffer for the good, or willing to sacrifice yourself for others.  The courageous and good were willing to sacrifice themselves for others.  Those following evil were afraid and trying to spare their own lives.  Moral fortitude is stronger than magic even in Harry Potter.

St. Paul in Consonance with the OT Saints

With Harry Potter in mind, one can note that in the Orthodox tradition of reading Scripture, an essential factor for reading with understanding, is to be living a life of Christian virtue.  It is not magic, but courageous fortitude which enables us to follow the way of love and the way of the Cross.  It is keeping our eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven, and actively choosing to move toward that goal which opens the treasury of the Scriptures to us.

“Consonance with the ecclesial tradition, as the primary requirement for the Orthodox Christian biblical interpreter, is exactly what Athanasius meant when he wrote this axiomatic passage about biblical interpretation in the DE INCARNATIONE…:  ‘What are the requirements for the searching of the Scriptures, and for true knowledge of them?  An honorable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is of Christ.  For the intellect must apply this to guide its path and then it shall be able to attain to what it desires, and to comprehend it, insofar as it is possible for a  human nature to learn of things concerning the Word of God.  But without a pure mind and the modeling of one’s life after the saints, a person could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … Or take the case of a person who wanted to see a certain city or country.  Such a person would surely journey to the place in order to be able to see it.  It is exactly the same for someone who desires to comprehend the mind of those who speak of God.  Such a person must begin washing and cleansing their own soul, and by addressing their manner of living.  They should approach the saints by imitating their own works.  By such consonance with the saints in the conduct of a shared life, a person may understand also what has been revealed to them by God.”  (John McGuckin in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION: PERSPECTIVES IN ORTHODOX BIBLICAL STUDIES  edited by Theodore Stylianapoulis, pp 309-310)

The Cloud of Witnesses

Consonance with the saints: that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1 ) comes alive to us and inspires us in correct thinking and behavior.   The icons which are present in our homes, and which surround us in the church, are transformed from boards on the wall into windows into heaven.  We come to realize how we must live in order to be true disciples of Christ as we understand the lives of those saints who followed the Crucified Lord.

Thus reading the Scriptures is not an act separate from our daily lives.  For the reading of Scriptures should form our lives and shape our hearts and minds.  Conversely, as our lives conform to the Gospel commands, our hearts are opened to the Word of God (Luke 24:32), and we come to see and understand “greater things”  (John 1:50).

The disciples said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

It is living in consonance with those who hearts were illumined and set on fire by Christ that we most and best understand the Bible.

Next:  Reading Torah and Keeping God’s Word

The Ascension: Believers, Get Your Heads out of the Clouds

Ascension In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.  After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.  On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”   So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”   (Acts 1:1-12)

One popular idea that many people profess is that we all are going to “die and go to heaven.”  This is an idea of which New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright tries to disabuse believers  (See almost any of his books or my blog The Resurrection: Life Beyond Life After Death).   I would offer that the Feast of the Ascension also does not support a “die and go to heaven” version of Christianity either. 

If Jesus was mostly interested in heaven, it is strange that He taught His followers how to live on earth, and then left His disciples on earth with work to do.  Why did Jesus spend time discipling His followers and then later convince them He had risen from the dead if all that was was important was to get them to heaven?  Why didn’t He simply take His few disciples with Him and abandon the fallen earth to its own devices?

It seems to me that Christ had an interest in a new heaven and a new earth, not in abandoning the original earth but saving and recreating the existing one.    Even if we think back to the story of the great flood in Genesis 6-8, God did not utterly annihilate creation into non-existence and create from nothing again.  Rather the story is that He tried to DSC_0007Cuproot all wickedness from the existing creation and fully intended to repopulate the earth and use the existing cleansed creation to accomplish His will.  Heaven was not the goal of God, but an earth on which His will was done as it is done in Heaven. 

The Lord Jesus had an interest in convincing His disciples that He had risen from the dead because He fully intended them to continue living on earth.  And on earth, they and we are to be His witnesses.  And to what are we witnessing?  The resurrection from the dead – in other words restoration to the world from which death has taken us.   Christ did not simply die and go to heaven, He destroyed death and was bodily resurrected from the dead.  Apparently Christ thought the body and this world was part of God’s plan of salvation.  Jesus did not abandon the world or His body, but He redeemed them, recreated them.  He invites us in baptism and the Eucharist to participate in and become part of that renewed creation.  

Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not so much for life in the world to come, but for continued life in this world as His witnesses!  We need the Holy Spirit to help us live in this new creation, and to empower us to be His witnesses to the rest of the world.  None of this has to do with exiting this world, but rather has to do with how to live in this world.

Note that the apostles were interested in the restoration of the kingdom of Israel – that was their idea of “other worldliness.”    They assumed this world was passing away and the Kingdom of God would be the same as Israel restored as a Kingdom.   But Christ’s answer to them is “get your heads out of the clouds!”   “Don’t worry about restoration and future times and heavenly places.  You have work to do on earth and the Holy Spirit is going to empower you to do it!”  Christ tells the apostles the time of the restoration is not their concern – their real concern is how to witness to Christ’s resurrection.  The place of the apostles is on earth as Christ’s witnesses and their work is with the people of earth to bring them to a knowledge of God’s truth.

Jesus tells them (and us) that we are to be witnesses to the very ends of the earth.  Notice He doesn’t mention anything about getting to heaven.  Our work is on earth, throughout the earth, to the ends of the earth.   Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28, also tells us to make disciples of all nations.  Our work is on earth and this is what we must focus on.  It doesn’t matter when Christ may come again, that doesn’t change what we must be doing every day while MysticalSupper03we still have time on earth.

On the very day Christ ascended into heaven, even the angels tell the apostles (and us) to quit gawking into heaven as their and our work is on earth.   What we need is not Heaven but the Holy Spirit because Jesus is coming back!    Our role is to do on earth God’s will as it is done in heaven, which is not the same as saying we need to do God’s will in heaven.  We cannot skip the earth or our life here, but rather are to do His work and will on this planet: to be His witnesses, to talk not only about Christ’s death but also about His resurrection.  We have to get our heads out of the clouds of heaven and castles in the sky in order to carry out Christ’s mission on earth.   The Feast of the Ascension is very much a call to all of us to be ministers of the Gospel, to be the Church, to make disciples of all nations by being witnesses to what God has done in and through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

How do we know about God?

How do we know what we know about God? 

In Christianity what we know is shaped by personal experience, by the experience and witness of the community (current and historical), and by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures (which is part of the witness of the community).  Believing in Christ necessitates that we also believe the testimony of the people of God who bear witness to Him – the witness recorded in the Scriptures and that of those who accepted this witness and have passed it on to us.  For it is through the witness of the Church in history – its members as well as its Scripture – that we come to know Christ; thus belief in God is based upon the witness of those who already believe.   To believe is to accept that the believers’ witness is credible and reliable.   Without this witness, we would not know the historical Jesus or His revelation of God, his works, his death, resurrection or commands to take His message to the entire world.

As a result of the 18th Century’s Enlightenment people began calling into question the reliability of past testimony, of the witness and tutelage from the ancients, from teachers or the Church.  The Enlightenment established the individual as the judge of tradition rather than the reverse; it said only the individual can decide what is true and right based upon observation and experiment.  Then the Romantic Age came and further altered thinking by making spirituality an inner personal experience, based in feelings and the individual’s emotional life came to be the measure of true religious experience or conviction.   The Romantics advocated that the only way to understand a text of Scripture is to know the inner experience of the messenger and what he intended by it.  

Andrew Louth in his book DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY addresses some of these issues as he reflects upon how we know what we know about God.  Christians do not rely exclusively on personal experience for the Gospel does not begin in our hearts and heads; rather it has a beginning in history, in the saving acts of God which we learn about through the Scriptures.  Our personal experiences are nurtured by and given context and meaning in the witness of the Church which are made available to us in Scripture and liturgy.  To believe in Christ, we must have heard about Him, and to hear about Him we must encounter those who not only proclaim Him but who incarnate Him in community.  Our knowledge of God does not come from withdrawing from the world and ascending into the celestial realms, it comes from the historical incarnation of the divine in Jesus Christ.  It is what God has done in history and continues to do in the lives of His people where we encounter the full revelation of God.

In our current age, however, the way of “knowing” is greatly shaped by the ideas of Descartes and Francis Bacon who advocated that we must put aside all prejudicial ideas we have received from society and begin to create and structure our own way of knowing the world – by building up a body of “objective” knowledge, established by observation and experiment not by relying on ancient wisdom.  It is a way of knowing that relies on a particular “method and technique.”  And while it gives appearance of being neutral and objective, it still relies on our accepting certain assumptions of this new “scientific” tradition rather than on assumptions given us by ancient texts or wisdom.  (For example we must assume in this way of thinking that there is no purpose or telos in nature.  This in itself is an assumption that cannot be proven and it would seem to me that quantum mechanics challenges our ability to test such an assumption because there are in the end some things we cannot know not for the lack of proper equipment but because they are in fact not knowable from our human frame of reference).

christ3While Christian faith does not begin with our personal experience of Christ (the truth of Christianity is not determined by whether or not I believe or how deeply convicted I feel about Christ) neither does it begin with the written word.  For the Scriptures are not salvation – what God is doing in history – but a written record or report about what God has done or is doing – a recording of His revelation.  They are an inspired record, and reading them can bring about further inspiration but they are not the main work of God.    God’s main objective in interacting with creation was not to write about His revelation or to produce a book.   The Bible is not salvation but bears witness to what God is doing and to God’s saving action in the world.   As Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40).

What we encounter through the witness of the Scriptures and of the Church is the central mystery of God’s salvation – Jesus Christ, in the incarnate God.  What we find in the Scriptures, “words, even his words, are secondary to the reality of what he accomplished.”  We are invited to encounter this mystery through fellowship with His witnesses and ministers and through God’s people with Jesus Christ and God the Father (1 John 1:1-3).  We are called, according to the witness of Scripture and the Saints, not just to a belief – to an intellectual assent – but to fellowship which we find only in the Church, God’s people.   Baptism into Christ is Baptism into His Body, the Church.  In the Eucharistic Liturgy we not only receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ, the Church.

Continued  in How do we know about God? (2)

The Christian Witness B.C.

On the Sunday before Christmas the epistle reading takes excerpts from Hebrews 11:9-40, the great crowd of witnesses whose faith through adversity is testimony to their hope in God.  In a previous blog, The Heroes of Hebrews 11, I commented on this Epistle Lesson.   As Orthodoxy understands the Old Testament, even before Christ came to earth, the saints who encountered God’s Word and the prophets speaking God’s Word, had already encountered Christ and spoke about Him.  Christ is the key to understanding the Old Testament.  We honor in our Church those who witnessed to Christ before He became flesh.

St. Silouan the Athonite writes of this great cloud of witnesses which we learn about on the Sunday before the Nativity, all of those chosen people of God who worked for Christ, long before he came to earth:

forefathers1“O how infirm is my spirit. A little wind can blow it out like a candle; but the spirit of the saints glowed with fire like the burning bush, fearless of the wind. Who will give me such fire that I know rest neither by day nor by night from love of God? The love of God is a consuming fire. For the love of God the saints bore every affliction – it was love of God gave them the power to work miracles. They healed the sick, restored the dead to life. They walked upon the waters, were lifted into the air during prayer, and by their prayers they brought rain down from heaven. But all my desire is to learn humility and the love of Christ, that I may offend no man but pray for all as I pray for myself.”