The Prodigal is Edified

Commenting on the parable of The Prodigal Son, Archimandrite Zacharias says:

32090123173_001743df9e_nMost of us live outside our heart, and our mind is in a constant state of confusion.  Some good thoughts may surface from time to time, but the majority will be harmful, and this destructive condition will prevail for as long as we continue to ignore our heart.  But in the end the pain is too much to bear and we begin to seek the way back.  Remembering his father’s house, the prodigal son comes to himself and says, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s house have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!‘ We all have buried memories of our Father’s house, for our soul will forever retain traces of the grace of being clothed with Christ in Holy Baptism.  Moreover, each time we partake of the Holy Mysteries, our being is indelibly marked with God’s goodness.  In the heart of the prodigal, now, another humble thought surfaces: ‘I will arise and go to my father…‘  The process of inner regeneration has now begun, for he has resolved to rise from his fall.  Having seen the reality of his perdition, he now returns within himself and towards God.  His dynamic increase in God has begun.  He is ready to be enlightened and cleansed, for he has begun to speak truthfully with God from the depth of his heart.  The prayers of a fragmented mind have neither clarity nor depth, but a mind that is reunited with the heart overflows with humble prayer and has such strength that it reaches the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.‘ 

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Man then discovers the power of humility, and sees that the only right attitude is to render all glory and honor to God, and to himself ‘the shame of face‘ (Dan 9:7, LXX) because of his sins.  He now puts all his trust in the Father’s mercy, and no longer in his own corrupt self, and this disposition of heart leads to true repentance.  As we read in one of the great ‘kneeling prayers’ at Pentecost: ‘Against Thee we have sinned, but Thee only do we worship.’  We are sinful and unworthy of His mercy, but we have full confidence in Him Whom we worship.  This ‘but’ cannot be said without faith, and this faith is the rock upon which we build our spiritual life.”  (REMEMBER THY FIRST LOVE, pp 130-131)

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The Prodigal Son and Our Father

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St Gregory of Nyssa connects the parable of The Prodigal Son to the Lord’s prayer as both bring us to think about God as our Father.

“‘Who art in Heaven’ (Mt 6:9)

These words I think have a very deep meaning.  They remind us of the homeland we have abandoned, of the citizenship we have lost.

In the parable of the young man who left his father’s house, went off the rails and was reduced to living with pigs, the Word of God shows us human wretchedness.

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That young man did not find his one-time happiness again until he had realized his moral degradation, had looked into his own heart and had pronounced the words of confession.

These words almost agree with the Lord’s Prayer, because the prodigal son says: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.‘ (Luke 15:21)

He would not confess himself to be a sinner against heaven if he were not convinced that the homeland he had left at the time of his going astray were not in actual fact heaven.

By this confession of his he makes himself worthy once again to stand in the presence of his father who runs towards him, embraces him, and kisses him.

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The conclusion is this:  To return to heaven there is only one route and that is to admit one’s sinfulness and seek to avoid it.  To make the decision to avoid it is already to be perfecting one’s likeness to God.”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 345-346)

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Seeking God in Scripture

“Jesus said, ‘Seek, and you will find‘ (Mt 7:7).   . . .

St Ephrem, a fourth century Doctor of the Church, has these beautiful words of wisdom for those who approach the fountains of the living word (Commentary on the Diatessaron, 1.18-19):

The thirsty man rejoices when he drinks and he is not downcast because he cannot empty the fountain.  Rather let the fountain quench your thirst than have your thirst quench the fountain.  Because if your thirst is quenched and the fountain is not exhausted you can drink from it again and whenever you are thirsty.  Be grateful for what you have received and do not grumble about the abundance left behind.  What you have received and what you have reached is your share, what remains is your heritage.

. . .  St Jerome said: ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’”  (Renu Rita Silvano, SEEKING JESUS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, pp 13-14)

Stewardship and the Wealthiest Nation on Earth

The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers.  (Psalm 24:1-2, quoted at the burial commital)

For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”   (1 Corinthians 10:26)

The Fathers‘ fundamental understanding of property was as gift or more often as a loan, something that God has given to the rich for use of all.  Every owner is therefore a steward, someone charged with the social administration of goods for the benefit of one’s poorer brethren.  When they refuse to share, the wealthy become evil and, paradoxically, thieves with respect to their own property, for they divert it from its proper destination and thus have deprived it of its being a loan for social use.

St John Chrysostom was the most radical, truly an apostle of social ethics. ‘The rich are stealing from the poor even if what they have is honestly acquired or legally inherited.’  ‘In refusing to give and to share we thus earn the punishment of thieves.  We are as guilty as the tax collectors who use the money of all for their own needs.’  ‘The rich are a kind of robber.’  ‘Do not say, I enjoy what is mine.  You are enjoying the property of others.  All the things of this earth belong to all of us together, just as the sun, the air, the ground and everything else.’  Even later, in the eleventh century, St Simeon the New Theologian would echo what St John Chrysostom said in his homilies. ‘Money and all other goods are the common property of all,  just as the light and the air we breath.’

… The sole owner of the earth is the Lord and this is why the earth is holy and belongs to all.”  (Paul Evdokimov, IN THE WORLD, OF THE CHURCH, pp 82-83)


… your Father who is in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:45)

Praying Correctly

“Let us pray neither for show nor against our enemies, and let us not be arrogant to think that we can teach Him [God] the method of assistance. . . .  Did you tell Him your injury?  Did you tell Him everything you suffered?  Do not tell Him these and how to help you, because He realizes exactly your best interest.  However, there are many who, in prayer, recite thousands of verses, saying: ‘Lord, grant me physical health, double all my possessions, repel my enemy from me.’  This is completely absurd.

We must dismiss all these things and pray and supplicate only as did the publican, who repeatedly said: ‘God be merciful unto me a sinner.’ Afterwards, He knows how to help you.  For He says, ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.‘  Therefore, in this way, my brethren, let us pursue wisdom with toil and humility, beating our breasts like the publican, and we will succeed in getting whatever we ask for; but when we pray filled with anger and wrath, we are hated by God and are found to be an abomination before Him.

Let us crush our thought, humble our souls, and pray for ourselves as well as for those who have hurt us.  For when you want to persuade the Judge to help your soul and take your part, never pit Him against the one who grieved you.  For such is the character of the Judge, that, above all, He sanctions and grants the requests of those who pray for their enemies, who do not bear malice, who do not rise up against their enemies.  As long as they remain unrepentant, however, God fights them all the more.”  (St John Chrysostom, ON REPENTANCE AND ALMSGIVING, pp 52-53)

A Prayer attributed to St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, is written in the spirit of St John Chrysostom’s comments on prayer above:

My Lord, I know not what I should ask of You.  You alone know my true needs.  You love me more than I am able to love.  O Father, grant to me, Your servant, all which I cannot ask.  For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;  I dare only to stand in Your presence.  My heart is open to You.  You see my needs of which I am unaware.

Behold and lift me up!  In Your presence I stand, awed and silenced by Your will and Your judgments, into which my mind cannot penetrate.  To You I offer myself as a sacrifice.  I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will.  Teach me how to pray.  Pray Yourself within me.  Amen.

Wisdom, Torah and Christ

King David with Wisdom & Prophecy

A more obvious parallel is the identification of divine Wisdom with the Torah. This identification is already made and made with much greater explicitness in Sir 24:23

All these things [the varying descriptions of Wisdom] are the book of the covenant of the Most High, the law which Moses commanded us, as an inheritance for the assemblies of Jacob.  It fills with wisdom like the Pishon. . .

Very similar is the great hymn in Bar 3:9-37, which climaxes with the thought of Wisdom’s appearance on earth and, again, immediate identification with the Torah.  ‘Afterward he appeared upon the earth and lived among humans. She is the book of the commandments of God, the law which endures for ever...’  (3:38-4:1).

In both cases it would be equally easy to speak of the preexistence of the Torah, and many do.  But it would be more accurate to say that the highest wisdom of God has been made available to Israel in and through the law.  Israel now had access to the wisdom which had been God’s mode of working from the beginning (Sir 24:9), the wisdom which was the secret of good living (Bar 3:14; 4:4).  It was there in the law.  It was the law.  In other words, it was not so much that the law was preexistent as that preexistent Wisdom was now to be recognized as the law.

In effect what Paul and the other first Christians were doing was putting Christ in this equation in place of the Torah. . . .   Paul had in fact already explicitly identified Christ as God’s Wisdom – in 1 Cor 1:24 and 30: ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God‘ (1:24); ‘who has become wisdom for us from God, righteousness, holiness, and redemption‘ (1:30).  …

Christ The Divine Wisdom

The claim being made, then, is the astonishing one that the foolishness of the cross, the proclamation of Christ crucified, is the real measure of divine wisdom (1:21-25).  The thought is probably very similar to that in ben Sira and Baruch and implicit in 1 Cor 8:6: that Jesus Christ is the clearest exposition and explanation of divine Wisdom, that the cross is the fullest embodiment of the wisdom which created the universe and which humans need if they are to live the good life.  … So the creating Wisdom of God can be most clearly recognized now through identification with the crucified Christ.”  (James Dunn, THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE, pp 273-274)

In the Septuagint, it is clear that the Divine Wisdom was present at the creation of the world.  The Jewish scriptures made a connection between the Divine Wisdom and Torah, linking them together.  Torah became the way that Wisdom was incarnate before the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ.   The New Testament and the Church Fathers then identified the Divine Wisdom with Christ, the Word of God.  Despite Wisdom being a feminine word in Greek, the Fathers clearly identify Christ as the Divine Wisdom, an idea which shows up in many icons of Wisdom.  Additionally, the Great Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) is dedicated to Christ.  The Orthodox were convinced that the Word of God is the Wisdom of God.

The World as a Passageway to the Kingdom

The Elder Aimilianos writes:

“In general, the Fathers were concerned about the Kingdom of heaven, and in a certain manner theologized based on their personal, spiritual revelations and eschatological experiences.  That is, they saw the world as a figure, a prelude, a passageway to the kingdom of God.  This is why they always endeavored to raise the human person from earth to heaven.

The Church Fathers saw the Old Testament as a foreshadowing of the New.   The events of the Old Testament and even the words of the text were seen as both revealing Christ and hiding Christ.  The saints of the Old Testament saw Christ, but only at a distance or in shadow or in a prefiguring.  Only when the Word became flesh in Christ was the reality revealed.  According to the Elder Aimilianos, life now on earth is similarly a prelude to the reality of the Kingdom.  We must live this life on earth, yet it remains only the passageway to the reality for which we hope and desire.  As such, this world is viewed as temporary or transitional, or the path upon which we must trod to reach our destination.  The things of this world for the Fathers are to be viewed in this perspective – their import is not eternal or permanent but is passing away.  This spirituality caused the Fathers to see this world as of secondary importance to our eternal lives.  Thus through the centuries, the Orthodox spiritual writers did not focus very much on studying the world, but rather were far more interested in the world to come which they believed was the only true reality.  Or, as Galileo puts it, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”  This was indeed the interest of the Fathers.

The Elder continues:

The Fathers did not focus their theology on matters pertaining to this world.  This is why they did not produce a theology of marriage.  They certainly taught marriage, and taught things about marriage, but always with an emphasis on raising the human mind from marriage itself to what marriage represents and symbolizes.  St Paul does the same thing when he says that ‘marriage is a a great mystery concerning Christ and the Church.'”  (THE MYSTICAL MARRIAGE: Spiritual Life According to St Maximos the Confessor, p 120)

Thus for the Fathers, as the Elder notes, even marriage for them was not about living on earth, but a way to experience salvation, to experience a way to the Kingdom of God.  The Fathers didn’t produce a theology of marriage because they were not very interested in the physical life in the material world.  They were focused on raising people from this world to heaven.   Marriage was not an absolute for them for it really only belonged to the fallen world and they weren’t trying to figure our how to better enjoy this world.  Though Orthodox concerned about the culture wars proclaim Orthodoxy has a clear idea of marriage, Elder Aimilianos says, “not so.”   There still are plenty of things for the Church to discuss today.

Liturgy and Architecture

Growing up in the Orthodox Church, I frequently heard about the unchanging nature of Orthodoxy.  This idea was often applied to our liturgical practices and used to defend or justify practices which seemed to lack purpose any more.  Doesn’t matter since Orthodoxy was unchanging, liturgical baggage had to be continued because it had become part of Orthodoxy.  The mindset is very conservative, saying the current practices cannot be changed.  [If you ask many Orthodox why they do a particular liturgical practice, often you will get an explanation that tells you when the practice originated in history. The answer will tell you why the practice was adopted in the 14th Century, but doesn’t tell you why we are still doing it today.  If you ask Orthodox why bishops dress with a miter and Byzantine vestments, you might learn that many of these things were imposed by the Turks on the Orthodox when the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottomans.  But that doesn’t explain why Orthodox who were never under the Ottomans feel they have to wear vestments which were to remind the Orthodox that they were conquered and part of the dhimmi.  Nor does it say why Orthodox today continue to follow this practice.  Why not resort to more ancient practices or practices which better reflect the Orthodox understanding of liturgy and the Body of Christ?]

Some church historians note that Orthodox conservatism and refusal to change had hardened over time, but didn’t represent the attitude in the early centuries of Orthodoxy.  In fact, many historians of liturgy would say early Byzantium and Greek Orthodoxy were the sources of much liturgical change and innovation as compared to other ancient Christian traditions.  The static attitude of the past few centuries is thought by some to be more related to the huge social and historical upheavals the Orthodox experienced – the Turkish conquest of Byzantium and the more recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia.  As events beyond their control took over the lives of Orthodox, the Orthodox tried to preserve their past even by petrifying things liturgically.  My dogmatics professor from seminary, who was himself quite traditional, used to say the church becomes reactionary only in times of decadence.  When the church is healthy, it is alive liturgically and allows the liturgy to change in order to best reflect eternal truths to the current generation.  Thus for him, the liturgically conservative attitude grew because the Church itself was decadent and weak.

These thoughts came to my as I finished reading Liturgy and Architecture by Louis Bouyer.  Bouyer, a brilliant Roman Catholic scholar, was writing in 1967 in the aftermath of Vatican II.  The Roman Church was just beginning its liturgical upheaval and Bouyer was writing to offer some guidance to the Church about liturgical change and the architecture of the church building.  He had a rather favorable impression of the Orthodox Church.  And he like many historians pointed out that of all the ancient Christian traditions, the Greek Byzantine tradition in its earlier centuries were very creative and innovative in changing the liturgy to reflect its true purpose.  He notes the Byzantine architects got it right in abandoning the basilica as the normative shape for a church building.

“When this has been understood the first thing which must be evident is that the temple, which is to house the church congregated into one, with the living Christ in the midst of her, should tend to create such a conjunction, or at least have nothing which can be a hindrance to its achievement.  Whenever it is possible all those relics of the basilica which tend to divide the congregation into separate blocks – those who are in the nave and those who are relegated to the aisles, and where there is a transept those members who are in both parts of the transept – should be discarded by architects, as they were discarded by the first Byzantine builders.” (pp 92-93)

The church building for Christians is to help us experience a community in which the living Christ stands in her midst.  And the people are one Body.   The church building is the place where we experience the intersection and interfacing of heaven and earth, the divine and the human, the spiritual and the physical, the angelic and the secular, the living and the dead, saints and sinners.  All comes together in Christ and is bound together by Christ.  The building is to help us experience this healing and reunification of all that had become alienated and separated and divided by human sin.  The building as well as the liturgy should help us experience the union of all in Christ.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

Bouyer describes the ancient Byzantine Orthodox as leading the way for changing things liturgically and architecturally to make the building and the liturgy our main means for experiencing the unity of all in Christ.

“If we only realize the pattern of worship which these different forms all tried to embody, we are today as free as were the great Byzantine architects to invent new forms for our own times, as long as they will prove as well adapted to their purpose as those of the past.” (p 87)

Orthodoxy was not in its heyday intransigent and ossified, but was vibrant and making liturgical changes to help it fulfill its ministry.   The unity of all of the people of God was a main purpose of both liturgy and church building.  The shape of the building itself was to foster community, not division.

What Bouyer describes as the liturgy of the early church is an effort to overcome all divisions and to unite all the people into one Body.  The clergy weren’t praying on behalf of the people or for the people, but with them.   All were praying together.  As Bouyer describes it the bishop or presiding clergy really stood in the midst of the congregation and led the liturgical motions, which the people also did with the presiding celebrant.  [For example, when the celebrant said, “let us lift up our hearts” and raised his hands in prayer, so did all the people.  The clergy was neither acting on behalf of the congregation nor telling them what they should be doing.  The clergy did what everyone then also did.]   The clergy don’t give the people a blessing, but only pronounced God’s blessings on all.  The clergy need the blessing as well.  The clergy didn’t have power the rest didn’t but claimed and proclaimed what was common to all.   The clergy didn’t act on behalf of the people (in place of them) but only with them.  The clergy were part of the community and could act as clergy only within the gathering of people.  The presiding clergy weren’t busy with all kinds of liturgical priest craft that the people didn’t participate in, but rather, for the sake of order led the prayer that all were saying with the clergy.  All the people were engaged in the same action (liturgy means common work of the people) of submitting themselves (community) to God.  They were being transformed from being individuals into being members of the the Body of Christ.  All are co-workers with the clergy and Christ.  We become Christ in the Body as community not as individuals.

Obviously, a lot changed in Orthodoxy over time.  Hopefully, Orthodoxy will become healthy enough to change again.

The Heart As God’s Temple

As we celebrate the feast of The Meeting of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple we realize that the Temple’s purpose was fulfilled – it became the place where God came to earth.  But now Christ is the living temple and so the Temple as a building or area was no longer needed.  In a certain sense, its destruction was a natural result of the fact that it had become superfluous in the life of the people of God.  Christ is everything the Temple was ever meant to be or symbolize.  This idea is already reflected in early Christian writings.  Origen (martyred in 254AD) writes that all of the purpose of the temple ended with the coming of Christ.  The destruction of the Temple was simply eliminating something no longer needed for salvation:

“But when the Word became flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:14), his earthly presence in Jerusalem, with its temple and altar and everything that was borne there, was torn down, at that time her [Israel’s] husband died, i.e., the law according to the letter.  Or will it not rightly be said in this section that the message of the law is dead, since no sacrifices, no priesthood, and no ministries associated with the Levitical order are being offered?  It cannot punish the murderer or stone the adulteress, for the Roman authorities avenge themselves on these things.

Do you still doubt whether the law according to the letter is dead?  No male goes up to appear before the Lord three times a year (Ex 23:17; 34:23; Dt 16:16); no sheep is being slaughtered at the Passover festival in the city that is believed the Lord God had chosen (Dt 16:2); no offering of the piles of first-fruits are being celebrated; no leprous diseases and no defilement of sin are being cleansed.  It is possible to doubt in all these things that the letter of the law is dead?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 6-10, p 25)

For Origen, the Temple served a similar purpose as the Old Testament Scriptures – they were the covering or flesh of the pre-incarnate Word of God.  But when the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ the shadow of the law as well as the Temple was no longer needed for the Word no longer needed such a covering as He had been fully revealed.  He no loner was hidden in the written word or in the Temple.  Now God was present in Christ in the world.  And Origen realizes that even all that was written about the Temple really was prophecy about Christ.  Jesus has entered the real Temple in heaven as is described in the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 9:11-12, 24).  As Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer says:

“… from now on the Shekinah no longer simply dwells in a sanctuary in the midst of its people: it makes their reconciled hearts its sanctuary.”  (EUCHARIST, p 39)

The Feast of the Lord entering the Temple in Jerusalem is the beginning of God coming to dwell in the hearts of His people rather than in a building, which could never contain Him (2 Chronicles 2:6, 6:18).   No longer do we need concern ourselves with a temple in Jerusalem, for now each of our hearts becomes God’s dwelling place.

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)

The Great Doxology

“First of all every holy rite begins with the doxology:  ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ Intercourse with God consists of thanksgiving, doxology, confession, and petition.  The first of these is doxology, because when grateful servants approach their Master it is fitting that they should begin not by pushing their own affairs into the foreground, but should concentrate on those of their Master.  Such is the nature of doxology.

In petitioning we have in mind the advancement of our own interests.  In confession we seek to be delivered from evils, and accuse ourselves.  In giving thanks we clearly rejoice in the good things which we enjoy.  But in doxology we lay aside ourselves and all our interests and glorify the Lord for his own sake, for his power and his glory.  And so the very nature and the appropriateness of the act demand that the doxology should come first.  Immediately we approach God we recognize the inaccessibility and force and grandeur of his glory, and are filled with wonder and awe and similar feelings.  This is indeed doxology.  We go on to recognize this goodness and love for mankind, and this gives rise to thanksgiving.

Then we consider his exceeding goodness and the liberality of his love for mankind, counting our own wickedness as the first and sufficient proof of that generosity and liberality, for whatever our shortcomings he continues to crown us with blessings.  This is something which is near at hand within us, before our very eyes, and it proves to us more than anything else how much God loves mankind.  And so we remember our sins before God, and this is called confession.  The fourth element is petition.  It follows that we can be confident that our requests for our needs will be granted, for we have just learned something of God’s goodness and his love for mankind.

He who has been good to those who were still sinners will surely be more so to those who have repented, and have become righteous by avowing their sins, according to the words of the prophet: ‘First confess yours sins in order that you may be justified.”  (St Nicholas Cabasilas, A COMMENTARY ON THE DIVINE LITURGY,  pp 43-44)