Holy Thursday (2019)

On Holy Thursday we commemorate the the institution of the Mystical Supper of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-32,  Matthew 26:2-27:2).  Now in and through the Eucharist we are able to personally participate in the incarnation of God and to experience our salvation.  We the Christians become the Body of Christ continuing the incarnation throughout time. The Mystical Supper is instituted as part of Christ’s own diaconal service to us all for He first washes the feet of His disciples to give us the example of what salvation is and means.  Salvation is God’s love incarnate not in Christ alone but in and through the Body of Christ. Salvation is not merely that we cease sinning but that we become united to God. We all participate in this salvation and are to incarnate this love in our life and our world.

In sum, the Gospel of John understands the Eucharist not as a mere “cultic” and “sacramental” act, but primarily as a diaconal act and an alternative way of life with apparent social implications. For in those days, the washing of a disciple’s feet was more than an ultimate act of humble services and kenotic diakonia; it was an act of radical social behavior, in fact, a rite of inversion of roles within the society. To this should be added Jesus’ admonition to his disciples and through them to his Church: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The diaconal implication of the Johannine understanding of the Eucharist becomes quite evident.

It is almost an assured result of modern biblical and liturgical scholarship that the Eucharist was “lived” in the early Christian community as a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. It was experienced as a proleptic manifestation, within the tragic realties of history, of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, entailing no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between men and women. (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Sacred Text and Interpretation, p. 156)

Following the footwashing and the Supper, Christ and the disciples sang a hymn together – believed to be Psalm 118.  

Psalm 118, which is one of the most beautiful psalms in the entire Psalter. It is also one of the most simple….  It goes without saying that all the psalms are important to us. Yet Psalm 118 is especially important, since according to tradition it was the psalm sung by the Lord with His disciples at the Mystical Supper (cf. Mt. 26:30), moments before He handed Himself over for the life of the world. It is, then, a preeminently Eucharistic psalm, a psalm of thanksgiving.”  (Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 300)

Christ prepares Himself and His disciples for the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion by singing a hymn of Thanksgiving with them.  So for us every Divine Liturgy is Eucharistic – a thanksgiving to God for all that God has done and is doing for us and with us. On the very night Jesus is arrested He gives thanks to God as we commemorate every time we serve the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

For when He had come and had fulfilled all the plan of salvation for us, in the night in which He was given up – or rather, in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world – He took bread in His holy, pure, and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed it, and hallowed it, and broken it, He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying:Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.


And likewise, after supper, He took the cup, saying:  “Drink of it all of you! This is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.


Do this in remembrance of Me! Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the Second and glorious Coming.

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.

Imitating Christ

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

“If we wish to share in Christ’s lordship, we do so by serving others as he did. If we wish to share in his power, we do so by following him on a path of meekness, turning the other cheek. If we wish to share in his life, we do so by taking up his Cross. If he gives us a way out, it is not by avoiding the reality of our condition, but a way of using this condition – a condition of frailty, of limitedness, of mortality – of using all this to share in his peace, life, and love and so extend it to others.” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p 120)


But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

Holy Week: A Lesson in Ministry and Service to Others

While there are many and diverse themes running through the hymns of Holy Week, one theme that may get lost because we focus on the events in Christ’s last week of life on earth leading to His crucifixion is the call to us to imitate Christ in service to others.  While we find emotionally powerful meditating on how Christ’s suffering saves ME, the hymns speak to us about what it means to be a disciple, a Christian, a follower of Christ, namely to love the other.  The crucifixion is not about self love or saving myself, it is about self sacrifice for the salvation of others.   Christ actually said very little to us about forming sentimental or emotional attachments to or fixations on His life or His suffering.  He does however at the Last Supper wrap himself in the towel of a servant, wash His disciple’s feet and then tell us to imitate Him in serving others.  This is a major part of Holy Week, and at one point some considered foot washing to be a sacrament in the Church.  It is a sacrament, which like baptism, is lived out daily far beyond the bounds of the liturgical ritual.

Consider for example the Holy Tuesday Aposticha hymn:















The hymn calls to mind Christ’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which the servants are expected to do something with the gifts, wealth and resources the master gave them.  The hymn also ties in St. Paul’s discussions on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-14).  Thus in the midst of Holy Week, we are reminded of our responsibility as Christians to serve one another, the Church and the world itself. We are not called merely to contemplate the life and work of Christ – we are called to imitate Christ through the work that we do to His glory.  We are called to use the gifts and wealth that God has bestowed upon us in service of others.  That is a lesson of Holy Week that can be lost while we are so busy thinking about what Christ has done for me. (We would do well also to remember Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment which we read as part of our preparation for keeping Lent).   Consider the Holy Thursday Matins hymn known as the IKOS:

Let us all approach the mystical table in fear

and receive the Bread with pure souls;

and let us stay with the Master so that we may see

how He washes His disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel. 

Let us do as we have seen Him do,

submitting to one another and washing one another’s feet,

for Christ Himself thus commanded His disciples.

But the servant and deceiver Judas did not take heed.

[Take special note:  Judas did not take heed to the lessons being offered by Christ at the Last Supper!  Certainly we are being warned not to  be like or imitate Judas.  We are to imitate our LORD Jesus Christ and be a servant instead of being self-serving.]

The liturgical commemoration of the Mystical Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet in the hymns does not just focus on the historical events but calls us to imitate Christ in becoming servants one to another.  The hymns remind us not to get lost in the beauty of the services or in contemplating past history, but to learn the lessons offered to us by Christ about being servants and to get up and imitate Him in our relationship to the Church and our fellow Christians.  [Unfortunately, in current Orthodox liturgical practice and in many Orthodox parishes the commemoration of the Mystical supper and the foot washing (done at Holy Thursday Vespers) is given secondary status as the pious focus has become the crucifixion of Christ as commemorated in the Holy Friday Matins service – a piety which seems more Western and Protestant than Orthodox.  It is Western piety, particularly Protestant, which places almost exclusive emphasis on the crucifixion of Christ as being the act of salvation.  This emphasis is true to Western Christian theology’s focus on justification and the substitutionary death of Christ, but totally downplays the incarnation and ignores salvation as the union of God with humanity.  It turns a blind eye and deaf ear to the theology of the incarnation, to sacramental theology and to salvation as deification.  But I digress.]

One final hymn from the Aposticha of Holy Thursday:












Christ the True Vine

The hymn calls us to imitate Christ in servant leadership, in humility, in bearing spiritual fruit (see also my blog Hierarchical Power: Self-Appointed Tyranny? Which likewise looks at some hymns from Holy Week).   The hymns do discuss the historical events of Holy Week, but don’t direct our attention to the past, but rather tell us Holy Week teaches us how to live in the present: as imitators of Christ.  Sometimes Orthodox are tempted  always and only to look to the past, or to look to the future Kingdom of Heaven.  But our hymns tell us not to be so heavenly minded so as to be of no earthly good, as Oliver Wendell Holmes quipped.  Rather we are to live the divine presence today in our lives as we related to others.  We are called not just to meditate on Christ’s life, but to imitate it.  Tradition is not a focus on how things were done in the past, but is a living Tradition – it tells us how to live in the present to prepare ourselves for the future.

To be Ruled Well is Typical of the Wise Person

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) wrote:

“Therefore no one is chosen to rule over a community of brothers, unless, before he himself exercises authority, he has learned by obedience how he should command those who will be subject to him and has understood from the institutes of the elders what he should pass on to the young.  For they declare that to rule well and to be ruled well is typical of the wise person.”

St. John was writing about choosing the leader of a monastic community, but in the church his thoughts apply well to the selection of a bishop as well.  Abbots and bishops are commonly thought of as the ordained leaders of Orthodox communities; persons to be obeyed by virtue of their office.

According to Cassian we learn to command through the humble practice of being obedient.  If we haven’t spent years in the church experiencing that humble obedience, we are not prepared to become Christian leaders.  St. John says NO ONE is chosen to rule over a community who has failed to learn by obedience the wisdom of discipleship.  Obviously in the modern age such wisdom is seen as an ideal for indeed men are put in leadership positions – as abbots, priests and bishops – who have not had the years of experiencing learning the wisdom of discipleship.  We ask them to lead when they don’t understand the very people they are to lead – disciples, because they didn’t spend sufficient time in that role.

Cassian’s wisdom is that before someone can be put in a position which demands obedience of others, they must first learn to live in obedience and learn the value of obedience.  A failure in Christian leadership is often the chosen leader has not in fact ever lived for years in obedience learning the wisdom of that life.  Instead they are put in positions of power and demand obedience without any understanding of how obedience is an act of voluntary love and a way to follow Christ – to be His disciple.  The Christian leader is first of all a servant, imitating Christ’s washing the feet of His disciples, and fulfilling the life of self-sacrificial love as well.

Without living for years in obedience as an act of love, no Christian leader will be able to imitate or exhibit the love Jesus had as leader, Master, Messiah, God’s Son.  It seems in America at least monks can start monasteries and live as abbots without ever having spent years voluntarily serving others.  So they have no sense whatsoever about what Christian leadership means because they have never learned what constitutes being a disciple.  Some in fact seem to be self appointed abbots, starting monasteries without having lived in them.

Both ruling well and being ruled well are signs of the wise person say St. John.

Cassian had it right that the wise man knows how to be ruled – knows the importance of the other brothers and sisters in Christ, and as St. Paul says, that person must do whatever they do in love.    For St. Paul at least such love means  taking into account “the weaker ones” no matter how correct the leader might think he is.

St. John Cassian laments that men “declare ourselves abbas before we profess ourselves disciples.”

That is of course the path of unpreparedness for any who want to be bishops.

Before many a man ever lived as a parishioner, he wants to be bishop over parishes.  Before he has learned to be a disciple, he wishes to be master, despot.

Remember the Twelve, they too jockeyed to sit at the right hand of Christ, and debated which of them was the greatest.  Their concerns earned them serious rebuke from the Son of God.

There is a reality about the Church which is sometimes forgotten.  To enter the Kingdom of Christ, we must be Christian.  One can enter the Kingdom without being a bishop.  But in the Kingdom all must be Christians – disciples of the only Master and only Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.    When one shows that he has not learned to be a disciple, has not learned the wisdom of obedience, then not only is he no real bishop, his own salvation is put at risk.  It is far more loving and merciful for the church to take away the title of bishop from someone so that they can learn to be a disciple, than to try to preserve their episcopacy but cause them to lose entrance into God’s Kingdom.

See also my blogs:  Adventures in Wonderland and Metropolitan Council: What Were You Discussing?

St. John Chrysostom (C)

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (B).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.   This is the third blog dealing with St. John Chrysostom.

The basic method of teaching which St. John Chrysostom advocated was the careful and creative use of biblical stories. First the parents take turns telling the child a biblical story on several different occasions. The story can be used to address a specific problem in the child’s life or behavior.  Then the parents tell the story asking the child to fill in details or asking them questions about the story’s details. Then, the child should be asked to tell the complete story in his or her own words. Then the lessons begin to focus on the story’s meanings for daily living.

Beside the use of story and repetition, Chrysostom relentless advocated teaching by example.  He believed that many things that Christ did as a human being were done as an example to us for how we are to behave as humans. Prayer and fasting were not “needed” by the Son of God, but as the perfect man, he shows us the way to perfection.

But, as I was going to say to prevent you from suspecting that Christ had a lowly nature because of the lowliness of what he did, listen to what he said to them after he washed their feet. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”  Do you see that he did many things so as to give an example.  A teacher who is full of wisdom stammers along with his stammering young students.  But the teacher’s stammering does not come from a lack of learning; it is a sign of the concern he feels toward the children.  In the same way, Christ did not do these things because of the lowliness of his essence.  He did them because he was condescending and accommodating himself to us”   (St. John Chrysostom,  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p. 248).

As teachers, we are to imitate Christ and be examples to our students.  As St. Peter wrote to church leaders, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  This is as true for bishops as for priests, teachers or parents.

Next:  Conclusion

Patience as An Active Love for Others

Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples,

if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:35)

Our having love for others is the behavior by which all people should readily be able to identify any of us as a Christian.  While loving others might be practiced by anyone on earth, Christians are supposed to be recognizable through this love.  Loving others is not an option for us. 

It is within Christian community – family, parish, monastery, prayer group or wherever 2 or 3 gather in the name of Jesus – that we have opportunity to practice this love.  St. John Cassian who is often credited with having brought the ideals of monastic community to the Christian West, wrote a great deal about what it takes for Christians to survive in community and for the communities to thrive.

“Therefore God, the Creator of all things, knowing better than anyone else how to right his handiwork and that the roots and causes of our offenses lie not in others but in ourselves, commanded that the company of the brothers should not be forsaken and that those persons should not be avoided who have been hurt by us or by whom we think that we have been offended.  Instead, he orders that they be won over, for he knows that perfection of heart is attained not by separation from human beings but by the virtue of patience.  When this is firmly possessed it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace.”   (John Cassian, The Institutes, pg 212)

We learn to love and we practice our Christian love by dealing with other people.  We cannot learn patience with others by living alone or avoiding others.  It would be self-deception to go and live a solitary life and then imagine you have learned patience with others.  We learn patience, love, compassion, empathy, sympathy, charity as Christians by dealing with all kinds of people, including those we have offended, those who we don’t particularly like, and those who have offended us.  Our love will not grow by avoiding those we have offended or who have offended us, though it might grow cold!

St. Basil the Great once questioned solitary monks, “Whose feet will you wash?”   He was of course referring to the foot washing Gospel lesson in John 13:1-17 in which Jesus tells us to imitate his humility, his servant leadership, his love for others.  If there is no one around us whose feet we are to wash, then we cannot imitate Jesus.

Dealing with others requires patience, and patience is not a passive ideal, but rather an active form of love.