The Conception of St John the Forerunner

The events of Luke 1:5-25 describe the miraculous events which prophesied the conception of St John the Forerunner.  His parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were considered by God to be holy, and yet there earthly marriage had not been blessed with children, a very troubling sign for any believer in ancient Israel.

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

The Gospel lesson for today is perhaps a hopeful message for any couple wanting to have a baby, but having a difficult time conceiving a child.  That being said, I don’t think that is the main lesson of this passage.  Rather than promising that childless couples will be given children, the very point of this lesson is that God was bringing about a rare and unusual event  – God is intervening in history and changing history for God is now working out His plan for the salvation of the world.  If Zacharias and Elizabeth already had 5-6 children, having another one wouldn’t be miraculous.   How would one know that God had helped bring it about, if it was already a common occurrence for this couple?    Like the Virgin birth of Jesus, the conception of John the Baptist is miraculous precisely because it is unheard of – an aged woman, past her natural childbearing years, gets pregnant.  Nature couldn’t make this happen – it happens because God has intervened in history to make something seemingly impossible to occur.  The Gospel narrative wants us to understand that what happens is an intervention from God, not something that was inevitable or natural or expected.

We see in this lesson both Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias are considered blameless, free of sin, and righteous before God.  So we know that their inability to conceive a child is not some punishment from God.  Having children is certainly considered blessed in the Scriptures, and to be unable to produce offspring was very troubling to couples as they had to wonder if they were somehow being punished by God for their sins.  But the Scriptures make it clear in this case, Elizabeth and Zacharias are not to  blame for having no children.  And we know from later in the Gospel lesson, that both of them had even prayed for children.  Here they are good people, righteous people, praying people, and yet their prayers had not been answered, and they did not receive the blessing they had hoped for.  And what they are hoping for – a child – is not something supernatural.  All they want is to have a normal life – they are only asking for something normal, not miraculous.  So we see that even the righteous and blameless don’t get everything they want, and sometimes are even denied a “normal” life.  We can all learn from Elizabeth and  Zacharias about dealing with life’s frustrations – no prosperity Gospel for these Gospel saints!  The story suggests now that they are old, they are no longer worrying about having children.  They remain faithful to God and have accepted their lot in life.  Even if friends and neighbors whisper about them that they must have sinned somehow and lost God’s favor – they were denied the natural joy of children because God was dealing with them.

We can learn from this, that we might not receive some blessings in life which we dearly want.  And it may not be because of sin, or because our prayers aren’t acceptable, or because God is ignoring us.  It may not be that our prayers are greedy or grasping – we might simply want to be normal, we might simply want what everyone else has, or what is natural to have.   Even saints in our tradition had to deal with disappointment, not having their holy dreams fulfilled, not being blessed as much as other people.  It is not necessarily a sign that one is in God’s disfavor. What may be happening is that God’s plan is being worked out but we have limited vision and cannot see the big picture or a big enough picture to understand what is happening in our lives.  Here is a call for us to trust the Lord God.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zacharias is terrified at seeing an angel at the altar of incense.  But this angel tells him that God in fact has heard his prayer and that Elizabeth is going to get pregnant and give him a son.  This is a true miracle!  Not only will Zacharias be given a son, but this son is chosen and blessed by God, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He is going to do God’s will.  The son is going to be everything a righteous priest might hope for.  It is worth waiting on the Lord, even if you have to wait 40 years before you receive a holy gift from God.

And we do learn in this a lesson about our prayer life, especially about constantly asking God to grant us things.  God hears our prayer, but answers them in His time.  We want everything to be done instantly, and God answers in eternity.  And we learn that we should be careful what we ask for ourselves in this world, because God is working out His eternal plan, and we might find God’s answer to our prayers to come at a time we least expect it, in a way we don’t want, and fulfilling His plan more than ours!

And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”

Despite the fact that Zacharias is amazed at the appearance of the angel, he is not so amazed that he believes what the angel tells him.  One might think that just the appearance of the angel would have been enough of a miracle to convince Zacharias that something special was happening.  But Zacharias wants some sign better than an angel appearing to him.  The angel appearing to him is not sign enough for Zacharias.

But Zacharias may have been thinking, “Great, now that I’m an old man, now you are going to give me a son?  Why couldn’t you have done this 40 years ago when it mattered?  My wife and I are too old for this!”

And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.

Zacharias was not convinced that the angel himself was enough evidence that something miraculous was to occur.  He demanded a sign, and so the angel gives him one – Zacharias is to be struck dumb, his voice is muted completely.  Later in Luke’s Gospel we realize Zacharias is apparently deaf as well (Luke 1:62-64).  He is completely silenced because he wouldn’t believe the voice of the angel – he can neither hear nor speak.  He is not going to be able to tell anyone what he saw, but will come to realize in due time that his wife in fact is pregnant.  And even when he realizes that, he still will be deaf and unable to speak, not knowing if God will ever allow him to hear anything but his own thoughts, yet never able to share them with others.

And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.

Perhaps one of the lessons here is be careful what you ask in prayer.   Make sure you ask for things that you will be happy with no matter how God answers your prayer or  when God chooses to answer it.  Ask only for those things that even if the prayer isn’t answered until 40 years later, you will still want to receive it!  Again, it is lesson to pray for things with an eternal significance, not things that we want immediately but are of no long term consequence.

And be prepared to surrender the blessing you receive back to God.  For Zacharias and Elizabeth’s son would be executed by King Herod – not because their son did any evil.  For as the promise notes, their son will not even drink alcohol.  He will be holy, and even so, he will be martyred because of his faithfulness to God.

St. John the Forerunner, pray to God for us!

May we all want true holiness in our lives and in our families, even if that means we will suffer for the Lord.

Do You Really Want to Know God’s Will?

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.    (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

One day I was alone in prayer at the church.  Struggling with knowing what God’s will was for me.  Kneeling before God with a heavy heart, I asked for His guidance.  Then came to me this question:

“Do you really want to know what God’s will is?”

My initial reaction was a joyful “yes! of course!”   My life would be easier if I knew what God’s will was for me.  But then a calmer and wiser word came to mind.  I had to think.   If I knew God’s will and did it, then I wouldn’t disappoint God again by following my own way and not God’s.

But a more compelling thought came to my mind.  “NO!  I don’t want to know.” For if I don’t know God’s will and fail to do it, I can plead ignorance and ask for mercy.  But if I know God’s will and can’t or don’t do it or, even worse, won’t do it, then I have no excuse for not doing it, and little justification for asking for mercy.  Indeed, God’s will really is above and beyond my understanding, and there are simple commandments (like the Thessalonians passage above that I can do).

 O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and for evermore.  (Psalm 131)

In the words of St John Climacus:

Looking into what is above us has no good conclusion. The Judgment of the Lord concerning us is incomprehensible. Through his divine providence He usually elects to conceal His will from us, understanding that, if we were to know it, we would disobey it, and on this account we would receive a harsher punishment.  (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Kindle Location 2466-2468)

 

Obedience to God’s Will

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

As we begin Great Lent, we know the goal of any self denial, fasting, asceticism is to allow ourselves to set aside our own will so that we can come to recognize and do the will of God.   It is not so much that fasting is doing the will of God, but in practicing control over our own desires, we can come to realize there is in the universe another will essential to our existence – the will of God. We can actually know the will of God and do it.   But that happens only when we dial down the volume of our own verbose will so that we can become aware of God’s will, and then pursue it.

“But is the human ego (or self) something other than the human soul? In fact, the ego is nothing other than the soul. Here, two states are possible. First, the soul might be totally subject to God, and the human ego would then not be independent, that is it would not have an existence independent of God – the ego’s will would then be God’s will and its desire his desire. In this case, the human ego would be well prepared for perpetual existence with God and in God. It would be dead to itself and alive to God.

Or, the soul might not be subject to God, choosing freely to be independent of his will, following its own passions and desires. In this case the human ego would be alive to itself and dead to God. It becomes a being independent of him, but in fact it cannot exist except in evil, based on materialistic delusion. This independence from God, this existence in sin, is only transient. So the ego that is dependent of God becomes a perishable ego.

However, departure of the ego from God’s will is only induced by the deception of the devil, like the deception of the serpent to Eve in paradise: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).

Is there any means, then, by which we can mortify the human ego to itself that it may live to God? Yes. But the only means is total submission to the will of God…

Take heed then and open your ears: Either count yourself as nothing in word and deed and make up your mind to surrender yourself to God with all your might–and you will then gladly be released from your ego by the grace of God; or, you will be delivered to discipline until you are set free from our ego in spite of yourself. So if you wish to opt for the easier way, take that of voluntary submission. Count yourself from now on as nothing, and follow the path of grace wherever the Spirit may wish to lead you.

Know for certain that submission to God and total surrender to his will and divine plan are a free gift of grace. It thus demands, besides prayer and supplication, a trusting faith to receive this gift. This should be coupled with a longing springing from one’s heart that God may not deliver us to discipline for our folly, nor abandon us to our own wisdom. For this reason, we should have an extremely resolute will to renounce our own self at all times, and in all works. This should not be done ostentatiously before people but within our conscience. Blessed is the man who can discover his own weakness and ignorance and confess them before God to the last day of his life.

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, pp. 122-123)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24)

O Give Thanks to the Lord

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“… we are led to give thanks to our Benefactor through the good things of this world, by which I mean

                                                     health,

                                                prosperity,

                                            strength,

                                        rest,

                                    joy,

                                light,

                            spiritual knowledge,

                        riches,

                    progress in all things,

                a peaceful life,

            the enjoyment of honors,

        authority,

   abundance and

all the other supposed blessings of this life.

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We are led to love Him and to do what good we can, because we feel we have a natural obligation to repay God for His gifts to us by performing good works. It is of course impossible to repay Him, for our debt always grows larger. On the other hand, through what are regarded as hardships we attain a state of patience, humility and hope of blessings in the age to be; and by these so-called hardships I mean such things as

illness,

discomfort,

       tribulation,

               weakness,  

          unsought distress,  

                             darkness,

                                 ignorance,

                                           poverty,

                               general misfortune,

                                            the fear of loss,

                                                           dishonor,

                                                                  affliction,

                                                                       indigence,

and so on. Indeed, not only in the age to be, but even in this present age these things are a source of great blessing to us.”  (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA ,   Kindle Loc. 28948-67)

In the quote above, St. Peter of Damascus (whose Namesday it is today, February 9) gives us a long list of blessings which lead us to God.  These are blessings in this world and in this life – blessings even monastics, who are not supposed to live for this world alone, recognize and appreciate.  Even hardships (of which he also makes a long list, and monastics and non-monastics alike can agree they are things we want to avoid) become a blessing because they can increase certain virtues in us as we deal with them in faith, hope and love.

All of the above  was simply an introduction to the good news I can share about my own health.  First, let me thank all of your for your continued prayers as indeed the last 4 years have been difficult with 4 major surgeries plus chemotherapy for cancer.  This week I had both an oncology appointment and a 3-month post operative appointment with my neurosurgeon.    The good news in oncology is no news – labs continue to show no change (I continue to be anemic but that seems expected due to the surgeries and the on-going chemo).  I will have my next CT scan in about a month as they keep vigilant watch for any new tumors.  There have been none since the lung resection surgery in May of 2015.

The neurosurgeon is totally happy with the spinal fusion which seems to be holding in place.  I can walk without a cane and have none of the crippling back pain that led me to accept surgery.  I will have to live with a number of physical limits, but I no longer need the back brace (pictured above, in case you can’t recognize what it is).  That back brace first hugged me on November 8  and embraced me like a python 23.5/7 ever since.   My cane (pictured here) – I was able to lay aside immediately after surgery.   It now stands in a corner awaiting a new walking partner.  The good news is for the time being I need neither of those devices, though I have a handful of other tools and devices which help me pick up things, reach things, get my socks and shoes on and the like.   My back will never be what it was years ago, and will never be “normal” (though it is now a “new normal”) but I am able to continue to function, for which I am grateful daily.

I have learned to rejoice in the blessings of life and to see blessings in the hardships as well.   I have learned to admire those who cope with and even overcome disabilities.  I am ever thankful for those who have invented the medical devices that made my surgeries possible as well as those who improved them through engineering.  I am grateful for all of those who have learned to use technology in the medical sciences – doctors, nurses and technicians.

I give thanks to God that God has entrusted such wisdom in the sciences to help us all.  God has made it possible for us humans to remove all obstacles to our being healed by God.  Medical science removes the physical obstacles to our healing, and repentance removes the spiritual obstacles to our becoming whole and human.  Medicine and confession are thus both gifts from God which make healing possible.  Both require human help and intervention.

I have accepted that in this life there are trials and illness.  A few have asked me as to why instead of healing us, God doesn’t just prevent disease and injuries in the first place.  I can only speak about reality – in this world, we have sickness, sorrow and suffering.  Perhaps in some other world it doesn’t exist, but in our world it does, and it can serve a purpose, even be beneficial to us, though it doesn’t always seem so.    I can ask why is grass green instead of being orange or purple?  Maybe in some other world it is, but in this world, the only reality I know, it is green and must be so of necessity.  Photosynthesis requires it, we and animals depend on it for food and oxygen.  I also am reminded of a quote from St. John Cassian:

“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me (cf. Luke 22:42). Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.”  ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1326-29)

Self-will Vs. God’s Will

“Abba Poemen said, ‘The will of man is a brass wall between him and God and a stone of stumbling.

When a man renounces it, he is also saying to himself, “By my God, I can leap over the wall.” (Ps. 18.29)  If a man’s will is in line with what is right, then he can really labor,’  […]  Abraham, the disciple of Abba Agathon, questioned Abba Poemen saying, ‘How do the demons fight against you?  They do not fight against us at all as long as we are doing our own will.

For our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us in order that we may fulfill them. But if you want to see who the demons really fight against, it is against Moses and those who are like him.’”  (Poemen in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp 174, 176)

The Peace God Wills for Us

 

“O Lord, grant rest in blessed repose to your servants, the military men and women who gave their lives in service to our country and for the sake of peace of the world 70 years ago today,  and make their memories to be eternal.”

A prayer from St. Silouan the Athonite  which is apropos for this the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion:

“O Merciful Lord, grant us Your peace,

as You did give peace to the Holy Apostles,

‘My peace I give unto you.’

Lord, grant that we also may delight in Your peace.

The Holy Apostles received Your peace,

and spread it over the whole world,

and in saving people they did not lose their peace,

nor did it grow less with them.

Glory be to the Lord and His compassion – He loves us greatly, and gives us His peace and the grace of the Holy Spirit.” 

(Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, p 313)

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica says:

“How will we know whether we are living according to the will of God or not?

If you are sad for whatever reason, this means that you have not given yourself over to God, although from the outside it may seem that you have. He who lives according to God’s will has no worries. When he needs something, he simply prays for it. If he does not receive that which he asked for, he is joyful as though he had received it. A soul that has given itself over to God has no fear of anything, not even robbers, sickness, or death. Whatever happens, such a soul always cries, ‘It was the will of God.’”

(Our Thoughts Determine our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, p 154)

Prayer: The Flower of Gentleness

“Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger.

Prayer is the fruit of joy and thankfulness.

Prayer is the remedy for gloom and despondency.

Do not pray that your own will may be done, for your will may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me. Pray to him in this way about everything – that his will be done. For he desires what is good and profitable for your soul, whereas you do not always ask for this. Often in my prayers I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly trying to force the will of God, instead of leaving it to him to arrange things as he knows best. But afterwards, on obtaining what I asked for, I was very sorry that I did not pray rather for God’s will to be done; because the thing turned out to be different from what I expected.

What is good, except God? Then let us leave all our concerns to him, and all will be well. If you long for prayer, renounce all to gain all. At the time of trials and temptations, use a brief but intense prayer. When you are in the inner temple, pray not as the Pharisee, but as the publican. Strive never to pray against anyone. If when you are praying no other joy can attract you, then truly you have found prayer.”

(Evagrius of Pontus – d. 399AD, The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p 102)

The Desire to do God’s Will

“We must learn to treat all other situations in the same manner, not knuckling under to our desires, but keeping a tight rein on them, directing them to the one primary aim: to stay within the will of God and to do His will. If we do that, our desires will turn around, becoming good and righteous. We will stay calm in every storm, finding peace in God’s will. In fact, if we sincerely believe that nothing can happen to us except by His will – and if we have no other desire than to be actively doing that will – it is self-evident that we will always get only what we desire!” (Jack N. Sparks, Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pg. 58)

For What Should we Pray (III)

This is the 28th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is For What Should We Pray? (II).

Because a primary purpose of prayer is to put us into our proper relationship to the Lord God, one of the outcomes of prayer is for us to accept the role of being God’s servants.  We pray not to see what we can get God to do for us, but in order to understand His will so that we can accomplish it.  Thus Jesus taught us to pray to God as Father and to say: “Thy will be done…”  We want God’s will be to be accomplished and we agree to be the doers of the eternal and loving will of the Holy Trinity.

“The best sort of prayer is one that submits to the will of God.  One of the great events in the prayer life of Jesus is the situation where he is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The end of his life is near.  When we see him praying, we hear him saying the words, ‘father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’  Jesus was one who constantly surrendered to the will of God.”  (John Mummert, ABIDING IN JESUS CHRIST, p 29)

Thus one of the main things for which we pray is that God’s will be done, and we offer ourselves to God as as servants willing to accomplish His plan.

“Pray to obtain the gift of tears.

Pray that the Lord may soften the hardness of your soul.

Pray that the Lord may forgive the sins you confess to him.

Don’t pray that what you want may come to pass.  It does not necessarily coincide with the will of God.

Pray rather as you have been taught, saying: ‘Your will be done in me!’

Pray that the will of God may be done in everything.  He, in fact, wants what is good and useful for your soul, while you are not always seeking that and only that.”    (Evagrius of Pontus – d. 399AD – in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 368)

St. Paul preaching at Corinth

Praying that God’s will be done does not mean abdicating our responsibilities in and for the good of creation and our fellow human beings.  We work with God for our salvation. We are not passive receptors of God’s grace but rather are energized by the Holy Spirit to work out our salvation.   There is a synergy not a blind determinism or predestination at work.  God does not do for us those things we are supposed to do for ourselves,  for Him and/or for our neighbor.

“God gives us strength but we must use it.  When, in our prayers, we ask God to give us strength to do something in His Name, we are not asking Him to do it instead of us because we are too feeble to be willing to do it for ourselves.  … He is not going to be crucified for you every day.  There is a moment when you must take up your own cross.  We must each take up our own cross, and when we ask something in our prayers, we undertake by implication to do it with all our strength, all our intelligence and all the enthusiasm we can put into our actions, and with all the courage and energy we have.  In addition, we do it with all the power which God will give us.  If we do not do this, we are wasting our time praying.”  (Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 35-36)

Praying that God’s will be done is not a prayer that then advocates passivity while we wait to see what happens.  It is a prayer saying, “I am Your servant, help me to do your will.”

Next:  For What Should we Pray? (IV)

At the Heart of Holiness

While Abba Nisterus’ comments below are directed to monks and thus are of greatest benefit to monastics, still they contain wisdom that applies to each of us in our daily walk with Christ.  Holiness is the presence of God, and it manifests itself in us.  Often we think of it as some great miracles the saints can do, but holiness is at the heart of every Christian.  The repentant, humble heart is as rare and as valuable as any great miracle.  And while we may be unable to perform attention grabbing miracles, we have God’s full attention when we make holiness to be the heart of our lives.

“Abba Nisterus said that a monk ought to ask himself every night and every morning, ‘What have we done that is as God wills and what have we left undone of that which he does not will?’ He must do this throughout his whole life. This is how Abba Arsenius used to live. Every day strive to come before God without sin. Pray to God in his presence, for he really is present. Do not impose rules on yourself; do not judge anyone. Swearing, making false oaths, lying, getting angry, insulting people laughing, all that is alien to monks, and he who is esteemed or exalted above that which he deserves suffers great harm.’ “ (Nisterus the Cenobite in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg. 155)