The River Jordan Meets Its Creator

The River Jordan in the scriptures plays a mystical role in the history of Israel.  It is a boundary which Israel must cross over to reach their physical and spiritual destination.  For example, in Joshua 3-5, Israel coming to the end of its 40 year desert sojourn comes against this boundary which it crosses only with God miraculously parting the waters.  There are many lessons for Israel to learn at the Jordan:  1) Israel must pass through this particular way and no other – it is how they will know they are on the right path (3:4).  Every single one of God’s people has to pass through the Jordan (3:17).  2)  God is with Joshua (3:7).  3)  That they might hear God’s voice (3:9).  4)  That they may know God is there with them – in their midst (3:10).  5)  God Himself will rest in the River Jordan and its waters will stop their normal and natural flowing 3:13).  6)  The experience of the Israelites at Jordan was to be a witness to all the world about God (4:24).  The event was not for Israel’s benefit alone.  7) This was not only a total covenant renewal for all of Israel but a regeneration of Israel, a new birth (5:6-7).

These lessons are paralleled and fulfilled in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.  Jesus insists with John that it is necessary for the baptism to happen (Matthew 3:15).  God is with Jesus and the voice of God is heard at Christ’s baptism.  God is present with them – standing in the Jordan is God incarnate.  John is Christ’s witness, but all Christians witness to the world of the transforming power of baptism.  Baptism is part of the new covenant relationship with God which is offered to the entire world.

The events of Joshua and the people of God crossing the Jordan was memorialized in Psalm 114 –

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

Israel’s crossing the Jordan is frequently mentioned in the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church, and Psalm 114 is referenced extensively in the liturgical hymns of the Feast.  In the Feast, the event of the Ark of the Covenant touching the waters of the Jordan and changing them/ their course is a foreshadowing of Christ’s entry into the Jordan for His own baptism.  Christ too changes not only the natural flow/purpose of the Jordan but reveals its spiritual significance for the salvation of the world.   The events of Joshua 3-5 are a prophetic foreshadowing of the events of Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan.  One of the pre-Feast hymns says:

Why do you stop the flow of your waters, O Jordan?
Why do you make your streams flow back?
Why do you not follow your natural course?
“I cannot bear the fire which consumes me,” it said.
“I am amazed and shudder at the extreme condescension.
I have not learned to wash the pure or cleanse the sinless.
I have learned only to wash the filthy garment.
Now Christ, Who is baptized in me,
teaches me to burn the thorns of sin.
And John, the voice of the Word, bears witness with me.
He cries out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sin of the world.’”
Let us the faithful cry to Him:
“O God, Who shone forth for our salvation, glory to You!”

In the hymn the River Jordan is anthropomorphized, so it can speak and describe its encounter with the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ when He stepped into the waters to be baptized by John the Forerunner.  The Jordan experiences Christ as fire which is transforming the River.    It is Christ who imparts to the river waters the power to destroy sin.  In meeting its Creator, Jesus, the Jordan realizes the event of the incarnation.  God the Creator is present in Christ, yet the Jordan is not destroyed/burned up by this encounter because God is incarnate.  God’s divinity is united to and contained by Christ’s humanity.  This has purified human flesh and human nature.   So in Christ the Jordan has no one to clean or to wash their garment, but rather is experiencing a new cleansing itself, along with all creation.

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Christmas 2017

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among people of good will.” (Luke 2:13-14)

The angelic proclamation on the day of Christ’s birth stirs in our hearts hope for the world: peace on earth!   It is something we Orthodox pray for at each Divine Liturgy, Vespers or Matins.   We constantly petition God to fulfill the hope which the angels heralded as possible with the nativity of the Messiah.

Despite our God-given hope and despite our prayers, we witnessed a great deal of violence in 2017 in the world.  Church communities were not spared from this scourge of terrorism during the year.  This reminds us to pay attention to the entire story of Christ’s birth – part of the Gospel Christmas story is Herod murdering the innocent children!  We like to ignore that part of the nativity narrative as it doesn’t fit our image of a sentimental season: a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  The birth of Jesus caused Rachel to weep inconsolably over the loss of her children (Matthew 2:17-18)!   Rather than choosing to ignore part of the Gospel, we can appreciate the truthfulness of the narrative because we live in that same world where we know such grief.

We need only look at the Church calendar in the days after the Nativity to be reminded of Christian suffering:

December 27  St. Stephen the First Christian martyr

December 28 – The Massacre of the Christians celebrating Christmas at Nicomedia  in 302AD

December 29- The Massacre of the Holy Innocent Children by King Herod

Jesus Himself was quite realistic about this when He taught:

“I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Hope springs eternal.  Christ Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).  God came into the world because God loves us.   God too has suffered the violence of the very world He created for us; the world which God so loves.  He has not abandoned us to the violence of the world, but is here with us even in our darkest moments.   God wishes for us abundant life in this world, but many in the world still reject God.  Christmas makes sense not because the world is a utopian paradise, but exactly because there are serious and violent problems in this fallen world.  The sentimental American Christmas preference only makes sense if we ignore the world as it really is.  Orthodoxy takes history seriously and thus values the entire Gospel of the Nativity.  We need God’s love and we need hope to bring light to the darkness.  We need Christ to be with us through all the trials and tribulations the world throws at us.

And every year we are summoned to that humble birth – in a manger, in a cave, where we still can find God’s peace.  God’s peace is not like the world’s peace, and is not dependent on it.  As our Lord said:   Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27).  The world is much the same as it was 2000 years ago when Mary gave birth to God’s Son.  The Gospel lesson of Christmas is proclaimed every year to renew in us faith, hope and love so that we are not overcome by the world’s sorrows, but rather we overcome the world through Jesus Christ our Lord.  From that cave, light dawned to the world.  We live in the light of Christmas.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

Rich in Passions or Poor in Sin?

The Lord Jesus’s parable of the poor beggar Lazarus and the heartless rich man found in Luke 16:19-31 is well known.

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

How the Church has used the parable through the centuries is found in sermons and hymns written through the centuries.   Below is one hymn from the last Wednesday in Great Lent (Palm week) making reference to the parable and showing us what message was received by Orthodox monastics from the parable.   Because the beggar’s name is Lazarus, Orthodox hymns sometimes connect this beggar to Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11) which also explains why the hymn is sung on the Wednesday before Lazarus Saturday.

I am rich in passions and clothed in the deceitful robe of hypocrisy,

and I rejoice in the sins of self-indulgence.  

There is no limit to my lack of love.  

I neglect my spiritual understanding,

that lies at the gate of repentance,

starved of all good things, sick through want of care.  

O Lord, make me like Lazarus poor in sin,

that I be not tormented in the flame

that never shall be quenched,

and pray in vain for a finger to be dipped in water

and laid upon my tongue.  

But in Thy love for mankind

make me dwell with the Patriarch Abraham.

This Lenten hymn takes the parable, applying it to each of us personally – the hymn is spoken in the first person, “I“.  Significantly, “I” (each of us) is the rich man in the parable.  Our riches are the spiritual gifts which God has given us. The hymn removes any economic or class status message from the parable.    The hymn “spiritualizes” the parable turning the nameless rich man into a symbol of deceit, hypocrisy and self-indulgence – engaged in all the behavior of a sinner.  In the hymn, these sins are about me – how “I” behave.    Lazarus in the hymn is portrayed not as an indigent human but rather allegorized into “my spiritual understanding.”  The hymn is Orthodox spirituality, very Lenten and monastic, so everything is being turned into images of repentance for one’s sinful nature.  The parable in this interpretation is not contrasting two distinct people – a rich man and a poor man –  but is an allegory about “me”.   I am both the rich man (enriched by Christ’s spiritual gifts) and I am Lazarus (with impoverished spiritual understanding).   Lazarus is me, or in the hymn more precisely has become “my spiritual understanding” which lies at the rich man’s gate which is allegorized to be “the gate of repentance.”  It is my own heart and mind which are impoverished because I lack good deeds  and am not merciful and compassionate to others.

The hymn then switches its point of reference – I am to embrace Lazarus’s poverty by becoming poor in sin.  From an Orthodox point of view, worldly wealth does me no good if I’m also rich in sin.  I am to impoverish myself by abandoning all forms of sin in order to be spared the fires of hell.  This interpretation of the hymn avoids any judgment of the rich and also steers away from any class struggle.  The rich man is not being condemned because of his wealth, nor is Lazarus being praised just for his poverty.  The parable itself does not tell us anything about Lazarus being virtuous.  His poverty is not claimed to be voluntary.  The rich man is not accused of having obtained ill-gotten wealth through illicit or sinful means.

The hymn’s interpretation of the parable completely avoids any judgment of social status or rank.  It is not about class warfare.   The parable is allegorized in the hymn turning it into a monastic lesson about sin, not about showing compassion to the poor or giving charity to the needy.  The interpretation attempts to make the Gospel completely relevant to the monastics for whom the hymn was written – people who at least in theory had completely denied themselves all worldly wealth in order to follow Christ.  The parable is made relevant for those who have chosen poverty by reminding them that poverty is not about one’s social class nor is it about how much you really possess, but rather poverty and wealth are both about one’s spiritual condition.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit“, Jesus teaches.  Spiritual riches and spiritual poverty are not dependent on one’s wealth or possessions.  They are a matter of the heart.

Struggling to Love One’s Enemies

“Everyday experience shows that even people who in their inner depths accept Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies do not put it into practice. Why? First of all, because without grace we cannot love our enemies. But if, realizing that this love was naturally beyond them, they asked God to help them with His grace they would certainly receive this gift.

Unfortunately, it is the opposite that prevails. Not only unbelievers but people who call themselves Christians are afraid of acting toward their enemies according to Christ’s commandment. They think that to do so would only be of advantage to the other side, seeing the enemy refracted through the distorting prism of hatred as having nothing good in him, that he would take advantage of their ‘indulgence’ and respond to their love either by crucifying or shamelessly crushing and subjugating them, thus letting evil, as generally personified by this enemy, triumph.

The idea that Christianity is ‘wishy-washy’ is profoundly mistaken. The saints possess a force powerful enough to sway people, influence the masses, but theirs is the reverse method – they make themselves servants of their brethren, and thus win for themselves a love in its essence imperishable. By following this course they gain a victory that will obtain ‘world without end’, whereas a victory won through violence never lasts and by its nature is more to the shame than to the glory of mankind.”   

(St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 224-225)

Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Sower of Seeds

In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus tells the following parable:

“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.

 

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the types of persons represented by the three types of ground upon which the seed of the word fell. Concerning those of the first kind he says:

No sacred or divine word will be able to enter those who have minds that are hard and unyielding, for it is by the aid of such words that the joyful fruit of virtue can grow. Men of this kind are highways that are trodden by unclean spirits, and by Satan himself, and they shall never be producers of holy fruit, because their hearts are sterile and unfaithful. (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 41)

The second kind have

a religion without roots…when this kind of person goes out of the church, he immediately forgets the holy teachings he has heard there. And as long as Christians are left in peace, he keeps the faith, but as soon as persecution arises, he will be ready to take to flight in search of safety.

This holy Father finally exhorts us not to allow the cares of this world to choke the tender shoots of faith and commitment as soon as they sprout from the soil of our hearts and minds. We must not be deceived, thinking that thorns and new shoots can exist side by side.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Parables, p. 14)

Called to the Abundant Light

“Whereas the old law proclaimed that God was the Maker and Lord of heaven, and laid down God-pleasing ordinances for those under the law, it did not give any promise of heavenly benefits, nor did it offer communion with God, or an eternal, heavenly, inheritance to those who obeyed it. But once Christ the King of all had visited us in the flesh ‘to call sinners,’ as He says Himself, ‘to repentance’ (Matt 9:13), there were greater rewards for those who obeyed and repented, and, through works of repentance, ordered their lives according to Christ’s gospel, keeping the holy commandments it contains.

Nor were these rewards simply greater, but also incomparably more excellent.

For what was promised was

the kingdom of heaven,

light without evening,

heavenly adoption as sons,

celestial dwellings,

and a divine and eternal way of life,

and even more than this:

for we shall be ‘heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17), and ‘I am come,’ says the Lord, ‘that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10).

These are not resounding but empty phrases, nor just a litany of vain words, but an account of the unchanging things actually stored up as prizes for those who believe and live according to Christ.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 445)

The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

The Joy of the Gospel Commandments

In Yesterday’s post, Enmity and Discernment, I mentioned the icon at the front entrance of our church, which I must pass every day that I’m in the building.  I cannot get to my office or to the sanctuary without  passing by my Lord who is telling me:

“I give to you a new commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)

Loving others is a command, not just an appropriate reaction to others.  It is to be a conscious choice of how we treat others, not an emotional response to how we feel about them.  The love we show them is not based upon how they treat us, or what they think about us – if it is, then we are behaving just like any sinner, but not like a Christian (Luke 6:32).

If we obey the Gospel command, it will have an effect on our heart.  What effect might it have on us if I love others as Christ loves me?

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;

the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever;

the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.  (Psalm 19:7-11)

Fulfilling Christ’s commandment impacts my soul by reviving it; my mind be giving it wisdom; my heart by filling it with joy; and my eyes by giving me true vision.  Every aspect of my being is touched by Christ when I obey His command to love others.

Meditating on the Significance of Christmas

Today when many folk think about the Christmas story, they call to mind a manger, shepherds, a star, magi, a poor Virgin.  These are sometimes thought of as the “historical” facts about Christ’s birth.  These details are sentimentalized in Christmas cards and carols. The Evangelists who give us the Nativity narratives, Sts Matthew and Luke, probably didn’t see these details as being particularly “historical.”  They used other elements in their narratives to show the historical nature of the birth of Jesus Christ.

St. Matthew in his Gospel gives the birth of Christ a “historical” context by setting the birth in the line of a genealogy from Abraham until Christ (Matthew 1) – thus establishing the birth as a genuine part of Jewish lineage and promise.  He also  establishes the historicity by mentioning the evil “Jewish” King Herod (Matthew 2) – thus giving us the “time” in which Christ’s birth occurred – an evil time for Jews in which their faith was being corrupted by Herod’s false religion and his grand Temple complex.  St. Luke, on the other hand, uses the historical backdrop of the Roman Empire and Caesar Augustus to put the birth of Christ into world history (Luke 2).  Also, an evil time for the Jews who were a conquered people, living in subjugation to a pagan world power.  For both Evangelists, Christ is born into a threatening world, bringing God’s kingdom to worldly kings who  would oppose it.

The two Evangelists, Matthew and Luke, write within the context of their time, and with their own understanding of what “historical” means.  They weren’t historians in the modern sense of scholars searching ancient documents or doing archaeological studies to establish the facts.  They accepted as true the oral or written traditions they received and were OK with some alterations in “historical facts” if it met the theological purpose of the narrative to convey a godly truth.  Thus Luke and Matthew’s genealogies don’t perfectly match, but that is not their point, they are tracing lineages back to Abraham (so Matthew) and to Adam (so Luke) for theological reasons.  Both attempt to place the Nativity narrative within the context of different Jewish prophecies which result in some factual discrepancies in their version of events.  They weren’t however writing for each other, but rather were using the prophetic traditions known to them and important to them.  The birth of the Messiah fit the prophecies which they knew, even if the two birth narratives can’t be perfectly reconciled.  Modern folk equate fact and truth, but ancient believers saw truth as being eternal and divine, and the events of the world were the clothing which make truth visible to us.  These ancients did not always equate the details (the clothing of events) with fact.  The details simply made the truth knowable to us, and so details might be altered to  make the truth more clear.  In the current age, we generally don’t think like the ancients about these details.  We need to remember that.  [Probably the closest we moderns come to the ancient way is during election times when politicians change the details of events in their campaign speeches in order to  fit the narrative they want to tell.  “Truthiness” as Colbert called it.  But remember this is still different than how the ancients understood events.  Modern politicians still have our modern idea of facts, and alter them to fit their needs.  Ancients saw the details of narratives as simply the clothes to make something visible.  They weren’t cynically manipulating facts to create misinformation.]

In the Post-Apostolic and Patristic period, writers often had a similar sense of what is “historical” to the Evangelists and so could accept the Gospel accounts as “history”.  But in the generations of Christians following the apostles, the truth of the Nativity narrative which was most essentially focused on was “who is Jesus Christ?”  What was seen as the historical fact and of greatest importance is that Jesus is God incarnate.  As Roman Catholic scholar  Luigi Gambero writes:

“…We must recognize that the Church was less interested in the historical modalities of Christ’s birth than in the mystery of his Incarnation, which was one of the principal objectives of the apostolic kerygma [teaching, message] from the beginning. The ancient Christians held beyond a doubt both the divine origin of the person of Christ and his perfect humanity; but they likewise held that his actions would be incomprehensible if reduced to a scheme of purely human categories.” ( Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p 25)