Seek First the Kingdom of God

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  (Matthew 6:32-33)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

When the Lord, on account of the inexpressible ocean of His mercy, appeared on earth as a man to heal the diseases of our soul and take away the sin of the world, He also healed those diseases which the law specified as unclean. So if anyone considers such illnesses to be really impurity and sin, let him confess the one who delivers men from them as God. If, however, he rightly takes such afflictions as symbols of actual uncleanness and transgression, let him understand from the things Christ accomplished in respect of these symbols, that He is truly the one who has power to forgive and cleanse the sin of the world.

It would, in my opinion, also be correct and truthful to say something else. The Lord exhorts us to seek after spiritual things – “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”, he says, “and his righteousness” – and when we look for what is beneficial for our souls and brings salvation, he also promises to supply our bodies’ needs, saying, “And all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). In the same way, when He graciously willed to bow the heavens and come down from on high to our lowest state, in order to cleanse us from our sins, He granted in addition that the lame should be put back on their feet, the blind see and the lepers be cleansed, and simply healed all our bodily sicknesses and diseases, as He is rich in mercy. (The Homilies, pp. 503-504)

Miracles: Shadows or Signs?

8186046743_7c12364a5a_nAnd again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”  (Mark 2:1-12)

Looking at Mark 2:1-12, one question that comes to mind as suggested by the text itself is “What was the purpose of Christ healing the paralytic?”

The answer is that Jesus wanted to prove he had the power to forgive sins.  The miraculous healing was completely secondary for Christ.  Jesus responds to the faith of these men by pronouncing forgiveness of sins to the paralytic.   Jesus only heals the paralytic to prove to the people that He really did have power to forgive sins.  While we often are so impressed with the miraculous and seek out miracles, Christ offers a deeper mystery – the forgiveness of sins so that we can be in union with God.

31369745308_598dd00a01

We find a similar idea in Exodus with why Moses before the Passover performed miracles both for the Egyptians and for the Jews in Egypt.  The goal was to bring people to faith, to recognize that God in fact had spoken to Moses.  The miracles of the plagues though spectacular for Hollywood were secondary to his goal.

So in Exodus 4:1-9, the miracles God commands Moses to do are not the main point at all. The miracles are to get the Jews to believe Moses really is sent by God and to get Pharaoh’s attention so he will let the Israelites leave Egypt.   Moses did not go to Egypt to be a miracle worker but to be a prophet.  He would use the miracles to accomplish his real goal.   So we read in Exodus 4, Moses pleading with God that he doesn’t want to go to Egypt because he doubts the Jews will believe him anyway.

Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.'” The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.” And he said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.

44346231284_66de9164a1_n

But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand, and take it by the tail” —so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand— “that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Again, the LORD said to him, “Put your hand into your bosom.” And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back into your bosom.” So he put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. “If they will not believe you,” God said, “or heed the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or heed your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it upon the dry ground; and the water which you shall take from the Nile will become blood upon the dry ground.”

At first the miracles had the effect on the people God wanted:

Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped .    (Exodus 4:29-31)

At least at first they believed in  Moses and the Lord, but when things started to get rougher for the Jews in Egypt, they quickly turned against the miracle worker Moses.   Note: God wasn’t telling the people to start chasing miracles.  The miracles were to lead them to believe Moses was sent by God.  But as soon as the people began to suffer they immediately abandoned the miracle worker.  So God tells Moses:

Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel; but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage.   (Exodus 6:6-9)

5875727980_4026800306_n

Moses performed his miracles so that the people might believe that He actually was sent by God.  Jesus does miracles for the same reason, and the people turned against Jesus just like they turned against Moses.     And, often we act like we are only interested in more miracles, not really interested in being disciples of Jesus because that is too demanding and hard.  We behave just like Israel.  We want the miracles but don’t want to follow God if it means life might be difficult.

Jesus comes and asks us to follow Him, and He shows us miracles as a sign to follow Him as He is leading us to God’s Kingdom.  But so often we are more interested in the miracles than in following Christ.   Christ opens the kingdom of heaven to us and we don’t care as long as we have some miracles and magic in our life.   Christ’s miracles however are meant as signs pointing to the important reality which is God’s Kingdom.

3917200039_015b3e655a_nJust as Moses would lead Israel out of Egypt into the desert on the way to the promised land, so Jesus calls us to follow Him, and to turn away from all of the allurements and attractions and pleasures of the world in order to find our way to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus offers us the forgiveness of our sins as a sign to follow Him in a new direction, to become the human beings God has created us to be.

When we come to confession, Christ asks each of us:  “what do you want me to do for you?”   This is a question He asked several people before healing them.  Ask yourself: What do I need from Christ?   What do I want from Christ as I confess my sins?    If the answer is “nothing, I’m just fulfilling my obligation”, then we will receive nothing for sure.   Do we want forgiveness of our sins?  Do we want healing of our souls?  Do we want to be cleansed of our sins?  Do we want Christ to abide in our hearts?  Do we want  to be able to forgive others?   Do we want to move in a new direction in life?  Do we want to move toward the Kingdom of God?  Do we want to be able to love others as Christ loves us?

8603198517_a0b81057f4_nSt Gregory Palamas taught that our heart is a mirror, but a very special and unusual mirror for if we look into the mirror of our heart it is possible to see God.  Partially it is possible since each of us is created in God’s image and likeness.

The search for God thus begins in our own heart  we don’t have to go somewhere to see God, not to Jerusalem or Mecca or  Kathmandu or Mt Athos.  The journey to God is accessible to each of us because as it turns out being created in God’s image means we carry God within ourselves.  We actually also carry the journey to God in our own hearts.

In this thinking,  sin is our ceasing to look for God in the inner mirror of our heart.  When we cease looking into the mirror of our heart to see God,  what do we see?  We gaze upon our self.  We find a selfish joy of making our self the object of our spiritual search, our vision, our dream.  We become self-centered narcissists.  What’s good for me?  What’s in it for me?  What do I get out of it?  What do I want?  How will this affect me?

6894206678_2cf5eca184_n

I remember a number of years ago reading the story of a student whose best friend had died.  And what question did this young man ask?  . . . . . . .  – how could God let this happen to me?    He wasn’t even concerned how the death affected his best friend, he was only concerned about how his friend’s death affected himself.   That is certainly what happens when we cease to carry God in our hearts.

As we continue our sojourn through Great Lent, we are to remember our search is for God.  We began Great Lent forgiving each other so that God would forgive us our sins.  And then we realize that the forgiveness of our sins is a sign that Jesus Christ is Lord and He has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to us, so we should follow Him.  Miracles are given to us as a sign pointing to the kingdom of God.  We aren’t seeking signs, we are seeking the Kingdom.

46567063102_fc4a0a56a9

St Gregory Palamas: A Witness to the Church

“In so far as Palamism was, and remains, true Orthodoxy, we are surely better advised in following St. Gregory’s own and wiser counsel, and seeking to engage with the intellectual issues at a deep and intelligent level. His insistence that theology could not be divorced from prayer is a call for seriousness in the spiritual life, just as much as it is a call to accountability in the theological academy. We, who live in an age when intellectual religious pundits abound with so many offers of different gospels, might well learn from Gregory Palamas, that the truly wise and holy Christian disciple is one who takes from the deep tradition of the Fathers and martyrs, pearls of doctrines that prove themselves in their practical application.

The really authentic Christian theology is that which explains to men and women how to live: how to live freely, how to live joyfully, and above all how to live in the spirit of Christ who transfigures and sanctifies all that he touches by admitting a fragile humanity into the wondrously luminous presence of the living God who deifies his chosen. This is what St. Gregory stands for above all else; and in this, his life and work remains a bright witness to the church.”

(John A. McGuckin, Illumined in the Spirit, p. 260-261)

Christ is God in the Flesh

“That is why when we have a new Adam who never grows old, “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (I Pet. 2:22), and whom we now possess as Father and forefather, Father of the age to come and prince of eternal life. He has taken away our sins and removed aging from our midst. This is Christ Jesus the Son of God, clothed in the flesh taken from the Virgin for our sake, the forefeast of whose birth we have begun to celebrate today, as we keep the commemoration of the Fathers who lived before and under the law, who shone forth on account of their virtue and godliness. Theirs were the prophecies and to them were the promises given, and from among them Christ was descended according to the flesh.

He was born as we are, but of a Virgin that He might recreate us from what is our own, and, through holy baptism, renew us and make us once more capable of containing the grace of the divine Spirit, clothing in righteousness and true holiness the man created after God in Himself. He accomplished this righteousness and holiness in His own person, putting the evil one finally to shame, in spite of all sorts of attacks, rightly obeying his Father to the end and showing that obedience to Him procures resurrection and true life.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 448-449)

The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (2018)

On November 21 each year we celebrate the feast of the The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple.  The event itself is not found in the Scriptures of the Church, but represents a theological understanding of  what salvation in Christ means for the world and for each of us.  St. Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century writes of the Virgin Theotokos in this way:

By heeding the evil counsel of the pernicious angel, man transgressed the divine commandments, was shown to be unworthy, forfeited the pledge, and interrupted God’s plan. God’s grace, however, is unalterable and His purpose cannot prove false, so some of man’s offspring were chosen, that, from among many, a suitable receptacle for this divine adoption and grace might be found, who would serve God’s will perfectly, and would be revealed as a vessel worthy to unite divine and human nature in one person, not just exalting our nature, but restoring the human race.

The holy Maid and Virgin Mother of God was this vessel, so she was proclaimed by the Archangel Gabriel as full of grace (Lk. 1:28), being the chosen one among the chosen, blameless, undefiled and worthy to contain the person of the God-Man and to collaborate with Him. Therefore God pre-ordained her before all ages, chose her from among all that had ever lived, and deemed her worthy of more grace than anyone else, making her the holiest of saints, even before her mysterious childbearing. For that reason, He graciously willed that she should make her home in the Holy of Holies, and accepted her as His companion to share His dwelling from her childhood.

He did not simply choose her from the masses, but from the elect of all time, who were admired and renowned for their piety and wisdom, and for their character, words and deeds, which pleased God and brought benefit to all.

(The Homilies, p. 469)

Two hymns for the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple:

Today is the preview of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation (Troparion).

The most pure Temple of the Savior, the precious Chamber and ­Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion).

Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man

The Lord Jesus told this parable“There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”  (Luke 16:19-31)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

The rich man,” it says, “also died, and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Perhaps when Lazarus died he did not even have a grave, as there was no one to bury him. No mention at all is made of a grave in his case but the account then goes on to say that the rich man “was buried.”…There was a time when the rich man had seen Lazarus cast down in front of the gate, a victim of hunger, writhing on the ground in the dust unable even to move, and he turned a blind eye.

Now that he is lying in the depths being tortured and cannot escape his torments, he looks up and sees Lazarus comfortably settled high above, passing his time in profound ease and dwelling in Abraham’s bosom, and instead of resolving to ignore him, he thinks he has a right not to be overlooked by the man he formerly disregarded. In the place where mercy belonged, he had neither looked for it nor practiced it, but there where justice is merciless, he seeks mercy to no avail.

…That rich man, brethren, who had Moses and the prophets, none of whom had risen from the dead, seems to have had some sort of excuse. We, by contrast, hear, along with them, Him who rose from the dead for our sake, saying, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19, 20), “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matt. 5:42), and “Give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). If someone eats and drinks with drunkards but is hard hearted to the poor and gives them nothing, “The Lord”, says the Scripture, “will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:46).     (The Homilies, p. 378, 381)

For an interesting and  different translation and interpretation of this parable see:  The Vale of Abraham.

Exaltation of the Cross (2018)

“You should venerate not only the icon of Christ, but also the similitude of His cross. For the cross is Christ’s great sign and trophy of victory over the devil and all his hostile hosts; for this reason they tremble and flee when they see the figuration of the cross. This figure, even prior to the crucifixion, was greatly glorified by the prophets and wrought great wonders; and when He who was hung upon it, our Lord Jesus Christ, comes again to judge the living and the dead, this His great and terrible sign will precede Him, full of power and glory (cf. Matt. 24:30).

So glorify the cross now, so that you may boldly look upon it then and be glorified with it. And you should venerate icons of the saints, for the saints have been crucified with the Lord; and you should make the sign of the cross upon your person before doing so, bringing to mind their communion in the sufferings of Christ.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46350-46360)

The Theotokos: Icon of All That is Good

“For at present she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son.  Earth, the grave and death could not ultimately detain her life-giving body,  which has held God and been a more beloved habitation for Him than heaven and the heaven of heavens.  . . .

It is as though God wanted to set up an icon of everything good and in so doing, to display His own image clearly to angels and men, and thus He made her so truly beautiful.  Bringing together all the various means He had used to adorn all creation, He made her a world of everything good, both visible and invisible.  Or rather, He revealed her as the synthesis of divine, angelic and human loveliness, a nobler beauty to embellish both worlds, originating from the earth but reaching up, through her ascension now from the tomb to heaven, to the heavens beyond.  She untied things below with things above, and embraces the whole of creation with the wonders surrounding her.” 

(St Gregory Palamas, THE HOMILIES, pp 292-293)

Transfiguration: Seeing the Divine Glory

The 11th Century monk, Nikitas Stithatos,  comments on the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9):

For those who like Peter have advanced in faith, and like James have been restored in hope, and like John have achieved perfection in love, the Lord ascends the high mountain of theology and is transfigured (cf. Matt. 17:1). Through the disclosure and expression of His pure teaching He shines upon them as the sun, and with the intellections of His unutterable wisdom He becomes radiant with light. They see the Logos standing between Moses and Elijah – between law and prophecy – promulgating the law and teaching it to them, and at the same time revealing to them through vision and prophecy the depths and the hidden treasures of wisdom. The Holy Spirit overshadows them like a luminous cloud, and from the cloud they hear the voice of mystical theology, initiating them into the mystery of the tri-hypostatic Divinity and saying, ‘This is My beloved, the Logos of perfection made manifest, in whom I take delight. Become for Me perfect sons in the perfect Spirit’ (cf. Matt. 17:1-5).    (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 39072-39082)

In the 14th Century, St Gregory Palamas wrote about the same Feast:

The flesh of Christ, it is said, is glorified at the moment of its assumption and the glory of the Godhead becomes the body’s glory. But this glory was invisible in His visible body to those unable to perceive that upon which even angels cannot gaze. Thus Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun – though this image is imperfect, since what is uncreated cannot be imaged in creation without some diminution.   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 49333-49341)

All Saints (2018)

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men,” He says, “him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10.32).

Notice that we cannot boldly proclaim our faith in Christ and confess Him without His strength and assistance. Nor will Our Lord Jesus Christ speak out on our behalf in the age to come, recommend us to the heavenly Father and make us His kin, unless we give Him reason to do so. To make this clear, He does not say, “Whosoever shall confess me before men”, but “Whosoever shall make his confession in Me” (Matt. 10:32), that is to say, whoever is able, in Christ and with His help, to declare his faith with boldness. Likewise, again, He does not say, “I will confess him”” but “I will acknowledge what is in him“, meaning that His confession will be in respect of the good fight and patient endurance which such a person has shown in the cause of godliness.

Take note, however, of what He goes on to say about those who are cowardly and betray the Faith: “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). Here He does not say, “Whosoever shall deny in Me”, since the person who denies God does so because he is bereft of God’s help. Why has he been abandoned and forsaken by God? Because he first abandoned God by loving what is transitory and worldly more than the heavenly and everlasting good things promised by Him. In His turn, Christ will not just disown what is in him, but deny him himself, finding in him nothing at all that could be used in his defense.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 200-201)