Choosing the Good Portion

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

To succeed in the world, we need many “good” things.  Good grades, good job, good income, good work habits, good credit scores, good schools, good neighborhoods, good opportunities, good family, and maybe some good luck too.

But for all those goods, our Lord Jesus might say, “why do you ask me about what is good?”

For Christ speaks to us about and calls us to a goodness which belongs to God alone.  It is not that those goods don’t matter as they do affect our lives.  And God knows we need such good things (Matthew 6:32).   But they all matter on a relative scale, for Christ tells us there is something greater to strive for, something which benefits us not only for the short time we live on earth, but which is eternally permanent.  We don’t have to have all those worldly goods to be good.   And even without all those worldly goods, we humans are still offered an even greater good, namely eternal life – a good portion which cannot be taken away from us.   As the Lord told Martha in Luke 10:41-42 :

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

We don’t come to Christ in order to have our beliefs reaffirmed or are thoughts validated or to learn what we can learn anywhere else in the world.  We come to Christ to discover what we don’t know – about life and eternal life.  We come to Him to seek what is missing from our lives, what we hope for but don’t have [“For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24)] The person in today’s Gospel knew the Law and how to keep the Law and how to accumulate wealth.  But he didn’t know the way to eternal life.  This is why he came to Jesus in the first place.  It is why we come to Christ, and come to the Liturgy, not just to be told what we already believe and know, but to learn what is missing from our lives.  How do we find our way to eternal life?   What do I lack?  What do I need?  What do I have to change to find eternal life?

Jesus says we are to follow Him.  Not to just do the things that everyone in the world does, but to learn what is missing in our life.   How do I get Christ to come and live in me?  How do I become like God in what I do?   In the Liturgy, we come to behold Christ so that we can see what we need to change in our thinking, in our habits, in our attitudes, in our behavior, in our faith, in what we do daily so that we can find what this person in the Gospel was seeking.

Are we ready for that next level?   We might honestly say to Christ, I do keep the Ten Commandments – I haven’t murdered anyone, nor stolen anything, nor committed adultery or told any lies.  What else do I need to do?

And then we have to be prepared to hear Christ’s answer and to live it.  We have to be far more ready to deal with the shock wave which is the Gospel commandments than this person who came to talk to Christ in the Gospel lesson.   The way to the kingdom is not in the things we love so much and value so much and strive to get so much.  We have to seek first the kingdom of God, and that is as big a challenge to us as it was to this rich person who came to talk to Christ.  The little things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians – to fast, deny the self, to practice self control, to resist our temptations – are the baby steps we take to move beyond this world into that eternal life.

This person in today’s Gospel, was very obedient to God’s commandments, yet still lacked something.  The man had a heart condition but not one that could be corrected by diet or exercise.  This person saw religious perfection only in terms of rigorously following the commandments of God.  Jesus tried to get this person to see that religion is more a matter of the heart.  It is not pure obedience that God willed for His creatures.  God wants us to be like God.  To care about something beyond our self and beyond our immediate gratification.  This person in the Gospel was quite willing to obey God as long as he was richly rewarded for doing so.   But to give up his riches, this was beyond what he was prepared to do because it was only to get more riches that he obeyed God at all.  He had turned God into his servant.

The Prophet Habakkuk said:

Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.   (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Unlike the rich person in today’s Gospel, Habakkuk says even if he is not wealthy, even if he is in miserable poverty and hungry, yet he will rejoice in the Lord.  It is a stark contrast to the rich man who was only willing to rejoice in his wealth and prosperity.

Do we each have such faith that no matter how good or bad things are going, we still rejoice in the Lord?  Do we have such love for God that even when things are going badly, we still rejoice in the Lord?

What Jesus asks is “what do you really treasure in your heart?”  We have to think whether we want God to be our servant giving us all we want, or whether we want to be His servant, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.  How can we seek God rather than just seek the things God might give us?

The Door Through Which Christ Passed

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.   (Revelation 3:20)

“The door through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was his love for man.  It is this divine love that St Symeon the New Theologian addresses, asking that it may be for us too a door bringing Christ close to us:

‘O divine love, where are you holding Christ?  Where are you hiding Him? …  Open even to us, unworthy though we are, a little door, that we may see Christ who suffered for us…  Open to us, since you have become the Door to His manifestation in the flesh; you have constrained the abundant and unforced compassion of our Master to bear the sins of us all…  Make your home in us, that for you the Master may come and visit us in our lowliness, as you go before us to meet Him.’

The door of love through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was opened by the Mother of God.  Her holiness attracted divine mercy to the human race.  Through her ministry in the mystery of the divine economy, the Mother of God became the ‘Gate that faces east’ (cf Ezek 46:1, 12); the ‘Gate that looks towards the east’  from which life dawned for men and scattered the darkness of death.”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY , p 36)

A Face Like Everyone’s Face

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (John 20:14-15)

“In his prose poem Kristos (1878), Turgenev dreams that he is in a village church together with the peasant congregation. A man comes to stand beside him: ‘I did not turn towards him, but immediately I felt that this man was Christ.’ However, when eventually he turns towards him and he perceives ‘a face like everyone’s face. A face like all men’s faces…And the clothes on him like everyone else’s.’ Turgenev is astonished: ‘What sort of a Christ is this then?…Such an ordinary, ordinary man.; But he concludes: ‘Suddenly I was afraid  and came to my senses. Only then did I realize that it is just such a face – a face like all men’s faces – that is the face of Christ.’”   (Father Sergei Hackel, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 77)

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . .  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.  (Luke 24:13-16, 31)

Strengthening Christ

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

The particular scene described by St. Luke in the Garden of Gethsemane presents all kinds of challenges for Trinitarian believers who see Christ as the incarnate God.  Not the least of which is that an angel strengthens Christ!  Of course all kinds of explanations are offered always trying to balance the two natures in Christ – sometimes His divine nature is being portrayed and sometimes His human nature.  I  cannot resolve all those issues, and want only to mention one thought that this event brings to my mind.

In his agony in Gethsemane, we see that Christ knows what it is to be human and knows what it is to have His heart crushed by the weight of life in this world.  He realized in this moment, in his humanity, why humans fail, why they fall in temptation and despair, why life seems more than many of us can bear.  Even His divinity could not spare Him from feeling all that we humans feel.  Perhaps even the angels could see and empathetically feel the crushing effect of the weight of the world on their Lord.  It is too much for them to bear.  But if He as Lord could not bear this weight, what could they do to help Him?  One thinks about Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6)!

The image of Christ bearing our sins and realizing the limits of human nature is moving indeed.  “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17) and “he  himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24).  His agony is despite being God, He is experiencing our world, our life, our lives.

I recently finished the book RED RISING, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I didn’t read it for any theological reason, but purely because one of my sons gifted it to me.  I read it for fun.  But there was one scene in the book which I thought theologically profound.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I am going to talk about something in the book which if you plan to read the book you may not want to know.  I will be a bit vague about this, and some of what I write here is what I read into the scene and how I reacted to it rather than just what the author said.]

The novel is placed in our dystopian solar system in which humans have managed to inhabit most of the planets.  But there is one class of people which rules the solar system with an iron fist.  It is a vile and violent rule and solar system where might = right, and the end justifies the means.  As one character is trying to earn his right to be in the ruling class, he realizes he has to do something spectacular to get the people to follow him instead of the other strong  and potential rulers.  He chooses a method which I was totally not expecting in the book.  He is faced with having to discipline one of his soldiers for raping another soldier.  The whole system is built on power and abuse.   All those with him are watching to see what he will do and he realizes no matter what he does, some may leave him and some may decide to betray him.   He orders the man to be beaten with 20 strokes, but then comes the amazing part – which I was not expecting at all.  He then says that they must also beat him with 20 lashes because as the leader, the failure of his followers are his failures as leader.  No one will be punished without him receiving an equal punishment.  And in the book he suffers from the punishment he receives, there is no symbolic beating.  They inflict serious pain on him.   His method so astounds everyone that they come to realize he really is special as a leader.

Needless to say, one sees Christ in this.  By His suffering, Christ says all the punishment that should be meted out to every sinner is to be meted out on Him.  Of course, Christ goes even further then the novel’s character as He takes on the punishment instead of us being punished, not in addition to it.  Additionally, this character in the story can be heroic but he also can be arrogant and foolish and wrong.  Nevertheless, in the story, the moment when he orders them to mete out his own punishment is profound.  It really allowed me to understand from a new perspective what it is that Christ has done for us.

And in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross, Jesus bears the full weight of all this punishment for the sin of the world.  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

Christ: The Light Before the Sun

The Feast of  the Transfiguration of our Lord gives us a clear understanding of who Jesus is – one Person of the Holy Trinity and the incarnate God.  Consider the words of one of the festal hymns:

Christ, the Light that shone  before the sun, was on earth in the flesh.  In a manner fitting His divine majesty, He fulfilled His fearful dispensation before His crucifixion!  Today upon Mount Tabor He has mystically made known the image of the Trinity.  For taking apart the expressly chosen disciples, Peter, James and John, He led them up into the mountain alone.  Briefly, He concealed the flesh He had assumed, and was transfigured before them, manifesting the original beauty, though short of full perfection.  For He spared them as He assured them, lest seeing, they die.  Yest they saw as far as they could bear it.  He likewise called before Him the chief prophets Moses and Elijah, who testified to His divinity:  That He is indeed the true brightness of the essence of the Father, the Ruler of the living and the dead. (Vespers Hymn)

Christ is the Light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5) and He shone before there ever was a sun.  When we read in Genesis that God says in the beginning, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), and we also read that the sun did not yet exist, we are to understand this light in Genesis is not sunlight, but represents something – or rather, Someone – else.  The Word of God is the Light of the world.  Christ is the Light that existed and who brought all things into being.  He is also the One who is the image (icon) of the Father, and in whose image we each are made.  He, the Light of the world, became flesh, and yet in the Transfiguration, He concealed that flesh to show the disciples His glory and the original glory of humanity.  The three disciples were able to see what was within their own power to see of divinity.  They were able to see, however imperfectly what humans were created to be and able to experience the unity of God and humanity.

He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is!”, was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples.  In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind arrayed in the original beauty of the image.  Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace, He made them sharers in His joy, foretelling His death on the cross and His saving resurrection.   (Vespers Hymn)

It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who spoke to Moses but was still concealed from Moses, who is revealed at the Transfiguration.  Christ makes it possible for us to see God and to understand what our roll is in the world.  We come to realize God really does love the people of the world and created us to share in the divine life.

God’s Son: Listen to Him

. . . lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”   (Matthew 17:5-6)

St John of Damascus writes:

From all that has been said, may you always bear in your hearts the loveliness of this vision; may you always hear within you the Father’s voice: “This is” – not a slave, not an elder, not an angel – but “my beloved Son; listen to him!” Let us, therefore, really listen to him, as he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” “You shall not kill” – but you also shall not be angry with your brother without reason. “Be reconciled with your brother first, and then go and offer your gift.” “You shall not commit adultery” – but you also shall not let yourself be excited by someone else’s beauty. “You shall not swear falsely” – but you shall not even swear at all: “Let your speech be ‘Yes, yes!’ and ‘No, no!’ What lies beyond that is an invention of the Evil One.”

You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit fraud” – but “give, too, to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow,” and do no prevent someone from taking what is yours. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who hate you, and pray for those who threaten and persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Forgive, and you will be forgiven, so that you may become sons of your Father, perfect and merciful as is your Father in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good, and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust.

(Light on the Mountain, pp. 229-230)

On Mount Tabor, O Lord, You have shown today the glory of Your divine form unto Your chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed as the light and at Your face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Your brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: ‘This is My beloved Son, Who has come into the world to save mankind.”    (Vespers Hymn for the Transfiguration)

Between the Presence of Christ

1]  Often times Christians speak about our life on earth as being a time between the first and second comings of Christ.  He came first into the world as a baby, lived a human life, and was executed as a criminal, only to rise from the dead.  He ascended to heaven and promised to return to earth at the time of the judgement day.  Our life on earth is thus always between the first and second comings of Christ, we live in His presence and between His presence.

2]  The Evangelist Matthew in his Gospel also presents us a view of the Messiah in which at the beginning of the Gospel we are told Jesus is God  with us (Matthew 1:23) and at the end of Gospel (Matthew 28:20) we are told He is with us always to the close of the age.  The entire Gospel is written as if between the presence of God in the incarnation of Christ and His ascension into heaven and promise that He is with us always.

In Matthew 1:1-16 we read the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.  We realize all these generations, no matter how great these people are in Israel’s history, have passed away.  None of them represents the abiding presence of God in the world.  In contrast to the generations is Emmanuel, God with us.  God’s presence with us  continues forever in Christ, and is not completely dependent on any one generation.  Each generation passes away but the Word of God lives forever.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).  (Matthew 1:23)

Matthew’s Gospel moves quickly from Christ’s birth to His temptation as an adult by Satan.  Satan tempts Christ with the claim that Satan himself has the power to give Christ all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  Jesus rejects the offer and the claim.  Christ in fact will wrest any such power from Satan through His own death on the cross and through His resurrection from the dead.

Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”   (Matthew 4:8 -9)

We see in Matthew’s Gospel it is Christ’s willingness to reject Satan’s offer and to reject the satanic ideas of power and glory which will lead to Christ’s receiving the glory of God.    Christ’s life  witnesses to the power and glory of God which is so different than worldly ideas of power.  So on Palm Sunday , Christ our king, rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem.  A few days later, Christ dies on the Cross as the King of Glory.

Then we come to the concluding words of Matthew’s Gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”   (Matthew 28:16 -20)

St. Matthew begins his Gospel narrative telling us that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.  He ends his Gospel by having Jesus proclaim that He (Jesus) is with us always even to the end of the age.   We live in this presence of Christ even though we live between Christ’s two comings to earth.

3]   Liturgically we show our life between the incarnation and the second coming in the church by the way the icons are arranged and by our receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in this time between the two comings –   between the Icon of the Theotokos and the Icon of Christ which show us His incarnation and first coming, and His coming again in His Kingdom.