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.

God’s Love for the Good and the Bad

…the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love, which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellow men equally – the distinctively Christian form of love (agape)…that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 103)

John the Baptist: Confess Your Sins

John [the Baptist] had no agenda – his only agenda was God. He administered a type of sacrament, baptism, which was associated with confession of sins and a change of life, not only to Jews but to Gentiles, in particular to Roman soldiers. His followers returned to their homes and occupations, although some joined him in the wilderness for a time. Neither John nor his disciples produced any literature, nor did they start a sect or community, nor did they have any political motivations. John preached repentance in the wilderness. He was not in a city, nor in a temple, nor in a rabbinical school, nor in the courts of law, nor in a government forum. John transcended human institutions and so he did not seek their approbation, nor that of any human being. They were totally superfluous to him. He transformed the world by renouncing it. He calls light, light and darkness, darkness. He dared to say “Thus saith the Lord” which few have the calling and moral authority to say – and even fewer when called actually do so, because they know it’s synonymous with signing one’s own death certificate. John had both the moral authority and the courage to say it to everyone, including to the adulterous King Herod.

John’s message was simple. According to John, nothing can save men except a confession of sins and change of life.”

(Hieromonk Calinic, Challenges of Orthodox Thought and Life, p. 62)

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)

The Prayers of St. Parthenius

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, do not allow vanity, selfishness, sensuality, carelessness, or anger to have dominion over me and snatch me from Thy love.

O Lord, I pray Thee especially for those who in some way have wronged, offended, or saddened me, or have done me some evil. Do not punish them on my account, who am also a sinner, but pour upon them Thy goodness.

O Lord, I pray Thee for all whom I, sinful as I am, have grieved, offended or scandalized by word, deed or thought, consciously or unconsciously.

O Lord, forgive us our sins and mutual offences; expel from our hearts all indignation, scorn, anger, resentment, altercation, and all that can hinder charity and lessen brotherly love.

(St. Parthenius, What the Church Fathers Say About…Vol.2, p. 130-131)

When We See Jesus and Say, “Crucify him!”

When they saw Jesus, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”  (John 19:6)

The very sight of Jesus seems to have enraged His enemies.  Just seeing Him standing up front – though in chains, a prisoner, beaten, mocked for His powerlessness – was enough to get the leaders to yell in anger, “Crucify him!”   We might think it was only those people at the time of Christ, His enemies, who would scream such a thing against Jesus.  Yet, there are times when we believers are really shouting those same words.

When we think about the Cross of Christ – the instrument of His execution, but of our salvation – we realize, Christ chose His path, the way of the Cross, for us.  He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 3:18). He bore on Himself our offenses (1 Peter 2:24).

St. John Chrysostom says Jesus accepted and endured His suffering for a reason:

“He endured all these sufferings, namely, that we might walk in His footsteps…” (COMMENTARY ON ST JOHN THE APOSTLE, p 424)

That we might walk in His footsteps….”  Chrysostom puts before us an even more difficult point – Christ died on the cross for us, for which we are grateful and give thanks to God.  But that is not the end of it.  Christ died on the cross so that we might imitate Him, and die with Him, and walk in His footsteps.  We are to die to self and live with and in Christ.   The way of self-sacrificial love, of co-suffering love is to be our way of life as Christians.  Christ died for our sins, so we don’t have to pay the price for our sins.  However, He died to this world so that we might imitate Him and die to the world with Him.  He died to the world in order that we might imitate Him.  Just consider what the New Testament teaches us:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.   (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God.   (1 Peter 4:1-2)

We who have been baptized into Christ and who have chosen to follow Christ, agree to take up our cross and both have Christ live in us and to live the life of Christ.  We agree to lay aside our will, our desires, our passions and to instead live as Christ would have us live – to love as Christ loved us.

So when we fail to love others as Christ loves us, or refuse to forgive others their sins against us and debts to us, or fail to love neighbor or enemy, or decline to show mercy to Christ in the least of His brothers and sister, or won’t give up our grievances and grudges or desire for vengeance, when we allow jealousy and envy to control our emotions, we are in effect denying Christ, and yelling, “Crucify Him!”  Crucify the One who wants me to do these things which are so hard for me to do, which run counter to my passions and emotions and self-preservation.  Crucify the One who wants me to embrace love over self-love, to treat others as better than myself, to put the interest of others ahead of my own self-interest.

As it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

 they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.   (Hebrews 6:6)

When we refuse to do what Christ teaches us, we are like those people long ago who as soon as they saw Christ, screamed, “Crucify Him!”  For we are crucifying Him by denying Him and His commandments.   We should feel that pain, and like the Prodigal come to our senses and return to following Him who loves us and died for us.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”  (Matthew 21:28-31)

The Cross as the Power of the Church

In the Orthodox Church, one way we show honor to our Lord Jesus Christ, is through veneration of His Cross.  On September 14, we keep the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, displaying a decorated cross for all to see and venerate.  We humble ourselves before the Lord by bowing before His cross.  For the Cross is a sign of God’s own presence in our midst and grace toward the world.

The Cross is a sign to us just like in the Old Testament when God gave the rainbow as a sign of God’s peace with humanity, that God will never again destroy the earth, but instead makes covenant with us.  The Cross is a similar sign to us of God’s peace and protection.

The Old Testament has many other signs  – the Ark of the covenant, the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah, Aaron staff, the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments – which remind everyone of God’s presence, promise, activity,  and covenant.  These signs were all treated with reverence by God’s people.   King David danced before the ark when it was brought back into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14) because it was a sign of God’s presence and favor.   In Revelation 11:19, we get an idea of the significance of the Ark as a sign:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

For Christians, the Cross is the sign of God’s Power :

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.   (1 Corinthians 1:18)

The Cross is the sign of God’s love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:16-17)

The Cross is the sign of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race, the restoration of our relationship with God.  The Cross is the sign of God’s grace and presence.

In the Church we sing the words of the Psalm:

“Extol the Lord our God and worship at his footstool for it is holy.”  (Psalm 99:5)

We recognize that where Jesus’ feet were nailed on the Cross, this becomes Christ’s footstool, the place where his feet rested, and thus the cross is holy.   On the Cross God’s love for His world reigns and thus the Cross is God’s throne.   In the book of Revelation (5:6-14) we encounter these words describing the worship of God at His Throne:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain … he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

We recognize that God set up His Throne on earth, on the Cross, and so we give honor to it for it brings us close to God.  We sing at the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross!

The invincible weapon of godliness;

The gate of paradise, the protection of the faithful!

The Cross is the might of the church.

Through it corruption is abolished.

Through it the power of death is crushed

And we are raised from earth to heaven!

The invincible weapon of peace!

The Cross is the enemy of demons,

The glory of the martyrs,

The haven of salvation

Which grants the world great mercy!

But we do not just honor the Cross of our salvation, for the Cross is also a way of life for us Christians.  Jesus asks,

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?     (Mark 8:36)

We spend a great deal of time, energy and money pursuing our dreams.  For example, college education is expensive, yet we are willing to pay the high price for ourselves or our adult children.  We are willing to sacrifice many things to get that education in the hope that it will benefit ourselves or our children in the long run.  We pursue careers and cars and the home of our dreams, investing all we have to achieve these goals.  But, Christ asks us, even if you gain the whole world, and in so doing lose your soul, what good are these things you have gained?  For they all belong to the fleeting world, which is passing away.  Jesus also taught:

 “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).  

Treasures are those things  – including convictions and values – which are so dear to us that we are willing to forfeit everything to get them.   Do we value the Kingdom of Heaven so much that we are willing to forfeit everything on earth to attain it?

For some, the things they hold so dear that are willing to forsake and forfeit everything else are fleeting pleasures, not treasures.   They pursue with all their heart, mind and strength things of this world, which are so temporary.  We see it all the time in the scandal mongering news – politicians, sports champions and entertainers who shamefully throw away family and friends to pursue sex, drugs and other pleasures.   They end up destroying that which is human in themselves and others.

For what is truly & uniquely human is the ability to commune with God, the ability to see God, to experience, to possess and share God’s almighty love and being.

We who hope in heaven should not exchange our home and life there for the pleasures of this world which can never satisfy, and so quickly disappear.  We ought not give up our life in God for a moment’s pleasure, for those moments pass away, and we are left with nothing.  Only our life in God is forever.

The world tells us to focus on our self and our self-interest.   Christianity says our self-interest is found in:

Self-respect

Self-denial

Self-control

Self-restraint

Self-discipline

Jesus said: If any want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

What is the Divine Liturgy?

The totality of the wondrous events performed by God, in order to bring man after his disobedience back to His house and make him His own once more, is called divine economy or dispensation: ‘The divine economy of our God and Savior is the raising up of man from his fallen state and his return from the alienation produced by his disobedience to intimacy with God’ (St Basil).

This reality of our salvation in Christ is what we experience at every Divine Liturgy, for which we give thanks to God: ‘The awesome Mysteries which are performed at every assembly of the faithful and which offer salvation in abundance are called the Eucharist [‘thanksgiving’] because they consist of the recollection of many  benefactions, and reveal to us the culmination of divine providence’ (St John Chrysostom). The Divine Liturgy is the sacramental re-living of these things and the ‘recapitulation of the entire divine economy’. That is why at the end of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the celebrant says: “The Mystery of Your dispensation, O Christ our God, has been accomplished and perfected.’

The mystery of the divine economy was made manifest at the same time as man’s disobedience. The Master who loves mankind ‘at once saw the fall and the magnitude of the wound, and hastened to treat the wound so that it would not grow and turn into an incurable injury…spurred on by His love, not for one moment did He cease to provide for man’ (Chrysostom). Through wonderful deeds and prophetic words, God prepared man to partake in the fullness of life and love.

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p. 15)

Be a New Creation

I have been co-crucified with Christ; I live no more, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the Son of God’s faithfulness, the One loving me and giving Himself up on my behalf.   (Galatians 2:20)

What is meant by a new self? A new self in Christ means a new understanding of and a new relationship to self, Christ, God, Holy Spirit, others and the world. Christ changes not merely the spiritual circumstances in which we live, but also our inner being or character – us. There in the depths of our heart, where we experience what we are and how we feel about ourselves, where our own self-image is often distorted and covered up  by frustration and guilt, where God has nevertheless placed a treasure of spiritual gifts and powers, there is the where the personal identity of each human being is located and awaits an explosive release by the grace of Christ.

This same question of identity is as important to us as it was important to the man of the gospel account who was possessed by many demons. It is one of the key questions of life. But many are inclined to ignore it.

(Theodore Stylianopoulos, A Year of the Lord: Liturgical Bible Studies, p. 94)

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  (Ephesians 4:22-24)

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)