2017 Post-Paschal Sunday Themes (PDF)

35162626346_7af8369baf_mI have gathered all of the 2017 posts from my blog related to the Sundays after Pascha into one document which is now available for viewing.  You can find that document at 2017 Post-Paschal Sundays (PDF).

You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, Post-Paschal Sundays and many other topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

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The Acts of the Apostles and Us

In the 7 weeks following the Great Feast of Pascha, we read in the Church daily from the Acts of the Apostles.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright describes the significance of the Book of Acts for the Church:

“Acts begins by saying that in the first book (i.e., the gospel of Luke) the writer described “everything Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The implication is clear. The story of Acts, even after Jesus’s ascension, is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. And the way he did it and taught it was–through his followers.

But of course it doesn’t stop there. When the church does and teaches what Jesus is doing and teaching, it will produce the same reaction that Jesus produced during his public career. A good deal of what the church has to do and say will fly in the face of the “spirit of the age,” what passes for “received wisdom” in this or that generation. So be it. The day the church can no longer say, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), it ceases to be the church. This may well mean suffering or persecution. That has been a reality today. Some of the most profound passages in the New Testament are those in which the church’s own sufferings are related directly to those of Jesus, its Messiah and Lord. Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom work of his followers. (Simply Jesus, p. 220)

We Christians not only live in and for Christ, we suffer with Him – in fact, we die and rise with Him.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Romans 6:3-11)

The Afterlife

“Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”  (Acts 2:29)

“…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”  (Matthew 12:26-27)

In the Scriptures, belief in the resurrection of the dead is not common.  When a person died, they remained dead throughout time – the tombs of the dead are still with us reminding us those folk are still dead. And yet, Jesus challenges His contemporaries to look again at their scriptures, for they do in fact witness to life after death and to the resurrection of the dead.  It is Christ who makes this belief and teaching possible.

“Still, the notion of an ‘afterlife with God,’ following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever afterexistence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real life.” (Patrick Henry Reardon, The Trial of Job, p. 54

The Ascension (2017)

“After His resurrection from the dead Jesus appeared to men for a period of forty days after which He “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk 16.19; see also Lk 24.50 and Acts 1.9–11).

The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of His earthly mission of salvation. The Son of God comes “down from heaven” to do the work which the Father gives Him to do; and having accomplished all things, He returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which He has assumed (see e.g. Jn 17).

The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.

We have seen already that “the heavens” is the symbolical expression in the Bible for the uncreated, immaterial, divine “realm of God” as one saint of the Church has called it. To say that Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as Saint Peter preached in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2.33) means exactly this: that man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is, according to Orthodox doctrine, far greater and more perfect than that given to man in his original creation (see Eph 1–2).

Man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature,” to refer to the Apostle Peter once more (2 Pet 1.4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis (which literally means deification or divinization) in Orthodox theology, that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. The symbolical expression of the “sitting at the right hand” of God means nothing other than this. It does not mean that somewhere in the created universe the physical Jesus is sitting in a material throne.”  (Fr. Thomas Hopko, Doctrine and Scripture, Vol. 1, pp. 106-107)

Christ the Stranger

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra reflects on Christ as the stranger, a theme we encounter in the Gospel lesson of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).

“Christ was a stranger on the earth, because even though the world was made through Him, the world knew Him not. Indeed he was a stranger even among His own brethren, for He came to his own home; and his own people received him not Jn. 1.11-12). But, as St. Makarios suggests, it is not simply in this sense that Christ agreed to become a stranger, but in the deeper sense that Christ has rejected all rights.

In one glance, the eyes of Christ can encompass the universe. In a single gesture, He can embrace and contain all things, both in heaven and on earth: His heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels the stars the planets, everything in an instant. But He did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped at, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, a stranger (Phil. 2.7). It’s as if he said: ‘I refuse every place of rest other than your soul, so that you will know that I, Christ, empty Myself in order to be filled by you. Though you be a worm and not a man (Ps. 21.6), I will honor you in this way, so that you can become My bride, My bridal chamber, My completion, My perfection. And though you are but a wretched earth-worm, I will make you the most beautiful thing there is: I will make you God. And because I am God, I lack nothing: I am in need of nothing. Whatever I have done, whatever I have become, has all been on account of you. My self-abasement, My exile, My hunger, My thirst, my loneliness, are things that I have voluntarily chosen and which can only be satisfied by you; for you are My food, and My clothing, shelter and place of rest.’

This is how far God has abased Himself! In order to fill us with His plentitude, He has voluntarily emptied Himself. This is what He means when He says: I was a stranger, and I was hungry and thirsty, and so on, namely: that He has rejected everything in order to embrace everything. He abandoned the bosom of the Father (cf. Jn 1.18) to make His home in our hearts. Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8.9).

‘Let us therefore,”’St. Makarios concludes, ‘welcome Him into our hearts’ –and here he reverses what he has just said– ‘for he is our food and drink and eternal life.’” (The Way of the Spirit, pp. 246-247).

Christ who hungers and thirsts in His life on earth, hungers and thirsts for our salvation by becoming the food and drink of eternal life.

Conquering the Fear of Death

“How can the Christian overcome the fear of death? The faith that is central to the hope of Christians is the recognition of Christ’s conquest of death and that his resurrection is the first fruits, the guarantee of the universal resurrection of all human beings at the end of time. ‘In order to be able to face death one must be anchored in the certainty, an experiential and not only theoretical certainty, of eternal life. . .   there is in this possession of eternal life a certainty that reduces to naught the fear of death–not the pain of separation, not the regret that death exists, but the fear.’”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, M.D., Suffering and the Nature of Healing, pp. 253-254)

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

St. Ephrem the Syrian gives us poetically vivid imagery to help us understand the Gospel Lesson of the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4:5-42).

8186047331_e19fe9005e“Our Lord labored and He went like a farmer

to water the seed that Moses sowed.

Directly to the well He went to give

hidden and living water for the sake of the revelation.

Blessed is Moses, who, with the book he wrote, sowed

the symbols of the Messiah, still young;

by [Christ’s] watering were the seeds of the house of Moses perfected,

and they were reaped by His disciples.

Refrain: Praises to your humility!

8271160508_8f3a2de8c5

Blessed are you, drawer of ordinary water,

who turned out to be a drawer of living water.

You found a treasure, another Source,

from Whom a flood of mercies flows.

The spring had dried up, but it broke through to you and gave you to drink.

He was poor, but He asked in order to enrich you.

You left behind your pitcher, but you filled understanding and gave your people to drink.

Blessed are you to whom He gave living water to drink,

and you did not thirst again, as you said.

For he called the truth “living water,”

since all who hear it will not thirst again.

Blessed are you who learned the truth and did not thirst;

for one is the Messiah and there are no more.”

(HYMNS, p 355)

Paralyses

Two Pentecostarion hymns from the 4th Week of Pascha caught my attention during Monday Matins.  The first is a pretty standard Orthodox Paschal hymn. It focuses on Christ being truly first in all things.  Christ is the one who existed first, before all humans and in whose image all humans are created.  Christ is the firstborn of the dead – first fully risen from the dead who did not die again, the first fruits of all those who have died.  Jesus is the God-man, the incarnate God who created the world and who by His incarnation restores human nature.

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD,
THE FIRST FRUITS OF THEM THAT SLEEP,
THE FIRSTBORN OF ALL CREATION,
AND THE MAKER OF ALL CREATED THINGS.
IN HIS FLESH HE RESTORED THE NATURE OF MANKIND GROWN CORRUPT.
DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER,
FOR THE MASTER OF ALL HAS MADE YOUR POWER OF NO AVAIL!

DEATH, YOUR REIGN IS OVER!   This is the proclamation of Christianity, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The power of death has been destroyed, shown to be of limited duration and not capable to holding all humans.  The reign of Christ begins and He shall reign forever and ever.  It is in Christ’s flesh, not just in His divinity, that He redeems, restores, recreates humanity.  The incarnation is essential to salvation.

The second hymn focuses on the Gospel of the Paralytic, John 5:1-15, which is the Gospel Lesson for the 4th Sunday after Pascha.  The hymns playfully examines who really was paralyzed – the man ill for 38 years, or the scribes who felt God’s healing on the Sabbath day violates the rules for keeping Sabbath.  There are many forms of paralyses in life – not only physical, but spiritual, mental, and moral as well.  One can keep the letter of the law but still be paralyzed in one’s faith, love and thought – so rigidly frozen that one is incapable of acting in faith or in love.

YOU LOOSED THE PARALYTIC’S BONDS ON THE SABBATH DAY,
BUT THE SCRIBES WERE PARALYZED, BOUND IN ENVY’S CHAINS.
THEY COMPLAINED: IT IS NOT LAWFUL TO HEAL ON THE SABBATH!
OUR FATHERS KEPT THE SABBATH REST;
WILL YOU NOW DESTROY THIS COMMAND?
THEY WOULD NOT RECOGNIZE YOU AS MASTER OF THE LAW,
AND THE SAVIOR OF OUR SOULS!

Jesus kept the blessed Sabbath on the 7th day of creation, and also while lying in the tomb following His crucifixion.  His resurrection from the dead shows He is the holy One, the Savior of all humankind and Lord of the Sabbath.

Revealing Water

The Sunday Gospel lessons in the weeks following Pascha seem to have baptismal themes to them, which is probably why they are found in the lectionary at this point in the year.  Pascha was a traditional time to baptize catechumens, and in the weeks after their baptisms, the newly initiated Christians were given lessons in understanding the Mystery of dying and living with Christ.  So yesterday’s Gospel (John 5:1-15) reading of the Paralytic being healed at the pool of Bethesda fits well into Gospel lessons used to teach about baptism.  This Gospel lesson however might be contrasting the waters of Bethesda with the waters of Baptism.  It is Christ who makes the difference.  The waters of Bethesda may have been able to hear one fortunate person every so often, but the waters of baptism are able to heal every sinner and restore their full humanity.

In the baptismal liturgy, we pray over the water, and find what it is that the waters which Christ offer us (such that we will never thirst) are:

“But show this water, O Master of all, to be

the water of redemption,

the water of sanctification,

the purification of flesh and spirit,

the loosing of bonds,

the remission of sins,

the illumination of the soul,

the washing of regeneration,

the renewal of the Spirit,

the gift of adoption to sonship,

the garment of incorruption,

the fountain of life.

While some people think baptism is for washing away the guilt of original sin, the prayer over the water tells us the cosmic significance of baptism.  It is not just about an individual, nor is it just about the remission of sins.  Baptism is about redemption, sanctification, purification, illumination, regeneration, transformation,  revelation,  and renewal as well as being made an heir of God’s promises and kingdom.  Baptism is the beginning of the new life in Christ – we start to live at baptism.

For You have said, O Lord: “Wash and be clean; put away evil things from your souls.”  You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. Therefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that

he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed;

 that he (she) may put away from himself (herself) the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh,

and that he (she) may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him (her),

he (she) may receive the prize of his (her) high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.

In the prayers of baptism, we ask God to manifest Himself in the waters of baptism – the baptized have the God who is love reveal Himself to them.  We experience our life as a birth from God!  We are born again in baptism, born of God to become God’s children.  We experience Christ’s resurrection and receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. We experience the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Our task in life is to live this baptism – we go out into the world to live our life and to preserve our baptismal garments.  And, as the prayers say we are to increase the grace given to us.  We are not to hide and protect the received grace from contact with the world, but rather are to increase that grace by our life in the world.  We use the gift of the Holy Spirit and the grace of baptism or we lose it.  We use it in our daily life to increase it.  This is the Christian life of loving God and neighbor.

Salvation: Restoring the Divine Image

While Christianity focuses on Christ, it doesn’t begin with Jesus.  Christ comes to heal humanity, but the illness which He heals began thousands of years earlier with the entrance of sin and death into human existence.  St. Gregory of Nyssa offers an understanding of what was the ill that Jesus Christ came to cure.  First Gregory notes that sin is not a thing that is permanent or can even exist without a host.  Sin is dependent for its existence on human free will.  If humans made no choices, sin could not exist.  Humans were created with the possibility of sinless existence, but we have made choices that led us away from God – separation from God is death.

Is it possible that there was a physical death that could exist that didn’t involve separation from God?  Is it possible that living things could age and even die but remain united to God?  Is this what God intended from the beginning?  Certainly in Christ we have that reality achieved – even death doesn’t separate us from God.  Jesus the man is never separated from divinity even in His death and descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  In Christ, we all remain united to Him even through our own deaths and after our burials.  In Christ, death no longer separates us from God!  Whether this was something totally new, or a restoration of what existed at the beginning of creation, doesn’t matter for it is the new reality – creation renewed in Christ.

St. Gregory begins describing the first human, the first Adam, who had all of the potential for good, and yet chose to separate himself from all that is good.

So too the first man who arose from the earth–he, indeed, who begot all the evil that is in man–and it in his power to choose all the good and beautiful things of nature that lay around him. And yet he deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil. For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right. All of God’s creatures are good, and nothing He has made may be despised: He made all things very good (Gen. 1:31). But in the way I have described, the whole procession of sin entered into man’s life for his undoing, and from a tiny source poured out upon mankind an infinite sea of evil. The soul’s divine beauty, that had been an imitation of its archetype, was, like a blade, darkened with the rust of sin; it no longer kept beauty of the image it once possessed by nature, and was transformed into the ugliness of evil.

St. Gregory describes a common idea in Orthodox patristic writers: there is an inner goodness in every human being – the image of God is imprinted on each of us and is never lost.  Sin cannot take the image of God away from us.  Rather that image becomes covered with the rust and dirt of sin.  The most precious diamond in the world if caked with layers of  dried and hardened clay will look like any rock.  Yet, beneath those layers of hardened mud lies encased that most valuable diamond.

Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature. It is like people who slip and fall in the mud and get their faces so smeared that even their relatives cannot recognize them. So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead. And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life. Once this earthly covering is removed, the soul’s beauty will once again shine forth.

In sticking with the imagery of a diamond encased in hardened clay, St. Gregory sees each human person.  No longer do we see the glorious image of God in each other.  Baptism begins to wash away these layers of filth, the accretion of a life time of sin.  Baptism washes our eyes so we can see the reality of God’s hand in creation and the image of God in others.  Baptism helps wash away our own layers of sin so that others can see the image of God in us.

By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.

This lesson is taught, I think, in the Gospel, where our Lord speaks to those who have ears for the mysteries that Wisdom teaches us: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). I think that the text here points out that the gift of God is not separated from our nature nor is it far from those who choose to look for it. It dwells within everyone of us, ignored and forgotten, choked with the cares and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), but is rediscovered when we turn our minds to it.

But if we must confirm this doctrine in other ways, the same lesson is, I think, taught by our Lord in the search for the lost drachma (Luke 15:8-9)…and surely the hidden meaning of the coin is the image of our King, which has not yet been completely lost, but is simply hidden under dirt. By the dirt I think we must understand the uncleanness of the flesh; for, when we cleanse and sweep this away by a fervent life, what we are looking for will be made manifest. And then the soul that finds the coin rightly rejoices and calls in her neighbors to share in her joy. The soul’s associates are, of course, the various faculties of the soul, which the text here calls neighbors. For when the great image of the King is discovered and shines forth again, just as it was stamped on our drachma in the beginning by the Creator, stamped on the hearts of everyone, then do all our faculties unite in that divine joy and gladness as they gaze upon the ineffable beauty of what they have found. For she says: Rejoice with me because I have found the groat which I had lost (Luke 15:9). (From Glory to Glory, pp.13-15)

In all such imagery and thinking, we find that sin is not limited to law breaking which God must punish.  Sin is experienced by us as being covered by layers of filth – of our being buried beneath layers of sin so that we can no longer see clearly, and reality itself (the image of God in each of us is so covered as to be totally obscured from sight). Salvation is not merely a release from legal retribution, but is a restoration and recreation and regeneration of the human being.   Overcoming sin is thus not just a matter of suffering an appropriate punishment, but requires a washing, a cleansing which restores the human to his or her glorious nature.  It is a healing of soul and body which we need, which is given to us by Christ, the true physician of our lives.