The Joy of Repentance

 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes this as the sorrow that pervades the Lenten services that lead up to Pascha. He calls it “bright sadness.” Is not Lent itself a joyous gift from God? The Church Fathers refer to it not as a season of misery but of joy, a “springtime of the soul.”

It is a time to weed out the passions that trip us up on life. It is a time to focus on Christ and to find in Him our greatest joy. It is a time to ask God to heal us of all those things we hate about ourselves, all those things that mess up our lives and destroy us. Let us rejoice every time we discover a new imperfection because through repentance and godly sorrow that imperfection (sin) can lead to forgiveness, joy and newness of life. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that the purpose of repentance “is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God, I can yet become.”

Lent was not given to us by the Church to make our lives miserable. It is a God-given opportunity to remove from our lives all those passions that enslave us to set us free to experience “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It is this “joy-creating sorrow” or “bright sadness” that leads to repentance which, in turn, leads to salvation and explodes with joy at Pascha.

(Anthony M. Conairis,Holy Joy: The Heartbeat of Faith, p. 36-37)

 

The Cross and Our Salvation

“The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,

for a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.

The sting of Death and the victory of Hell were nailed to it.

But you appeared, my Savior, crying to those in hell:

“Be brought back again to Paradise.”

(St Romanos, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 155)

The Cross: The Way to the Joyous Kingdom

NOW THE FLAMING SWORD NO LONGER GUARDS THE GATES OF PARADISE;  IT HAS BEEN MYSTERIOUSLY QUENCHED BY THE WOOD OF THE CROSS!  THE STING OF DEATH AND THE VICTORY OF HELL HAVE BEEN VANQUISHED, FOR YOU, MY SAVIOR, CAME AND CRIED TO THOSE IN HELL: ENTER AGAIN INTO PARADISE!    (Kontakion for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

We come to the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent, the very middle of the Fast, a day dedicated to the Cross of Christ.  We have heard Jesus’ words, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it”  (Mark 8:34-35).  And the common interpretation of these words in Orthodoxy make us think about the self-denial of the fast or perhaps about the passion and suffering of Christ Himself on Holy Friday.  We are often told that the very purpose of focusing on the Cross in mid-Lent is to encourage us to carry on with our fasting and self-denial:   we may be tired of the fast or tired by the fast, but we must shoulder the cross and soldier on.

Yet, there is another connection with the Cross that we can readily note in the Epistle reading:  “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need  (Hebrews 4:15-16).   It is the Cross of Christ which enables us to approach the throne of grace boldly – with the same boldness with which we dare to call God our heavenly Father when we say the Lord’s Prayer during the Divine Liturgy.  Christ’s arms stretched out on the cross are not in our Church hymns portrayed as lifeless but rather are full of strength and are welcoming us into His embrace.

The Cross for us is our sign of victory – it is through the Cross that Christ brought humanity to the throne of the Father.  Through the Cross joy comes into all the world and we are restored to communion with our God.   We hear this in the hymns for this day.  For example from the Matins Canon:

COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE LIFE‑CREATING TREE.  CHRIST, THE KING OF GLORY, STRETCHED OUT HIS HANDS ON IT AND EXALTED US TO PARADISE, FROM WHERE HE HAD BEEN DRIVEN BY THE DEVIL’S INSTIGATION.  COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE TREE.  BY IT, WE ARE EMPOWERED TO CRUSH THE HEADS OF INVISIBLE ENEMIES.  COME, ALL GENERATIONS OF NATIONS.  LET US HONOR THE CROSS OF THE LORD WITH SONGS.  REJOICE, PERFECT REDEMPTION OF FALLEN ADAM.  NOW ALL CHRISTIANS VENERATE YOU IN FEAR AND LOVE, SINGING, HAVE MERCY ON US, GRACIOUS LORD AND LOVER OF MANKIND!

Doing a word count of the hymns that are found in the Matins Canon for this Lenten Sunday of the Cross we see:    the word fasting occurs only once,   abstinence only 3 times, the word sin or passions occurs 10 times, and references to the crucifixion or Christ being nailed to the cross occurs 15 times.    On the other hand words related to resurrection, Pascha, life, the destruction of hell and demons occur 54 times.  Add to those, words about rejoicing, salvation, light, paradise, and Kingdom we find 143 references in the Canon.  More than 80% of the Canon is about Christ’s victory, Christ’s triumph, the destruction of death and the resurrection of the dead.  This is the focus of this Sunday.  The Canon for the Sunday of the Cross has in it all the Irmos hymns from the Paschal Canon and thus today we are already proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two hymns which are good examples of the focus of the hymns for the day:

This is a festival day: at the awakening of Christ, death has fled away; The light of life has dawned; Adam has risen and dances for joy!  Therefore let us cry aloud and sing a song of victory!

Behold, Christ is risen! said the angel to the Myrrh‑bearing women!  Do not lament, but go and say to the apostles: Rejoice, for today is the world’s salvation! The tyranny of the enemy has been destroyed through the death of Christ!

We find this emphasis on the glory and victory of the cross in the writings of the early church fathers as well.   As some church historians have noted, the Cross as a symbol of God’s salvation and love and triumph was the focus of the early church.  Only later in history does the Cross become more a sign of Christ’s passion and  suffering.  And only when this more ascetic theme takes over does the focus of the cross turn away from our participation in Christ’s salvation and turn more toward ascetical themes of personal self-denial, fasting and abstinence.  St. Paul himself writes about how we participate in and benefit by the Cross of Christ:

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.   (Ephesians 2:14-22)

For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…   (Colossians 1:19-22)  [For other Pauline references to the Cross and Christ’s death as the instrument of our salvation see Romans 5:6-6:11, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Galatians 2:19-20, Colossians 2:12-15]

A few more examples of the hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross:

You have risen from the tomb, never‑setting Light, shining upon the world with the bright dawn of incorruption!  In Your compassion You have driven out the dark sorrow of death from the farthest corners of the earth!

You crushed death, O Christ, and rose as a mighty King, recalling us from the depths of hell!  You brought us to the land of immortality, granting us the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven!

Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy as we greet the Cross of the Lord.  Let us sing triumphantly to God, for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!

During Great Lent, we don’t just focus on Christ’s suffering or our own self-denial.  The Cross of Christ reminds us that we are to be united to God our Father and to rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Cross reminds us that Christ has obtained salvation for all.  The Cross is for us has opened the door to Paradise.

A last thought:  Frequently in the early church writings there is mention of the two ways –  the way of the world which leads to death and the way of the Cross which leads to eternal life.      You can follow the way of the world ( for example just keep watching the news  and the news feeds and you will see exactly how the world defines glory, power, what is right – might, political power, military, the kingdom of this world).  Or you can turn the news and news feeds off and  pay attention to the themes of Great Lent, the way of Christ (self denial, humility, tears, broken-heartedness, the cross, a kingdom not of this world).   You can rejoice in the Lord or lament the condition of the world.  That choice is yours.  There are three weeks left in Great Lent, three weeks for you to allow your heart and mind to give up on the way of the world in order to follow Christ.  If you give up on the way of the world –  stop paying attention to the news or new feeds and instead come to the Church services to hear about Christ and the way to the Kingdom.  You will find the way to abundant life and the joy of the Lord God.

2018 Pentecostarion Posts

I have gathered all of the 2018 posts from my blog related to the Pentecostarion into one document.  This includes posts related to the  Sundays after Pascha, the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost.   You can find that document at 2018 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.

Knowing God

As we honor the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, we have to consider how they struggled so much with finding a vocabulary to express the revelation of God.  They were trying to put into human words the divine: God’s self-revelation.  This issue of finding a vocabulary to adequately express what God reveals exists in the Scriptures as well.  Scholar Terence E. Fetheim notes:

Thus, for example, one needs to ask what speaking of God’s eyes and ears (2 Kings 19:16) adds to the understanding of the relationship of God to the world that living, seeing, and hearing do not. Such language makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears. At the same time, in ways that people do not, God takes it all in (Jer. 32:19), and not with fleshly eyes (Job 10:4).

Nevertheless, while examining each metaphor in its specificity is important, the general conclusions drawn continue to be significant. In addition to revealing God as living and personal, they testify to the intimate relationship between God and the world. ( The Suffering of God, p. 9)

The vocabulary we use in speaking about God is born from our experience of of God.  God’s revelation is received by us, we encounter this revelation who is Christ and we are changed by it.  The revelation is not ideas about God nor words about God, but rather the experience of God the Word.

The Christian doctrine of Trinity, in Gregory’s estimate, is therefore not an exercise in speculative metaphysical language, but an exposition of how the Church has experienced God within salvation history and, as such, how it prays. (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, p. 188)

 

 

The Ascension: God’s Sovereignty Over All

The exalted Jesus participates in God’s unique sovereignty over all things.

At a very early stage, which is presupposed and reflected in all the New Testament writings, early Christians understood Jesus to have been exalted after his death to the throne of God in the highest heaven. There, seated with God on God’s throne, Jesus exercises or participates in God’s unique sovereignty over the whole cosmos. This decisive step of understanding a human being to be participating now in the unique divine sovereignty over the cosmos was unprecedented. The principal angels and exalted patriarchs of Second Temple.

Jewish literature provide no precedent. It is this radical novelty which leads to all the other exalted christological claims of the New Testament texts. But, although a novelty, its meaning depends upon the Jewish monotheistic conceptual context in which the early Christians believed it. Because the unique sovereignty of God over all things was precisely one of the two major features which characterized the unique identity of God in distinction from all other reality, this confession of Jesus reigning on the divine throne was precisely a recognition of his inclusion in the unique divine identity, himself decisively distinguished, as God himself is, from any exalted heavenly servant of God.

(Richard J. Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Kindle Location 302-309)

O Delightful Sight

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When time began its motion, darkness engulfed the earth.

God poetically spoke His animating Verse.

Mindfully Light dawned

Before the sun ruled the day or the stars the night.

Before creating eyes to see, even Darwin would agree,

There was light.

The Voice made both the light good and the good light

To illumine all things, before there was sight

Or a sun to shine.

The first eyes could see but childishly not comprehend.

The clever serpent promised they would be opened

She would see what she now believed God had hid.

Right then darkly the eyes of her heart closed

Could Eve still see the fruit was good?

Sightless eyes delighted in the Garden Tree.

Then, Adam and Eve hid what God gloriously clothed

Hoping to blind the Omniscient’s eyes.

He played along. “Where are you?”

Like young children covering their eyes,

With certainty to watchful parents mirthfully proclaim:

“You can’t see me”  and truly believe the lie.

So Adam, so Eve hid among the trees

Covering themselves with  the leaves

Convinced the Creator could not see them or their deed.

Gospel truth: In this sunlit world a man born

Without his ancestors’ eyes to see.

Eve faithlessly believed her eyes were closed, was deaf to the Light.

The sightless man listened to the Word

As only the blind can do with heightened sense he hears.

His eyes opened.  He listened to Whom Eve would not.

The Invisible God can be seen?

With the eyes of faith 

The Blind Man saw the Word

He had obeyed.

In time, Paradise was also opened

By the Light of the World.

 

Baptism or Blindness

If we take the Gospel lesson of the Blind man (John 9:1-39) in its context within the entirety of John’s Gospel, we note that in the verses right before John 9:1 from John 8, Christ is in the temple and the Jews get angry with Christ and want to stone him, but Christ is hidden from them (John 8:59), or hides himself .

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.  (John 8:59)

The Greek word “hid” is the same as the word used in Genesis 3:8-10 when Adam and Eve hearing God walking in Paradise hide themselves from God after eating the forbidden fruit.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”    (Genesis 3:8-10)

There are interesting connections between Genesis 3 and John 8, one in the temple and one in Paradise.  We know there is a relationship between the Temple and Paradise – they are interrelated realities.

In Genesis Adam and Eve are like young children covering their eyes and saying to God: “You can’t see me.”  And God even seems to play along with them in Genesis 3:9 –   But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

In Genesis 3 it is clear that though they still hear God after their sin, there is no mention of Adam and Eve seeing Him walking in the Garden.  They think they are hiding from God but it is they who can no longer see God.   The awareness of their own nakedness is directly the result of losing sight of God. – they are exposed despite their trying to hide.

In the temple in John 8 – the people are hearing God in Christ who is speaking to them and they don’t like what they hear.  They angrily want to stone Him but they can’t see Him for He is hid from their eyes.  Christ is God incarnate, standing in the temple – and the temple was to be the place where one could see God’s face (see my Jesus Christ Seen in the Temple), but the people can’t see Him because they don’t want to hear Him.  Eve and Adam were not happy when they heard God walking in the garden after they sinned, but though they still hear Him, they don’t see Him but they childishly think He can’t see them.  We can think about the blind man confronting the temple leaders in John 9:27:

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”  

The blind man comes to the point: the people knowingly and willfully refuse to listen to Christ.  That is why they cannot see Him for who He is.

As we move from John 8 to John 9 we read this:

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.    As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth.  (John 8:59-9:1)

The text moves smoothly and quickly from a group of people in the temple who cannot see Him to the man born blind from birth.  He too can’t see Christ, but he too does hear Him.  The temple is the sign of God’s presence and the place to see God’s presence, but they can’t see Christ in the temple.  They all are blind but not from birth but by choice – blinded by their refusal to hear.  But there is hope – the man born blind can come to see God – he will not only hear God in Christ, at the end of the lesson he sees Christ and so sees God.  If one is born blind not by any choice or because of anything they have done, and yet can be given sight, then those who choose to be blind should also be able to give up their blindness and to see God.

It is in the midst of the people being blind to Christ, that today’s Gospel lesson happens.

Is the Gospel suggesting that this man’s blindness is different than that of the people in the temple?  This man had no choice in the matter, he was born blind – an incomplete creation but not his fault nor the fault of his parents.  Rather, we see that physical blindness is not the obstacle to knowing God that spiritual blindness is.  Spiritual blindness is a choice.   Being physically blind is not an obstacle to seeing the invisible God!

The people in the temple cannot see Christ because of their own choices.   They refuse to believe Him and so he disappears from view.  The man born blind on the other hand is willing not only to listen to Christ but to obey Him.  And once the blind man obeys Christ, he is able not only to see  but to see God!  His eyes are opened as are the eyes of his heart, and so he sees God incarnate.    He is willing to give up his blindness and doesn’t choose to remain blind.  Thus God is able to work in him.

We all need to take note – we can stubbornly hold to our own ideas and remain blind to what God is doing in the world, in the Church, in the Scriptures.  We can angrily reject things Christ says to us because we disagree with them or don’t want to do them, or don’t want to change.

OR, like the blind man we can humbly give up our opinions and choose to obey Christ.

We can take hope that even if we are suffering from some illness, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, that we have not in fact been abandoned by God but that God will work in us to His glory.   AND we can learn compassion for others who are suffering from various illnesses, even if we believe the illness is a result of their own stupid sinfulness – from lust, gluttony, greed or drunkenness – and pray for them that God will work His power in them to God’s own glory.  This Gospel lesson is totally one of hope for those suffering physical ailment, mental illness or spiritual blindness.

We come to understand that Christ works for the glory of God – in having the blind man wash in the pool, we have an image of baptism and we come to understand that we are not baptized only because we are sinners.  We don’t baptize children because they are guilty of sin.   We baptize in order to manifest the work of God in the person.  We baptize infants that they might in fact experience the glory of God and be opened to their own spiritual nature.    Baptism is not God’s reaction to human sin, but God offering to work His glory in each of us.

And note, that the man born blind did not have to know everything before washing in the pool to be freed of his blindness.  Neither do we need to know everything before being baptized – that is why we believe the baptism of infants is essential to their spiritual lives.  In the text we see all kinds of things the man doesn’t know:

He doesn’t know where Jesus is

He doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner or sinless.

He doesn’t know who Jesus is, even when Jesus is speaking to him.

So too we baptize children so that God’s glory can be manifested in them.  Baptism is a spiritual birthing, we grow into it.  We baptize not just because there is sin in the world, but because each of us born in this world through natural birth have the means to be born again in a spiritual birth.

As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  (1 Corinthians 15:48-50)

Today’s Gospel lesson helps us understand the purpose of baptism which is not a reaction to past sin but a door into the future kingdom.  Baptism makes it possible for us to move beyond being merely flesh and blood, beyond being genetic beings or evolutionary beings, beyond the limits of self and society into the divine life, into eternal love, to being fully united to God.

The obstacle to our seeing and knowing Christ is not physical ailment, but spiritual blindness.  It is an obstacle that can be overcome in Christ.

The Man Born Blind is Healed by His Creator

John 9:1-38  Jesus gives sight to the man born blind

St. Irenaeus (second century) interprets “that the works of God may be manifest in him” (John 9:3) as a direct reference to the continuing work of God as Creator of the human person:

‘Now the work of God is the fashioning of man. For, as the Scripture says, He made [man] by a kind of process: “And the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man.” (Genesis 2:7)  Wherefore also the Lord spat on the ground and made clay, and smeared it upon the eyes, pointing out the original fashioning [of man], how it was effected, and manifesting the hand of God to those who can understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust. For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not be seeking out another hand by which man was fashioned, nor another Father; knowing that this hand of God which formed us at the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning back His own, and taking up the lost sheep upon His shoulders, and with joy restoring it to the fold of life…

As, therefore, we are by the Word formed in the womb, this very same Word formed the visual power in him who had been blind from his birth; showing openly who it is that fashions us in secret, since the Word Himself had been made manifest to men: and declaring the original formation of Adam, and the manner in which he was created, and by what hand he was fashioned, indicating the whole from a part. For the Lord who formed the visual powers is He who made the whole man, carrying out the will of the Father.'”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 38-39)

The Resurrection: Christ Renews Creation

“We have an eloquent testimony to the ultimate restoration of the world from the great Syrian poet-theologian St. Ephrem:

At our resurrection, both earth and heaven will God renew,

liberating all creatures, granting them paschal joy, along with us.

Upon our mother Earth, along with us, did he lay disgrace

when he placed on her, with the sinner, the curse;

so, together with the just, he will bless her too;

this nursing mother, along with her children, shall he who is Good renew. “ 

(from Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, p. 38)