The Purpose of Fasting for the Nativity

“In a remarkable little book entitled Body of Death and of Glory, the French Orthodox theologian and historian, Olivier Clément, speaks of the fundamental reason for Christian asceticism

Asceticism can only be understood in the perspective of the resurrected, liturgical body. Asceticism signifies the effort to strip away our masks, those neurotic identities that usurp our personal vocation. It is an effort based not on will-power, but on a ceaseless abandonment of oneself to grace…. Asceticism is the struggle, the self-abandonment of openness and faith, which allows the Spirit to transform the anonymous body of our species into a body of ‘language’ that expresses both the person and communion among persons. Thanks to this ascetic struggle, we are gradually transformed from an acquisitive body, that treats the world as its prey, into a body of celebration, that unites itself to the ecclesial liturgy and thereby to the cosmic liturgy.

The aim of the Church’s ascetic practices is to effect this change, a radical transformation of the person, from a body of death to a glorified body, a body of celebration.”  (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 139)

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The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!

St. Paul Apostle to the Nations

Today, June 29, we honor the Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul.   St John Chrysostom, whom many in the Orthodox world think is the greatest Patristic interpreter of St. Paul, writes that though we honor the saints, we are also confronted by the fact that the saints did not escape trials and tribulations in their own life times.  Rather, the saints learn in and from their tribulations about themselves, about the world and about God, and are thus able to find benefit even in events most of us want to avoid.

Chrysostom says:

“That tribulation served the purpose of the Saints can be heard from David the Prophet, who said: ‘It is good for me Lord, that I have been in trouble, that I might learn thy statutes.

Paul said, ‘I was caught up into the third heaven, and transported to Paradise. Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.’

By “messenger of Satan” Paul does not refer to particular demons, but to men serving the devils: unbelievers, tyrants, heathens, all who constantly troubled him. ‘God,’ he said, ‘permitted these persecutions that I might not be too much exalted.’ 

Although Paul, Peter and others like them are holy and wonderful men, yet they are but men, and require much caution lest they should allow themselves to be too easily exalted. Nothing is as likely to cause one to presume a high state for himself than a conscience full of good works and a soul that lives in unquestioning confidence.”   (Afflictions of Man, O LOGOS Publications,  p. 4)

Chrysostom notes the holy people recognize that suffering and setbacks contribute to our own humility, and they recognize the need for this humility because they recognize themselves as being chosen and favored by God.  Chrysostom’s warning is note-worthy – who suffers the most from sinful pride?  Those whose conscience is full of good works and thus is full of confidence that God will reward them.   St. Paul admits:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”  (Romans 5:3-4)

Rather than focusing on all the good things we do – even when done for God – godly wisdom has us focus on God’s love for us.  This reminds us of our need to love others as God loves us.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

The saints are not those whose consciences are made clean by all the good works they did, but rather are those who experienced the love of God and endeavored love God in their own lives.

St. Nicholas Cabasilas: How to Be a Saint

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century in his THE LIFE IN CHRIST, offers a vision for how to live as a Christian that makes discipleship accessible to all.  In his book, he does not see Christ demanding extreme asceticism from all Christians, but he does believe Christ offers holiness to every Christian.  His words might be a good framework for all of us to see how we can move the Church in America from honoring a few past Saints in North America to seeing all of us as being called to be the saints in North America.  First, St. Nicholas reminds us that all of  us have to consider what virtues we need in our particular lives to fully follow Christ in the vocation which we have chosen or to which we were called:

No one would claim that the same virtues are needed by those who govern the state and those who live as private citizens, or by those who have made no further vow to God after the baptismal washing and those who live the monastic life and have taken vows of virginity and poverty and thus own neither property nor their own selves. (p 160)

St. Nicholas recognizes that the president of the country and congressional leaders are in need of specific and special virtues to help them do their jobs properly.  Not everyone is in their positions, those who aren’t are going to need other virtues.  Same is true of those who have chosen to be monks or priests – they need to develop particular virtues to fulfill their roles.  The laity whether married or single and all non-monastics need  to cultivate particular virtues in order to live “in the world” as Christians.  In this sense the laity cannot just imitate monks to faithfully live their life in Christ.  Monastics will not always be the right role model for the non-monastics.  St. Nicholas uses the example that monastics have already given up possessing private property – so they aren’t going to be as focused on the virtue of charity as working people should be.    We, the non-monastics need to think long and hard about what virtues do we need to be faithful to God in the 21st Century world in which we live.  Which virtues do spouses need?  Which virtues do parents need?  Which virtues do we need in each profession or workplace in which we find ourselves?

If we share in His blood we must share in His will.  We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.  . . .    It follows, therefore, that he who has chosen to live in Christ should cling to that Heart and that Head, for we obtain life from no other source.  But this is impossible for those who do not will what He wills.   It is necessary to train one’s purpose, as far as it is humanly possible, to conform to Christ’s will and to prepare oneself to desire what He desires and to enjoy it, for it is impossible for contrary desires to continue in one and the same heart.   (p 161)

While receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is essential to our weekly lives as Christians, it is not sufficient for salvation.  We have to share in doing Christ’s will.  We have to know what the will of the Lord is and figure out how to imitate Christ in our daily lives.   This isn’t simply following a bunch of rules and rituals, which might be what monastic obedience requires.  We have to read the Gospels to learn how to imitate Christ in the work-a-day world, in our homes and neighborhoods.  To be Christian is to be Christlike – but we are to be Christ like in our marriages, on our jobs, when interacting with our fellow parishioners or when being neighborly to friends and strangers.  What we need to pay attention to is the particular Gospel lessons that help us live each day in dealing with other people and with the problems we face as home owners, citizens of our country, as employees or employers.

When we thus greatly love Him we become keepers of His commandments and participants in His purpose, for as he says, ‘he who loves Me will keep My commandments’ (Jn 14:15,21).   Besides, when we recognize how great is our own worth, we shall not readily betray it.  We will not endure being slaves to a runaway slave when we have found out that a kingdom is ours.  (p 165)

We have the responsibility as Christ’s disciples to know His commandments and to fulfill them in our lives.  As we know, Christ taught that His commandments are basically that we love God with all our soul, heart and mind and that we love one another as He has loved us.  We sometimes get so focused on minutiae of ritual and rule that we lose sight that all we do is to be done in love for God and neighbor.  When we forget love, we become ritualists.  It is easy to become Pharisees once we become ritualists.

St. Nicholas reminds us of our great worth – we are created to be the children of God!  God is giving us His Kingdom.  We are not slaves, but God’s own family.  God loves us as His children.

But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.  Towards them He observes rules of friendship which He has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown.  What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are ‘heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim 2:12?  (p 167)

We are called to follow Christ in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  No need to change circumstances, though perhaps at times repentance does call us to make major changes in our lives.  However, we can be full Christians as parents, spouses, neighbors, employees, businessmen, civil servants, soldiers, and friends.

Thus the law of the Spirit is with reason a law of friendship and consequently trains us in gratitude.  There is no toil involved in applying ourselves to this law, neither is it necessary to suffer hardship or to spend money, nor is there dishonor or shame, nor shall we be worse off in any other respect.  It makes it no less possible to exercise our skills and it places no obstacle in the way of any occupation.  The general may remain in command, the farmer may till the soil, the artisan may exercise his craft, and no one will have to desist from his usual employment because of it.  One need not betake oneself to a remote spot, nor eat unaccustomed food, nor even dress differently, nor ruin one’s health nor venture on any reckless act.  It is possible for one who stays at home and loses none of this possession constantly to be engaged in the law of the Spirit.”  (pp 173-174)

Purity of Heart: Not Just Skin Deep

“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres.  They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…

St. John the Forerunner

External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.”    (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)

Saints of North America

Women Disciples of the Lord

3rd Century Christian theologian Origen commenting on Romans 16:1-2 notes that the Myrrhbearing women were not the only females to have served the Church.  Women continued serving in recognized offices in the Church throughout the early centuries of Christianity.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you  may receive her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may  require from you, for she has helped many and myself as well.’ [Romans 16:1-2]

This passage teaches us, with apostolic authority, that women were appointed to the ministry of the church. Paul describes Phoebe, who held office in the church of Cenchreae, with great praise and commendation.   He lists her outstanding deeds and says, she has helped many, ready whenever they were in difficulty, and myself as well, in my troubles and my apostolic labors, with full devotion.

I would compare her work to that of Lot; because he always offered hospitality, he merited to receive angels as guests. Similarly Abraham, who always went out to meet strangers, merited that the Lord and his angels would stop and rest in his tent. In the same way, Phoebe, since she offered and provided assistance to everyone, merited to become a benefactor of the Apostle. This passage provides two lessons: women served as ministers in the church and those appointed to the ministry of the church should be benefactors to many and through their good services merit the praise of the apostles. The passage also encourages Christians to honor those who commit themselves to good works in the church; whether they serve spiritual or fleshly needs, they should be held in honor.” (J. Patout Burns Jr., Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Loc. 7510-18)

Community and Communion


Georges Florovsky recalls the words of Tertullian: ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus,’ that is, ‘an isolated Christian is not a Christian.’ A person who enters into the life of the Church thereby enters into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in the mystery of communion. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this important concept. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of communion, incorporates us not only into Christ as Person, but into the totality of the Body of Christ, which is inseparable from the Head. This new life includes our communion with the Body of Christ, where we are nourished by His Body, quenched by His Blood, and vivified by the Spirit who unites us into one body. This ‘Body’ contains not only the eucharistic assembly ‘here and now’, but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints.

This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong, Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and the prophets – in communion. The communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr. Florovsky calls ‘ecumenism in time’. Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers.”

(Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 128-129).

The Three Hierarchs

On January 30, we commemorate in the Orthodox Church The Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.

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One of the Matins hymns for the Feast appealed to me because of my interest in our friendly pollinators, the blessed bees.

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LIKE BEES HOVERING OVER THE MEADOW OF THE SCRIPTURES,

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YOU EMBRACED THE WONDERFUL POLLEN OF THEIR FLOWERS.

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TOGETHER YOU HAVE PRODUCED FOR ALL THE FAITHFUL

THE HONEY OF YOUR TEACHINGS FOR THEIR COMPLETE DELIGHT.

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THEREFORE AS WE EACH ENJOY THIS, WE CRY OUT WITH GLADNESS:

BLESSED ONES, EVEN AFTER DEATH,

BE ADVOCATES FOR US WHO PRAISE YOU!

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The Apostle Timothy from Among the Seventy

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Apostle Timothy from Among the 70.  The Orthodox Church does accept that in our Scriptures we have letters from St. Paul to Timothy.  St. Paul writes to his spiritual son:

My Son, Timothy…

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.

Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.

(1 Timothy 6:6-16)

Creating Chasms and Building Bridges

The Lord told this parable: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”   (Luke 16:19-31)

Jesus starts the parable by describing a chasm that exists between the worlds of the two main characters of the story.  The nameless rich man lives in the world of luxury, gourmet cooking, wealth, excess, and being waited on for his every wish.  Lazarus, the poor man, lives in an entirely different world, one of poverty, wasting illness, filth, malnutrition, homeless neglect.  There is a chasm between these two worlds, but that chasm is human made, and could be bridged if someone chose to do it.   Nothing except human choice separates these two worlds.  But the rich man chooses to keep that chasm between himself and his fellow human.  The rich man has the resources to cross the chasm and aid Lazarus, who is not asking for the man’s riches, but just for crumbs from the rich man’s table!

Then both the main characters of the parable die, and after death their roles are reversed.  Now Lazarus lives with the angels in Abraham’s bosom and is comforted.  The rich man finds himself in torment in hell.

The parable does not tell us why or how the rich man got to his most favored status in life on earth, nor why or how Lazarus was in such miserable poverty.  The luck of the draw apparently.  Jesus does not praise either of the characters for being virtuous, nor does He portray either as vile, vice-filled men.    Today, because we’ve heard the parable so often that we make assumptions about what happens and why.  We read into the parable virtues and vices but the parable never explains why the rich man ends up in hell after death or why Lazarus is in heaven.  Perhaps some sort of Karmic justice?

But none of that is really the point of the parable.

Only in hell, when he is now the victim of suffering, does the rich man care about crossing the chasm between himself and Lazarus.  Only in hell does he suddenly become concerned about those who suffer.  Only in hell does he recognize that one human can alleviate the suffering of another.   But now only in hell does he learn that the chasm in the next life between people – the haves and the have nots – can’t be bridged.  It’s too late to benefit from a fellow human being.  The unrighteous rich man learns that he cannot in this afterlife benefit from the good fortune of another,  nor does all the wealth he accumulated in the world benefit him in the afterlife. [Nor for that matter does all his accumulated worldly wealth benefit Lazarus or anyone else in the afterlife!]

There was a time when the chasm could have been bridged and crossed over – when the blessings one has could be used to meet the needs of another.  There was a time on earth when it was in the rich man’s power to cross over the chasm and use his blessings to meet the need of another.  He could have reached out to Lazarus who wallowed in poverty.  He wouldn’t have had to bankrupt himself to do this.  He obviously had such an overabundance that he could have given away a great deal without suffering even the slightest inconvenience.   Had the rich man done so, the chasm between them would have been eliminated and they would have been together as fellow human beings, brothers.  Lazarus is not the protagonist of the parable.  Only the rich man had the resources to be the hero of the story.  Lazarus really has nothing to offer anyone, except that had the rich man cared for the impoverished Lazarus, the rich man would have found his path to heaven.

There is a lesson here about the chasms we create in our lives between ourselves and others who we recognize might need or benefit from something we have.  We protect ourselves and make self-preservation into a virtue.  Sometimes we invest a great deal in making sure these self-created chasms are maintained and are impassible and impregnable.  It is possible that we will make those chasms permanent and impenetrable and unbridgeable … all the way into the life of the world to come.  Then, belatedly, we will know that we made for ourselves an eternal hell.

The antithesis of the rich man in the parable is not the poor Lazarus.  As even some church fathers noted, Lazarus is nowhere commended for any virtues.

The rich man of the parable is being contrasted with the righteous believer, which is made obvious in the Epistle reading which is linked by the Orthodox Church to the Gospel lesson of Lazarus and the rich man.   In that epistle, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul writes:

This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.” Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God

The foil to the rich man is the righteous person who generously gives to the poor.  That person is described in the Psalm 111 from the Septuagint from which the 2 Corinthians 9 quotes (in both the Scripture above and below the emphasis is not in the original text, but is mine).

Blessed is the man who fears the Lord; He will delight exceedingly in His commandments; 2 His seed shall be mighty on earth; The generation of the upright shall be blessed; Glory and riches shall be in his house, And his righteousness continues unto ages of ages.  For the upright, light springs up in darkness, For he is merciful, compassionate, and righteous.  A good man is compassionate and lends; He will manage his words with judgment, For he shall be unshaken forever; A righteous man shall be in everlasting remembrance.  He shall not be afraid because of an evil report; His heart is prepared to hope in the Lord.  His heart is established; he is not afraid As he surveys his enemies. He dispersed; he gave to the poor; His righteousness continues unto ages of ages; His horn shall be exalted with glory. The sinner shall see this, and be angry; He shall gnash his teeth, and be consumed; The desire of sinners shall perish.

The rich man of the parable perishes not because he is rich but because he fails to be righteous.   Specifically he fails to be merciful, compassionate, generous and righteous.  All of these are activities within our power on earth, and all build a bridge that spans the entire chasm not only between earth and heaven, but even that chasm which separates hell from heaven.