Holy Wednesday 2016

The Tree of Life was given as a gift to us by God to be our means to attain eternal life.  What is so incredible is that the Tree of Life is the Cross of Christ.  The Tree of Life means the death of Christ!  But it also means eternal life to us all.  The Cross is not a punishment for sin, but a healing tree (Revelation 22:2).


“The last hymn about the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52—53 is important because it is so controversial. Why is it that the death of Jesus on the Cross saves us? How is it that, through this act, everything is made right and we are allowed, by faith in Christ crucified, to become ourselves the righteousness of God? We will never, perhaps, be able to explain it fully. This text is often interpreted to mean that God Almighty is angry at the human race and that He has to punish them because of their sin, that the Law has been broken and the only way things can be restored and reconciled and redeemed is when a sufficient punishment is made.

Therefore, many people think God is punishing His Son Jesus on the Cross, in our place. I believe this is completely incorrect. There is another way of understanding this that has nothing to do with punishment. The very word punishment is never even found in the writings of the New Testament. I do not find it in the Holy Week services; I do not find it in the writing of the early Church Fathers. It is just not there.”   (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 2440-2448)

Previous:  Holy Tuesday 2016

Next:  Holy Thursday 2016


Great Lent: Journey to Pascha

LENT is a journey to Pascha. It is thus a season of joyful expectation. If we take Lent seriously, the journey is arduous, but this only makes Pascha all the more radiant and joyful. But throughout Lent, we are never allowed to forget the Resurrection, which fills all things, all ascetic labors, all solemnity, sorrow, and contrition, with gladness and brightness.

Not yet in 2014!

It would be a mistake to think of the sacrifices of Lent in purely negative terms—in terms of struggle and deprivation. We are to think of Lent as liberation. Lent calls us to sacrifice many of those things which, while they tend to occupy such a central position in our lives, while they seem to us to be so important, are in reality things we can do without.  Lent is thus the rediscovery of that which is most essential in our lives. In this rediscovery, we return to God and to the very meaning of life.

Thus, having stripped ourselves of all that is petty and futile, having cast off the burdensome baggage of our worldly and often complex lifestyles, we can truly experience Lent as liberation and purification, as the necessary, fruitful, and wonderful journey to the joy of Pascha.”

(Vassilios Papavassiliou, MEDITATIONS FOR GREAT LENT: Reflections on the Triodion, Kindle Loc. 544-52)

Images of Salvation (IV)

“Jews traditionally saw salvation as part of the covenant (Ps 130.8; 2 Chr 7.14; m. Sanh. 10.1), and understood continuing divine presence to be part of the ideal future (see e.g., Ezek 48.35).”  (JEWISH ANNOTATED NEW TESTAMENT, p 4 foonote)

This is the fourth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (III).

One of the main images of salvation that we find in the Orthodox Church is that of salvation as liberation.  The ideas see the Passover and Exodus stories of the Old Testament as being prototypes, prefiguring, the reality of salvation given by God in Jesus Christ.  Then there was liberation for the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to deliverance in the Promised land.  Now, in Christ, there is liberation for all humanity from slavery to sin, death, Hades and Satan to deliverance in Heaven: from death to life and from earth to heaven.   In Orthodoxy Christ is celebrated more as the victor than as the victim, and our response to God’s saving actions is not so much feeling guilt that our sin is responsible for the death of Christ but rather is thanksgiving (Eucharist) for being saved by God from death.

“The Mosaic religion was born along with the idea of salvation. The first commandment of the Decalogue reminds us that Yahweh liberated his people from the slavery in which they languished. The general masses always understood salvation entirely concretely, as liberation from enemies and natural disasters. The Prophets inspired this hope, inserting into it eschatological contents. According to the Bible, the world has long existed in a fallen state and stands in need of healing. Human life is as short as a dream, and it is spent in fruitless struggle. People are immersed in vanity. ‘Being born in sin,’ they are drawn inexorably to destruction. This kingdom of darkness and suffering is most unlike the consummation of God’s will. Many philosophers of the West and East came to similar conclusions. In their opinion, mortal man is a plaything of blind passions and circumstances; implacable fate lords it over all, condemning the Universe to struggle along in a closed circular path.  Awareness of the imperfection of the world led to the development of ‘salvation doctrines,’ which can be grouped into three types. For some (Plato), the exit consisted in the best organization of society, for others (the Buddha), in mystical reflection and flight from life. Both solutions, however, were united by a common assumption: neither man nor God is capable of introducing radical changes in the structure of the world. It is only possible to achieve a partial easing of suffering and hope for the annulment of existence itself. The third type of soteriology arose in Israel and in Iran. Only in those places did there exist a confidence that evil is surmountable, that there would come a great change, which is the highest goal of human life.”    (Father Alexander Men,  Son of Man, pg. 120)

Salvation in Christ is not from one evil or another – Pharoah, barabarians, Hitler or communism – but an ultimate salvation from the evil itself.  Salvation is thus not a nationalistic endeavor for which patriots are fighting.  Salvation is a cosmic victory over evil not just over human hubris or “-isms.”

“The ‘new covenant’ beliefs of the early Christians meant that, in hailing Jesus as ‘son of god’, they believed that Israel’s god had acted in him to fulfill the covenant promises by dealing at last with the problem of evil.  One standard Jewish analysis of evil, represented for instance by the Wisdom of Solomon, did not believe that the created order was itself evil, but that human beings, by committing idolatry, distorted their own humanity into sinful behavior and courted corruption and ultimately death.  Death – the unmaking of the creator’s image-bearing creatures – was not seen as a good thing, but as an enemy to be defeated.  It was the ultimate weapon of destruction: anti-creation, anti-human, anti-god.  If the creator god was also the covenant god, and if the covenant was there to deal with the unwelcome problem that had invaded the created order at its heart and corrupted human beings themselves, it was this intruder, death itself, that had to be defeated.  To allow death to have its way – to sign up, as it were, to some kind of compromise agreement whereby death took human bodies but the creator was allowed to keep human souls – was no solution, or not to the problem as it was perceived within most second-Temple Judaism.  That is why ‘resurrection’ was never a redescription of death, but always its defeat.”  (N.T. Wright, THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD,  pp 727-728)

“[St.] Paul clearly views God’s gospel and salvation as oriented to all, ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (Rom 1:16).  He knows that the one God of all humanity (Rom 3:29-30) has indeed chosen Israel, to whom and through whom came God’s Law, promises, and Messiah (3:2; 9:4-5).  But the divine election of Israel was ultimately for the blessing or salvation of all nations (c.f. Gal 3:6-9; Rom 9-11).  Salvation—God’s deliverance of Israel, according to the Scriptures—is thus opened universally in this good news, and that is the unique thematic emphasis of Romans.  The only condition for the receipt of this salvation is faith.  …  Salvation for Paul, thought oriented toward the future day of deliverance, is the total experience of being put into right covenantal relationship with God now, being one day raised from the dead, being acquitted on the day of judgment, and therefore having eternal life.  Faith, for the hearers, is the total response of obedience to the gospel (1:5).  It includes the mind, heart and body.”  (Michael Gorman, APOSTLE OF THE CRUCIFIED LORD,  p 349)

The salvation which the New Testament presents is based in Jewish thinking and spirituality.  Christianity after all believes itself to be the recipients of God’s revelation, promises and prophecies, seeing all things fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Salvation is thus not just about some future and distant heaven, nor is it merely about an immaterial soul – salvation is cosmic, but it is also about the physical, empirical creation and the here and now.  Salvation is also not an abstract idea but deals with something very earthy – namely, death itself.

“St. Paul, furthermore, is not concerned with the specifically Greek dichotomy between the soul and the body.  Faithful to the realism of Jewish thought, he always thinks of man as a whole: for him, the body does not imply so much the materiality of human life as opposed to its spirituality, as it does the organic unity of that life, indissolubly material and spiritual.

This is why eternal life, salvation made perfect, is for him in no way a deliverance from the body, but the resurrection of the body.  Is not man’s body called to become a member of Christ, a temple of the Spirit?”   (Louis Bouyer, THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT & THE FATHERS, p. 79)

Next:  Images of Salvation (V)

Great and Holy Saturday (2012)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote: “You must know that this type is found in ancient history. For when that cruel and ruthless tyrant Pharaoh oppressed the free and high-born people of the Hebrews, God sent Moses to bring them out of the evil thralldom of the Egyptians. The door-posts were anointed with the blood of the lamb, that the Destroyer might pass by those houses which had the sign of the blood. And so the Hebrew people was marvelously delivered…Now turn from the ancient to the recent, from the type to the reality. There we have Moses sent from God to Egypt; here, Christ sent by his Father into the world: there, Moses had to lead forth an oppressed people out of Egypt: here, Christ rescues mankind when overwhelmed with sin: there, the blood of the lamb was the spell against the Destroyer; here, the blood of the unblemished Lamb, Jesus Christ, put the demons to flight: there that tyrant pursued to the sea the people of God; and in like manner this brazen and shameless demon follows the people of God to the very waters of salvation. The tyrant of old was drowned in the sea, and the present tyrant is destroyed in the saving water.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem in From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers by Jean Danielou, S.J., pg. 183)

Christ Fulfills Isaiah 58 through Signs and Wonders

This is the conclusion to the blog which began with Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel.  We are considering ways in which the Gospel tradition fulfills Isaiah 58, or how Isaiah 58 is echoed in the Gospel tradition.

[5] This is not the fast that I have chosen, even a day for a person to humble himself; not even if you bend your neck like a ring, and spread under you sackcloth and ashes – not even so shall you call it an accepted fast.   [6] I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord; rather loose every bond of injustice, undo the knots of contracts made by force; let the oppressed go free, and tear up every unjust note. [7]   Break your bread with the one who is hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; if you see one naked, clothe him, and you shall not neglect any of the relatives of your seed. [8] Then your light shall break forth early in the morning, and your healings shall rise quickly; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. [9] Then you shall cry out, and God will listen to you; while you are still speaking, he will say, here I am. If you remove from you a bond and a stretching of the hand and a murmuring word, [10] and give to one who is hungry bread from your soul and satisfy the soul that has been humbled, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noonday.

Jesus did not simply claim to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, He did signs and wonders to prove He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah.   God promised healings would occur in Israel when they did the right kind of fasting and indeed Jesus heals the sick.  God promises to listen to the prayers and appeals of Israel if they fast correctly, and it is clear at numerous points in the Gospels that God the Father is with Jesus, fulfills His requests and speaks to Him.  Isaiah says light will come to Israel if they fast as God approves of fasting, and Jesus is presented in Scripture as the Light of the world.

And John, calling to him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight.  And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”   ( Luke 7:19-23)

Christ is doing what God associates with the kind of fasting of which He approves. And so He is empowered to heal the sick.  Because Jesus fasts as God commands, we can understand Jesus’ own words about why His disciples do not fast – they do not fast in the way the Jews of the Old Testament fasted.   They are not to follow these ritualistic rules of self denial, but rather are to rejoice in the Lord who empowers them to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah.  They are to do the type of fasting which results in salvation; fasting liberates all who are oppressed by Satan.  Fasting from the corrupt practices of the world, liberates God’s people from the oppression of Satan and from slavery to sin and death.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  (Matthew 9:14-15)

Christ the Word of God in His teaching perfectly embraces and embodies the Word which Isaiah received from God.  Christ teaches a form of fasting which is exactly in line with Isaiah’s vision of the fast which is pleasing to God.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   (Matthew 6:16-18)

Godly fasting is done in the heart where one repents and comes to love those who are oppressed and in need.   Zacchaeus the repentant tax collector fulfills the expectation of Isaiah 58 for he stops oppressing the poor through fraud and threat and instead stretches out his hand to help them.  Zacchaeus repents of unjust contracts and those made by force that oppress people and financially crush them.  He repents at getting ahead and getting wealthy at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves from him.

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.   Luke 19:8-9)

Zacchaeus practices the self denying fasting which God proclaimed in Isaiah 58.  In the Slavic Orthodox tradition, Zacchaeus’ story is the prelude to beginning Great Lent.

There are some echoes that I hear that may be a bit more obscure.  For example, I think the miracles which Jesus does on the Sabbath which liberates one of God’s chosen people from the oppression of sin and disease is the kind of fast that God advocates in Isaiah.  So too were the acts which fed the hungry disciples on the Sabbath day (see Matthew 12; Luke 6, Luke 13-14; John 5, John 9).  While the reaction of the Jewish leadership is to take offense at Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws of the Torah, God is clear in Isaiah 58 that the fast He has in mind releases people from injustice and bondage and slavery of all kinds.  The ritualized fast which results in acts of self deprecation – ashes, sackcloth, tears, kowtowing and prostrations – none of these has God’s approval.  God’s fast liberates His people from all forms of oppression including poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Throughout the Gospels are scattered stories which show Jesus fulfilling the conditions and terms which God said through Isaiah would be pleasing to Him.   Jesus in his merciful teachings and miracles reveals the justice of God and the true nature of fasting which liberates others from oppression.  Fasting is thus related to our business dealings, our politics, how we treat our neighbors, and how we treat the poor.

God Became Man in order to Defeat Death

“When we were in this harsh captivity, ruled by invisible and bitter death, the Master of all visible and invisible creation was not ashamed to humble Himself and to take upon Himself our human nature, subject as it was to the passions of shame and desire and condemned by divine judgment; and He became like us in all things except that He was without sin (cf. Heb 4:15)…He took upon Himself, becoming what we are, so that we might become what He is. The Logos became man, so that man might become Logos. Being rich, He became poor for our sakes, so that through His poverty we might become rich (cf. Cor 8:9). In His great love for man He became like us, that through every virtue we might become like Him. From the time that Christ came to dwell with us, man created according to God’s image and likeness is truly renewed through the grace and power of the Spirit, attaining to the perfect love which ‘casts out fear’ ( 1 John 4:18) – the love which is no longer able to fail, for ‘love never fails’ (1 Cor 13:8).”    (St.Mark the Ascetic in the Philokalia – The Complete Text: Volume One, pg.155)

Christ’s Descent into the Place of the Dead

Bright Monday                   CHRIST IS RISEN!

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) writing in the 5th Century, accepted a notion, that was commonly held by many Patristic writers, about Christ descending into Hades after His death on the cross.  Christ goes to the place of the dead in order to liberate those who are being held captive by death.   The descent into Hades and the harrowing of Hell – emptying it by liberating all the dead – came to be thought of as part of the resurrection story.    The imagery is that of the Exodus and the Passover.   Christ leads God’s enslaved people from death to life and from earth to heaven rather than from one place on earth (Egypt) to another (the Holy Land).  This image of Christ dying on the cross for the express purpose of descending to the place of the dead to liberate the dead from enslavement to death is a common Eastern Patristic interpretation of the crucifixion.  Notions of Christ being crucified as a punishment from God or to fulfill some juridical requirement were not as popular in the Christian East as they became in the Christian West.  “Christ died for our sins” could mean He suffered the penalty which we should have suffered as justice demands, as a substitution for us – he suffered the penalty in our place.  Or, “Christ died for our sins” can mean that in order to rescue us from death – death  being that place we each arrived at by our sinful choices.   Christ died to descend to where we were in order to rescue us from that death.   St. John says of Jesus that:

“At the ninth hour he penetrated hell and extinguished the inextricable darkness of Tartarus by his shimmering brilliance. He broke open its gates of bronze, smashed its iron bars, and, having savingly captured the captivity of the holy ones who had been shut up in the cruel darkness of hell, bore it off with him to heaven, thrusting aside the fiery sword and by a devout confession restoring to paradise its erstwhile inhabitant.” (John Cassian, Ancient Christian Writers – The Institutes, pg. 61)

Where in the World is Adam?

“Thus, from the first moment of disobedience, when Adam and Eve discover they are naked and flee from the gaze of their Creator, God goes to search for them: “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9) This call of God resonates beyond boundaries of the primitive Eden; it reverberates throughout the entire history of Israel and of humanity, God moves to search for the lost sheep, and when He has found it, He, full of joy, brings it back on His shoulders to the sheep pen. Upon His return, He gathers friends and neighbors for rejoicing (Lk 15:4-7). Again we perceive echoes of the heavenly feast.

However, the search for the lost human being is long and hard. The Orthodox Church, at Matins of Holy Saturday, in the wake of St.Irenaues states: ‘You descended to earth to find Adam, but You did not find him on earth, O Master, and You went to search for him in Hades.’ (stanza 25).” (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pg.55)

The Raising of Lazarus, the Man Whom Jesus Loved

“Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘“Unbind him, and let him go.'”   (John 11:38-44)

St. John Chrysostom commenting on the Gospel lesson of the raising of Lazarus, wrote:

“What was Christ’s command?  ‘Lazarus, come forth!’  When Christ prayed, the dead man did not arise.  He arose when Christ said, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’  O the tyranny of death!  O the tyranny of the power which took possession of that soul!  My prayers was uttered, O Hell, and do you still refuse to let his soul go?  ‘I do refuse,’ Hell says.  But why?  ‘Because I was not commanded to do so.  I am a prison guard here and I have in my possession one who is subject to me.  If I am not commanded to do so, I will not set him free.  The prayer was not made on my account but for the unbelievers who are nearby.  If I am not commanded to do so, I will not set free one who is in my keeping.  I am waiting for the word of command to free his soul.’

‘Lazarus, come out here!’  The dead man heard the command of his master and immediately he broke the laws of death.  … Surely, Christ’s word has proved that the prayer was not uttered to raise the dead man but because of the weakness of the unbelievers who were, at the moment, nearby.  ‘Lazarus, come forth!’  Why did he call the dead man by name?  Why?  If he were to have given a general command to all the dead, he would have raised all those in the tomb back to life.  But he did not wish to raise them all…. By raising one dead man to life, I may prove my power over those who are going to die.  For I, who have raised one man, will raise up the whole world.  For I am the resurrection and the life.

‘Lazarus, come forth!’  And the dead man came forth bound with bandages.   What marvelous and unexpected things Christ did!  He loosed the soul from the bonds of death.  He burst open the portals of hell.  He shattered to bits the gates of bronze and bolts of iron.  He set free the soul of Lazarus from the bonds of death.”   (St. John Chrysostom, ON THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, pp 241-242)