Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

34358291504_beaf717427_nIn the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy, we confess our belief that Jesus Christ became incarnate… for us [humans] and for our salvation.”  The Creed professes a belief that all that Christ did was for the salvation of all humans, not just for Christians or for the Orthodox.  We repeat this same line on feast days in the Orthodox Church  when at the final dismissal the priest blesses the congregation saying, “may He who for us (humans) and our salvation, Christ our true God…”   Orthodoxy is very clear that Christ Jesus did everything for the life of the world, for the salvation of all humans – for all who are created in God’s image and likeness, whether everyone believes that  or not.

This sense that everything is moving us toward this salvation is also clear in the Church’s celebration of PaschaAscensionPentecost.  All three events are for our salvation and necessary for our salvation.  In the resurrection, Christ unites even the dead to God, filling all things with Himself, even the place of the dead.  Christ raises the dead with Himself, and then ascends bodily into heaven, bringing our created nature into the Kingdom, into God’s presence.  Then Christ sends the Holy Spirit upon all flesh at Pentecost, restoring the Holy Spirit to humanity.  We are thus not saved just by the death of Christ on the cross, but by the continuous work of Christ who lifts us from Hades to Heaven.  Both the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit restore humanity’s union with divinity.   We sing about all of this throughout the Pascha-Pentecost cycle of services.  On the Monday of the Holy Spirit, one hymn proclaims:

COME, O FAITHFUL, LET US CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF THE FIFTIETH DAY,
THE DAY WHICH CONCLUDES THE FEAST OF FEASTS;
THE DAY ON WHICH THE PRE-ORDAINED PROMISE IS FULFILLED!
THE DAY WHEN THE COMFORTER DESCENDS UPON THE EARTH IN TONGUES OF FIRE;
THE DAY OF THE DISCIPLES’ ENLIGHTENMENT!
THEY ARE REVEALED AS INITIATES OF HEAVENLY MYSTERIES,
FOR TRULY THE LIGHT OF THE COMFORTER HAS ILLUMINED THE WORLD!

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Salvation, the restoration of human communion with God, fully occurs in all of the events of Pascha-Ascension-Pentecost and as we participate in these events through life in the Church, especially through baptism and the Eucharist.  In Christ, we are saved from sin and death and by the Holy Spirit we are enlivened and enlightened.  We are thus saved – restored to being fully human – by both the work of the Son/Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

With Pentecost we see a full restoration of what was lost by our sins.  In Genesis 6:3, the grieving Creator says of us humans, the focal point of His creation:

“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God withdrew the Divine and Holy Spirit from us, and with this separation from God’s Spirit, death became part of our condition on earth.

With the coming of Christ, this ‘curse’ is lifted from us as John the Baptist bears witness:

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”  (John 1:29-35)

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In the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit also remains on a human, which was the sign for John the Baptist that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  At Pentecost, that Spirit which came to dwell in Jesus and remain on Him, comes to dwell on all humanity.  The curse from Genesis 6:3 is lifted, and humanity is restored to full communion with God.  The salvation of us humans is brought to completion in this complete cycle of incarnation, resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit to humanity.

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In Glory Christ Ascended

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.   (1 Timothy 3:16)

One of the surprising insights of the Feast of the Ascension is that in glory Christ ascends from the earth to heaven.  In other words, Christ does not ascend to get to His glory, He is already in glory before He begins to ascend.  Glory (shekinah) is not something that Christ has to go to heaven to get or to return to.  As St Irenaeus wrote: “The glory (shekinah) of God is a human being fully alive.” Christ is in glory on earth in His humanity.  Indeed He is the King of Glory.   The fact that in glory He ascends, amazes the Bodiless Powers, for they are in wonder that God’s glory is ascending from earth to heaven rather than the other way!  As we sing in one of the Vespers hymns for the Ascension:

Not parted from the Father’s bosom, O sweetest Jesus,
and having lived among those on earth as man,
today You have been taken up in glory from the Mount of Olives,
and exalting in Your compassion our fallen nature,
You have seated it with the Father.
Therefore the heavenly ranks of the Bodiless Powers were amazed at
the wonder, and beside themselves with fear;
and seized with trembling, they magnified Your love for mankind.

Some of the earlier church fathers who believed in a tiered universe thought it is exactly because Christ is in glory on earth that He can ascend bodily through the aerial demonic realms unscathed on His way to heaven.  His glory conceals from the demons the incarnation and His humanity. Thus in this ancient worldview, the demons who stood as guards to prevent humans from bodily entering the spiritual realms don’t realize humanity has just passed them by and entered into heaven at the Ascension because they see in the ascending Christ only glory.  The angels in heaven are amazed as they see humanity enter into the spiritual realm of heaven – the divinity of Christ now hidden by His humanity.

When You ascended in glory, O Christ our God,
while the Disciples looked on.
The clouds received You with Your flesh;
the gates of heaven were lifted up;
the choirs of Angels rejoiced with gladness;
the higher Powers cried out, saying:
“Lift up your gates, you princes,
and the King of Glory will come in!”

Christ doesn’t ascend to glory or to his glory, He has the glory on earth and in glory He ascends in.  The incarnate Christ gives the proper glory to humanity as He says to the Father:  “The glory which you gave me I have given to them, that they may be one, as we are one; I in them and you in me…” (John 17:22-23)

The notion that Christ is in His glory as the incarnate God, as a human, and that in glory He ascends from earth to heaven (rather than ascending from earth to attain His glory)  is paralleled in the Third Antiphon of the church when we sing: Remember us, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom (not into your kingdom as some versions mistakenly have it).  Christ comes in His kingdom, in his glory – his glory and kingdom are wherever He is; it is not the case that He has to come into His kingdom (as if He is ever outside the Kingdom and has to wait until the day that he enters into the Kingdom).

May the glory of the LORD endure for ever, may the LORD rejoice in his works… (Psalms 104:31)

 

The Ascension: Rejoice that I Go to the Father

Orthodox hymns for the Feast of the Ascension  (Acts 1:1-12) mention a pain that the disciples of Christ feel at the Ascension.  They are despondent and feel like orphans having lost their only parent.  For example, from Vespers for the Ascension:

Lord, when Your Apostles saw You carried up upon the clouds,

they were filled with despondency, O Christ, Giver of life:

with wailing and tears they lamented and said:

“Master, do not leave us orphans,

Your servants whom through pity You have loved, as You are compassionate;

but, as You promised, send us Your all-holy Spirit to enlighten our souls!”

The Apostles had gone through the shock of losing their Master at the crucifixion, only to learn three days later that He is alive, risen from the dead! But now forty days after the resurrection, the emotional roller coaster plunges downward as the Risen Lord is taken from them at the Ascension and they are left to ponder what it all means.

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The angels were astonished at the bewilderment of the Apostles, but humanly speaking, the Apostles must have felt like Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of Oz: “My!  People come and go so quickly here!

For us Christians in the 21st Century, we too may find it difficult to find joy in the event in which Christ departs form us and leaves us here on earth to continue our mission amidst the daily problems we face in the world.   Christ tried to prepare us for this reality as we can see in His  words to His Apostles at the Last Supper as reported in John 14.  Jesus says:

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

We can see immediately that Christ knew our hearts would be troubled by the events which were to unfold.  But in talking to us about these things, He is saying to us that what will happen is according to the plan and will of God.  The events will be troubling to us, but they not be unexpected.  Jesus told us in advance what was going to happen so that we would not be caught off guard.  He departs from the earth to prepare a place for us to live with Him.  Thus, we are not waiting for something to happen, nor are we in a time when nothing is happening.  Rather, Christ is doing what needs to be done for our salvation.  If we believe He is good, then we trust that all that is happening now for us is necessary for our salvation.  We are working out our salvation on earth while Christ prepares the place where we will join Him.  We exist in time and so have to wait for time to pass, while Christ is working out our salvation in eternity.  Eternity and time come together in Christ, but for us temporal beings we have to wait on the Lord, which can be agonizing for us.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”

If we love Christ, we will keep His commandments, now, here on earth, while He continues to prepare for us in heaven.  Our task is not simply to wait, but to love Christ by keeping His Gospel commandments.  We have been given our task, Christ is accomplishing what only He can do for us.

“He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.  . . .  If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

A double blessing awaits us – Christ is preparing a place for us in heaven, and promises to make our home with us, with all those who love Him and do His word.

“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Christ understood we would be troubled by how things were going to unfold and are now unfolding.  He loves us and so is concerned about our reaction to events.   The Holy Spirit has been sent to us to teach us all we need to know in this world.  The Holy Spirit will help us remember what we need to know to live in the here and now – for forgetting God is one of worst signs of the Fallen world (see for example Psalm 106).   Christ gives us His peace to help us in times of trouble and fear.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe.”

Christ acknowledges we will feel fear and sorrow in this world, and yet He says if we love Him, we should rejoice in his return to the Father.  He doesn’t say we have to accept it or acquiesce to events we can’t control.    We should rejoice that He goes to the Father for He ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us.  It is necessary for us to experience this separation from Christ – for us to continue in this world while we await the coming of our Lord.   We have to remind ourselfves– the current time on earth is necessary for our salvation as Christ fulfills His preparations for us.  Our attitude is to be: This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  If we love Him, we will rejoice that He ascended for our salvation – to prepare that place for us.  It is with this joy that we face the world and all the challenges it brings to us.

The Place Where No Human Had Trod

And finally, those who received His teaching were confirmed in the hope that He gave them, thanks to His sealing His words to them with His very own blood. Through His death and resurrection He confirmed the twelve men who had been chosen, through the foreknowledge of God, out of the entire race of Adam for this ministry.

Then, amid ineffable splendour (the Father) raised Him to Himself to heaven, to that place which no created being had trod, but whither He had, through His own (action), invited all rational beings, angels, and human beings, to that blessed Entry, in order to delight in the divine light in which was clothed that Man who is filled with all that is holy, who is now with God in ineffable honor and splendor. (St Isaac of Nineveh, Isaac of Nineveh, p. 61)

The Salvation of the Body

This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).

Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.

In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).

(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)

Salvation: Being Made Whole and Human

Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.   (Luke 18:35-43)

Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian comments:

Soteria is the Greek New Testament word often translated as “save.” It is a derivative of the verb sozo, which means “to heal:” The Latin equivalents are salvare (to heal) and salvus (made whole or restored to integrity). Thus, the words for salvation in New Testament Greek and in Latin denote therapy and healing. The Gospel writers take advantage of this denotative meaning when they record Jesus’ healing miracles.   An example is St. Mark’s story of Bartimaeus the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), who enthusiastically chases after Jesus on the road from Jericho, boldly addresses Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David” and earnestly beseeches Jesus to restore his sight.

The New Jerusalem Bible renders Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus as “Go; your faith has saved you:” The Revised English Bible translates this as “Go; your faith has healed you:‘ while the Revised Standard Version reads, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”    All three of these modern translations are “accurate:”  But not one alone captures the complete meaning of the passage. The healing miracles certainly concern physical cure; but they are not limited to physical cure. All four of the Gospels emphasize that Jesus’ acts of physical healing are charged with spiritual and eschatological significance as well.

(The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 544-51)

Christ Ascending and Descending

The Sunday after Theophany

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.    (Ephesians 4:7-13)

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Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  (Matthew 4:12-17)

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Our Epistle today, Ephesians 4:7-13, quoting from Psalm 68:18, mentions Christ  ascending and descending.  He ascended to God’s throne above the heavens after His resurrection, and also descended into Hades upon His death on the cross.   This Ephesians reading for the Sunday after Theophany is tying together for us several ideas that the Church wishes to emphasize in its proclamation of the Good News.   Of course there is that cosmic picture of Christ who is God the Word descending to earth to be born in a cave and laid in an animal manger  – an event we celebrate as the Nativity of Christ.  But Christ continued His descent, dying on the cross, being buried and descending into Hades to free all the dead from imprisonment and slavery to Satan.  Christ ascended from Hades to appear on earth to show us all His resurrection.  He then continued His ascent all the way to the throne of God’s Kingdom above the heavens.

And this cosmic picture of Christ ascending from Hades to the height of heaven which is also our salvation is foreshadowed in the events of Christ’s descending at his baptism down into the Jordan River and then ascending out of the River to be proclaimed God’s own son.  Baptism as we all should know is exactly an image of being buried beneath the waters and then raised from the dead to new life.   Christ foreshadows his death and resurrection with His dying and rising at his baptism in the River Jordan.

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Additionally, at the baptism of Christ, the feast we call Theophany, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us as well as to the entire world.  This is the great Light which has dawned for us that is mentioned today’s Gospel lesson.

The connection between Theophany and Christ’s descent into Hades was made at one point in Orthodox history when numerous Orthodox churches took to painting on the back (west) wall of the Church, two icon frescos, one on top of the other.  The upper panel/fresco had the Baptism of Christ from Theophany in which the Trinity is revealed to us.  Beneath that icon was the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades with those saved souls looking up to the icon of the Baptism of Christ.  They understood the Baptism of Christ was the prefiguring of His descent into Hades.  In those churches with the large fresco icons one on top of the other, the door to the church was located in Hades as well.  On Holy Saturday, the congregation in the church would watch as the newly baptized were brought into the church literally passing through their own death and sojourn to Hades where they were united to and saved by Christ.  All of that is still remembered in our Church on Holy Friday when we enter the church after our procession and all pass beneath the winding sheet and we have the ideas that we are passing into the tomb of Christ as into Hades itself where we proclaim and celebrate the resurrection!

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The Epistle mentions Christ leading the captives out and bestowing on them gifts.   We understand this as our being led out of imprisonment in Hades, slaves to death.  The gifts given to us are those Christ bestows on His church as mentioned in today’s epistle.

Christ creates the Church and all the offices of the Church and gives spiritual gifts for all the personnel He needs to carry on His ministry.  He gives us spiritual gifts so that we can accomplish His will on earth.   For Christ passes on to us that we as members of the parish and as members of the Body of Christ are to be the light of the world:

46718055141_fe4d57b0f9_n“You are the light of the world.  . .  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.   (Matthew 5:14-16)

The Great light which has dawned and which people see is not Christ alone, but us as the Body of Christ.  All of us united to Christ as His Body, the Church, for as St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16

 – You (plural) are God’s temple.  You (people) have God’s Spirit living in us.

The Church is not a building, but the people of God.  The Church is you and I doing God’s will on earth.

When people come and see the Orthodox Church, they might come and look at the beautiful, interesting and ancient icons on the walls of the building, but they should come to see the living temple, the living icons – namely you!

It is not the building that makes us Orthodox.  It is not the building that makes the Orthodox Church.  It is you people, the parishioners, the members of this parish!

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We extend an invitation to others to come and see the Orthodox Church, we should also be inviting them to see

How we live

How we love God and neighbor

How we worship God.

How we love one another.

How we are like Christ.

People need to come here not only to see icons or to see the Liturgy and Orthodox worship but to see us –

To see:

24765159445_b73aee26d1_nLove               Faith

Hope              Joy

Beauty           Light

Truth             Peace

In us!

St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 –

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  . . .  For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

God entrusts us to make His Holiness present on earth and available to all who wish to enter into Communion with Him.  God wants us to be witnesses to the Light, but also to be that Light to the world.

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The Incarnation: Recreating Humans

Christ is born!

Glorify Him!

“The story of Job serves to renew hope within us. Even though God’s image in man has been spoiled by the sin of Adam and Eve, by the sin of Cain, and by the sins of each one of us, Job allows us to hope for the coming of One—just and suffering, patient and triumphant—who will resist with courage and perseverance the assaults of the Evil One and will triumph over him, thereby restoring in mankind the divine presence which had been lost through sin and reestablishing in us the divine image in the fullness of its beauty. To do this, God sends among us the very Model according to which He had originally created us.

Just as a faded print can be restored by reapplying the original stamp so the Son of God, who reflects the glory of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), can enter human nature by clothing Himself with it as with a garment, and thereby can create a new Adam, a perfect Man, a radiant Image of God. This occurs by what theologians call the Incarnation. This decisive event took place on the day of the Annunciation, when Gabriel, the messenger of God, visited a young virgin of Nazareth in Galilee called Mary.”

(The Living God: Vol. 1, p. 19)

When we read the Scriptures with the Church we realize how much of the Old Testament speaks of Christ.  Job prefigures Christ – as Job remains faithful to God despite his suffering Job defeats Satan.  Job shows what a true human is like.  When Christ comes to earth we realize how the story of Job helps us recognize God’s faithful and suffering servant.  The Book of Job thus prepares us for the Nativity story of Christ, in which we see evil acting against the Christ, but Christ remains faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross.  Christmas is not mostly a sentimental tale, but rather in all its details reveals to us God’s battle with the forces of evil and the price God is willing to pay for the salvation of the world.

The Door Through Which Christ Passed

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.   (Revelation 3:20)

“The door through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was his love for man.  It is this divine love that St Symeon the New Theologian addresses, asking that it may be for us too a door bringing Christ close to us:

‘O divine love, where are you holding Christ?  Where are you hiding Him? …  Open even to us, unworthy though we are, a little door, that we may see Christ who suffered for us…  Open to us, since you have become the Door to His manifestation in the flesh; you have constrained the abundant and unforced compassion of our Master to bear the sins of us all…  Make your home in us, that for you the Master may come and visit us in our lowliness, as you go before us to meet Him.’

The door of love through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was opened by the Mother of God.  Her holiness attracted divine mercy to the human race.  Through her ministry in the mystery of the divine economy, the Mother of God became the ‘Gate that faces east’ (cf Ezek 46:1, 12); the ‘Gate that looks towards the east’  from which life dawned for men and scattered the darkness of death.”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY , p 36)