Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fear the only trustworthy one

St. Basil the Great was not anxious about his life.

Fresco of St. Basil
in St. Athanasius Church in Zovik, Macedonia
before 1850
A prefect of the emperor came to him and demanded that he adopt the Arian heresy, as was the will of his sovereign. But St. Basil said to him, “It is not the will of my true sovereign.”

The prefect was enraged and threatened to confiscate St. Basil’s possessions. To which St. Basil replied, “What would you want with my tattered rags, and my few books?” He was not anxious about what he would wear or about his things.

So the prefect threatened him with exile. To which St. Basil replied, “Every land is God’s. I am only his guest here or anywhere else.” He was not anxious about where he would live.

So the prefect threatened him with torture. “As for torture,” said St. Basil, “I am so weak that the first blow would knock me out.”

So the prefect threatened him with death. “To me, death would be a kindness,” said St. Basil, “for it would bring me all the sooner to God.” He was not anxious even about his life.

The prefect exclaimed, “I’ve never been spoken to so boldly before!” “Perhaps,” said St. Basil, “you have never met a bishop…. Where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else.”[1]

Like St. Basil, we should fear God alone and then fear nothing and no one else.

Today Jesus commands us not to be anxious. Yet, anxiety plagues many of us. A quick internet search about anxiety reveals a panoply of self-help books, aids, and supplements. We know that anxiety is our enemy. This is actually one thing about which our culture agrees with Jesus.

But the gospel is not a self-help book. It’s not merely a set of suggestions for our happiness and well-being. Though, our Lord does care for us, so his commandments are for our good.

Contrary to the implications of some, God won’t give us a life without suffering. Far from it. He teaches us instead that we are to take up our crosses. Suffering is going to be part of this. The Christian way is not going to be the easy way.

C.S. Lewis says, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” But if we are not seeking pleasure and happiness so much as truth and love, then that is to be found only in Christ, who is Truth and who is Love.

An interior view of The Eagle and Child (That is, the Bird and Baby),
a pub frequented by C.S. Lewis.
His portrait hangs over the mantle to the right. 
But all of that notwithstanding, I do not believe that God wants us to suffer. There’s a difference between what God permits and what God desires. He tells us we will suffer, but today’s gospel is good evidence that he does not want us to suffer needlessly. Anxiety is a needless suffering, from which he want us free. He did not make us just to be sufferers. He did not make us for endless anxiety.  

I myself am anxious much of the time. I am often disobedient to this commandment of our Lord. May he have mercy on me, the sinner.  

He commands us not to be anxious. This God and man who also tells us that we will be hated and persecuted and that we will suffer for his name’s sake, that we must accept suffering, take up our cross, die; that we must go through death on our way to everlasting life. The one who afflicts us with such words, also comforts us. He tells us how to deal with these terrible things. That is, he commands us, do not to be anxious about your life. Be free. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Trust.

Mother Katherine, the local Orthodox nun, iconographer, and psychologist, points out that while we often think of peace as the opposite of anxiety, this peace must be grounded in trust. Trust “implies peace in relationship with something or someone else.” And so trust is also the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety is ultimately a failure to trust in the Lord. Trust that the Lord will give you what you need. He clothes the lilies of the field more splendidly than Solomon. He will give us what we need to wear. Trust in him. Do not be afraid. Be at peace. Do not worry.

All good things come from the Lord, really. Do not be deceived into thinking that we have earned all the good things we enjoy. Every talent and ability was given to us by God. Every opportunity. Every kindness in every heart that educated us and gave us a chance. All of this is from the bounty of God. We owe him all things. All things are truly his. Nothing is really our own. And gratitude for all these things is an antidote to the poison of anxiety.

Anxiety is an affliction. It is pain, even physical pain, about which our Lord is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?”

Anxiety is restless, undirected worry about all of things that might happen. Someone might not like me anymore. They might even hate me. Our stained glass windows might collapse. I might get hit by a car. We might be attacked by terrorists. These are things that might happen or might not happen. Worry and anxiety about these things are exactly what we are to avoid.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t to care about these things. The King James Bible says we are to have no care about our life, but the meaning of the word ‘care’ has evolved since the seventeenth century. Care and concern and prudence are good and necessary. They’re even a part of love. Anxiety, on the other hand, does no good.

We should lovingly care for our old church buildings, blessings given to us by God that they are. That is love and care, not anxiety.

We should take care when we cross the road. Looking both ways is not anxiety. But looking both ways and then looking both ways again and again and then, seeing no cars, deciding not to cross anyway, in case there might be a car – that is anxiety.

It’s alright to prepare for possible disasters. That’s not anxiety – it’s taking care. But living in such fear about the possibility of a terrorist attack that you begin to ostracize and hate your neighbors – that is anxiety.

Anxiety has no real object.  It has only imagined objects. It is worry about maybes and what ifs. Unlike fear, which does have real objects. We are to fear God. Jesus does not condemn this holy fear when he tells us not to be anxious. God himself is called the Fear of Isaac.  Have this kind of fear, but do not be anxious.

I hear a lot of anxiety about what is happening against Christians in this country. But what are we afraid of? Since when do Christians fear persecution or even death? Have we forgotten the gospel and the resurrection? Do we think the culture or the government can triumph over the cross?

St. Basil wasn’t worried about whether the government official would arrest him. Such worry would have only stifled his courage to witness to Christ and, like a coward, he’d have cowered instead for fear of repercussions. He did not fear the government, because he feared the only one worthy of his fear: the Lord God. When you fear God, then you need not fear anything. If I really fear God, and not people – not my enemies and not my friends – then I cannot be persuaded to act against my God-given conscience.

We often fear our friends more than we do our enemies. We fear losing our friends or offending them. We shouldn’t be deliberately offensive, but we also shouldn’t be so afraid of what people might think, say, or do that it inhibits our witness to Christ in word and in action.

Fear God instead. In that fear – fear of the only one who loves mankind, fear of the only trustworthy one – all fear melts away, because perfect love casts out fear. Our holy father Anthony the Great has two parallel sayings. The first is by far the more popular. He says, “I no longer fear God, but love him.” But he also says, in fact in the next sentence, “Always keep before your eyes the fear of the Lord” (Sayings of Anthony, 32 and 33). This is the paradox. Only in the fear of the Lord is it possible to be truly fearless.

[1] This story about St. Basil is adapted from St. Gregory the Theologian’s Funeral Oration for St. Basil (Oration 43, 48-50). This, and many ideas in this post, were inspired by Fr. Thomas Hopko

Sunday, May 22, 2016

There is one holiness

For All Saints Sunday 

Paul addresses most of his epistles to the saints of this or that city. And, I hope, if he were writing to us, he would say the same and would address the saints among us.

Although, when he addresses the Galatians, he does not call them saints. His letter is written to rebuke them because they have been turning to a different gospel, a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

So, if Paul were writing to our church, would he call us saints? Or, would he, as he did addressing the Galatians, leave that part out? Are we following the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches? Or are we accepting a different gospel, receiving a different spirit, or preaching another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 11:4)?

Some in Galatia were holding up circumcision and the works of the old law over and against faith working through love in Christ, the love which in truth fulfills the whole law (cf. Gal 5:6,14). This excessive regard for externals I don’t think is the typical error of our age, but we are inclined toward other errors.

Sometimes, we excessively internalize our faith. We regard it as a private matter, not something to be discussed in public. We are sometimes cowards and we sometimes fail to acknowledge Christ before others. Today, Christ tells us that if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. That is, he will make us his saints. Likewise, if we deny him, he will deny us before his Father (Matt 10:32-33).

If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). Among other things, He commands us to acknowledge him before others (Matt 10:32). He commands us to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). And he commands us to baptize every nation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).

If we keep these commandments, Christ will acknowledge us before his Father (Matt 10:32). He will remember us forever. And so we will live forever in him, our resurrected Lord. In Christ, we will know the Father, which is eternal life (John 17:3). This is holiness indeed: oneness with God. This is what it is to be a saint.  

This word “saint” is interesting. If we look at the Greek, ἅγιος, it’s the same as the word for holy. Sometimes Greek has many words for which we have only one, as in the case of “love,” but sometimes, it goes the other way and they have one word, for which we have many. And this is the case with the word ἅγιος, which means holy, which means saint, which means sanctuary (e.g Heb 8:2). At times, even Jesus is simply called the Holy – ὁ ἅγιος (e.g. Mark 1:24). This is worth keeping in mind when we think about the saints. Saint and Holy are utterly synonymous. There is no difference at all in the mind of the fathers, or in the mind of Paul. There are not two holinesses, but one holiness. If someone or something is holy, it can only be because they are partakers of the one holiness.

The single greatest teaching of the second Vatican council, in my opinion, is that there is a universal call to holiness. This is not a new teaching. Not by any stretch.  This was already the teaching revealed by the Lord God through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai 3,310 years ago – or so. The Lord our God says in all ages, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45).

There’s a tall order. The holiness of the Lord our God cannot be overstated. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, the God of hosts. Three times holy is he. In Hebrew, this is a superlative. He is the holiest one and the source of all holiness, in whom is any holiness that is.

Yet, as the Lord, he is God of hosts, that is, as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it, God of a huge crowd. He is in and with and surrounded by his saints. “Orthodox worship and prayer,” Fr. Stephen writes, “is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’” God, who alone is holy, has chosen not to be alone in his holiness, but to surround himself with those he has made holy, those he has made one with himself by his grace.

In the Divine Liturgy, after the consecration, the priest holds the holy lamb and says, “Holy gifts to holy people.” Does this mean you have to be a saint in order to come forward to receive Holy Communion? Yes, it does! There is no difference between “saint” and “holy.”

Then how do we become saints? None of us is sinless – but among the saints are sinners, every degree of sinner, and every kind of sinner – just like us. So when I say, yes, we have to be holy before we come forward, we have to be saints before we receive the holy things which are for the holy ones, I am speaking of a miracle of God’s mercy and grace with which we cooperate through prayer and humility and confession of our sins. We do not make ourselves saints, the Lord makes us saints.

Every saint he makes is unique. We honor them all. We need them all. Just as in one body, every member is different, yet every member needs the others for the whole body to thrive (cf. Rom 12:4-5). Every person that God makes, God wants and needs for his purposes. We are wanted and needed by God. We should seek God’s purpose for our own lives. As Fr. Thomas Hopko points out, if we are condemned or damned it will not be because we are not the Theotokos, or we are not John the Baptist, or we are not Isaac the Syrian. It will be because we are not truly ourselves. It is for not being who God created us to be that we could be damned. The ultimate authority on who we should be and what we should do is our author and creator.

He reveals a lot of this to us through the Church, so don’t think this means that we can go it alone. Because God gave us the Church to guide us into holiness, that is, into the person that God made each of us to be. Going it alone was never his vision for any human being. We are communal creatures. We are a community of persons, in the image of God, who is a community of persons. The Church is that community - that coming together as one with God and one another.

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza has a beautiful image of a wheel, in which the center – the axis – is God, and each of us are somewhere along the spokes of the wheel. You see, the closer we get to God, the closer we get to each other. Also, the further we get from God, the further we get from each other.

For this reason, it makes no sense to receive communion – to enter into communion with God – if we have animosity toward our brother or sister (Matt 5:23-24). There is no communion with God without communion with one another. First of all, we must “be reconciled with everyone and have no animosity toward anyone.” This is the first rubric in the Liturgikon.

Before we dare to approach with the fear of God and with faith, we pray that the holy mysteries be for our healing and not for our condemnation. We pray that the Lord make us worthy to receive. And we pray for mercy. This prayer – this Kyrie eleison – is our path to holiness. Holiness never comes from relying on the self, but rather on the one to whom we pray. To rely on the Lord, who alone is holy and who alone can make us holy.

So, when the priest holds the Eucharist in his hands and says, “Holy gifts to holy people” what can we say? We can only say, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.” All holiness that is comes from the holy one.

The holy one, Jesus Christ, teaches us how to be holy in today’s gospel. We must confess Christ before others, we must love him more than all others, even more than our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. And we must take up our cross and follow him (Matt 10:37-38). These are Jesus’ own words. This is his prescription for holiness.

When we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ and we begin to become one with him. We must thereafter imitate him, especially in his self-sacrificial love, to remain and grow toward ever greater union with the holy one, Jesus Christ, who is one in essence with the Father who is holy.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Holy Spirit Inspires the Church

Sunday of the Fathers at the First Nicene Council
Today, (did you hear?) Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem in order to get there for Pentecost (Acts 20:16). Pentecost is coming next Sunday, and with it our commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Already, the Spirit is with us. And today we remember the fathers of the first ecumenical council, which met in Nicaea in 325, and who were also inspired by the same Holy Spirit.

The First Council of Nicea, wall painting at the church of Stavropoleos
Bucharest, Romania

At every Divine Liturgy and at every Compline, we repeat the Nicene Creed which these fathers began to craft under the inspiration of the Spirit. The Nicene faith is our faith, the God-inspired faith, the faith of our fathers and mothers.

The Holy Spirit inspires the Church. God is with us. Some fall into a trap of confining the presence and action of God to historical events like Pentecost or to historical documents like Scripture. Or, toward another extreme, some limit their understanding of the Spirit to private individual ecstatic experiences.

In truth, the Holy Spirit inspires the Church.

The Church is, but is not only, historical. It is also the living and breathing body of Christ. It is fully present here where we are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, where the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon our gifts, where the Father hears our prayer. And it is present throughout the world wherever orthodoxy is believed and wherever orthopraxis is observed.

In the Church, our experience of God is, but is not only, private and personal. We encounter God alone in our prayer closets, but we also encounter Him in one another, in the least of his brethren, and in our communal prayer, in the mysteries of the Church and in the public proclamation of His Word.

In that public proclamation today we, with the apostles, overhear Jesus say to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3).

There are ten thousand sermons in this one verse, but today I am struck by an odd turn of phrase: Jesus Christ calls himself Jesus Christ in the third person. This points to an intriguing possibility. It is possible that this prayer of Jesus at his Last Supper was long remembered liturgically before it was committed to writing, which could explain why the prayer is both from Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ.[i] The gospel of John is the latest gospel to be written and it benefits from the longest theological reflection. Its prose and rhetoric are finely polished. Chiefly for this gospel’s sake, John, whose feast is today, is rightly called the Theologian.

These facts call to mind the reality that while for a while there were Christians without any written gospels, there were never any Christians without worship, without liturgy, without anamnesis/remembrance, without Eucharist/thanksgiving. The inspired Divine Liturgy precedes the inspired written gospels.

Today Jesus says to His Father, “I have given them the words you gave me and they have received them” (17:3). But Jesus did not write down these words. The gospels tell us that Jesus could both read and write. But the only writing that he does, mysteriously, is in the sand – letters that the wind could blow away – perhaps a wind like that wind that blows in the upper room where the apostles hide.

Jesus does not give us a manuscript, but rather the testimony of women and men. He writes his revelation on their hearts. He chooses to reveal himself through people – the people of God - that is, through the Church.

The Holy Spirit inspires the Church, and we must follow the Church, never the Scripture alone. The Scripture is the inspired word of God and the Holy Spirit inspires it in and through the Church, never apart from or against the Church. Decontextualized from the Church, the Scripture can be distorted and perverted to any false teaching or wicked purpose the interpreter desires. Thank God, God did not leave us with the Scripture alone, but also gave us His holy Church.

Today in Acts, Paul tells the elders [that is, the presbyters] of Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [that is, ἐπίσκοποι, bishops] to feed the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The same Holy Spirit that inspires Scripture and that descends upon the apostles at Pentecost also makes presbyters and bishops for the Church. Ordination is an act of God, a holy mystery, an epiclesis. This isn’t a different Spirit, but the same Spirit. There is one Holy Spirit, one God, one faith, one Church. The Holy Spirit gives us the Scripture and he gives us the bishops too. We don’t get one without the other. We need them both absolutely.

This doesn’t mean that bishops are always good and holy. In fact, if we study the history of the ecumenical councils we discover an uncomfortable amount of all-too human politics, rivalries, and intrigues. Despite this, the Holy Spirit works through these councils, just as he works through Peter, who denied him, and through Paul, who persecuted his Church. Truth is expressed by God from out of the midst of human failings. God is with us, in the midst of us. The Holy Spirit inspires the Church.

When a presbyter, Arius, begins to lead people astray, teaching that Jesus is not of one divine essence with the Father, but rather some kind of exalted creature of God, the Holy Spirit inspires the Nicene council which we commemorate today.

The Arians misread today’s gospel. When Jesus says to his Father that he is “the only true God,” the Arians thought that this must mean that Jesus himself was not the true God. This is what I mean. How quickly the human mind can stumble into error when reading the Scripture alone unaided by the Church. The Holy Spirit has given us both because we need both in order to come to orthodoxy.

The Nicene Council provided the needed corrective. As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages.  Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father.” Our Christology couldn’t get any higher.

Our holy father Athanasius, who was present at the Nicene Council as a deacon and who spent the rest of his life defending its teachings against the world, provides the true understanding of the word “only” in today’s gospel. He writes against the Arians,

“If then the Father is called the only true God, this is said not to the denial of him who said, "I am the Truth…” And so the Lord himself added at once, "And Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Now had he been a creature, he would not have added this and ranked himself with his creator. For what fellowship is there between the True and the not true? But as it is, by including himself with the Father, he has shown that he is of the Father's nature.”[ii]

The Holy Spirit was inspiring the Church before the gospels were written, and he continues to inspire the Church after they are written. This is never more evident than when there is an ecumenical council. At the council of Nicaea, the Holy Spirit taught the Church a new word: homoousios, that is, of one essence. The Son is of one essence with the Father. Jesus Christ is not less than God. He is God. And there are not two Gods, but one God. Many of the fathers of the council were reluctant to accept this word at first because it appears nowhere in scripture and because it had been employed in the past by heretics. But guided by the Holy Spirit and for the benefit of all the people of God, accept it they did.

A priest once told me that there are only two words I must never say from the pulpit. One of them is “change.” I’m not going to say the other word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires change. Homoousios was a new word, once.

We must not forget the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church at all times, without whose presence we are not the Church.

[i] (Suggit 1992). Malan, G.J., 2011, ‘Does John 17:11b, 21−23 refer to church unity?’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 67(1), Art. #857.
[ii] Discourses against the Arians 3.23.6-24.8-9.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Now Worship in the Spirit

On John 4:5-42. Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Фотина Самаряныня в Протате1290-1310
 “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).

“The hour is coming, and now is.” This is the first Sunday after Mid-Pentecost, the mid-point between Pascha and Pentecost, between that day when the Lord breathed the Holy Spirit upon his apostles for the forgiveness of sins and that day when the Holy Spirit will descend upon the apostles like tongues of fire so that the good news will be preached to all nations.

As we await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have not been singing our hymn to the Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and who fills all things, who is the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, who is the gracious one who dwells within us, cleanses us of all stain, and saves our souls. This hymn is omitted until Pentecost. In its place, we sing, “Christ is risen.”

But we are now more than halfway to that feast of the Spirit’s coming, and on this day our Lord reminds us that the hour is coming when we will worship in the Spirit. We have not been praying “Heavenly King…,” but the Spirit of Truth is nonetheless among us and animates our worship. “The hour is coming, and now is.”

Even as the Lord Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman – not only before Pentecost but even before his own death and resurrection – he says that the hour is coming, and that the hour now is. Even then, the Spirit is already present everywhere and filling everything. Wherever there are blessings, there is the Holy Spirit, the treasury of blessings. Wherever there is life, there is the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Wherever there is mercy and grace, there is the Holy Spirit, the gracious one, dwelling within us.

The Samaritan woman – called by tradition in various languages Photini, Svetlana, Fiona, or Claire – all names which mean “light” – is blessed and enlighted by the presence of Christ, the Light and by the unseen Holy Spirit, whose grace is the living water Christ promises. She is blessed, and so the treasury of blessings, the Holy Spirit, is with her.

Mercy and grace are present also to the Samaritan woman. The Lord shows her mercy and does not condemn her even as he reveals her illicit union saying “you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband” (4:18). Origen observes that her words – “I have no husband” – may be understood as a confession rather than an obfuscation. He writes, “She already had, as it were, something of the water that leaps into eternal life since she had said ... ‘I have no husband,’ having condemned herself on the basis of her association with such a husband.”[i]

She could have been admitting to Jesus that her union was not lawful – which would not have been an easy thing to admit in that culture to a strange man. Regardless, when the Lord rebukes her and reveals the full nature of her wrongs, she does not deny but admits that what he says is true because she calls him a prophet, which is to say that his words are the words of God. Clearly, mercy and grace are with her, and so the Holy Spirit, the gracious one, is with her.

The humble confession of wrongs always springs from the grace of the Holy Spirit as from a spring of living water. She says “Lord, give me this water,” and immediately the Lord provokes her confession – thus giving her the water she asks for. Immediately, she begins her entrance into eternal life.

It always begins with confession and repentance – the baptism of repentance – the baptism in living water – baptism into the death of Christ that we may rise with Christ. First, by baptism, comes death to the old self, the crucifixion of the old body of sin. Then comes life in Christ, free from sin, never more to die. (cf. Rom 6:3-12).

Baptism is our initiation into the Church. It makes sense, then, that after their talk of living water that gives eternal life, and after her moment of confession, the Samaritan woman asks about right worship – whether it is to be offered on Mount Gerizim as the Samaritans say or in Jerusalem as the Jews say – because worship is the life of the Church. Jesus of course answers that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” We are baptized and chrismated once so that our life of true worship in the Spirit may begin.

Above all, the true worship in Spirit and in Truth that the Lord prophesies is the Divine Liturgy. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes that our Divine Liturgy “is entirely, from beginning to end, an epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit” (222). And so, even though we are only halfway to Pentecost, in a way, it is Pentecost at every Divine Liturgy.

Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas conceives of the Eucharist as a “continuous Pentecost” and writes that, in the Divine Liturgy, “the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in the Church, [is] animating and vivifying the Church, transforming the assembly into the Body of Christ” (181). The Holy Spirit, who is already and always with us, comes upon us before the gifts to prepare us to receive and become the body of Christ, the Son of God, in the Eucharist. “In the Eucharist,” Calivas writes, “we become Spirit-bearers so that we may receive Christ” (182). 

Every blessing offered in the Liturgy only blesses inasmuch as the Holy Spirit – the treasury of blessings – gives the blessing. Without the grace of the gracious one dwelling within us, our ceremony would be empty. It would not cleanse us of our stains and it would not save our souls. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). Unless the Holy Spirit comes upon us in the Divine Liturgy, those who offer it labor in vain. Thanks (εὐχαριστία ) be to God the Father, who does hear the prayer of his priests and so does send his Holy Spirit first upon us and then upon our gifts of bread and wine making them the precious body and blood of his Son that we may partake of them for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting (Liturgikon 75-77, 92).

[i] Commentary on the Gospel of John 13.50.

Sunday, April 3, 2016


On Acts 5:12-20 and John 20:19-31
Thomas Sunday

The Harrowing of Hell, a northern Russian icon
tentatively dated to late 13th century

All of Bright Week, the doors of the icon screen stood open. The way to heaven, to resurrected everlasting life is opened by Christ’s glorious triumph over death. There, in the icon of the resurrection – his harrowing of hades – he stands on the broken gates of death, now in the form of a cross. The tomb had been sealed, but our Lord, the Life of all, breaks open this seal and he rises from the grave. And so the doors are opened.

But today we close the doors of the icon screen. Beginning at Ninth Hour yesterday, the doors were closed, having stood open all week. And after this homily, I will close the royal doors again. Bright Week is ended. And we return to some of our more ordinary customs.

There is a kind of sadness to this moment of closing the doors. The gates of heaven have been open all week and now it strangely seems as though they are no longer.

Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes,
“I am always grieved by the closing of the sanctuary gates on the Saturday of St. Thomas and in general by the ending of bright week. They still sing 'Christ is Risen' but everything becomes more difficult, as if the gates of the kingdom of heaven had really closed, those gates which have only just been opened in answer to our prayer and fasting. People plunge themselves once more with a sort of ravenousness into futile, worldly pursuits, and the churches become empty."

And yet, closed doors do not stop our Lord from entering. And hearts closed by faithlessness do not stop the Lord from entering.

Soon after we closed the doors yesterday, we sang Vespers. The first sticheron at Vespers begins, “When the doors were closed and the disciples were gathered together, you suddenly appeared in their midst, O Jesus our Almighty God.” Again and again, throughout this day’s services, the hymns are filled with this image of closed doors. Again and again, we are reminded that Christ enters regardless. 

It’s almost as if we close the doors just to demonstrate that this closing has no power to keep out the Lord. Shut the door and lock it, as the disciples did in the Upper Room. Soon the Lord will stand among us regardless, saying “Peace be with you.” Thomas tries to lock him out of his heart and mind, saying, “I will not believe.” Soon the Lord stands before him regardless, saying “Peace be with you,” showing Thomas his living body marked by the nails and the spear, and saying “do not be faithless, but believing.” And Thomas does believe. The doors were closed, but not to the Lord.

Русский: Уверение Фомы.
Дионисий и мастерская.
Икона из церкви Св. Троицы Павлова Обнорского монастыря.
1500 г. (ГРМ)

Where ever the apostles go, the Lord opens doors for them. Today, from Acts, we hear that the Sadducees, filled with jealousy, rise up and arrest “the apostles and put them in a common prison.” The apostles are again behind locked doors, but this time the doors are locked from the outside – a different kind of lock for the Lord to pick. So, “at night an angel of the Lord open[s] the prison doors and [brings] them out.” The next day, the officers report, “We found the prison securely locked and the sentries standing at the doors, but when we opened it we found no one inside” (Acts 5:23). There is no lock of metal or of mind that can keep out the Lord from where he wills to go.

And it is greatly encouraging to know that, as he repeatedly demonstrates, he wills to be with us – and for us to be with him – even after we have been faithless. Jesus loves Thomas and wants to be with him even though Thomas has been faithless. Jesus, our Christ and our God, stoops to prove himself to Thomas! He lowers himself to satisfy the doubting mind of a mere human, as if this human’s opinion of things counts for something. Thomas matters to Jesus this much.

To understand how Jesus regards Thomas and all of us who doubt or fall away or make mistakes or sin in countless ways, I think it may be helpful to consider the relationship of adults to children. After he washes their feet, Jesus says to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). He is our teacher and our Lord. If we love him at all, we are his pupils, his students, his disciples. To our Lord, we are like children. We are like the little ones about whom he says, “Let the little children come to me” (Matt 19:14).

If you think about it, it is easy to see that, next to the eternal God, we really are like little children – no different at all than children. Just consider the age ratio. If someone 25 years younger than me – or 70 years younger than some – seems like child to us, imagine how we must seem to God, who is Ancient of Days (Daniel 7). We surely are merely children.

Many of us – perhaps like Thomas – often take ourselves too seriously, as if it really mattered above all else how we see things – as if our perceptions were really what it was all about. As if our opinions were great and weighty and really counted for something. We might do well to occasionally ask ourselves – where we were when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:4).  We are new to this world, even compared to our ancestors, let alone to God. We are all like children.

It might help, then, to think about how we adults regard children, with all their struggles and their questions, because this will be similar, I think, to how Jesus regards Thomas, to how God regards us.

Well, first of all, many of the problems of childhood seem small to us. Tying my shoes is not really a problem for me anymore (except during liturgies, it seems). Nor am I preoccupied with endless questions about dinosaurs. But I also understand where they’re coming from. I’ve been there too. And I try to look upon them not with contempt, but with compassion. I try to treat them with patience and kindness and love. I have seen enormous patience with children from the teachers and parents among us. In this, they are icons of the Lord, our Teacher. 

So how does Jesus regard Thomas? How does he regard this man who doubts him? With contempt? Does he say to Thomas, as is his perfect right, “who are you to doubt me?” No. Not with contempt, but with compassion. Yes, he does rightfully reproach Thomas to a degree, but not to the point of rejection.

I believe that Jesus loves us all as he loves Thomas and that he will give every sinner and every doubter an opportunity to stand before him and say, as Thomas does, “My Lord and my God.” Even now we have this opportunity.

Those who believe without seeing are blessed. But those who doubt are not abandoned outright. Nor are those of us who turn away from God in countless other ways. Nor are those who worshiped with us on Pascha and are not here on Thomas Sunday. The Lord does not extinguish a dying ember. Rather, he does much to enkindle in us again the flame of faithfulness. Though the doors of Thomas’ heart were shut by his faithlessness, Jesus comes and stands with him anyway.

This is how it works now: The doors close now, but they also open again. We may be paused now a little in our dance in and out of the holy place, but we are not halted. The doors open and they close again. They close and they open again.

Sin and doubt threaten to lock us in a prison of despair. But the Lord opens these prison doors, as his angel opened the prison doors for the apostles (Acts 5:19). No doors – not even those of death – can keep out the Lord from where he wills to go.

Christ is risen!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Two Resurrections

Palm Sunday

“Lazarus! Come out!” So Jesus calls to his friend who has died, over whom he has wept, and who has lain four days in the tomb. Cyril of Jerusalem points out, “One day had passed, and a second, and a third: his sinews were decayed, and corruption was preying already upon his body.”[1] And yet Lazarus does come out, still wearing his grave clothes, but as alive and well as you or me.

Resurrection of Lazarus. Private coll., Athens. 12-13 c.
When the One Who, in the beginning, speaks life into being tells one of us, his creatures, to live, though we lie in a tomb, we will live. Whether we have been dead four days, like Lazarus, or four thousand years, we will heed this command of our master. When the one who made us out of dust tells us to arise, though our bodies have turned to dust, we will arise. Dust cannot resist the divine word at resurrection time. 

The resurrection of Lazarus was yesterday and the resurrection of Jesus is next Sunday. Between these two resurrections is today and Holy Week. Today, Palm Sunday, is inextricably linked to yesterday, Lazarus Saturday. Liturgically, they form a unit all their own, between the Great Fast and Holy Week. So, though we rightly call today Palm Sunday in commemoration of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as King and Messiah, let’s not forget the place of Lazarus in all of this, who appears at the beginning, the middle, and the end of today’s gospel.

The gospel begins with Lazarus, who had been dead, eating supper with Jesus and his disciples. This is one of the signs of the resurrection of the body. Only a truly embodied person eats food. Jesus will repeat this sign after his own resurrection, when he will eat broiled fish with his disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24:42). By this sign, we know that Lazarus and Jesus are truly risen in the body and not merely ghosts or visions.  

And then, in the middle of the gospel, we learn of a further connection between Jesus and Lazarus. Not only are the chief priests now plotting to put Jesus to death, but also Lazarus, “because, on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”

According to tradition, Lazarus, unlike Jesus, escapes their plot and lives on another thirty years. When he dies a second time, they lay him in a sarcophagus on which they write, “Lazarus of the four days and the friend of Christ.” For four days, Lazarus knew death, which no one else among the living has ever known. The Synaxarion says he never spoke of it and some say he never laughed again until he saw a man stealing a clay pot. And then he laughed, saying, “One earth steals another” (cf. Sanidopoulos).

And then at the end of today’s gospel, after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we learn why the great crowd is so exultant and why they hail Jesus as their king: because he has raised Lazarus. This miracle more than all the others convinces multitudes that Jesus is the Christ. By raising Lazarus, Jesus shows that he can raise us all and that he will save us – even from the last enemy, even from death. This divine triumph even over death is the sign that brought so many to belief in Jesus.

And this belief of the people is what motivates the Pharisees and chief priests to take action against Jesus. They see that, due to this great sign, many are believing in Jesus and they fear that this will provoke the Romans to come and destroy them. The high priest Caiaphas, though motivated by cowardice, unintentionally prophesies, saying, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). And so, in the gospel of John, they plot to put Jesus to death as a direct result of his resurrection of Lazarus. 

Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus leads today to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem – but it will soon lead also to his death. Quite directly, Jesus lays down his own life in exchange for giving life to his friend Lazarus. There is no greater love. Ultimately, Jesus lays down his life to give life to us all. It is good to be a friend of Christ Jesus. Even though you die, he will give you life.

Today, we sing again the Troparion of Lazarus from yesterday:
Christ our God, before your passion you confirmed our common resurrection when you raised Lazarus from the dead. Therefore, like the children, we carry the symbols of victory and cry out to you, the Victor over death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

I believe that, through Lazarus, Jesus has something to teach us about death. When Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps. And then, he raises Lazarus from the dead. This is our perfect model for how to approach death.

First, death is an occasion for weeping. It is a sorrowful thing. It is a terrible thing. It is an unnatural thing. It is the last enemy. It is not a natural part of life. It is not “going to a better place.” It is a thing to be lamented. It is a thing to put an end to.

Nevertheless, for each of us there is a time to die (Eccl. 3). For Lazarus, there are two times to die. And for Jesus, there is a time to die. The death of Jesus is like no other, because he alone is Life. And so death cannot keep him in his clutches. When life enters into death, it is death that dies at last.

 Loretta Lynn sings, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” And that’s mostly right, and for good reason. Jesus did not want to die. And he wept again when his time for death drew near to him in Gethsemane. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.” (Heb 5:7).  

So in the face of death, first we weep, as Jesus weeps, and then, after our weeping, we accept death. We embrace the cross, as Jesus does. We learn to love our enemy. And then, on the other side of that gaping chasm of Hades, there is hope, because Jesus, the way and the life, has gone there first. In him, there will be a restoration of all things to right. After death, there comes a better life with the resurrection. It is not better for us to be dead. It is not better for our souls to be “freed” from our bodies. It is better for us to rise in Christ and live again in bodies freed from mortality. So, yes, we grieve in the face of death, but we do

not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep…. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first… and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1Th 4:13-18).

Bottom of Form

[1] Cyril of Jerusalem, “Lecture V - Of Faith,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Series 2): The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., vol. 7, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen (Grand Rapids, MI: Hendrickson Pub, 1996), 31

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Order of Melchizedek

“Jesus has become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” This verse should be familiar to us, but it is also mysterious. And this mysterious figure of Melchizedek is surprisingly important to us and to our salvation.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Westfalen oder Köln,
circa 1360. ULB Darmstadt, Hs 2505, fol. 29r

He appears briefly in Genesis and then once again in the Psalms and that is all we have about him in the Old Testament.

From Genesis:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Gen 14:18-20)

And from the Psalms:
The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Psa 110:4)

Even though these references are brief, the author of Hebrews, who today we again hear speaking in the Church, reflects deeply upon these passages and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, finds in Melchizedek an image of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He writes of Melchizedek, “He is without father or mother or genealogy” – because, you see, no genealogy is provided for him in Genesis – “and he has neither beginning of days nor end of life” – because, again, neither of these are recounted in the narrative.

Melchizedek simply appears and disappears again from the story, rather like Tom Bombadil.[1]  As Nahum Sarna writes, he “suddenly emerges from the shadows and as suddenly retreats into oblivion.”[2]  In having no beginning or end, the author of Hebrews finds that Melchizedek “resembl[es] the Son of God [and] he continues a priest forever” (7:3).

Melchizedek challenges the notion of priesthood prevalent in Jesus’ day, and he challenges some of our notions of priesthood as well. At the time of Christ, and really throughout most of scripture, when someone is talking about a priest, they are probably talking about the priesthood of Aaron and his descendants – the Levites. [3]  Being a priest of God meant having the proper heredity and it came with certain ritual obligations and privileges. By the time of Jesus, priests were primarily ministers of the altar in the temple.[4]

Significantly, the Gospels never refer to Jesus or his apostles as priests. Jesus, as Hebrews points out, was “descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Heb 7:14). In the Gospels and Acts, the priesthood of God continues to be the Levitical priesthood.

Interestingly, the majority of the New Testament does not mention priests at all. The word “priest” is totally absent from all the epistles except for Hebrews.[5] Half of the New Testament’s entire discussion of priesthood takes place in Hebrews. And it is Hebrews that reveals to us the priesthood of Jesus Christ. So if we want to know anything about Christian priesthood, we have to study Hebrews, which clearly teaches that the priesthood of Jesus Christ is not akin to Aaron’s Levitical priesthood, but is something both newer and older than that. It is the eternal priesthood of the order of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek, “the priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:18), is the first priest mentioned in the Bible, and he is no Levite. He is not even a descendant of Abraham, let alone of Levi or Aaron. In fact, he blesses Abraham, and receives tithes from him. So, Hebrews says, his priesthood is superior to that of the Levites, because Levi, within his ancestor Abraham, is blessed by and pays tithes to Melchizedek, not the other way around (7:7-10).

So, Biblically, there is from the very beginning a kind of priesthood outside the line of Levi and Aaron, despite the fact that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, more commonly understands priesthood as Levitical.

St. Justin Martyr writes,
Melchizedek was described by Moses as the priest of the Most High, and he was a priest of those who were in uncircumcision, and blessed the circumcised Abraham who brought him tithes, so God has shown that His everlasting Priest, called also by the Holy Spirit Lord, would be Priest of those in uncircumcision. Those too in circumcision who approach Him, that is, believing Him and seeking blessings from Him, He will both receive and bless.[6]

This commentary underscores the importance of Melchizedek’s priesthood for the universal calling to Christ. Christ, and the “covenant he mediates” (Heb 8:6) as high priest, is available to all, circumcised and uncircumcised, and not only to those descended from Abraham.

To better understand the order of Melchizedek, I think we have to look at two figures: one you’ve probably heard of: David the king, and one you may not have: Zadok, the first high priest.

Melchizedek is both king and priest of Salem. Now, Salem, which means “peace,” is another name for Jerusalem – Jeru-Salem (cf. Psalm 76:2). And Melchizedek’s two roles in Salem – priest and king – would later be more distinct. Zadok represents the priests of Jerusalem and David the kings. Even Melchizedek’s name points to these two roles. Melek means “king” and “Tsadowq” is the name of the first high priest. Melek Tsadowq together form “Melchizedek.”

Zadok is one of the descendants of Aaron, a priest at the time of David, who became the first high priest of the temple built by Solomon. The high priests descended thereafter descend from Zadok. I think it may be partly for this reason that Hebrews usually calls Jesus “high priest” rather than simply “priest.” Zadok means “righteous” and so the name Melchizedek means “righteous king” as Hebrews states (7:2).

David, as I hope we all know, is the great king of Jerusalem. And so he shares this with Melchizedek. He is a successor to the kingship of Melchizedek. It makes sense, then, when Psalm 110 includes David and his successors among the priesthood, stating, “The LORD says to my lord…, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Ps 110:1,4).
And who is the true Son of David? Who is the true king of Peace? Jesus Christ! He is the true king forever and ever! He is the king of peace, the king of Salem, the king of Jerusalem, the successor of Melchizedek, a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.

Biblical priesthood of God ends rather as it begins. Melchizedek’s priesthood “of God Most High” in Genesis becomes the priesthood “of God and of Christ” in Revelation (Rev 20:6). Fittingly, according to Hebrews, Jesus Christ, in whom the last priests mentioned in Scripture have their priesthood, is after the order of the first priest mentioned in Scripture. Melchizedek and Christ begin and end the biblical discussion of priesthood. Their priesthoods are extraordinary. They are not Levites. Their sacrifices are not the sacrifices of animals. Melchizedek offers bread and wine (Gen 14:18), prefiguring Christ’s offering of his own body and blood (cf. Heb 9:11-12, 10:10). They are both called king as well as priest (Gen 14:18; Rev 19:16). The priesthood of each is forever (Ps 110:4; Heb 6:20). Extended once for all the sons of Aaron (Ex 28:43-29:1), priesthood is now extended to all those whom the blood of Jesus Christ has freed from sin (Rev. 1:5-6).

[2]  Nahum Sarna. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, 109
[3] In fact, the word כֹּהֵן kohen appears in 153 verses in Leviticus - more than in any other book in the Bible. Blue Letter Bible. "Dictionary and Word Search for kohen (Strong's 3548)"
[4] TDNT, 262
[5] Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Hort Balz, Gerhard Schneider. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991. 174.
[6] Justin Martyr. “Dialogue with Trypho.” Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1885, 211

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