Sunday, February 18, 2018

Seeing and Being Seen

A holy icon is an image. That's what the word icon means - image. And an image is something that you see. Today, Philip says to Nathanael, "Come and see."

Come and see what? Well, come and see something good. Nathanael had asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Instead of answering this dismissive question, Philip says patiently, "Come and see." We know that the answer is yes.

Actually, Philip had already told Nathanael how good Jesus of Nazareth is. He is, says Philip, "him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote." Now, from this alone, it's clear that Philip regards Jesus as someone good. He'd already answered the question before it was asked. It's just that Nathanael couldn't believe that anyone good could come from so backwater a place as Nazareth.

It bears thinking about the goodness of the Lord Jesus here for a moment. Again, Philip describes him as the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Of whom did Moses and the prophets write? It's pretty clear that Philip likely has in mind here the coming Messiah – the Christ – the savior of Israel. And Jesus is that – that and more. Of course, Moses and the prophets also wrote about the Lord our God – more so even than they did about the coming Messiah. And Jesus of Nazareth is also this. He is someone good out of Nazareth. He is goodness himself. He is God out of Nazareth.

So, when Philip tells Nathanael to come and see, he may not fully understand himself, but he is telling Nathanael to come and see the Lord – to lay his eyes on God himself, on the image of the Father, Jesus Christ.  As Jesus says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." Now this is indeed a holy icon. 

But this is not the only image of God in this story.

After Nathanael comes and sees the Lord Jesus, Jesus says to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." So, not only does Nathanael see Jesus but Jesus also sees Nathanael.

Let's consider for a moment a possible meaning of where Jesus sees him – under the fig tree. Fig trees appear elsewhere in scripture. 

After eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hid themselves – covered themselves in their shame – with fig leaves. It's possible – and some have supposed – that the forbidden fruit itself was a fig, thus making the fig leaves quite handy after the Fall. It was also a fig tree that Jesus cursed for bearing no fruit. Therefore, some of the fathers suggest that this fig tree that Nathanael was under may represent a curse or sin or death.

Yet, when Jesus sees Nathanael, he says nothing condemnatory, but rather, "Behold, a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile!" This is high praise for someone under the fig tree in his sins who was moments ago expressing doubt about the goodness of Jesus.

But it is true, what Jesus says about Nathanael. “It is guile to say one thing and think another. So, if there is no guile in Nathanael, it is because, if he sinned, he confessed his sin; whereas if a man, being a sinner, pretends to be righteous, there is guile in his mouth" (Augustine). It's pretty clear that if Nathanael had a thought, it came out of his mouth. There was all honesty and no deception in him. This, then, is the source of the Lord's praise of him: that he was honest and confessed his sins.

This places him in stark contrast to that other man under a fig tree – Adam, who tried to hide his sins, blaming Eve for them, and covering his shame with fig leaves. Yet this association between Nathanael and Adam brings to my mind something they have in common, as well as this distinction between them. And that is that the Lord went looking for them. At least that's how I see it.

Jesus goes to Galilee to find Philip. Philip doesn't seek and find Jesus. Jesus seeks and finds Philip and says to him "Follow me," which Philip does. Then, Philip seeks and finds Nathanael. I think this is the work of the Lord. I think it is really the Lord who finds Nathanael, through Philip. I think that's clear in the way that the Lord is with Nathanael spiritually under the fig tree before Philip calls him. He sees him and so he is with him seeking him and finding him through Philip.

This reminds me of when God went looking for Adam in the garden in the cool of the day, calling out to him, "Where are you?" From the very beginning, God seeks us and finds us. We do not choose him. He chooses us (John 15:16).

Why? What does he see in us? I believe this, too, is there from the beginning. As I said, Jesus isn't the only image of God in this story. Image has more than one sense. Adam is made in the image of God. And Nathanael. And each of us. God sees in us his own image. That’s how he sees us – as we really are. We are images of God – altogether lovable. God made us in his own image. God is an image maker – the creator of his own image. God is an iconographer and we are his icons.

It is good to be seen by God as an image of God. What could be better than that? Nathaniel believed and saw Jesus to be the Son of God and king of Israel because Jesus saw him under the fig tree. That's how great it is to be seen by the Lord! It's enough to give us faith – especially to know that the Lord sees us as his own image, as revealed from the beginning. Well, Jesus says to Nathanael, "You shall see greater things than these." It will be even better, he says, to see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man."

This is a reference to the ladder seen by Jacob in a dream in Bethel – the ladder that connects heaven and earth. And Jesus identifies himself with that ladder. He is the connection between Heaven and Earth – because he alone is God and man – creator and creation – being and the image of being.

We who are creatures and finite and circumscribable need Jesus. Only in Jesus can we connect humanly to God because only Jesus is both human and God. No one has ever seen God. But we have seen that the Father has sent his Son into the world (1John 12, 14). Jesus Christ – God in his humanity – we humans can now see. Only now can we paint a picture – a holy image – an icon of the Lord. To deny it is to deny that he is really man, which is to deny us of our salvation. Let none deny it, but venerate the holy images of God all around us, in wood and paint, in fresco and mosaic, and in our neighbors. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Beginning in the Beginning

The Great Fast begins in the beginning. It is a good time to stop and reorient ourselves toward the Lord – to go back to the beginning and to remember what we humans really are and why we were created.

In our lectionary, we begin the Great Fast at the beginning of three books – at Terce-sext or Sixth Hour, we begin at the beginning of the prophecy of Isaiah. And at Vespers and the Presanctified Divine Liturgy, we begin at the beginning of Proverbs and, of course, we also begin at the beginning of it all – at the beginning of Genesis.

The beginning of Genesis in particular is a wellspring for theological reflection. Someone said that all of scripture can be regarded as a footnote to Genesis 1. Today, I would like to focus on our creation – on the beginning of us.

Because, without some understanding of who we are, all of our ascetical efforts during this penitential time may seem vain and pointless. What are we reaching for, anyway? The story of our creation gives profound insights into our created nature – of which we often lose sight and which the Great Fast may help us to see again more clearly.

So let's look at our beginning: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). Now, if we listen closely, we’ll notice some very interesting grammar and syntax going on here. The direct object is "man" – "God created man.” And then this one noun – “man” – is referred back to by two pronouns – first, "him," and, secondly, "them" – first singular and then plural.

Now, the second creation story, which we read tomorrow and the next day at Vespers, gets rather explicit about how this takes place, and it's really beautiful if you think about it. God creates one human – a man. And he takes out of this man a part of himself – his rib – and fashions this into a woman. Now, God, being God, could have made two people out of the earth instead of just the one, and then man would never have been alone even for a moment, but that's not how Gods chose to proceed and I think it's meaningful.

Humanity begins as one person. Whatever you may think of this biologically, it is theologically and anthropologically meaningful. The idea that we are all made out of one person, rather than two, shows how deeply and completely we are meant to be in communion with one another. There's no room left for individualism when we look at it this way. We are, in the story of our beginning, quite literally one. Think of the image: all humanity is in one person – one Adam – one man taken out of the ground.

The one God made this one man in his own image. Note this: God is an image maker – a creator of his own image. God is an iconographer and we are his icons. And his first created human is somehow mysteriously both singular and plural – both "he" and "they." That we humans are both many and one – that we are persons and also a community of persons sharing one human nature is an icon of God who is one God and also three Persons. God himself is a community of persons and, inasmuch as we are united to one another by the bonds love and by the grace of God, we are an image of that community and of God.

This is one thing we strive to realize through our prayer and fasting and almsgiving. That is, we are trying to be healed of our infirmities and strengthened out of our weaknesses so that the divisions and rifts between us can be closed. If we will draw near to God, we must draw near to one another.

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza tells of a wheel, rather like a wagon wheel. 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 each other, the closer we get to God. To be a true and perfect image of God, we must become one community of persons and not a confederacy of individuals.

Let there be no divisions or hatreds or animosities between us, but let us forgive everything and love one another. If we fast and pray and do works of mercy for one another, it will help us put an end to all division and strife. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A person in need is the coming of the Lord.

West exterior of Voroneţ Monastery chapel, 1550
Today is Meatfare Sunday – the third Sunday of the Triodion – the Sunday of the Last Judgement. This means that we are now but one week and some hours away from the beginning of the Great Fast – and today is the last day before the lesser fast of Cheesefare Week. So, we must prepare ourselves to embrace again the rigor of a penitential season. 

The three pillars of every penitential season are – as is well-known – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These means of bringing us to repentance are revealed to us in scripture – especially in the Sermon on the Mount – and are recommended to us by the fathers of the Church – for example by St. Maximos the Confessor.[i] Today, I would like to focus in on that last pillar, which I feel is often somewhat neglected and which, I think we will see, is particularly important when it comes to the Last Judgement.

Jesus – the son of Sirach, that is – teaches us not to neglect the giving of alms (Sirach 7: 10). And Jesus the Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, assumes that we will give alms. He says "when you give alms," he doesn't say "if you give alms” – just as he says, “when you pray…” and “when you fast….” These things are not optional if we are Christians.

Whatever good things we have are not truly our own alone but belong also to those who do not have these good things. Giving simply helps to restore balance to the cosmos upset and distorted by our sins. We can be covetous even with what we regard as our own property, let alone the property of others, and this covetousness separates us from the God who gave us everything we have so that we can be generous with others.

And Jesus tells us how to give – in secret and not so that we may be seen by others (Matthew 6: 2). Today, he might have said, when you give to the poor, do not film it and post it on YouTube under the guise of a social experiment, but give in secret, and your Father who watches in secret will reward you (Matt 6:4).

It's interesting – I just want to point out – we often hear this list of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – and there's a logic to this order. After all, in one sense, almsgiving results from prayer and fasting – so it comes after. Fasting leaves us with more to give and prayer inspires us to give. Nonetheless, it's worth pointing out that, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts things in a different order – he speaks first about almsgiving and then about prayer and fasting (Matt 6). So maybe this gives a little more primacy to the issue of almsgiving then we are generally wont to do.

In the Book of Tobit, the Archangel Raphael says that "prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than abundance with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life" (Tobit 12: 8 - 9).

Now, first of all, what constitutes almsgiving? Well, it's giving dollars to bums, right? Or, it's donating money to charitable causes? Something like that. Well, these are good things and almsgiving encompasses them, but it's interesting if we look at the Greek word that were translating here. The Greek word is ἐλεημοσύνη. Maybe this sounds a little bit familiar because we so often repeat the phrase, Κύριε, ἐλέησον, which means Lord, have mercy. The word here has “mercy” as a root.  

So the word means a bit more than giving alms as we tend to think of it, though it carries that meaning as well. It refers also to compassion and to practicing the virtue of mercy and beneficence. In other words, it refers to doing the works of mercy – including the very works upon which we will be judged when the Son of Man comes in his glory, according to the teaching of Jesus Christ today (Matt 25:31).

When we give something to eat to someone who is hungry, when we give something to drink to someone who is thirsty, when we welcome a stranger with hospitality, when we give clothes to someone who is naked, when we take care of someone who is sick, when we visit someone who is in prison or bound by whatever circumstances – all of this is ἐλεημοσύνη – these are all ways of showing mercy and compassion – and they are all forms of almsgiving (Matt 25:35-36). Just note that – according to what Jesus is teaching us today – it is our practice of mercy in these ways that will determine whether or not we are entering the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the cosmos (25:34). It is on the basis of our almsgiving – and not our fasting, for example – that we are judged.

Remember that the desert fathers kept a strict rule of prayer and fasting. Well,

A brother came to see a certain hermit and, as he was leaving, he said, "Forgive me abba for preventing you from keeping your rule." The hermit replied, "My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you away in peace."

Love is the highest rule and the greatest commandment and hospitality is the clearest expression of love.

It was said of an old man that he dwelt in Syria on the way to the desert. This was his work: whenever a monk came from the desert, he gave him refreshment with all his heart. Now one day a hermit came and he offered him refreshment. The other did not want to accept it, saying he was fasting. Filled with sorrow, the old man said to him, "Do not despise your servant, I beg you, do not despise me, but let us pray together. Look at the tree which is here; we will follow the way of whichever of us causes it to bend when he kneels on the ground and prays." So the hermit knelt down to pray and nothing happened. Then the hospitable one knelt down and at once the tree bent towards him. Taught by this, they gave thanks to God.

Fasting is good because it teaches us self-control, discipline, and detachment from the things of this world and, when we have learned these things, we can be more hospitable. Again, as Raphael teaches Tobit and Tobias, “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness,” and the Eastern Christian tradition is right, I believe, in emphasizing hospitality as its most cherished form of almsgiving. In giving hospitality, we sometimes give of ourselves in a more personal way than when we give money, food, or clothing. Hospitality causes us to share our homes, our time, and our very way of life. [ii]

Indeed, we must "not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrew 13:2). Remember the hospitality of Abraham to the three strangers who came to his home (Gen 18:1-5). By this, he showed hospitality to the Lord and, through his hospitality, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us. Jesus teaches us today that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to the Lord (Matt 25:40, 45). This is never more clear than in the case of Abraham showing hospitality to the three strangers who are in truth of the appearance of the Lord to him. It's really something – isn't it? – that the icon that we know as the Rublev Trinity was first known as the Hospitality of Abraham. When we show hospitality, the Lord is revealed to us. When we see the face of Christ in the face of all of our brothers and sisters and in every stranger that we meet, we will welcome him in them, show them hospitality, and give them all we have to give. Every person in need who comes to us is a coming of Christ and a theophany of the Lord  if we have eyes to see.

[i] "Almsgiving heals the soul's incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the Intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings" (Maximos the Confessor, First Century on Love, 79).
[ii] Light for Life, Part Three, 48

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Meeting of Time and Eternity

St Simeon the God Receiver
Moscow, Old Believers' workshop, circa 1800

Forty days ago, Christ is born! So now it is time for him and his mother to go to Jerusalem – to the temple – according to the law of Moses (Luke 2:22). The book of Leviticus states that when the forty days of purification are complete after the birth of a son, the mother is to bring a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering (Leviticus 12:2-6). Mary doesn't do this, but rather brings a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24) – because Leviticus goes on to state that if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons – one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering (Leviticus 12:8). The Lord's Christ and his mother come to the temple in Jerusalem in some measure of poverty – unable to afford a lamb – but also with an unseen poverty greater than this poverty which would have been apparent to all. For here is the giver of the law subjecting himself to the law – "him who as God is the legislator, [is seen now] as subject to his own decrees."[ii]  Here is God coming now as a baby boy. Here is an incomprehensible self-emptying – a giving up of everything for us – the creator become a creature – the divine made human – the infinite made finite – the eternal made temporal. Such impoverishment!

We call this feast the Meeting. Here eternity is meeting time. Here an old man is meeting a baby boy. Simeon is meeting Jesus.

Simeon has been waiting a long time to meet the Lord's Christ at this intersection of time and eternity in the temple in Jerusalem – in the house of the Lord. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not see death before he sees the Lord's Christ (Luke 2:26).

Listen to some of what he says when finally lays his eyes on Christ. We hear these words so often – at every vespers and at other services – that maybe sometimes we forget to listen to them as they wash over us day after passing day, night after passing night. Simeon says that his eyes have seen the Lord's salvation, so now he is ready to depart in peace (Luke 2:29-30).

How does the Lord Jesus Christ save us? How can Simeon say he has seen our salvation? As if it is already accomplished here in this baby boy – this baby who has not yet spoken a word, though he is already and from eternity the word of God. Yet, he has not yet preached a single word of the Gospel to the world. He has not yet died for us so that he may rise for us and by his death trample death. Yet here is Simeon saying he has seen the salvation prepared by the Lord before the face of all people (Luke 2:30-31). How can this be?

For one thing, Simeon is a prophet of the Lord and he speaks of what is coming as well as of what is present before him and what has been (eg. Luke 2:34-35). Nonetheless, his eyes have already seen this salvation. And the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus even as a baby can truly be understood and expressed as already accomplishing our salvation by uniting the divinity with our humanity. But does this mean that what was to follow – his life, his preaching, his teachings, his healings, his transfiguration, his death, his resurrection, his ascension – are all superfluous addenda to our salvation already accomplished in this baby boy? No! This is not what it means.

Rather, this reveals to us something of the prophetic mind – the mind we ought to yearn to acquire for ourselves. We ought to "earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that [we] may prophesy" (1 Cor14:1). And we must seek to acquire the mind of Christ (cf. Phil 2:5). When a prophet speaks, the Lord speaks through him. When a prophet thinks, the Lord also thinks in him. When a prophet sees, he sees with the eyes of the Lord. This is the way to be – more and more configured to the Lord – more and more like him in every way, each and every day. Then we can begin to see things as he sees them.

And the Lord's understanding is not confined by our chronology. This is a point we often forget, being so limited in our understanding, but which is greatly helpful to remember as often as possible: God is not confined by our chronology.

In the Divine Liturgy, after the epiklesis, we offer the spiritual sacrifice for the Theotokos and all the saints. Now, what need have they of our prayers? – You may well ask. Their salvation is accomplished. We have need of their prayers more than they do of ours, it seems to us. While from a chronological perspective, this question makes sense, it forgets what the Divine Liturgy is and it forgets that we are in the house of the Lord who is not confined by our chronology.

In the house of the Lord, Simeon looks upon the baby Jesus and sees our salvation already accomplished. In this house of the Lord here today, if we look with prophetic eyes, we will see our salvation already accomplished.

Does this mean our salvation does not require us to work it out in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)? Or that we don’t need what remains of our lives, filled – as they doubtless will be – with many sufferings and blessings? Or that we need not die? Or that the Lord need not come again in glory? Or that we need not rise again to live eternally in Christ? No! That’s not what it means. But at every Divine Liturgy we remember the second coming in glory, in the same breath as we remember the cross the tomb the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven and the sitting at the right hand. We remember these things as already accomplished – for our Lord is not confined by our chronology and today on this Feast of Meeting, our time meets with eternity.

[ii] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 3.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Recognizing the Image of God

Our Lord Jesus heals a blind man outside of Jericho (Luke 18:35-43). Many people of that society looked upon those with such a disability as of significantly less worth than those who could see. But Jesus looks upon him and sees the whole man he created. He sees his own image in this man who cannot see. Because, in this man's true created human nature, he can see. He is glorified by God. He is created for glory and union with God. And Jesus simply puts this to rights. And the man who was blind can see.

Before this, while he was yet blind, there was one thing this man could probably see better than most: his own worth – his own right to exist, to live, and to flourish. He knew his own worth well enough to call out to Jesus for healing. He knew it well enough that when he was rebuked by the multitude and told to be silent, he cried out all the more (Luke 18:39).

Every life has worth, whether or not that worth is recognized. Do we permit the unpopularity of our true belief in the value of every human life to silence us? Or, do we cry out all the more?

It seems that every human society devalues some, even dehumanizes some. It was common in Roman society of that time to expose infants – that is to leave them out in the elements to die or be taken up by whoever comes along. And such a choice would have been made all the more readily by a father beholding his son born blind. “Ah, this one is deficient,” he may have exclaimed, “Get rid of it.”

We don't know the backstory of the blind man begging outside of Jericho for healing or what kind of rejection he may have faced, though we do know that he was reduced to roadside begging. Though he knew his own worth, it's clear enough that his society did not.

And we do know from the gospel of another man who was born blind. His parents were afraid to confess Jesus lest they be expelled from the synagogue (John 9:22), but they were brave enough to keep and rear their son despite his blindness, and for that they deserve some credit. They did not expose him as their Roman neighbors may have. The Pharisees disregarded him as one born in sin evidenced by his blindness (John 9:34). They diminished him, did not see his worth, did not see in him the image of God that Jesus sees.

In both cases, Jesus restores sight to the blind. In both cases, he sees the image of God, his own image, in men disregarded by the societies in which they live. Many in our own society similarly disregard the value of some. I hope our regard for and respect of the blind has improved since the first century, but we still as a society fail to see the image of God in certain people.

And our prejudices are often just ableist as the prejudices of the first-century.  Ableism is a new word for an old problem. Ableism is in many ways at the heart of our disregard for unborn human life. You see, blind men cannot see and so, what good are they? Likewise, the unborn cannot see – at least at first. They cannot walk. They cannot feed themselves. They cannot speak for themselves. They are utterly dependent upon others. So, what good are they?

They are all good. For the same reason that the blind beggar cast out by his society is good, they are also good. Just as a blind baby exposed by his Roman father is, in fact, an image of God, so too is an unborn child an image of God. And the Lord sees this. He sees all things. Nothing is done in secret from the Lord. And he sees in each of them, just as he sees in the blind man outside of Jericho, a person of infinite worth, a person worthy of healing, and caring for. And he will heal them. All who have died, he will raise up. For the victims of abortion and infanticide, we hope and pray and trust in the mercy of God.

The unborn are not the only people dehumanized by our society, but in this country we remember them in a special way at this time every year. Every year, we march for life.
We hope to outlaw abortion, and this is a good end, but as Christians it is first and foremost through works of charity – through love rather than only through legislation – that we should seek to prevent abortion and the dehumanization of the unborn.

We must love everyone in the painful circumstances that tempt women to seek an abortion. Everyone in these situations is in need of mercy and healing. The unborn child, the mother, the father, the family, the doctors, and even the abortionists.

We must love and provide for unborn children. Every bit as importantly, we must love and provide for them after they are born. An unborn child is a person, and loving a person requires a lifelong commitment. More of us should be open to adopting children whose mothers have found themselves unable to provide. We should support efforts from all quarters to provide for the needs of single mothers and their children.

We must love and help provide for the mothers who find themselves in desperate circumstances that would lead them to consider abortion. There are good efforts throughout the country by members of the pro-life movement to provide ultrasounds, counseling, and other pregnancy services to women in need. They have even created mobile pregnancy care centers that can go wherever there is a need. This is good and important work that can help women to recognize the humanity and even the image of God they are carrying in their wombs. Having recognized this, many mothers have decided against having an abortion. It is so important that we do not abandon them in this moment. They must see and it must be true that we will still be there to help after the baby is born.

We must love the women who have had abortions and those who led them to it. We must offer them the mercy and healing of God. We can be certain they are suffering and in need of healing. Jesus is a healer, as he demonstrates outside of Jericho.

Suffering is a mystery. Sometimes we suffer for our sins. Or from others' sins. Sometimes it seems we suffer for no reason at all. Or we suffer that we might be united to Christ all the more in his suffering. The man born blind suffered so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3).

In any case, when we suffer, the Church should be with us in our suffering, just as Jesus is on the cross. And the Church should offer healing, just as Jesus, the physician of our souls and bodies, offers healing. The holy mystery of repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins is deeply healing for those who have had abortions. The life of the Church, the sacraments, prayer, spiritual care, and counseling is and must be open to women who have had abortions and to all affected by it. We must receive them with open arms. 

And we must also love abortionists and those who support their evil work whether directly or politically. For many of us, this is the hardest part – loving our enemies, loving those who do wrong. In them too we must see the image of God – not in what they do, but in who they truly are. Neither should we dehumanize them. Rather, we should hope and pray for their salvation, just as we do for their unbaptized victims. There have been notable abortionists who have repented, giving evidence that there is always reason to hope.

Among the sins, murder of the innocent seems most grievous – and who is more innocent and less deserving of death than a baby – an unborn child? Only one – Jesus Christ. And he was also murdered.

Remember Longinus. He was a Roman soldier, a member of the culture that exposed infants, and one of those who participated in the murder of Jesus Christ. It was Longinus who thrust the spear into Christ's side to ensure that he was dead. And, witnessing the blood and water pouring from his side, Longinus repented, confessed the Son of God, and became a saint. If we can venerate as a saint one who participated in the murder of our Lord Jesus Christ, then we can love and hope and pray for abortionists. God’s mercy knows no bounds.

Jesus Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Let us love and respect all life.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lifted Up in the Tree

Tree of Zacchaeus
Jesus was certainly able to draw crowds, as the story of Zacchaeus illustrates (Luke 19:1-10). 

There are people today with that same sort of popular draw. For example, whenever Pope Francis is announced as the celebrant of a Liturgy, the place is packed. The crowds often spill into the street. And anyone short of stature, like Zacchaeus, likely has difficulty even getting a glimpse of the pontiff – unless they put up those big screens all over the place, as they usually do.

But, you know, at every Divine Liturgy, there’s someone who’s even better than the pope. The great high priest is not the pope but is our Lord Jesus Christ, who is personally present among us and in the Eucharist. This should draw more crowds than it does. If we only realized in whose presence we are standing in the midst of the Church.

If we really believe the Lord is present in the Church, we will demonstrate that faith by how we live and behave. Maybe there are usually no great crowds in our parishes because it doesn’t seem to the world that we ourselves even believe he is present there.

Yet in the world as it is, it is movie stars and singers, presidents and kings who are able to attract large numbers, anyway.

After World War II, King George personally visited the damaged cities to oversee the reconstruction efforts. When he would come into town, as you can imagine, the crowds would gather. The shops would close, the schools would close, and the people would line the streets hoping for a glimpse of their king as he went by. Well, in one of these cities, a young schoolboy, excited to be freed from school and excited to see the king, stood in the crowd and excitedly waved his flag as energetically as he could. But after the fanfare had died down, his teacher found him crying inconsolably. She asked him “what’s the matter, didn’t you get to see the king?” He replied, “Oh yes, I saw the king, but he didn’t see me.”[i]

This is how it goes, ordinarily, when a great and powerful person passes briefly in our midst. At first, it is exciting just to be near someone so famous. Years later, we may tell of the time we saw the president or the singer or the movie star, but really the experience will probably be a letdown if we enter into it hoping for any kind of real human connection with the person we so admire, as did the English schoolboy in his innocence.

And yet, Zacchaeus found that this is not what it is like with the Lord Jesus. I have no idea what was going through Zacchaeus’ mind when he decided to climb up that tree – whether he, like the schoolboy, was hoping to make himself conspicuous to the King, or whether he was merely curious. The gospel only tells us that he desired to see who Jesus was. It doesn’t say whether he also desired to be seen.

In any case, seen he was. And known. And called to. And loved. Jesus didn’t pass by Zacchaeus, leaving him unfulfilled, but rather called him down and fulfilled him ultimately, bringing salvation to his house.

He calls out, “Zacchaeus, you hurry down here for I need to stay at your house today.” Now, our etiquette might insist that one shouldn’t invite himself over, but remember that this is not a conversation between peers. Even an ordinary king may speak thus to his subjects, but here is the peerless One and Lord of all calling out to a simple sinner like us.

And listen to his insistence: Jesus says “I need” (δεῖ με – it behooves me) “to stay at your house today.” Now, in his humanity, of course Jesus needs food and shelter like all humans do, and Zacchaeus, being a rich man, had plenty of this to provide. But let’s not forget that this is God become man telling a sinner that he needs him. What love! What kenosis! God empties himself. Becomes nothing. Takes the form a slave. Makes himself dependent on a sinner like Zacchaeus. Like us. So if Jesus seems a little forward here, a little insistent, let him! It is all grace. He is knocking at our doors, inviting himself into our houses, and it is all for us and for our salvation, because when Jesus the Savior enters our house, it is salvation coming to our house. “For where Christ enters,” as St. Cyril writes, “there necessarily is also salvation” (Commentary on Luke, 507). The name Jesus means “God saves.” 

This isn’t the first time that God has called out to one of us. God always initiates the conversation that leads to our salvation. He always is the one to invite us to accept him into our homes and hearts.

He called down Zacchaeus, who, thanks be to God, joyfully accepted him into his house.

He called out to some fishermen, “Come, follow me.” And they left behind their nets and followed him.

He called out to Adam in the garden “Where are you?”

God has been looking for us and inviting us to reunite with him from the moment we departed from him in our sins. And his invitation demands a response on our part. We must repent as Zacchaeus did. We must follow Christ, as the fishermen did. We must put our faith in Christ and make room for him to come and stay in our houses – in the house of our heart – in our inmost being.  St. Cyril also writes, “Christ… is in us when we believe; for he dwells in our hearts by faith, and we are His abode” (507).

This divine condescension to dwell in and with our fallen humanity is consummated in Jesus, our Savior, in his incarnation, in his ministry to Zacchaeus and to all of us, and in his cross.

Here is a strikingly inverted image for us to contemplate:

Jesus, our Savior, is standing at the foot of a tree looking up. In the tree is Zacchaeus – a sinful man – and the Savior calls him down and saves him.

Later, Jesus, the sinless One, will hang on a tree. And we, a sinful people, will stand at the foot of that tree, looking up at him and mocking him, telling him to come down and save himself.

Zacchaeus, being short, was lifted up from the earth by a tree, the better to see Jesus – and quite rightly, for Jesus, too, will be lifted up from the earth by the tree of the cross. Like Zacchaeus, we cannot see Christ unless we climb the tree – that is, unless we embrace the cross. Because of our sins, we all come up short, like Zacchaeus, and only the cross can lift us up to see Christ.

Ultimately, Jesus saves us from suffering and death, from ignominy and punishment, from every evil that our sins have brought into the world, and from all that the tree of the cross represents – by going up onto the tree himself. Seeing Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus freely identifies with him. He trades places with Zacchaeus. He calls down Zacchaeus, and all of us together with him, and goes up himself in our place. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” as Peter writes, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

[i] Fr. Anthony Coniaris connected this story with the story of Zacchaeus. Anthony Coniaris, Gems from the Sunday Gospels in the Orthodox Church(Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Co., 1975), 1:24.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Prophetic Crescendo

In the West, and even among some Byzantines living in the West, we have a tendency to treat the time from Christmas until Theophany rather like a diminuendo – which, in music, is a gradual softening and decrease in intensity, which is a wonderful way to end a lullaby intended to put us to sleep, but maybe not the best way to regard the great feast of Theophany. What I mean is, we treat Christmas as the climax of the season and Theophany or Epiphany as an addendum, when, in fact, this is backward. In history and in liturgy this time is actually more of a crescendo – a gradual increase in excitement and intensity until it reaches Theophany – which is its climax – in which worship of the Trinity is revealed.

Look how softly we begin – with the birth of a baby in humble circumstance. His mother lays him not in a bed, but in a manger, not in some royal palace but in a cave. He is attended not by courtiers but by shepherds and later by wise men from the East. These were some of the few who knew who he was at all – and they were able to see it only with the eyes of faith overlooking the humility of his circumstance.

So, yes, the Lord is revealed at his nativity, but his revelation begins in obscurity. He is revealed quietly and to few. For many years, the mystery is contemplated in silence in the hearts of those who know before any part of it is revealed to the world. The prophets prophesied his coming long before his birth, but the true meaning of their prophecy was known to but few.

Eight days after his birth, as we remembered on January 1st, he humbly undergoes the circumcision that all Jewish boys undergo. To all appearances, he is in this like any other Jewish baby boy.

The feasts of the Nativity and the Circumcision emphasize, I think, his humanity – but the feast of Theophany reveals Christ to all to be the Son the Father and reveals the Holy Spirit, who descends upon him like a dove.

Some knew from the beginning, of course, that Jesus is Lord – Mary knew and Joseph knew – having been told by an angel of the Lord. Christ’s divinity is present at every moment of his human existence, but sometimes it seems obscured to those without ears to hear – like a subtle musical theme underneath larger movements, which builds and builds throughout the piece until it is played loudly and clearly at times such as his baptism and his transfiguration and his resurrection.

One who reveals from the beginning that Jesus is Lord is John, whose Synaxis we celebrate today. Though John admits that he himself did not know Jesus as the Son of God until he saw the Spirit descend upon him like a dove (John 1:32), he also reveals to his mother Elizabeth that Jesus is Lord even while both he and Jesus are in the wombs of their mothers (Luke 1:41-43).  You see, prophecy is God speaking to us through his prophets, but not always with the prophets’ own understanding.

Again witness how quietly the theophany of the Lord begins when Jesus and John are babies – and yet it grows and grows – builds and builds like a musical motif in a complex composition, until it is revealed and known to more and more – to John himself, and, through John, to his disciples, and now to the whole Church and to all of us.

John, the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord, is a prophet. Indeed, among those born of women, there is no greater prophet than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28 KJV). He is, indeed, a prophet of prophets – a prophet whose prophecy was prophesied. He is the one "who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight"'" (Matt 3:3).

John was a prophet even before he was born. Jesus first approached John while they were both unborn in their mothers' wombs and John, being a prophet of God most high, leapt in his mother Elizabeth's womb, thus proclaiming to her that the unborn Jesus Christ is Lord (Luke 1:41-43).

And when Jesus comes to him again when they are both men, he prophecies again, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Now, this proclamation is heard by all. Whereas before, only his mother Elizabeth could feel and understand John’s hidden prophetic leap. Now, God is manifest to all. It is theophany! It is like the climax or culmination of a musical composition. What was building up quietly is now fully and loudly expressed to all.

John is the prophet through whom this revelation takes place. It is John who sees the Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove (John 1:32). And John thereby recognizes Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:34), for he hears the voice from heaven saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). It is a prophet who can hear the word of God. A prophet recognizes the melody of the Lord in the midst of the cacophony of the world.
Many reduce prophecy in their understanding to the foretelling of future events, but this is not even half of what prophecy is.

There's a popular expression with a long history and many variations that one hears from time to time, which is better: "The prophet comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable." This certainly holds true if we examine the effect that prophecy has on people. John's baptism was a comfort to those who repented of that which had been afflicting them. And his preaching afflicted, for example, the all-too-comfortable Herod who was unwilling to repent of his incestuous relationship (Mark 6:17-18). John was not afraid to point out that the fact of Herod's transgression, even though it ultimately cost him his life to do so. A prophet always speaks the truth, which does often afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, because a prophet is one who speaks for God – who speaks God's words to each time and place as God intends them to be heard and understood.

Prophecy is speaking the word of God. For example, the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says, “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer 1:9). And to Ezekiel he says, “You shall speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). We are lost without prophecy, for our faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17), which we can only hear through prophecy.

So, let us hear the word of God. We have now already heard the climax of the composition – we have celebrated Theophany and witnessed the revelation of the Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The great feast of the Theophany is yesterday. Today, we honor John through whom this revelation comes to us. Now, it really is time to ask, “What now? What next? What can follow this greatest of revelations?” Well, let us continue to listen to the word of God – to the preaching of Jesus, who Theophany teaches us is himself the Son and Word of God:

Today, “Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the first words of Christ’s preaching and with them, he pays homage to John, his baptizer, the greatest of the prophets, his forerunner, who made straight his way. The words that Jesus preaches directly quote the preaching of John, who went before him to prepare his way. Jerome points out that, by quoting John in this way, Jesus shows that he is the Son of the same God whose prophet John was. There is one God and one word of God, known to us by prophecy, who now preaches to us one word: repent. This one word will comfort us if we are afflicted and afflict us if we are comfortable. 

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