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. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

God is with us.

Our Lord and God Jesus, for whom and by whom all things exist – through whom the Father brings us out of nonexistence into being – is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He partakes of our nature. He has a full share of our flesh and blood – just the way it is, even in that it is subjected to death. Through our fear of this death, we have been enslaved to our passions and sins our whole life long. So, he becomes like us even in this mortality so as to free us from our enslavement. (Heb 2:10,11,14). If we are in Christ, we no longer fear death.

Ancestors of Christ
ink, paint and gold on parchment
by Priest T'oros, Armenia, between 1262 and 1266

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ – the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew – profoundly underscores the extent to which Jesus Christ identifies himself with us – even with our weakness and enslavement. Behold the type of ancestors through whom he becomes a man. There are many great saints in his genealogy but also many great sinners. And many great saints who were also great sinners. 

He takes the form of a slave – of a man doomed to die. The one who makes man in his likeness is born in the likeness of man – and not some deathless prelapsarian man – but one who suffers the effects of our sins and even one who dies – “a slave… obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8). He is the new Adam, subjecting himself to the world as we’ve made it and thereby making it all anew. He is not the old Adam before his fall. Paul goes so far as to say that he becomes sin for us. "For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

St. Ambrose writes that he who takes on the sins of all was born in the flesh, was subject to wrongs and pain, and he did not refuse the further humiliation of a sinful parentage – because this did not detract from his holiness in any way. Now, it should not shame us – the Church – to be gathered from among sinners, because the Lord himself was born of sinners. The benefits of redemption in the Lord begin with his own forefathers. Let none imagine that a stain in the blood is any hindrance to virtue, nor again any pride themselves insolently on nobility of birth (paraphrased).

How clear Matthew makes this for us today – with his survey of Jesus Christ's ancestors on this Sunday of his Holy Fathers, so many of whom show forth for us what it is to be mortal, impassioned, corruptible, and sinful, even as they also exemplify for us what it is to be faithful and hopeful, repentant and righteous.

Jerome points out that many holy ones are passed over in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus while many “taken into the Savior's genealogy [are] such as Scripture has condemned, that He who came for sinners being born of sinners might so put away the sins of all.”
Take, for example, Judah and Tamar. St. John Chrysostom points out their sin of incest but to my mind, that’s like the tip of the iceberg. Read their story in Genesis 38, to see what I’m talking about. Only, maybe don't read it to your children. To incest may be added the sins of injustice, deception, and harlotry. These are the ancestors of Jesus Christ.

And then there is David – one of the primary ancestors to whom – as to Abraham – the Lord made promises that are finally and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet, even this great and all-important ancestor was also great at sinning, just like us.

"David begat Solomon with a woman with whom he had committed adultery," says John Chrysostom. To adultery may be added the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.
It’s interesting that Bathsheba is not named in Matthew’s genealogy, while other women like Tamar are. One of the fathers suggests that this is because of her great sin, but great sin doesn’t exclude others from this list, so I disagree. In any case, I see Bathsheba as much less of a sinner, but rather the victim of David’s great sins. That’s how the text reads to me (2 Sam 11).

Notice too that not only are sinners mentioned here but also specifically sinners whose sins resulted in the conception of the ancestors of Christ. Sinful actions themselves result ultimately in the conception of Christ.

This is how God works. He turns all things around to the good. He works through us when we strive for the good and also even when we vainly strive against the good. He brings greater good out of good – and even good out of evil – and even the greatest good out of the greatest evil. Incarnation out of adultery and incest. Resurrection out of crucifixion.

If we could all see our own complete genealogies, I am sure we would all find many examples of great holiness and virtue, but I’m also quite sure we would all soon discover that somewhere along the line, all of our own conceptions – like that of Jesus Christ – are the result of others’ sins. Yet, despite any sin, every conception itself is holy. And no stain in the blood hinders virtue, as Ambrose says. Every conception is an act of God, despite any human or even sinful actions that led to it. God does his work amongst us as we are. God is with us. He overshadows us. He overcomes us. He overcomes any bad intentions with his great holiness. He even becomes us – a man like us in all things but sin.

As a man, Jesus Christ is generated in the same way that we are all generated – with an ancestry and a genealogy. Behold this mystery: Isaiah prophesies, "Who shall declare his generation?" Such cannot be declared of God because God has no beginning. The Divine Messiah, the Son of God who is God, the suffering servant of the Lord is not generated in his divinity. So what is Matthew doing beginning his gospel with the book of the generation of Jesus Christ? St. Jerome says that Isaiah shows that there is no generation of the divine nature but that St. Matthew declares rather the generation of his human nature. God is incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has ancestors and Matthew declares his generation.

Now, as a man and through all his ancestors, God is with us!

Jesus Christ is flesh and blood. He’s not a phantasm. The notion that he might be is not so popular in our day and age as it was during the early centuries of the Church when many denied the reality of Christ’s human nature. But still, we encounter a kind of soft-Docetism when we hear people speak dismissively of Christ's faithfulness and holiness and sinlessness and miracle-working saying, "Well, of course, Jesus can do these things – he's God."

It’s true that Jesus is God. Yet, it is also true that Jesus is Man. We must not pretend to have mastered this mystery, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to speak knowingly of the ineffable, to conceive the inconceivable, to fully grasp the paradox of the incarnation. We must not thus cheapen it – subjecting God and His workings to our own understanding – as if his being were subject to us and not beyond us.

Jesus Christ is fully human. The goodness of his humanity is fully human. He shows forth and makes possible the possibility of us being good and true and beautiful in him. We must not say, "Oh, goodness is for Jesus but not for me – I cannot be held to his standard, he is God and I am not." We must not say this because what he is by nature – divine – we are to become by grace. Our theosis is the whole point of his incarnation. He partakes of our human nature so that we may become partakers of his divine nature (Heb 2:14; 2 Peter 1:4).

He became like us just as we are in all things but sin, and, even though he is no sinner, he became even sin. He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning (Heb 4:15). No matter what depravity we have sunk to, we are not without hope in Christ. If we have hit bottom, he will lift us up. Even if we have died, in him we will rise again. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Faith and Thanksgiving

When a leper under the Mosaic covenant is healed of his leprosy, he is to go and show himself to the priest, who is to examine him and certify that he is indeed free of leprosy, so that he can perform the required rituals and sacrifices at the time of his cleansing (Lev. 14).

Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover, 2013
Today, ten lepers lift up their voices and shout to Jesus from a distance, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" (Luke 17:13). We can identify with the lepers at this point, I think. Wounded and broken, we cry out to the Lord from a distance, repeating these same words again and again in our Liturgy: ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς – have mercy on us. Well, Jesus does not respond by simply healing them – even though that’s what he has done in the past.

This isn’t the first time that Jesus heals a leper. Once, when a leper begged of him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” Jesus simply stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will; be clean,” and immediately the leprosy left him (Luke 5:12-14).

This time, however, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Remember, that's what you’re supposed to do after you've been healed of leprosy. By rights or at least expectations, Jesus ought to have healed them and then sent them to show themselves to the priests. But that's not what he does. He just sends them to the priests, without so much as mentioning – except by implication – that they're going to be healed at all. As St Cyril of Alexandria says, "He commanded them to go as being already healed" – though they were not already healed.

Remarkably, all ten lepers – to a man – step out in faith and obey Jesus's instruction. And as they go, they are cleansed (Luke 17:14). They believe first and obey Jesus's command and then, while doing so, they are healed. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). They acted as if they had been healed – they were doing what healed people do – in obedience to Jesus Christ, and in doing so, they were I healed.

All ten of these lepers had faith – remarkable faith – and it is their faith that made them well (cf. Luke 17:19). More than seven times in the gospels, Jesus says to those whom he has healed, ““Your faith has saved you.” Or “made you well.” Or “made you whole.” Faith is key to our healing. But, what happens next shows us that faith alone is not enough to please the Lord.

One and only one of the lepers who were healed by Jesus returns to him, falls on his face, and gives him thanks (17:16). Jesus, exasperated at seeing only one-tenth of the gratitude that he should see, says, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?" (17:17). Now, if only one-tenth of the Church offers thanksgiving to the Lord, we will exasperate him again. It's clear that each of us should be like the tenth leper, and not like the other nine who offer no expression of gratitude.

Our Holy Father and patron Athanasius says, "You recall that [Jesus] loved the one who was thankful, but he was angry with the ungrateful ones because they did not acknowledge their deliverer. They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who had healed them" (Festal Letter, 6).

These are like those who offer prayers to God only when they need or want something – who regard God as a sort of divine problem solver whose primary role is to make us happy. These are like those unconcerned with pleasing the Lord and concerned only with being pleased by the Lord. And they outnumber the grateful ten to one.

Maybe they have faith – certainly they do (of a kind) – but faith alone is not enough. It is also necessary to give thanks. How often we forget to give thanks.

As a sign of how rare it is, note that at no other time, in any of the healings recorded in any of the gospels does the healed person offer thanksgiving to Jesus. Others at other times give glory to God, but only this cleansed Samaritan leper glorifies God and then offers thanks.

Scripturally speaking, this thanksgiving is a potent thing. In all but a couple of instances in the New Testament, thanks is addressed to God – and not to humans. So when this healed leper glorifies God and thanks Jesus, I think he is acknowledging that this man who cured him is also the very God who created him.

But he was the only one of the ten to do so. Ingratitude is a common bad attitude – from that day to this. How often the saints among us go unthanked for their many good deeds. Nine out of ten times, you might say. Thanksgiving is what makes this particular healing story so worthy of our proclamation, our meditation, and our imitation.  

Because when Jesus sees our faith, he not only heals us but also saves us and forgives us of our sins (Mark 2:5), which are the cause of all the suffering and death in the world. But take note: this time, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” to only one of the ten he has healed. Among the ten, only this one received in full the mercy for which they all cried out because this one alone thanked him.

The kind of faithfulness that saves us is no mere intellectual assent to a proposition, no mere belief or true opinion that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, as important as that is. All ten believed the Lord could heal them. But only one returned to thank him. And only that one was accounted truly faithful.

So, we must remember to be grateful. It can be hard in the midst of our sufferings to be grateful for the many blessing the Lord bestows upon us each day and is bestowing on us even now and in eternity.

But, He is giving us life and giving it to us abundantly, even when it doesn’t feel like it (John 10:10). Let us thank him. 

He blesses us with loved ones, our families, our neighbors, and our friends. Let us remember to thank him.

He gives us himself in the holy mysteries of our Church. Let us not forget to thank him.

Having offered him many prayers of thanksgiving every day of our lives, let us then also often come together to offer him the most perfect thanksgiving we can muster – the holy eucharist. The word for thanksgiving is εὐχαριστω – that is, eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving. Because the Son of God “took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his holy disciples and apostles” (Luke 22:19).

Thanksgiving not only expresses a feeling of gratitude but also places us in proper relationship to God, in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). And the supreme way of offering thanks is the eucharist, in which we partake for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Every conception is an act of God.

Who are the mother and the brethren of the Lord Jesus? Those who hear the word of God and keep it are his mother and his brethren, says the Lord (Luke 8:21). Foremost among these is the Theotokos. She is the one who hears the word of God and keeps it.

Witness: the angel Gabriel comes from God with God's message that Mary the virgin will conceive in her womb Jesus the Son of God. And Mary says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She hears the word of God and keeps it. She receives the word of God into her own body and gives him flesh. The word – who was in the beginning and who was with God and who was God – was made flesh in her womb and dwelt among us. She who is uniquely the Theotokos hears the word of God and keeps it in a unique way. And so she is uniquely the mother of the Lord.

Today, we reflect that even before she became the mother of the Lord by hearing his word and keeping it, she was the daughter of the Lord. Before she was Theotokos, she was θεόπαις. Before she conceives God in her womb, she is conceived in the womb of her mother Anna in the natural way by the seed of her father Joachim – yet also miraculously and by the hand of God.

“Today the whole world celebrates how Anna becomes a mother by the power of God. She conceived the woman whose conception of the Word is beyond our words” (Kontakion of the feast).

The truth is, every conception is an act of God. I find it just a little irksome when I hear new mothers and fathers say things like, "Look what we made!" about their newborn babies. Better, I think, is what Eve says after she conceives and bears her first child, "I have gotten a man from the Lord" (Genesis 4:1). The Lord is the author of every human life. Our children do not belong to us. They belong to the Lord.

But sometimes the Lord really underscores the fact of his essential and central role in every conception. This is never more evident than in the case of the conception of Jesus in the virginal womb of his mother Mary. There has only ever been one virgin birth. God only ever became man in the womb of one woman.

But there were many miraculous conceptions before this – pointing to it and preparing for it – and none of them is more significant than the conception of Mary by the holy and righteous Anna, which we celebrate today.

God alone creates his own mother. As a son, in his humanity, Jesus is obedient to the command of the Lord to honor his mother and his father, yet he alone can and does honor his mother even in his divinity.  Among other ways, he honors his mother by the extraordinary circumstances of her conception.

Anna was barren and older and had lived in marriage with her husband Joachim for 20 years without conceiving any child. “They prayed to God with their whole heart” for deliverance from “the anguish of childlessness” and for the “fruit of the womb.” They promised, if heard and remembered by the Lord, to “offer the child as a sacred gift” to the Lord in his Temple (Ikos of the feast). Then, the same angel that would later reveal to Mary that she was to bear God in her womb – Gabriel – appears to both Joachim and Anna separately and tells them both that in answer to their prayers, a daughter will be born to them.

In some ways, this is a familiar story for which there are several prototypes in the Old Testament. One of them concerns another Anna – also called Hannah – whose feast day, not merely coincidentally, is also today. She, too, dwelt a long time in marriage – to her husband Elkanah – but was childless. Her womb was closed and this greatly grieved her. So with deep distress and bitter tears she prayed to the Lord and vowed to him that if the Lord would give her a son then she would give him to the Lord all the days of his life (1 Samuel 1:10-11). And the Lord did remember her and she conceived and bore a son and called his name Samuel, saying, "I have asked him of the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:19-20).

Another example is the conception of Isaac in the womb of Sarah in her extreme old age. I think of Sarah and Hannah and Anna and Elizabeth whenever an older couple receives the mystery of crowning. Our Byzantine wedding service is filled with prayers for the conception of children, which can feel a little awkward if the bride and groom are no longer in their childbearing years. Sometimes, hearing these prayers, people will laugh like Sarah laughed at the notion of such a conception. But we can always remember – there are precedents. All children are conceived by the power of the Lord, and nothing is impossible for the Lord.

The many miraculous conceptions in the Old and New Testaments set apart the ones thus conceived for the Lord's purposes.  Each of these miraculous conceptions indicates a person who has been given to God's people and not only to their own mother and father. Isaac, son of Sarah, is a patriarch through whom the Lord fulfills his covenant with Abraham. Samuel, son of Hannah, is the prophet who anoints David King of Israel – David from whom Joseph and Mary and Jesus, the King of Glory, are descended. And Mary, daughter of Anna and handmaid of the Lord, is the Theotokos.

Mary is the holy mountain planted in the womb of Anna; she is the divine ladder there set up; the throne of the great king made ready; the city into which God will enter; and the unburnable bush beginning to bud forth (Sticherion of the feast). So, let us glorify Anna in faith – the mother of the mother of God and the bearer of the Theotokos, the ground upon which is built the living temple of the Lord.   

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Time of Silence about the Mystery

St John the Theologian in Silence
Village of Vladimir, 18th Century

Well, they tell me some of the radio stations have already started playing Christmas music. It seems like everyone I know loves to complain about this. I mean really across the spectrum of ideologies and denominations, people love to complain about this. My secular friends and former coworkers sigh derisively and roll their eyes at the sound of “Silver Bells” in November, saying, "It's not even Thanksgiving yet!" Meanwhile, our Roman Catholic friends complain, "It's not even Advent yet!"

Of course, to us, that sounds a little odd because, well, it is. Our Nativity Fast began on November 15th after the feast of Saint Philip. Our altar covers are already red. The secular and commercial world has nothing on us when it comes to getting ready early.

But the way and the spirit with which we prepare to welcome the Lord and to celebrate his birth in a cave in Bethlehem is very different. Or, it ought to be. How ought we to prepare?

It is interesting to compare our Byzantine approach to this season with the approaches taken by the world and even by the other Churches.

It may surprise some to learn that our lectionary has no readings particularly associated with the coming feast of the Nativity - until the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, which, at the earliest, can fall on December 11th. This year, it falls on December 17th - its latest possible date. (By the way, it is traditional to intensify their fasting around this time - either on December 10th or December 20th). So, there's always about a full month of the Nativity Fast - and that's the majority of the fast - during which our lectionary makes no direct mention of the Nativity.

There are some liturgical changes that occur. For example, starting on November 21st, we sing the katavasiai from the Canon of the Birth of the Lord at Matins. There are also throughout this season occasional Days of Alleluia. These are particularly penitential days during which the Divine Liturgy may not be celebrated and the other services become longer and more penitential, with prostrations, the beautiful and convicting Prayer of Saint Ephrem, and other features you would expect, actually, from a liturgical service during the Great Fast.

Also, of course, in addition to these increased prayers, we are to be actually fasting - each of us to the extent that we are able - and we are to renew and intensify our practice of almsgiving - of sacrificial giving to those in need, to the poor, and to the real needs of the Church.

But, despite all of these changes to our way of prayer and life during the Nativity fast, our lectionary, as I say, makes no direct mention of the particular reason we are doing this in this season. The changes that do occur in our liturgical life often make it look more like Lent than Advent.

Now, some perceive this as a deficiency in need of correction. And maybe people do need more explicit reminders of what this season is all about. Perhaps to help with this, our own Eparchy's Archpriest David Petras has written a book of meditations for the Nativity fast, which I look forward to reading, but it draws on the lectionary of the Maronite Church for inspiration because, as I say, the Byzantine lectionary is silent at this time.

On the other hand, it's not so silent as it used to be, because now we celebrate beautiful services like the Emmanuel Moleben during the Nativity fast, which includes readings chosen for their relevance to the coming Nativity of the Lord. However, it should be known and remembered that this is no ancient Byzantine service. Its form and its original texts are the work of the Right Reverend Mitered Archpriest Conrad Dachuk, who just recently celebrated his 40th year of priesthood in the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto. So, we have a great Byzantine hymnographer here in the West and among the living. Our tradition is not dead nor static. There is room for new prayers.

But before we go too far in filling up all of the absences we perceive in this fasting season, let’s pause for a moment and considered whether or not the silence itself might be meaningful for us. Perhaps it's only an accident of history that the Feast of Christmas developed first in the West and so other Churches have more to say about it. Or, perhaps, as I say, our silence is meaningful. But what could it mean?

Well, our understanding of the mystery of Christ grows better in the silence than in the noise. The noise of “Jingle Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” is one thing - seemingly bent precisely on distracting us - but even the sacred sound of hymnody and holy words do not teach us what silence does. The mystery of Christ - his incarnation and his birth - is so great that one wonders whether every word we speak about it draws us nearer to it or moves us further from it. So perhaps a time of silence - a fast from words about the mystery - joined with quiet contemplation of that mystery - would do us good. It could help to empty us.

This is a fast - and a fast empties our bellies.
This is a time of almsgiving, which empties our wallets.
And this is a time of prayer - without so many words about the very inspiration for our fasting and our almsgiving and our praying - the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps this kind of prayer could help empty our hearts of earthly cares so that they may receive the king of all.

Fr. Jack Custer says that this is a "period of fasting by which we prepare an empty place for God to fill with joy, and by which we cleanse our lives of sin and selfishness so as to welcome our Savior." This kind of holy emptiness creates in us a receptivity to the Lord that we lack when we are overfull with food and possessions and self-satisfaction, like the rich man in today's parable, who pulls down his barns to build larger ones and there store all his grain and his goods (Luke 12:18).

It is especially in this season of the year with its pre-emptive holiday parties and rampant consumerism that we - especially those of us who are rich - are tempted to say to our soul, "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry" (Luke 12:19). Let us remember that at any moment God may say to us, as he does to the rich man, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (Luke 12:20).

When the Lord comes to us, as he comes to the world in his Nativity, may he find us hungry, empty, and yearning for him rather than satisfied, full, and taking thought of no one but ourselves and our own families. Then, he will be the one to satisfy us eternally. 

Instead of stuffing ourselves full with rich foods and stuffing our barns full with needless possessions, let us empty ourselves and our barns by fasting and almsgiving. And with the help of prayer, let us become rich in the things of God, rather than the things of the world, whatever avarice the worldly celebration of the holidays may seem to justify.

Instead of laying up treasure for ourselves, let us be rich toward God (Luke 12:21). Let us be rich in what matters to God. The Lord requires of us only to do right, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). The way is simple, really, though at times difficult. Now is the time to simplify our lives not complexify them, whatever the world may say.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Brothers and sisters, we are going to die.

As a new priest, I’m getting the opportunity to reflect often upon those who have died, because it is customarily the most junior priest who celebrates the Πρόθεσις or Προσκομιδή. This is a liturgy of preparation before the Divine Liturgy, during which the priest prepares the bread and wine to be offered for the Eucharist. The priest places particles on the diskos for the Theotokos and all the saints – who have died – and also particles for those among the living and among the dead for whom he wishes to pray. So it is, among many other things, an opportunity to remember death and those who have died.

Death also often comes to mind in this season of dying leaves and shortening days with sunsets coming earlier each evening.

On Tuesday, I attended the funeral of my grandfather-in-law. So lately, I remember him among the departed during the Πρόθεσις. He had a long and full life, 92 years, four children, seven grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren. But there are others who were not so old. One was a classmate in his twenties. Another was a teenage girl. We know not the hour. Many of us – probably most of us – have been close to someone who has died. So we can sympathize with the mourners in today's Gospel. 

The 12-year-old daughter of Jairus was young, but she was dying and, while Jesus was occupied with the healing of another woman, she did die. A man from Jairus's house came and said, "Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the teacher anymore." The mourners gathered swiftly. Already by the time that Jesus reached the house, there were many there weeping and bewailing her.

Death can have this kind of effect on us. I remember getting the news that a friend of mine had died by text message over a year ago and I immediately fell to the ground. Sometimes there's an automatic physical response like that to grief. Sometimes there's not. There's no right or wrong way to feel when we hear that someone has died.

Death is a mystery. We think we know something about it but today our Lord shows us that even what we think we know we don't know, actually. One thing we think we know is that there's no point intervening anymore after a person has died. As the man said, "Your daughter is dead – do not trouble the teacher anymore." As if being dead meant that the Lord wasn't going to have something to say or do about it. I mean, that kinda makes sense to us. It's how we operate. Even if we don't admit it, we have a real tendency to think of death as the period at the end of the sentence – that beyond which there is nothing more to say – or that beyond which point there’s nothing we can do. That's how the mourners feel. 

They know that the girl is dead. These people know what death looks like – they were not so insulated from death as we are – and the gospel doesn't say that the people think the girl is dead but that they know she is dead. But then Jesus comes and says that the girl is not dead, but only sleeping. So they laugh at him. Doesn’t Jesus know the difference between sleep and death?

Well, Jesus knows the way things really are, well beyond the understanding available to those of a worldly mind. Remember, he is the God who calls the things that are not as though they are – who calls into existence the things that did not exist – who gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17). So, when Jesus says the dead are sleeping, he need only wake them up. And when someone has died and there remains no more hope, we can hope against hope because we have such a God as this – a God for whom death is equivalent to sleep (Rom 4:18).

So the Lord does just this. He takes the girl by the hand and wakes her up, calling to her, "Child, arise!” This girl was not sleeping in the usual sense. It’s not that her relatives foolishly mistook sleep for death, but that she really did die and that the Lord was prepared to call her death sleep – to call a thing that was not as though it was and thus to make it so. 

Remember that he is the word of God through whom all things are made. We know the girl is dead because the gospel says that when Jesus called her to arise, her spirit returned to her and she got up at once. Now, death is the unnatural separation of the spirit from the body. James says, “The body without the spirit is dead” (2:26). So, if her spirit had left her, such that it could return when Jesus calls, she had indeed died.

Death is a mystery – but something of it has been revealed to us. Our Lord has not left us entirely in the dark about death. Remember, Jesus Christ himself has experienced death and risen up from it. He knows about death in his omniscience as God and he knows about death experientially as a human in the only way that a human could know about such a thing – he himself has died. Also, the Holy Spirit reveals to us some facets of the mystery of death through the divinely-inspired scripture, all of which is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16).

It is clear to us from scripture and the witness of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, that death is not annihilation. Atheists will say that what we are after death is just the same as what we are before conception – nothing. But the Lord through the scripture makes it clear that we are everlasting creatures. We begin but we do not end, regardless of whatever we may think, say, or do.

Much of what scripture reveals to us about death is that it can be compared to sleep, rather than annhilation. Already in the Old Testament, it was revealed to Daniel that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2). And listen to what Paul says to the Thessalonians, as we read at every funeral:

“We would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may 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 this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1Th 4:13-15).

Paul will often use the terms death and sleep interchangeably, as does Jesus when referring to the death of his friend Lazarus. Death can be compared to sleep mostly because every time we go to sleep we wake up again. And in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it becomes clear that we can say the same thing about death: we die, but we wake up again.

Yet, this metaphor of death as sleep can be misunderstood and taken too far. For example, death is not unconsciousness in the way that sleep is. It is not annihilation, and it is not unconsciousness either. The week before last, we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus, who die and have two very different experiences, which make it clear that those who have died are not experiencing unconsciousness but are aware of what's going on – among the living as well as among the dead – and are able to communicate. Notice that Abraham speaks about Moses and the Prophets – people who were born and lived and died long after Abraham had died – making it clear that Abraham has been aware of goings-on among the living all along since his death.

Speaking of Moses, the consciousness of those who have died is apparent also from the fact that, at the Transfiguration of Christ, Moses is seen talking with Jesus (Luke 9). Now, the unconscious would not be able to carry on such a meaningful conversation about what Jesus was to do in Jerusalem. So, the dead are not asleep in the sense of being unconscious, but asleep in the sense of waiting to wake up.

We are going to die, but having died we will one day hear, as did the daughter of Jairus, “Child, arise!” 

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