Sunday, April 24, 2016

Now Worship in the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Commentary on the Gospel of John 13.50.

Sunday, April 3, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Two Resurrections

Palm Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom of Form

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

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Order of Melchizedek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The natural unity of our bodies and our souls

On Mark 2:1-12 
Second Sunday of the Great Fast
Our Holy Father Gregory Palamas

When we look at each other – especially when we look at strangers or people on the street – we often don’t really see the person before us. We might see someone in our way, someone we have to wait behind in line at the grocery story, or we might see the apparent poverty of a beggar, or the struggles of a blind person preparing to cross at a busy intersection.

We may tend to see the condition of human bodies, while having little regard for human spirits. We may be attracted to some and repelled by others. We may automatically judge one other on the basis of appearance.

We may keep our heads down in a crowd, afraid of making eye contact, because sometimes that’s the moment when we see a bit more than the body, which can be unnerving or make demands upon us. Jesus even says that “the eye is the lamp of the body,” which, if sound, fills the whole body with light. So when we look another in the eye, sometimes we see not only a body, but also catch a glimpse of the light (or the darkness) that fills a body.

But when Jesus looks at us, he always sees us entirely as we are. When four men lay down their paralyzed friend before him on a pallet, Jesus sees the man. If it had been one of us, most would first have seen the man’s paralysis. But that is not what Jesus first sees. Rather, he sees their faith, and he says to the man immediately, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  

When Jesus looks at the scribes sitting there, he doesn’t only see their silent lips, but sees in his spirit that they question him in their hearts. Again, he sees the whole person before him, whether they are filled with light or with or darkness. He knows us inside and outside. He knows us in spirit and in body. 

Jesus then demonstrates that he does also see the paralytic’s need for healing and he tells the man to rise, take up his pallet, and go home. So Jesus is able to see the whole man and he can see that he needs two kinds of healing. He needs healing of both body and soul. He needs to rise and walk, but he first needs forgiveness of his sins.  

These things do not exist in isolation from one another. As long as we are living this life, we need continual healing of both body and soul. We need repentance, which is therapy for our soul, as much as we need any kind of physical therapy for our bodies. Our need for forgiveness and our need for healing are really the same need, because our bodies and our souls are not two separate things but one thing, mysteriously interconnected.

Our holy father Gregory Palamas, who we always remember and celebrate on this second Sunday of the Great Fast, recognizes the gift of healing as one of those charisms of the Spirit that “operate through the body.” He writes,

“Healings and miracles never take place unless the soul of the one exercising either gift be in a state of intense mental prayer and his body in perfect tune with his soul…. The communication [of the Spirit] takes place… not only during the mental prayer of the soul, but also at moments when the body is operating.”[i]

Our bodies and souls work in conjunction to bring God’s healing into our lives.
Palamas writes about this in his work on “the Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of our bodies.” The Hesychasts’ prayer does not disregard the body, but incorporates both breath and posture into prayer. We pray in spirit and in body. And we experience God in spirit and in body. Because we are spirit and body. And because God, who is spirit, has become man, who is body and spirit. 

We are body and spirit at the same time. Our bodies and souls are meant for each other. We are a psychosomatic unity. We are not only bodies animated by electrical impulses and controlled by our brains, as the materialists would have it. Nor are we only immaterial spirits inhabiting or trapped in bodies that confine us until our release from them at death, when they will pass away, as the Platonists and Gnostics would have it.

A soul is the life of a body and the human soul is also an immortal and everlasting spirit, which means that the body – though it dies, and thus experiences an entirely unnatural separation from its soul – will naturally rise again and live forever. There will be resurrection. It’s not the resurrection that is unnatural; it is death that is unnatural. Resurrection is a natural response to the unnatural reality of death.

Our veneration of relics – of the dead bodies of the saints – of the relics of St. Gregory Palamas – is not merely a remembrance of what they were but also an expectation of what they will be again. Our bodies will rise again. Our bodies have a place in everlasting union with our immortal souls.

I emphasize this because both materialism and disregard for the body have strong footholds in our culture and even among some people in the church. These ideas deny or ignore the resurrection and the natural unity of our bodies and our souls. And it is essential to our faith to get right this this understanding of our human nature – this Christian anthropology. 

If you gloss over the importance of our bodies as well as our souls, you miss the whole purpose of Christ’s resurrection. You miss what he has accomplished for us by rising from the dead in his body – which is our salvation - our salvation - the salvation of us who are bodies and are souls and are spirits.

Let me give some examples of the disregard for our bodies found all around us. First, one from our culture: a few times I’ve seen this new-agey bumper sticker (maybe you have too), which states, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

Second, one from among Christians: C.S. Lewis is often misquoted as saying: ““You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” When you see this quote floating around the internet, be aware that he never said this.[ii]

These quotes are both half-truths. It is true that we are spirits. It is true that we are souls. I don’t merely have a soul, I am a soul: that much is true. But I am also a body. It is the way that God has made us from the beginning. And it is part of the human nature that God takes on in his incarnation.

Finally, an example regarding attitudes toward fasting. The great fast is a great time for reflecting on the importance of both body and spirit in human nature. A coworker of mine and I were discussing the great fast and she told me about how, at a local community she used to belong to, they would emphasize that we are to fast from fear. They’re not wrong that we are to fast from fear. Paul told us to have no anxiety about anything. And John teaches us that perfect love casts out fear. This kind of fear, as opposed the holy fear of the Lord, is born from a failure to trust in God. To that I would add that we are to fast also from all the other sins and vices of the spirit: malice, envy, rage, despair and so on. 

But we must not emphasize these things over and against the fast of the body, I don’t think. Whatever good we do in spirit, we must echo with our bodies. Because we’re not spirits trapped in flesh, we’re flesh with spirit breathed in by God. Physical matter isn’t a problem and it isn’t an illusion. Rather, it is a means by which God unites us to himself.

[i] “The Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of our bodies,” 13. The Triads, 53.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Two kinds of enemies

On Matt 6:14-21
Cheesefare Sunday

There are two kinds of enemies we must keep in mind as we fast. There are the enemies we must forgive – and there are the enemies we must destroy.

First, there is the enemy we must love and forgive. Today our Lord Jesus teaches us how to fast, and he begins his teaching with talk of forgiveness. A true fast must begin with forgiveness. We Byzantines take this literally – tonight we begin our Great Fast with Forgiveness Vespers, confessing and forgiving all the wrongs that we have done.  

Just before our Lord teaches us how to fast, he teaches us how to pray (Matt 6:5-13). He teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray many times daily – and in which we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
And today he elaborates on the meaning of this prayer, saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but” – and this is a terrifying conjunction – “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).

Our Father’s forgiveness is not exactly unconditional – though he makes it always available to us, and no sin of ours can cut us off irredeemably from his mercy. But Jesus himself reveals the condition of our Father’s forgiveness – that is, we must forgive others. We must put aside all our enmity and hate and resentment over wrongs.

St Maximus the Confessor writes, “Strive as hard as you can to love everyone. If you cannot yet do this, at least do not hate anybody. But even this is beyond your power unless you scorn worldly things.”[i] Fasting rightly will teach us scorn of worldly things, which will help us put aside our hate for others. This is necessary because we are not to be an enemy to anyone.

Just because you have an enemy, doesn’t mean that you have to be an enemy. There is probably someone who hates you and opposes the good that you are and the good that you do – a person who makes himself your enemy.

We will have enemies, whether or not we create them by our own evil doing. Jesus assures us that if we follow him, we will be hated, as he has been hated (cf. Matt 10:22; John 15:18). Christ himself has enemies and so, if we become like Christ, we will be like him also in this. Furthermore, he commands us to love our enemies, which presupposes that we will have enemies to love (cf. Matt 5:44).

So, how do I stop being an enemy of my enemies? I forgive and seek reconciliation. I make restitution for any wrongs. If my enemy will not reconcile with me, I can still remain open to the one whose heart is closed to me. I can love and forgive the one who hates and hurts me. I can pray for those who persecute me. All this in imitation of the supreme example of Christ Jesus on the cross, who cries out, “Father forgive them.” And really, it is this cross that gives us the power to forgive. Only in Christ and in his cross can we truly offer forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn’t something entirely within our own power. When the Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone,” they have a point (though they fail to see that they are making their point to God himself). But if you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t forgive someone because they have hurt you so deeply or because their crime is so heinous, in a way, you’re right. That is, you can’t forgive them of your own individual power, by your own unaided will. You can’t do it, but Christ can, and in Christ, you can forgive.

Forgiveness is a grace – a participation in the life of God. As they say, to forgive is divine. Only by the grace of God can we find the power to forgive, to release those whose crimes against us have bound them to death, to abandon them utterly to God’s good graces, to seek every good on their behalf.

The process of theosis – our dynamic ascent into ever greater union with God – precedes forgiveness, accompanies forgiveness, and results from forgiveness. In forgiving, we become more like God, who forgives. We are forgiven as we forgive. Forgiving and being forgiven are one action of God in us.

As we enter the Great Fast, let this be our approach and God’s approach in us and between us toward all. Let us invoke blessings and not curses upon our enemies.

St. John Chrysostom points out that “praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of law.”[ii] Yet, anyone who prays the psalms will soon notice that they are filled with curses against enemies. So what does this mean for us?

It means that there is another kind of enemy – one with whom we must never be reconciled. In another place, St. John Chrysostom says, “We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.”[iii]

As an exorcist of demons, Jesus teaches us who our enemies really are. Our enemies are not each other or other parties or other nations, but the demons and the evil that is in our own hearts. It is toward these enemies that we must direct the curses of the psalms and it is against these enemies that we must strive by our fasting.

Just as our fast is entered and sustained in the spirit of forgiveness and patience with others’ faults, so it is also an act of war against our true enemies – the devil and his demons and our own passions. How shall we wage this war?

St. John the Dwarf writes,

“If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemy, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak and can be conquered thereby.”

We begin the fast by forgiving our pretended enemies – our neighbors and fellow humans – so that then, free from the distraction of focusing our energies on waging a campaign against them, we can turn that power instead against our true enemies: the demons and our own passions.

Against these enemies, let us pray with the Psalmist,

      O Lord, plead my cause against my foes;
fight those who fight me.
Take up your buckler and shield; arise to help me.
Take up the javelin and the spear against those who pursue me.
       O Lord, say to my soul: “I am your salvation.”
Let those who seek my life be shamed and disgraced.
Let those who plan evil against me be routed in confusion.
Let them be like chaff before the wind;
let God’s angel scatter them.
Let their path be slippery and dark;
let God’s angel pursue them.
They have hidden a net for me wantonly;
they have dug a pit.
Let ruin fall upon them and take them by surprise.
Let them be caught in the net they have hidden;
let them fall into their pit.
But my soul shall be joyful in the Lord and rejoice in his salvation (Psalm 34:1-9).

[i] Fourth Century on Love, 82
[ii] Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethren, 10.
[iii] Homily 20

Sunday, January 24, 2016

God loves us

Prodigal Son 
from the Eadwine psalter
circa 1150
illumination on parchment

Our father – the one in the heavens – gives to us everything. All that we have. All that we are. Our life. Our freedom. Our being. And, he loves us. He is love – with us.

Sometimes we think – maybe – well, what’s so great about that? I don’t have much. I don’t have as much as some of my neighbors do. Sure, they have something to be grateful for – but not me. And so we show God our face of ingratitude.

Do you know that look? If you have children, you probably know that look. Because you know what’s it’s like to give everything to someone – for all that you have to be theirs. And you know what’s it’s like for them to take it all – and to take it for granted.

But you also know, that when they do that, it does not lessen your love for them. It does not quell in you the warmth of your affection for them – not one degree.

When a child says to me, “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead,” it does hurt, but I know that they do not know what they are saying and so I forgive them – though sometimes, in my fallenness, it takes a moment. And I go right on loving them and providing for their needs and also, as I am able, for their wants.  

Some of us know something about what it means to be a loving father or mother, though none know so well nor love so well as God, our father, who is in the heavens. All of us, however, are children of a loving father – the one in the heavens. And so all of us – believe it or not – know something about being loved.

My friend Ian Gerdon wrote recently that, “all humans are brought into existence with two names: Amati (which mean Beloved) and Amandi (which means Ought-to-be-loved).” We are beloved by God and we ought to be loved by humans. We are created by love himself, out of his love, for loving, and being loved. While our first name – which is Beloved – describes our true condition and the ground of our being, our second name – which is Ought-to-be-loved – describes how we all should respond to that reality in ourselves and in our neighbor. God loves us and he calls us to love ourselves and one another.

Sadly, we do not always love one another. And, we are not always loved by others. And, we do not always love ourselves.

When we feel unloved, it is always because some human has not loved us as they ought to have. Sometimes that human is another and sometimes that human is myself – but the defect or deficit in love is always on the human side and never the divine. 

God’s love never fails. When we feel unloved, God loves us. When we think that God does not love us, God loves us. When we do not love God, God loves us. When we say to God like ungrateful children, “I hate you” or “I wish you were dead,” God loves us. But we humans do fail to love. And our failings and the failings of our neighbors can cloud our vision.

Our neighbors’ and our own unloving thoughts and actions sometimes keep us from seeing that God our father loves us, that he is with us. We fail to see all that he has given us. And so we covet after persons, positions, and things that are not given to us, but given instead to others. Ingratitude and covetousness are ubiquitous and pernicious. To covet nothing that is our neighbors’ is a kind of freedom that few of us know.

We are too often like the ungrateful younger son who says to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” In the usual course of things, of course, a son receives his inheritance only after his father has died. So, by asking for it while his father yet lives, the younger son is in effect saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” This is supreme ingratitude. It is a failure to see that the father already shares everything with his sons. They are with him always, and all that he has is theirs.

But that is not enough for the younger son. Really, he just seems to want his father out of the picture. Perhaps he mistakes his father’s loving presence for some kind of oppression or limitation on his freedom. As it turns out, taking his inheritance and leaving is not gain for the younger son, it is loss. Though he thinks it will be to his benefit, it is in fact his undoing. He does not know what is good for him as well as his father does. While he briefly increases his possessions and pleasures, for that he loses the loving presence of his father, and a continual sharing in his abundance. His ingratitude leads to the loss even of what he has.

And the elder son is ungrateful, too. The two sons are not as different as we might suppose. The younger son is overt in his ingratitude – taking his inheritance and leaving. But the elder son’s ingratitude becomes clear when he refuses to go into the house to celebrate the return of his brother and when he bitterly says to his father, “you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends.”

The loving father leaves neither son alone in their ingratitude. When the younger son comes in sight of his house, his father runs out to meet him. And when the elder son will not come into the house to the feast, his father goes out to invite him in. The father goes out to them both.

How like these two sons we are!

Being with our father – the one in the heavens – is worth far more than anything we can gain from the world. But all of us are at times like the younger son. We turn away from our father and go into the world to try there to sate our passions. Hopefully, we have learned from this that such squander brings us nothing but emptiness and ruin. And that it is only in the presence of our loving heavenly father that we can find peace or rest. So let us who have turned to the razzle dazzle of covetous worldliness now turn back again to our father. He will run out to meet us.

Or sometimes we are like the elder son. We have always remained partly in our father’s presence – say, by coming often to church – but all the while we try to hide in our hearts our ingratitude and petty jealousies. Let us let go of all of that. Our father will come out and entreat us to come in to the feast.

Indeed, he is even now inviting us into the feast. An antidote to the poison of our ingratitude is available in this Divine Liturgy: the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. Ingratitude, then, is anti-Eucharist. And so, let us give thanks to our father for all he has given us, above all for his loving presence in our lives, and approach holy communion with grateful hearts. 

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