Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pour out your complaints before the cross.

painting by William Blake

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3: 14).

What a strange thing to say! – if we don't have context. If we are not deeply grounded in the Old Testament, much of the New Testament loses its meaning for us. It becomes decontextualized – because the context of the New Testament is the Old Testament
Perhaps many of us already know of the serpent here referred to by Jesus – the one that Moses lifts up in the wilderness – and that's good. But perhaps many of us don't know what he's talking about – and then this sounds very strange. What does lifting up a serpent have to do with life? And how can Jesus be lifted up like a serpent?

How can we identify Jesus our Lord with a serpent? The serpent reminds us more of the devil, doesn't it? Even those of us less familiar with the Old Testament probably know the beginning of Genesis better than we do the middle of Numbers. Who wants to read a book called Numbers? Could we have given this a duller name? So we know Genesis better and we know the snake in Genesis better. Anyway, that snake and this snake are not unrelated, in my opinion, so hold on to that thought.

But I promise the Book of Numbers is not all lists of numbers - though that's in there, too. It also has some pretty good stories. Here's one:

"The people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water and we loathe this worthless bread" (Num 21:5)

By the way, I just have to interject here, I just love the way they say there is no bread and then they say the bread is worthless. Really, there is bread – but they don't like it - and so they say at first there is no bread. Maybe they felt like that was true but they knew it wasn't really true and so then they adjusted their complaint a little bit. Because remember the Lord had given them manna to eat, so they couldn't honestly say there was no bread.

Manna was not a gourmet dish – “[it] was like coriander seed, it looked like gum resin… and it tasted like cakes baked with oil" (Num 11:7-8). Sounds like it was not bad but pretty plain and something that maybe people would get sick of after decades of eating little else. It was nothing as good as the fleshpots of Egypt, for example. Yet it is better to eat bread in freedom with the Lord than pots of meat while in slavery to our passions.

But we often forget this and long to again indulge our passions even at the price of enslaving ourselves to them – all for the brief taste of something that seems good to us in the moment. And while we are deprived of some seemingly good thing, we complain about the truly good things we do have and we even deny that we have them. Well-fed with food we've lost our taste for, we complain that we have no food.

This is the way we complain. It's not that we don't have something to complain about legitimately – maybe we do – but when we complain it's like we want to make it seem even worse than it is, don't we? And so we exaggerate the difficulty of our situation. It's bad, but we say it's worse than it really is. When something's difficult, we say it's impossible. When something hurts, we say it's killing us. When we don't like the food, we say there's nothing to eat. This doesn't really help, by the way. It's okay to complain to the Lord. The Psalms are full of complaint. Be honest with God and with your neighbor and your family and your friends about what you suffer. But be honest. Be truthful. And never lose sight of the good that is also there. Never be ungrateful for the good you've been given while you honestly complain about the bad. When we begin with gratitude for the good I promise our honest complaint about the bad will be more readily heard and answered.

Anyway, the people were complaining, "'There is no food and we loathe this worthless food.' And so then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people so that many sons of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, 'We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it up as a sign; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.' So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it up as a sign: And if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live" (Num 21:5-9).

So, you see, the Lord hears this second complaint of the people. It's different than the first because instead of beginning with a distortion of the truth, it begins with honesty and humility. The people say in repentance, "We have sinned. We have spoken against the Lord and against Moses." This is the truth. They're beginning with the truth this time - instead of with the lie - "we have no food." The complaint that was founded in dishonesty and ingratitude was not heard by the Lord. Instead, they were given something to complain about. And complain they did, but this time with humility and honesty, and so the Lord does hear them and does give them a way to healing.

It's interesting though. They ask for the Lord to send the serpents away. "Take away the serpents from us," they say. I'm reminded of St Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland. Anyway, this is not what the Lord does. He doesn't send the serpents away. Instead, he instructs Moses to make another serpent and to lift it up on high. The people still get bitten by the serpents. But now, when they are bitten, they can look at the bronze serpent that Moses has made and lifted up and looking upon it they are healed. The venom does not kill them anymore. The Lord delivers them from the venom of the serpents, through another serpent, a bronze serpent.

Well, it is helpful to know all of this when we hear Jesus say, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3: 14).

Those infected with the venom of the serpent who looked upon the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses were healed and did not die. Now, all of us infected with the venom of death due to sin who look with faith upon Jesus Christ whom we have pierced upon the cross will have eternal life. And so the bronze serpent is a type of the cross – a prophecy of the way the Lord delivers us from death.

We may cry out to the Lord to simply eradicate death just as the Israelites in the wilderness before us cried out to the Lord to simply drive away all the snakes. But instead of driving away all the snakes, the Lord instructs Moses to make another snake and through that snake to heal the people suffering from snake bites. By a snake, he heals snake bites. Likewise, the Lord does not simply eradicate death, but rather he becomes a man like us and dies himself and through his death (and our own deaths united to his death) we are healed of death and brought to everlasting life. By death, he tramples death.

Now remember that first snake in Genesis. By listening to him, Adam and Eve bring death into the world. So a snake here is a source of death, yet later through Moses a snake becomes a means of healing. This is like the cross – a means and symbol of death that through Jesus Christ gives us eternal life.

It's okay and even good for us to complain about all our sufferings and injustices to the Lord. Let us just make sure that we address all our complaints to Jesus Christ crucified. The cross gives perspective to every suffering and injustice. Because it is in the mystery and the paradox of the cross that every suffering is healed and every injustice righted.  

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Authority Under Authority

All of us are under authority. Most of us have some authority. Many of us have problems with authority.
A mother says to her son, "Go."
And the son says, "Send my brother instead. He's not doing anything."
A priest says to his parishioners, "Come."
And they say, "Maybe we'll come next time. We're too busy at the moment."
A manager says to his worker, "Do this."
And the worker says, "Do it yourself."
Maybe the worker gets fired for this, but it feels really good for a minute. Many of us would like to say something like that to our boss, because many of us have problems with authority.
Of course, maybe the parent or the priest or the boss is an autocratic tyrant. That's another kind of problem with authority – a failure of the authority to recognize that they are also under authority. There’s an important distinction between being authoritative and being authoritarian.
Our society is so given over to democratic ideas, we may be particularly bad at understanding and accepting authority – other than our own authority over our own selves. Nobody else better tell me what to do, we think. We forget – some of us – that heaven is a kingdom. And that Jesus Christ is King – not president – of every nation. Poland actually crowned Jesus as the king of Poland last year. Make of that what you will. But the government of God is not by the consent of the people – the δῆμος. Whether or not you have voted for Jesus Christ, he is your king. His authority over you and me is real and essential.  
You see, real authority comes from above – from God – not from below – neither from the δῆμος or the demonic. But both people and demons seek to imitate authority – to seize power that is not theirs but truthfully is God's, to assert their own will upon others instead of submitting to the will of God.

Jesus and the centurion in Capernaum (Matthew 8:5), miniature,
Codex Egberti, Trier, Stadtbibliothek, cod. 24, fol. 22r, detail, 10th century
Well, the centurion in Capernaum has something to teach us about authority – both about leadership and obedience (Matt 8:5-13). He lived and worked in a framework of authority – a chain of command – that helped him to understand the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word, who can heal the servant by his word.
A centurion in the Roman army was a person who had command of a century, which sounds like it would be a hundred soldiers but was usually around eighty. But he was also under authority. He was in the midst of a chain of command – both one to give orders and one to follow them. Maybe he can help us with our problems with authority.
He says to Jesus, “I also am a man under authority,” and, he says, “[There are] soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it” (Matt 8:9). Such crisp obedience he speaks of. How alien to us! The centurion is a witness for us of both leadership and obedience.
Firstly, unlike autocrats, who are concerned first of all always with themselves – always with maintaining their own authority over others – the centurion, who bears his authority well, is concerned first of all for the welfare of those under him. This is to be the priority for those who lead.
The centurion's servant "was dear to him," according to Luke (7:2). He comes to Jesus full of concern and solicitude for his servant. He comes to Jesus and beseeches him – "with grief," as St. Rabanus puts it – and says, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home in terrible distress." And he says, "Only say the word and my servant will be healed." He seeks what is good for his servant: healing from the true healer. He treats his servant with compassion. As St. Rabanus says, "In like manner, ought all to feel for their servants and to take thought for them."
We can see easily enough, I hope, how good and appropriate it is for a leader to take care of those under his authority in this way. What we might miss if we don't understand the historical-cultural context of this passage is how counterculturally the centurion is behaving.
He comes to Jesus about his “servant.” The word used for "servant" here is "παῖς." Now, a παῖς is a boy - rather like a garçon. But the word connotes more than that. The next entry in the lexicon is παίω, which means to strike or to smite – to hit as if by a single blow with the fist. Now, these words are likely related because a παῖς is a boy whom you may beat with impunity – a punching bag, a whipping boy. A παῖς is really a more a kind of slave than what we would think of as a servant. In fact, in Luke’s version of the story, he’s called a δοῦλος – a slave (Luke 7:2-10).
You wouldn't want to be a slave under Roman law. It was chattel slavery. It was almost – though not quite – as bad as American slavery. It was even permitted – and thought in some cases economically well-advised – to work your slaves to death, rather than wasting resources on feeding them and housing them.
But this is not how the centurion treats his servant. Even in defiance of his own culture, he cares for those over whom he has authority. A real leader must not succumb to the social and cultural pressures all around him to do other than what is best and right for those whom he leads.
The centurion does not seek the best way to use others for his own purposes and ends and goods, but seeks their own good with humility – admitting to the Lord that he is not worthy that the Lord should enter under his roof (Matt 8:8).
He is not first of all concerned with self-promotion or causing others to recognize his authority. He is concerned first of all with helping one under him who is suffering, and he does this by honoring the authority of someone else – namely, the authority of Jesus Christ over all things and his power to heal all sicknesses.
The centurion recognizes the real authority of Jesus Christ. He is intimately familiar with the workings of authority in ways that we – in our more democratic age – may not be. He even kind of identifies himself with Jesus. Pseudo-Chrysostom says that the centurion “clearly” does not draw a “distinction,” but points “to a resemblance… between himself and Christ.” Listen to the way he says to Jesus, “I also am under authority.”
What authority is Jesus under? Pseudo-Chrysostom says he is “under the command of the Father, in so far as [he is] man, yet [he has] power over the Angels.”
Then, it’s as if the centurion goes on to intimate, “I also wield authority. As one who has authority, I recognize that you have authority, too. I give commands and my soldiers obey. You, O Lord, give commands and the whole cosmos obeys. You order all creation by your word. Your authority is the source of all authority. Only say the word and my servant will be healed.”  This is the absolute authority of Christ. What he says is so. Just like that. If he says, “Let it be,” then it is.
Let's consider the authority of Christ for a moment. Authority - ἐξουσία – means literally that which comes out of essence or being. And Christ himself is the being one – ὁ ὤν, as it says in the traditional cruciform halo of Christ – the one who is – the very God and ground of all being who reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush. When truth himself and the author of truth speaks, it is clear enough he speaks with authority. And, more than this, he is the ground of all authority that exists. We may covet power, authority over others, control of others, but unless the authority is given by Christ, it is no authority at all but only an illusion of authority.
And, if we have indeed been given authority, we must always remember, like the centurion, and even in some ways like Jesus, that we are also under authority. Leaders actually function in a long line of authorities responsible for guiding and protecting others. And the Lord – the true and highest authority – will hold leaders accountable for how they exercise their power.
Drawing on his experience in a chain of command, the centurion was able to see and understand the spiritual workings of authority in the Kingdom of Heaven so well that Jesus says of him, "not even in Israel have I found such faith." Let us share his faith and wield our God-given authority as he does – with humility, with obedience to all who truly have authority over us, with awareness of Christ’s absolute authority, and with care, concern, and love for those we lead. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Oil Lamps

The Penitent Magdalene, detail
by Georges de La Tour, circa 1640-1645
At my church, we burn oil lamps in front of the icons on the icon screen. We used to burn votive candles, but some time ago – more than a year ago – we replaced these with oil lamps, which is more traditional for us. I had not had very much experience working with oil lamps of this kind. They tried to introduce them at the seminary while I was there, but they kept smoldering and going out. We couldn't figure out the problem, so they were soon abandoned in favor of more user-friendly, enclosed, disposable oil lamps. Then we got the oil lamps at Saint Athanasius and, at the beginning, I kept having the same problem with them. But, eventually, through a process of trial and error, I figured out what was necessary to keep them burning.

At first, I mistakenly assumed that all that was necessary was that they have oil in them, that the wick be submerged in the oil, and that the wick be extended far enough to burn brightly. Eventually I learned, however, that this is not enough. In fact, it is necessary not only that there be oil in the lamps, but that the oil be sufficiently deep – because the oil does not want to travel very far up the wick before it reaches the flame. If it has to travel too far it goes out much more quickly.

Secondly, it is much more important that the wick has been recently trimmed than that it is extended very far. If you have the wick extended like a half an inch, but you haven't trimmed it and the oil is not very deep it will still smolder rather than properly burning. Also, if it's extended that far but the oil is deep enough, the flame will flicker and produce black smoke causing a lot of soot to a build up at the top of the lamp. It's better for the wick to be extended just a little – like a quarter inch is enough or even less – be recently trimmed, and have sufficiently deep oil. If the lamp is prepared this way, it will burn long and brightly.

But what does all of this have to do with this great feast of Pentecost? The fiftieth and final day of Pascha, the feast of weeks (Ex 34:22), the seven times seven plus one day, the last and greatest day of the feast (John 7:37), the day of the first fruits (Num 28:26), the day Torah is given to Moses on Sinai, the day the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the apostles (Acts 2:1-4)? On this day, why am I wasting time with a tutorial about oil lamps?

Well, remember that when the Lord descended upon the holy mountain to give the Law to Moses, he descended upon it in fire (Ex 19:18). And when the Holy Spirit filled the holy apostles, "there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributed and resting on each one of them" (Acts 2:3). And remember when our Lord Jesus said, "I have come to cast fire on the earth and would that it was already burning" (Luke 12:49). And do not forget that "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12:24). The image of fire is worthy of our meditation, especially on this day of Pentecost.

It is not without reason that we burn the oil lamps in front of the holy images of Jesus Christ, his mother, and his saints. His mother, the Theotokos, herself is like the burning bush in the desert, always burning but never consumed, through which Moses encounters to the Lord. Through her, God becomes man, so through her, all people can encounter God. She and all the deified saints are themselves become all fire – a consuming fire, like God – one with God. The lamps burning before them remind us of the tongues of fire that rest upon all those filled with the Holy Spirit – and of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire they have all received, has prophesied by John the Baptist.

So I think these lamps are a good symbol and a good image of the Spirit-filled life we are to live. And I even think that the mundane task of tending these lamps can teach us something about the spiritual life. 

I am reminded of one of the sayings of Amma Syncletica. She says,
In the beginning, there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek, as it is said: 'Our God is a consuming fire' (Heb.12:24): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.[i]

When we begin to move toward God – to live the life of the Spirit – we are at first very often frustrated. At the beginning, there is struggle and suffering. When I first tried to tend the oil lamps, I couldn't keep them lit. Amma Syncletica says that when we first try to light a fire we end up choked by the smoke. The smoke gets in our eyes causing them to tear up – causing us to cry. This is how the life of the spirit must begin – with tears.

Well, it's interesting the way that this works with these oil lamps. You get that black smoke pouring out of the lamp when your wick is too high. Now, the wick is the external part of the lamp. It's the part that burns – that gives light. Without it, you've got nothing. But with too much of it, you've got black smoke. The smoke which brings tears. The black smoke is our folly and our sin, over which we should weep. One way to raise a stink and lots of smoke is with too much focus on the externals – with too much wick and not enough oil.

The oil is the internal part of the lamp. And it's like our spiritual center. Remember we are chrismated with oil – with chrism that is the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It's more important for the oil to be deep than for the wick to be long. If all we do is make a show of our faith and our religion and we have in our hearts no real loving relationship with God and our neighbor, it is like we have long wicks and shallow oil. We may burn brightly, but – if so – briefly and soon we smolder and go out.

If we really are filled with zeal for the house of the Lord but we often misdirect that zeal and turn people away from God's house and scare them off with our judgmentalism or our excessive pharisaical concern for external details, then perhaps we are like a lamp with deep oil and a long wick. We burn long and brightly but at the same time make more smoke and heat than light.

Now if we’re like those who get scared off or for whatever reason reject the Church and true religion and avoid the liturgical services and the holy mysteries. Or, if we claim to be spiritual but not religious, then it is like we have no wick at all. Our oil may be deep or it may be shallow, but it cannot burn.

The way to stop the flicker and the smoke is not to get rid of the wick, but to trim the wick. Weep and confess our sins. Cast off our own excesses. And after this do the hard work of tending the lamp – of constantly checking and refilling the oil – of constantly trimming the wick and extending it neither too much nor too little.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I  purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?' Then the old man stood up and stretched  his hands towards  heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'[ii]
Our vocation is nothing less than this: By the power of the Holy Spirit to become all flame – like a consuming fire – like God

[i] as quoted by Laura Swan in The Forgotten Desert Mothers (Paulist Press, 2001).
[ii] from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Confounding the World

The Lord our God defies our assumptions. Jesus Christ and his saints just don't act right. What I mean is, they don't respond to things the way the world thinks they will – or should. 

What happens in Philippi is a good example (Acts 16:16-34).

If you and I were unjustly locked in prison and, by a miraculously timed earthquake, our bonds were broken, would we continue to hang out in prison? Or would we take the opportunity to go free? Naturally, most of us would run. That would be natural and even just.

Certainly, the jailer expected Paul and Silas to have run when they were freed. "He drew his sword and was about to kill himself supposing the prisoners had escaped" (Acts 16:27) Perhaps death would have been his punishment anyway had he failed to keep his prisoners imprisoned. I don't know. But, in any case, Paul demonstrates more love and solicitude for his jailer than for himself, crying out with a loud voice to the one who imprisons him, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here" (Acts 16:28).

This is simply not how a worldly man behaves. A worldly man looks out for himself – looks out for number one, as it were. But Paul – and we like Paul – have our life in Jesus Christ. We're already taken care of. Our selves are already provided for and infinitely loved. We are already free and should fear neither prison nor death. It takes a profound faith to see the truth that we are actually free even while yet in prison in this world. And this faith frees us to care for those who are still enslaved to death, even while it seems they walk free in this world.

The jailer was enslaved to death – about to kill himself for failing at his job because of something he had no control over – an earthquake. He was the jailer, not the one inside the jail, and yet it was him that was actually imprisoned. Meanwhile, Paul and Silas, though being kept in prison, were actually free – free to act contrary to the expectations of this world – free to love and care for even those who seem to be their enemies.

Paul and Silas made these enemies in the first place by disturbing those who would seem to be their friends. When you really follow Christ you always end up sticking out like a sore thumb – caring for those the world expects you to hate and opposing those the world imagines to be on your side.

Before they were locked up, Paul and Silas and some other disciples were followed around by a girl for many days. She kept crying out to all who would listen, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation" (Acts 16:17). So, it would seem she was their friend, right?

The words this girl proclaims are true. Paul and Silas and Luke were and are indeed servants of the Most High God – the same God of Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (Gen 14:18), and of Jesus, Son of the Most High God (Luke 1:32). And they do indeed proclaim the way of salvation. At this time, Christianity is called "the way" (Mark 1:2, John 14:6, Acts 9:2; 19:23).  

But Paul doesn’t allow her to keep speaking this truth. Why? That seems against his own interests – from a worldly point of view. It's kind of funny, but he turns to her and charges the spirit out of her in the name of Jesus Christ because she was annoying him. Why was he annoyed? What was she doing that was so annoying? She was, as I say, proclaiming true words to the people. What's wrong with that?

You might think that Paul would appreciate the publicity that the word of God would get from her endorsement. After all, this was a girl people listened to. She had such a good reputation for speaking the truth that her owners were able to make a lot of money from what she would say. She spoke with such veracity that the people in Philippi believed her word. You have a burning question, you take it to this soothsaying slave-girl, pay her owners a sum of money of course, and you get an answer that you can trust.

And here she is speaking the truth about Paul, about God, and about salvation. And Paul is annoyed and does what he has to do to shut her up. She's giving them good press. But somehow Paul doesn't want it. I thought he was trying to get the word out! What's he doing stifling the message? As I said in the beginning, Jesus and his saints defy assumptions and often act contrary to worldly expectations.

For one thing, Paul is considering the source. “Jesus our Lord does not accept witness from demons” and neither does Paul.[1] Even when demons speak the truth, it's better to shut them up. Remember, the demons often recognize Jesus for who he really is long before the crowds do. And Jesus shuts them up (e.g. Mark 1:25). When a demon is speaking truth you can bet he's getting ready to slip in a lie.

The right words are one thing and the right understanding is another. Some among those who refer to the Most High God, especially in antiquity, fail to also recognize that God is the one true God – that is that there is truly but one and only one God. Some who speak of the Most High God are not monotheists at all but are rather what they call henotheists. These are those believe there are many gods but who regard one God as superior to all the other gods. The devil loves a half-truth better than an outright lie. Because a half-truth can go further toward deceiving those who have only a passing acquaintance with the truth. As the poet Arator says, “[Though] she who was a servant of falsehood prophesies what is true, let us not be corrupted by the bitter honey of deceit.”[2]

When the demon is talking about the Most High – and this isn't the only time in the New Testament that a demon refers to the Most High God (e.g. Mark 5:7) – you can bet that demon has a twisted understanding of the name. Remember, Lucifer says he will make himself “like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). The term Most High can be twisted by a blasphemous spirit to suggest there is not one but many – and that the others are just less high. Twisting further, it might question which of the many is really most high. And down and down, twisting and twisting we go with demonic reasoning. So, it's better to shut up the demon while it’s still speaking truth before it gets to half-truths and before it gets to believable lies.

Marble statue of Pythian Apollo
leaning on the Delphic tripod
encoiled with a serpent
and holding Apollo's tortoise shell lyre,
Apollonia, Albania
This girl proclaiming that Paul and his companions are servants of the Most High God had a spirit of divination – that is a spirit of Πύθων or Python – the Pythian serpent or dragon (Acts 16:16). By the help of this demon, she was able to soothsay with believable accuracy.

By the way, demons are able to predict the future so well not because they know the future but just because they are so extremely intelligent and experienced. Human events have a pretty predictable pattern. History repeats a lot. And if you could remember all the detail of all the millennia back to the dawn of creation with perfect recall, you'd be pretty good at predicting the future too. Sometimes they get it wrong though – like when God becomes man. They didn't see that coming. That had never happened before. They weren't prepared for the ramifications of that. That one was coming from before the dawn of creation. They may be old, but there's someone who's older – truly Ancient of Days (Dan 7:9).

Regardless, this girl’s owners were able to use her and this spirit to gain a great deal of money from her soothsaying. Now I don't know if you've noticed, but the Spirit of God and the spiritual beings that love and serve God – that is, the angels – and those who live and act in the Holy Spirit are not in it for the profit. This is a remarkably reliable way of discerning whether a prophet is a true prophet or false prophet. Are they in it for the money? Are they prophets for profit? I recommend you give those who are in it for the money a wide berth rather than a fat check.

This girl was enslaved in more than one way by more than one force. She was enslaved in body to her owners and she was enslaved in spirit to a spirit of Πύθων. Paul delivers her from her enslavement to the demon. He does not oppose her but undoes the work of her owners and of the demon in her.  Which is why her owners press for Paul’s and Silas’ imprisonment.

If we follow the way of the Lord and live in his Holy Spirit, our way of life will confound all those around us. But like the slave girl, they will be delivered. And like the jailer, they will be converted and set free. “Acquire a peaceful spirit and then thousands of others around you will be saved.”[3]

[1] Origen, Homilies on Numbers 16.7.10
[2] De Actibus Apostolorum 2 (CSEL 72:102)
[3] St. Seraphim of Sarov, as quoted by Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom (2000), p. 133.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


Christ is risen! And now Jesus is telling us to rise. The Risen Lord raises us.

To the paralytic, Jesus says "Rise – take up your pallet, and walk” (John 5:8). Jesus says "Rise" to a paralytic in each of the four gospels.

To Aeneas, Peter says, "Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed” (Acts 9:34).

And to the disciple Tabitha, Peter says, “Tabitha, rise” (Acts 9:40).

Rise. Rise. Rise.

Saint Augustine says that this is the word of healing - "the conferring of the cure."[i] To rise is to be healed, made whole, restored to the fullness of life. This makes a lot of sense if we are illuminated. And by that I mean baptized, chrismated, and communed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s not happenstance that the healing of the paralytic in John takes place next to a pool, which, when stirred by an unseen spirit, brings healing of body to one submerged in it (John 5:4). This is a type or prefiguration of baptism. We are buried with Christ in death by being submerged in the waters of baptism, which have been stirred and "sanctified by the power, action, and descent of the Holy Spirit,"[ii] so that we will rise up with Christ out of death into everlasting life by rising up out of the waters of baptism.

Several of the fathers[iii] also point out that this pool is where the priests would wash the animals to be sacrificed to the Lord in the temple. This further strengthens the image of baptism evoked by the Sheep Pool. Because we who are baptized are baptized into the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lamb of God – whose death destroys death and raises us up from death to everlasting life.

You see, when we are baptized, we are like the paralytic hearing the word of the Lord - "Rise". Before baptism, we are still paralyzed – that is restricted, not free, but enslaved to death and to the consequences of our mortality – to the bodily passions and sin. But through baptism, God fills our lives with grace – with the life of God, with his own energies, which free us from our enslavement to these things.

Maybe we lose sight of our own freedom sometimes. Because we often fall again, pining after the fleshpots of Egypt, wishing we were enslaved again with full bellies, or wishing we were paralyzed again, because when we were paralyzed all we had to do was lie around. Now that we can walk, we must carry our pallet. And that's hard work. We must do the work of living the life in Christ. And it isn't always easy. So sometimes like a dog returns to its vomit we return to our sin, even after we've been baptized and freed from it.

But if we do, our Lord who loves us unconditionally comes to us again in the second baptism of holy repentance. In this holy mystery, it is as if he says to us again, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk." Again healing us with the word "Rise." And again he follows that with the commission to be about the work of God.

This is like when he forgives the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). He forgives her saying, "Neither do I condemn you; go." She can go. She is free to go. She will not be subjected to punishment for her sin. But he continues, "and sin no more." Now that we've been forgiven, we are free to live a sinless life – a holy life – a grace-filled life – a life impossible without grace but made possible by grace. It is God's own life he invites us to live.

This is part of what Jesus means I think by telling the paralytic to take up his pallet and walk. This is a meaningful command. We know that this healing takes place on the Sabbath. And we know that the Jews said it was not lawful to carry a heavy burden on the Sabbath. Did Jesus forget? I don't think he did. I think every word he speaks is well thought-out, profoundly meaningful, and inspired.

It is worth recalling that Torah nowhere explicitly forbids carrying an item from one place to another on the Sabbath. Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. But what is work? Later, Mishnah strives to answer this question. Mishnah developed to serve as “a fence around Torah”[iv] – to make it so that if a pious Jew follows Mishnah, he cannot come even close to breaking Torah. So later, after the time of Christ, Mishnah would outline 39 types of work forbidden on the Sabbath including carrying an object from one house to another.[v] But all this was still in dispute at the time of Jesus. And, in any case, these are human laws built around Torah and not Torah itself. Jesus above all has the authority to supersede Mishnah. And he himself is the word of God before all ages and is himself the source of Torah.

Jesus knew he was commanding the paralytic to break this Mishnah regarding the Sabbath. He does know everything after all. So I believe he had a good reason for telling him to do this. Or many good reasons.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian points out that it would have been a great miracle just for Jesus to say to the paralytic, "arise and go" even if he had not also had him take up his pallet and walk "Would it not have been a miracle that he, who was not able to turn himself about on his bed, should arise easily and go?" But he also makes him carry his bed. Why? Ephrem writes that this is "to show that he had given him a complete healing..., not like the sick who come back to health gradually.... Even if he were silent," Ephrem writes, "his bed would cry out."[vi] So the carrying of the bed demonstrates to all the totality and immediacy of the healing available in Jesus Christ.  

Saint Caesarius of Arles offers a more allegorical interpretation which I quite like. He says that taking up our pallet means to carry and govern our bodies. (Sermon 171.1) You see, before he encountered Christ, the paralytic was carried about by his pallet. It bore him. But after he encounters Christ and confesses to him his weakness – saying “there is no one to put me in the pool when the waters are stirred” – after this, Christ says to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” Now he carries the pallet. Now he carries that which had carried him. He bears it.

This is so like the bodily passions of our bodies subject to death. Before Christ or without Christ our bodily passions – hunger, lust, sloth, and so on – rule over us. We go where they say – do what they want - obey them. We are not free. But Christ frees us. In him, we are free. But notice, he does not tell us to cast away the pallet – the body, or even in some sense the passions. But to rise, take them up, and walk. Our bodies and even our passions can be redeemed and restored to their true nature and purpose in Jesus Christ, in whom we are free, in whom these things are not our masters, in whom we are the masters of these things.

Our passions and appetites and impulses are distorted by sin. They are run amok – drunk with power – having been given by us disordered dominion over our whole lives. As for example when we allow fear of the difficulty involved in making a virtuous choice to prevent us from so doing. And we take the easy way out. But I don't believe that the passions and impulses and appetites in us are in themselves contrary to our true nature. With Saint Isaiah the Solitary, I believe these come originally from God and so are good in essence. But we need to carry them rather than them carrying us. Our passions must, with God's help, “be educated, not eradicated…, transfigured, not suppressed…, used positively, not negatively.”[vii] Having risen in Christ, we must carry our pallets rather than being carried by them.

[i] Tractates on the Gospel of John 17.7
[ii] special petition in the Litany of Peace before the blessing of the baptismal waters
[iii] E.g. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Augustine, Alcuin
[vi] Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron 13.2.
[vii] G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrand, and Kallistos Ware, eds., “Glossary,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume One (London: Faber and Faber, 1979-1995), 364.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Eight Days Later

Christ is Risen!

Such joy we have known! "We have seen the Lord!" (John 20:25). Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs bestowing life. Darkness and death and every sorrow have been extinguished by Christ our light and our life and our joy. Rising up from his tomb, Christ recreates us who were not created for death but for life.

We have come to today, the eighth day of Pascha – sometimes called Antipascha (not to be confused with antipasto) which means opposite of Pascha, that is, on the opposite side of Bright Week. Historically, those who were baptized on Pascha would wear their white baptismal robes for eight days, until today. For this reason, today was also once called White Sunday. So this day is connected to baptism.  

We have come here through Holy Week, Pascha, and Bright Week. Our liturgical remembrance and celebration of Christ's death and resurrection reminds us also of our own death and resurrection, already accomplished in our baptism. It is by baptism that we die with Christ so that we might rise with Christ. Christ himself is our true, brilliant, radiant, and pure baptismal garment. It is with him that we are clothed. Clothed with the risen Christ, we live again and live forever with him and in him.

Baptized into Christ, we know true freedom and forgiveness.  He returns us to our first natural innocence. On Pascha, the holy doors – the gates of paradise – are flung open and they remain open all of Bright Week. During this time, we see the Lord more clearly and more familiarly. There is no locked door between us. It is as if he walks with us again in the garden. It is as if the Lord Jesus has come and stands among us as he did among his disciples even though the doors were locked. "The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20) and we are filled with joy throughout Bright Week. Though, sadly, a child of my acquaintance said on Bright Wednesday, “All the excitement was on the first day, and the excitement is wearing off now.” Well, that’s one person’s experience.

Today, the holy doors – the gates of heaven – are closed again. What once closed the gates of paradise was sin. What opens them again is forgiveness. When Jesus stood among his disciples after his resurrection, "he breathed on them and said to them, 'receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). So Jesus Christ has given from his Father to his disciples – his Church – the life of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins that comes with that. So now, even though sins still shut the doors to paradise, forgiveness, especially through the holy mysteries of the Church, opens them again.

The holy mystery of baptism washes away our sins (Acts 22:16). We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:3-4) – into the life of Christ – and we are chrismated and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit – to live the life of the Spirit. The doors to heaven are wide open to the newly illuminated.  

When we sin again after baptism, there is for us the necessary second baptism of holy repentance and confession. Go often to confession; it is a way to begin to see God in your life. When we receive the holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as our newly illuminated soon will for the first time, it is “for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting.” Come often to holy communion; it is a way to begin to see God in your life.

There is also the mystery of holy anointing, which all who came and prepared for received on Holy Wednesday. It is for the healing of all the sicknesses of our souls and bodies and also for the forgiveness of sins. James asks us, “Is any among you sick?” The answer is, none of us is totally free of physical or spiritual illness in this life.  Therefore, “Let [us] call for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over [us], anointing [us] with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save [us], and the Lord will raise [us] up; and if [we have] committed sins, [we] will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).

All of these holy mysteries forgive our sins and unite us again to God. They open the holy doors and offer us a glimpse of God.

Now again we will close and open the holy doors as we did before – occasionally offering fleeting glimpses of the paradise from which we were once shut out. These glimpses present us with what really matters — an image of God in his heavens, into which he beckons us. To see God is to be with God. Θεωρία leads to Θέωσις – the vision of God to union with God.

Thomas wanted to see God. When the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord," he said, "Unless I see..., I will not believe" (John 20:25).

Eight days later, he does see and does believe. And, seeing the Lord, says, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). Other men, seeing Jesus, failed to see God. But Thomas, seeing Jesus risen from the dead, sees God. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," says Jesus (John 20:29). What shall their blessing be? At least in part, I believe, it will be to see God. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

We do not limit grace.

Saturday was the feast day of St. Mary of Egypt and Sunday – the last Sunday of the Great fast – we remembered St. Mary of Egypt again.

Before her repentance, St. Mary of Egypt was, as Simon the Pharisee observed today about the woman of the city, "a sinner." Though she is often thought of as a prostitute, her sin was not so much prostitution as fornication. Saint Sophronios says that she would not charge her many sexual partners, but survived instead by begging and spinning flax. She was, like so many of us in this hypersexualized culture, consumed and driven "by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion" of lust.  

She went to Jerusalem among the pilgrims, but her reason for going was not pilgrimage. Rather, she went in a large group for the purpose of seducing many partners. Some might question how such a sinner could even think to enter the holy city and its holy places.
But remember the sinful woman of the city in Simon's house (Luke 7:36-38). She goes right up to Jesus himself and, weeping, wets his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair and kisses his feet and anoints them. Though she is a sinner, she touches Jesus. And Jesus, who is more than a prophet, knows that she has sinned, yet allows her to touch him.
On the other hand, when Mary of Egypt, who is also a sinner, tries to enter the house of Jesus – that is his Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Resurrection – she is prevented by an invisible spiritual force. 

Why? What's the difference between these two sinful women? Why does Jesus allow one to touch him and kiss while the other is prevented from even entering his house? There is only one difference between them – repentance. The woman of the city in the Pharisee's house is penitent. She is weeping. And she is loving. She does not cease to kiss Jesus's feet. So all her many sins are forgiven because she loves much (Luke 7:47).

Meanwhile, Mary of Egypt tries to enter the holy place of the Lord while yet impenitent. She goes to that holy tomb not seeking to anoint the body of the Lord, but rather while seeking more partners for her lust. The invisible blockade that she experiences is in fact a strong medicine. It's not meant, I don't think, simply to keep the holy separated from the unholy or the clean from the unclean, but it is meant, I think, to reveal to her her situation and to bring her to repentance.

And, gracefully, it has this effect. Seeing outside the church an icon of another Mary – that is, of the Theotokos – she does repent. She weeps and laments, like the woman of the city in the Pharisee's house. And she learns that true love for the Lord surpasses any self-satisfaction gained by indulging in the passion of lust. Trying again, in her new state of penitence, to enter the Church of the Resurrection, she finds no force keeping her out. And she does enter and there she kisses the Holy Cross, just as the woman of the city kissed the feet of Jesus. She who is forgiven much loves much.

Now what might her fellow pilgrims have thought of her at this moment? Seeing this woman who they knew to be among their number expressly for the seduction of their members, now entering the Holy Sepulchre weeping and kissing the Holy Cross, what might they have thought? When Simon saw the sinful woman enter his house and kiss the feet of Jesus, he thought, "If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." If Mary's fellow pilgrims were true followers of Christ, then they rejoiced at her repentance. But if they were like some of us, then they probably had thoughts rather similar to Simon’s. They may have thought "Who is this woman to kiss the Holy Cross? She has not embraced the cross by her dissolute living.” They may have judged her and thought her presence among them in this place at this time inappropriate.

I hope not. But if they did, the only true judge knew their thoughts. And if we have thoughts like this about those who come among us, he knows this as well, and we will hear about it. Let's keep our thoughts on our own sins rather than on the sins of those around us.
For things are often not what they seem. A person who seems to us to be a great sinner may, in fact, be awash in the holy grace of forgiveness through repentance.

This was the case with Mary of Egypt. She seemed to be still a great sinner, but in truth, her glorification by grace, by the life of God, had already begun. She went immediately after her eyes were opened to the holy mystery of repentance, was absolved of her sins, and received holy communion. This is the proper, ordinary, and churchly way to begin again the life in Christ after we have sinned. When we fall, we get up again. When we sin, we repent and enter again into communion with the Lord through the mysteries of the Church.

But then Mary did something less ordinary, less usual, and even less churchly by some standards. The next morning, she crossed the river Jordan and then lived the rest of her life – 47 years – in the desert as a hermit. I say this is a less churchly way of life because, for one thing, it is extremely peculiar for a person to be called directly into the anchoritic life – that is, to live alone as a hermit – without first having lived the coenobitic life for a long time in community. (Though, there are other examples of this – particularly in early monasticism – such as St. Antony the Great.) And then, even among anchorites, it is peculiar to live most of life deprived of the holy mysteries, especially the Eucharist. Yet, they say, that this is what Saint Mary of Egypt did. After that first holy repentance and communion, she went into the desert and never communed again, until the day that she died many years later.

A year before she died, St. Zosimos, a priest (whose feast day is Tuesday), came upon her in the desert. She was so rough from her many years of ascetic practice, that from a distance he did not at first know for sure whether she was human. She told him her life story and she asked him to bring her holy communion the following year on Holy Thursday, which he did, on the banks of the Jordan – the same place she had received communion the last time. When she came to receive communion from him, she walked on the water of the Jordan to meet him.

Abbas Zosimas and Mary of Egypt. 17 c. 

Here is a woman who defies all of our churchly expectations. Living apart from church services, even apart from frequent reception of holy communion, and yet living a life somehow filled with grace and faith. I do not recommend that we all imitate Mary of Egypt in her way of life. St. John Climacus (who we remembered on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast), warns us, after all, that the avoidance of church services is a sure sign of the deadening of the soul. But I think we can hold up Mary as demonstration that God can and does act as he will. He is not confined by us or by our expectations. We do not limit his grace.

It is good to remember John Climacus' observation when we are tempted to avoid church services. But I think Mary of Egypt is marvelous for us to consider when we are tempted to judge others for the way it seems to us they are living or not living the Christian life. We do not necessarily see their life in Christ or where God is leading them. We do not know what prayers they pray in their closets nor do we see their ascetic practice. Sometimes there is one whom the Lord loves in his own way and for his own reasons, blessed be the name of the Lord.

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