Sunday, October 7, 2018

Pray for the dead, and God will raise them up.

The Lord always chooses to heal us, to save us, to deliver us, and to raise us up from the dead through the prayers and intercession of one another. Silouan the Athonite observes, “When God wants to have mercy on someone, he inspires someone else to pray for him, and he helps in this prayer.” Why does God do this? Could he not act for our good directly and without this intercession? Of course he could! He's God! But this is not how he chooses to act. Maybe he wants to teach us something. Maybe he want to teach us to love one another by giving our intercessory prayer, which is an expression of our love for one another, so much power.  

Never doubt the great power of your prayers for those you love – for your family, your neighbors, your friends, and your enemies. Pray for them – for everyone you can think of. Fervently. Those who are critical of prayer – saying, “We need your action, not your prayers” – have no faith in God. Do not be persuaded or intimidated by them. It's true that active service is also needed and that God calls us to it. It’s not to be neglected. In addition to prayer, we must also give drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry, clothes to the naked and shelter to the homeless. But this never negates the power of prayer.

Our prayer beseeches God, who is mighty. He can overcome obstacles we cannot even touch or fathom. For example: death. I can and should give a hungry person food, but can I raise the dead? Only if I pray for those who have died – because it is Christ, the life of all, who raises the dead. I can bury them with prayers for their resurrection and I can help them in no other way but by the power of prayer.  

Today, the Lord, who alone gives life to the dead, overcomes the death of the only son of the widow of Na’in. Let me call your attention to certain details of this story. The young man who had died is the only son of his mother. And Jesus is the only son of his mother. "The Virgin's son meets the widow's son," as St. Ephrem the Syrian says.[i]  So there is immediately a connection between our Lord and this dead young man.  

The death of the young man had crushed his mother. She was weeping. Jesus knew that he was also going to die and that his death would pierce his own mother's heart with sorrow. So when he saw this grieving mother, he had compassion on her. That is, I think he saw in her sorrow a foreshadowing of the sorrow his own mother would feel when he would die. To have compassion is to suffer with someone. Jesus is able to suffer with this woman perfectly and completely knowing that his own mother is headed for the same pain.

It was for this widowed mother and on her behalf that Jesus raises the young man from the dead. The Lord saw her, had compassion on her, and therefore told the young man to arise. For the sake of the tears of the mother, Jesus gives life to her dead son. For the sake of the tears of his mother, Jesus will give life to us who have been dead in our sins.

His mother is also our mother because we are in Christ. St. Ambrose writes, "We are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones. Let the pious mother grieve, let the crowd, too, help…" Our love and prayers for one another are truly helpful. Never believe they are not. They lead to resurrection. The Lord works his miracles through them and because of them. All you who are in Christ wield great power and authority over sin and death. They cannot defeat you in him who is the life. “Already at the funeral you will arise.  Already will you be released from the sepulcher. The attendants at your funeral will stand still. You will begin to speak words of life. All… will praise God, who has bestowed upon us such great help for the avoidance of death.”[ii] And all this because you were loved and prayed for by others. By your mother. If not your earthly mother, then certainly by your heavenly mother.

Mary prays for us. Let us also pray for one another, especially for those who have died. When we attend funerals, let us bring Christ with us in our hearts, because when Christ comes to a funeral, as we see today, he brings life to those who have died and he, who alone can, dries the tears of those who mourn.

[i] Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron 6.23.2
[ii] Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 5.92.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Prayerful Devotion to the Theotokos and her Son

On a Saturday evening on into a Sunday early morning long ago in Constantinople, Saint Andrew, the fool for Christ, and his disciple Epiphanius crowded into the back of the church at Blachernae. The church was crowded full of people praying an all-night vigil. And, in those days, an all-night vigil really took all night. Our abbreviated versions of the service usually last about 2 hours, and some people complain that that is too burdensome. Well, in those days - this was the middle of the 10th century - the service took all night, and the church was so crowded with people that Saint Andrew and Epiphanius had to stand in the back. This was not even a great feast day. It was October 1st. It was, however, Sunday - and Sunday is always the Lord's Day, the day of his resurrection - well worthy of our devotion.

Now, this church at Blachernae, a northwestern suburb of Constantinople, did possess a unique attraction for the people. Here were housed and venerated the only relics of the Theotokos - her veil and a part of her belt, having been moved here from the holy land. We know well why there are no relics of her body. Nowadays, her belt has long since been moved to a monastery on Mount Athos. And the pilgrims crowd in there as well.

Well, during this vigil, 'round about 4 o'clock in the morning, the holy Theotokos herself appears to St. Andrew. Perhaps we can understand why she chooses to appear in this place where so many were showing her and her son so much devotion. He sees her appear above all those people praying in the church at four in the morning, ineffably radiant. And lest we imagine that this is a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, he asks his disciple Epiphanius, "Do you see, brother, the Holy Theotokos, praying for all the world?" Epiphanius answered, "I do see, holy Father, and I am in awe."

He saw her protectively cover all the people with her veil, which shielded them from many visible and invisible enemies. If we will show the Lord and his mother similar prayerful devotion, she will protect us as well, with her prayers for us and for the whole world.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Listing Minimums and Missing the Point

The people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God (Luke 5:1). So much so, that he felt the need to get into a boat – Simon Peter's boat, as it so happens – and to put out a little from the land so that he could sit and teach the people from the boat (5:3). In their urgent desire to hear the word of God, which comes uniquely from Jesus Christ, who is himself the word of God, they were even making things a bit uncomfortable for him, such that he had to improvise from a boat a sort of makeshift ambo from which to preach. We can understand, maybe, their great insistence on hearing the word from him who is the word.
But are we so eager to hear the word of God? If Jesus were in town, would we press upon him to hear the word of God? As it so happens, Jesus is in town. He is in our churches every day. He is proclaimed in the gospel and present in the Eucharist. He is in our hearts and minds and bodies. He is alive in us and in this world. But are we even aware from moment to moment of his living presence among us? Or, do we live as if he is away in some far off place? Are we pressing upon him? When the gospel is proclaimed in the church, do we give it all of our attention? Or, do we let our minds wander off?

In Catholic churches, it is common to observe an overwhelming preference for the pews in the back. Often, we are far from pressing upon him to hear his word! It looks more like we’re trying to keep our distance. Zeal and eagerness to participate more fully are often in short supply. An attitude of minimum obligations prevails. That is, we ask not how much we can do to grow closer to God in his holy Church but rather what's the least we must to do in order to still call ourselves practicing Catholics.  They've even drawn up lists of these minimal obligations. For example, in order to be a practicing Catholic, they say we must at least keep these precepts of the Church[1]:
1.      We must attend Divine Liturgy (or at least some Divine service) every Sunday.[2]
2.      We must confess our sins at least once a year.
3.      We must receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Paschal season.
4.      We must also keep holy the so-called "holy days of obligation."
5.      We must observe the Fasts of our Church.
6.      We must provide for the material needs of the Church according to our ability.
Alright, fair enough, these are good things for us to do. I suppose you’ll get no argument from me about that. And I suppose I'll even go along with the observation that if a person isn't even interested in trying to do these things, it would really be a stretch to call them a practicing Catholic. However, the attitude that seeks the minimum so ardently that it needs to have all this spelled out has probably already missed the point.
Where is our fire and our love for the Lord and his word?
The Byzantine tradition offers a maximalist approach to the spiritual life rather than this minimalist approach. Our full tradition of liturgical prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline, and charitable work, which is constantly proposed to each of us by our tradition, is likely more than any one of us is even capable of, at least on our own. Of course, one of the reasons we are a Church and not a conglomeration of individuals with private pipelines to Jesus is that each member of the body of Christ has his or her own gifts. And together, we can do the work of Christ and live the Life of Christ more fully than we can alone.
And what is that work? Among other things, it is to preach to word of God both in words and, above all, by our love for our neighbors. Love of neighbor is our best and most effective tool of evangelism. It will bring people to the Lord and to the Church more effectively than persuasive arguments – not that there isn’t a time and a place for that as well. But we must always speak the truth in love. If we speak some truth, but not in love, it’s not really the word of God we’re proclaiming, for God is love.
This word of God we are to preach is like the nets, says St. Augustine, that Peter lowers into the deep for a catch.[3] It brings in so many fish that two boats are filled to the point of sinking (Luke 5:7).  Our evangelism should be so effective.
I want to see that in our churches. Let us go and cast our nets, which are the word of God, into the waters of our cities and our towns. What’s that you say? You tried that already and it didn’t work? You toiled all night and took nothing (Luke 5:5)?  Nevertheless, go out into the deep and cast again. It is the word of God you are casting and it can haul them in so that our churches are filled to bursting.  
First, of course, before we can become more effective evangelists, we must deepen our own love and obedience to the word by whatever means necessary. We won’t convince others if we’re not convinced ourselves – if we don’t take this seriously ourselves and strive with whatever strength we have toward God. It’s true that union with God can only be achieved by God’s own grace and not by our effort, but this is not meant to encourage laziness on our part. When it comes to the spiritual life and growing closer to Jesus Christ, instead of asking, “What's the least I need to do?” or, “What fulfills my minimum obligation?” let’s learn to start asking, “What more can I do? Am I doing everything I can to press upon Jesus to hear the word of God so that I can live it and preach it to the world?”

[1] CCC 2042
[2] CCEO, canon 881 §1
[3] Augustine, Sermon 248.2.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Bitter is made Sweet by the Cross

The Israelites were in the wilderness for three days with no water. And then, when they found a place with water, it was so bitter they could not drink it. So they named that place Marah, which means “bitter.” Dying of thirst, the Israelites then murmured against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" And so Moses cried to the Lord and the Lord showed him a tree. Moses took the wood of this tree and threw it into the water – and the water became sweet (Exodus 15:22-25).

We heard this story in the first reading of Vespers last night. This is because it is a prefiguration of the cross, which we exalt today. The tree shown to Moses by the Lord is a type of the cross. The bitter water that the Israelites find after three days with no water is like the bitterness of our lives of sin and suffering and death. When Moses throws the wood into the bitter water, it becomes sweet. And when we accept the cross into our sinful lives, which lead to death, our lives become sweet and our deaths lead to everlasting life in Christ.

Apart from our sweet Lord Jesus, life is surely bitter. It is a place like Marah.

Interestingly, the name of Mary may have the same root as Marah. We're not actually sure what the name Mary means. It may mean “longed-for-child” or “beloved.” Unfortunately, I don’t know any Hebrew, so I can only tell you what other people think it might mean. But, in any case, it may also mean “sea of bitterness.” This is a rather shocking possible meaning for the name Mary – at least for us Christians who love and venerate Mary. I was shocked when I first heard it suggested that Mary means “bitter.”

But that meaning begins to make a great deal of sense in the context of this story from Exodus. Mary was conceived and born in the ordinary way – and she was conceived and born into a world before the incarnation of her son. So, her human nature did not yet know that it was to be personally joined with the divine nature in her son, Jesus Christ. Mary is the bitter water of fallen humanity made sweet by the entrance of divinity inside her. The bitterness of the human nature that Mary is born into is made sweet by the son she bears, who enters into that humanity through her. Through her, God takes on our flesh and even its mortality, first embracing death, even a bitter death on a cross, and then conquering it in his sweet resurrection.

Death, without the cross, is everlasting, and that is a bitter pill to swallow. But today, on the cross, and nowhere else does Christ enter into death, and, by his death, he tramples death. And that is sweet. Now, in paradox of the cross, death has become the way to life.

This is fully accomplished only in and through the cross. And if we will partake of that sweetness, we must follow the way of the cross. We must drink the water we thought was bitter – the water of self-sacrificial love – and we will find that it has been made sweet by the wood of the cross.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Cross Unifies Opposites

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These must be the most recognized words of the gospel in the United States. We see John 3:16 everywhere: on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in cartoons. I recently saw a coupon that offered $15 dollars off a full-service oil change if the customer could quote John 3:16.

At some point, almost everyone in America has probably looked up this verse. I once heard a priest quip that maybe it’s time we start writing John 3:17 everywhere. Then, after a while, we could move on to John 3:18, and so on. That way, maybe, before they die, people would make it through a whole chapter of scripture.

We quote John 3:16 in our Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom just after the “Holy, Holy, Holy….” These words have been popular among us Byzantines since before there were chapters and verses to cite.  

And they tell us that God loves the world. We hear these words so often that maybe they go in one ear and out the other. We might begin to lose a sense of their significance, even of their scandal. 

The word for world here in Greek is κόσμος. God so loved the cosmos. This word is potent and loaded in the Christian tradition, and particularly in John, who uses it more than anyone. Its meanings are complex and varied and seemingly contradictory. The lexicon gives it no less than eight definitions.
Today we hear from Jesus that God loves the world. But John tells us in another place “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” And, “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This is confusing. We’ve just heard that the Father loves the world, but now we hear if we love the world we do not love the Father?

And anyway, how can God love this world? In this world, children are abused. In this world, men crash airplanes into skyscrapers. In this world, we drop nuclear bombs. The ruler of this world is the devil. We see this wickedness all around us and we don’t love it.

At the root of all these evils is our passions. St. Isaac the Syrian writes that “The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world.” The passions, you know, are like greed and sloth, lust and vainglory, envy and resentment, and so on. So, when we say that God loves the world are we saying that he loves these things? That he loves the passions and the horrors that impassioned people carry out? God forbid the thought. The word “world” carries many senses. And we must carefully consider what is meant. 

Jesus is not of the world but is above the world (John 8:23). He creates the world and yet becomes of the world to save the world. We are taught both to love the world and to hate our lives in the world (John 12:25). The devil is the ruler of the world but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords. The world brings up these parallels and opposites. And only Jesus Christ and his cross can reconcile opposites. 

It’s like we have two worlds here. And I think that’s it really. We live in two worlds at the same time. There’s the world as God creates it and there is the fallen world, enslaved to sin. We must be aware of both worlds – both the cosmos and the chaos – both the way of life and the way of death.

God enters into the midst of both of these by becoming man. By his humanity, he saves, redeems, glorifies, and brings us humans into unity with God - us and also the cosmos. By his incarnation, Christ is cosmically present to the universe. And the whole universe stands in need of his salvific presence, because the whole universe is disordered and suffering from destruction and death of many kinds.

Death is what we’re being saved from. God gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Death is an evil. Some of us are accustomed to thinking about moral evil only and we forget about physical evil. We fail to understand physical evil as evil. We even call it good.

And it has been made good in Christ and in his cross. But we must not forget that this is a paradox, lest we forget all our Lord has done for us. In Christ, all things are new. In Christ, death becomes the means of life, because in him, life goes into the place of the dead, into Hades, so that there is nowhere God is not. God is even where God is not.

God is impassible, yet in his humanity he suffers the passion. God is immortal, yet in his humanity he dies. God creates the cosmos, yet in his humanity he is created in the cosmos. God loves the world.

The world is the whole cosmos that God creates. Yet the world is also the passions, the sins, the suffering, and the death. So it gets convoluted sometimes when we’re talking about the world. We see the passions and the weakness, the suffering and the death, all of which is evil, and it gets hard to see what’s good about the world. 

All of this is reconciled only in the cross. We exalt the cross when we say that we love the world. When we say that God loves the world – that can only make any sense in the context of exalting the cross. God is making the sign of the cross over the whole world. He is blessing us with the cross.

The cross unifies opposites. There’s a vertical bar and there’s a horizontal bar, intersected. The divine intersects the human, in Jesus Christ. Heaven comes down to earth. Life enters into death. Unified, death becomes the way to life through resurrection. The cross is the cosmos as it really is. All of it, in all of its senses, unified.  Opposites are made one in the cross, this wonderful and holy sign. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Retroactive Holiness

My favorite icon is called the Virgin of the Sign. In Byzantine churches, it belongs on the eastern wall behind the holy table. It depicts Mary, the Theotokos, with her arms in a posture of prayer and with the Christ child - Emmanuel - within her womb, giving us his blessing.

I am a painter. My wife and I both have degrees in art and studied iconography for a couple of years under an experienced orthodox nun. Being a painter and being deeply in love with this icon - the Virgin of the Sign – I made a painting inspired by it. I suppose I am not allowed to call it an icon per se because it is an innovation and innovation is rarely permissible in iconography. So let’s call it a painting inspired by iconography.

It depicts the Virgin of the Sign - just as you see her with Christ within her - within the womb of her mother Anna. Christ within Mary within Anna. And Anna’s arms are also in a posture of prayer. Anna did indeed pray to have a child and thank God she did. Without Anna, we have no Mary and without Mary, we have no Jesus, no incarnate God, no salvation. I called this painting Theotokotokos - the bearer of the God-Bearer. She who bears within herself the one who bears God within herself.

One day, several years after I painted this image, a friend of mine saw it for the first time. He did not care for it at all. It was one thing to venerate Mary, the Theotokos, he thought, but this veneration of Anna could too easily spark a retroactive perception of holiness upon all the ancestors of Christ many of whom were not, in his view, so holy after all.

This friend of mine had been a Protestant. Though, by the time he was looking at my painting, he had been received into the Catholic Church. He had, I'm sure, as most Protestant converts to Catholicism do, struggled with the Catholic veneration of Mary and her role in our salvation. But he’d gotten to a point of accepting her. However, now witnessing my veneration of Anna put him a bit over the edge again I think.

Well, today's feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos is an opportunity for us to remember not only the role of Mary in our salvation but even the role of her mother Anna. There is among some Native Americans a custom of observing the birthday of a child by giving gifts – not to the child – but to the mother. Maybe this makes more sense than our custom. It is the mother who has done something worthy of thanks and praise when a child is born. Today, Mary is born and we give some thanks and praise also to her mother Anna.

I am not worried about introducing retroactive holiness. I think, rather, that may be a point of the Incarnation. Not the sanctification only of a select few, but the sanctification of all created things and beings in Christ. This Feast is a wonderful opportunity for us to behold the interconnection of all created things. It is easy to see the connection between Anna and Mary and Jesus and our salvation. Each leads to the other.

But God works inside everything, even when it is not so easy to see. He is with us always. By entering into human history at one particular point in one particular woman, whose nativity we celebrate today, he becomes the result of all human history before him and the cause of all human history after him, except for our sin. He becomes like us in all things but sin. In his humanity, God is with us in every moment and in every place because every moment and every place in creation is interconnected. This reminds me of what the mathematician Edward Lorenz called the Butterfly Effect, in which he observed that a metaphorical tornado is influenced in all its details by minor perturbations – even the flapping wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Everything is interconnected.

God does not will our sin, ever. But, even when we sin, God brings good out of the evil we have done. Even his own conception he makes dependent on a whole genealogy of conceptions all the way back to Adam. And many of these conceptions were sinful or adulterous. That of Solomon, for example.

The Troparion of the Prefeast yesterday speaks of this and says that "Today is born to us, from the root of Jesse and the loins of David, Mary, the godly child. Therefore, all creation rejoices and is renewed." It is through Solomon that Jesus descends from David and Solomon is the fruit of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Thank God, David repents and is forgiven by the Lord. And God takes the evil that he had done and through it, ultimately, becomes man so that we together with David can become one with God.

I do not fear or oppose retroactive holiness. In fact, I hope and pray for it. Today, we sing in the Kontakion that, by the holy birth of the immaculate one, even Adam and Eve are freed from the corruption of death. And the people are delivered from the guilt of their sins. So holiness has indeed spread all the way to the beginning. May it also progress all the way until the end. In Christ, it has, it is, and it will. The whole universe rejoices today.

God makes us – just as much as he makes Adam and Eve. And he makes us – who are not holy because of our sins – to become holy by his grace if we will but cooperate with him and repent like David. He make us holy by becoming one of us – through Mary, through Anna and even through Bathsheba and through Eve. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Practice the Preaching

A Pharisee – a lawyer – asks Jesus to tell him the greatest commandment.

This is meant as a test or – the word also means – a temptation. Little does the Pharisee know that he is testing the Lord his God. Jesus is Lord. And, by testing him, the lawyer is breaking the law in ignorance: “You shall not test the Lord your God,” it says in the law,[i] but that is not the greatest commandment. And so Jesus does not point this out, as he did to the devil in the desert, who also tested him.[ii]

Jesus is patient with these Pharisees. This is the fourth and final time they test him in the gospel of Matthew. He answers their questions. The questions are good, even if the motive behind them is not. Jesus tells us later to “practice and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell [us], but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.”[iii] (This distinction is also worth remembering in our own day about some who preach Christ.) It is for their hypocrisy and not for their teachings that Jesus denounces the Pharisees.

A rabbi once came to our seminary in Pittsburgh to give a presentation. During the Q and A, a member of the staff asked the rabbi what he thought of Jesus. And the rabbi shocked all by saying, “Jesus was a Pharisee.”

We are so used to hearing the name of Pharisee associated with all that is evil that this idea could sound blasphemous. If you look up the word ‘pharisaic” in the dictionary, it says “hypocritically pious.” And Jesus is most certainly not this, but that isn’t what the rabbi meant.

The rabbi meant that if you study first-century Judaism and compare the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of the various Jewish factions, you will find that Jesus agrees more with the Pharisees than with the other groups.

For example, Jesus accepts the prophets as well as the law as from God – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, who hold that only the law – that is, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – only these books and no others – are scripture inspired by God and binding upon the people of God. So dispute about the canon is nothing new. In our day, we have Protestants denying the inspiration of certain books of Scripture. In Jesus’ day, it was the same – though of course about different books.

And Jesus teaches the coming resurrection of the dead – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,”[iv] because it is not as clearly and directly described in the Torah as it is in the prophets and later writings – though Jesus does point out that even a proper understanding of Torah reveals the resurrection.[v]

And finally, Jesus knows which is the greatest commandment of the law – so do the Pharisees. They agree about this. The lawyer is asking Jesus a question to which he already knows the answer – an old lawyerly trick.

The greatest commandment is “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”[vi] The Pharisees know this - because this, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the Shema, the principal words of the law, found in Deuteronomy:

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”[vii]

These words from Deuteronomy are among those contained in the Pharisees’ phylacteries. A phylactery is a little leather box containing a scroll with these words – the Shema. They literally bind these to their foreheads and to their arms when they pray. You may remember how Jesus later criticizes how the Pharisees make their phylacteries broad, so as to be seen by men,[viii] rather than so as to always remember this greatest commandment, which is their true purpose. 

So this commandment is certainly not new to the Pharisees. They have heard it and prayed it daily since they were children. Jesus did not fail the Pharisees’ test. He knows the answer as well as them.

But he doesn’t stop there with the rote answer. Rather, he reveals something more about how it must be lived. He draws a correspondence between this great commandment and a second commandment, from Leviticus. “A second is like it,” he says. And that is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Some had noticed before that there is a verbal correspondence between these two commandments that joins them: each begins “you shall love.…”  Of course, they have more in common than that. Jesus is making a very striking point about these two commandments. Loving our neighbors is like loving God because God has made humans like God. In his image and likeness he has made us.

Sometimes, during the Divine Liturgy, the reality of God’s presence in us becomes strikingly apparent. For one example, there are prayers prescribed for the priest and deacon to say quietly before the holy doors before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. At a certain point, the rubrics say that the priest and the deacon are to bow to the faithful. While they bow, they are praying part of Psalm 5: “I will bow down before your holy temple in awe.” 

Notice this. The rubric says to bow to the people, and the text says we are bowing to the temple. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?”[ix] Therefore, how can we love God if we do not love one another - when God dwells in our neighbors?

For another example, at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the deacon censes all the icons of the church. Toward the end of this great incensation, he censes the people. It has occurred to me that this is not something separate from the incensation of the icons. Rather, it continues the incensation of the icons, because you all are also icons of God. An icon is an image, and God has made you in his image.

The image of God in us is indestructible. No sin can destroy it. It is who we are in our very being. We are in his image, but we are after his likeness. Some have suggested that we lose our likeness to God through our sin. But Jesus restores our likeness. In him, we can again become like God. Because he has identified himself with us. He, who is the Lord, has become man.

Jesus reveals this when he teaches the Pharisees something more about the Messiah – about himself – by interpreting David’s Psalm messianically. The Messiah is the one who sits at the right hand of the Lord, and Christ points out that the one who sits at the right of the Lord is also the Lord: “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” So he who is truly our Lord and God has become the messiah of Jews and the savior of all humanity.

Though it was always true, now in Christ it is fully revealed, that we must love our neighbor if we are to love God, because, in Christ, God is become our neighbor. Many of the Pharisees were failing to love their neighbors, neglecting “justice and mercy and faith”[x] and so, Jesus reveals, they were not really loving God after all. So let us follow the teaching of the Pharisees to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, but let us not fail as they fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Let us be doers of the word and not hearers only.”[xi]

[i] Deut 6:16; cf. Matt 4:7; Luke 4:12
[ii] Matt 4:1,7
[iii] Matt 23:3
[iv] Matt 22:23
[v] Matt 22:31-32
[vi] Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37
[vii] Deut 6:4-9
[viii] Matt 23:5
[ix] 1 Cor 3:16
[x] Matt 23:23
[xi] James 1:22

Most Popular Posts this Month

Most Popular Posts of All Time