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!

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