Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Time of Silence about the Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

It may surprise some of you to learn that our liturgical texts make no mention of the coming feast of the Nativity at all - until the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, which, at the earliest, can fall on December 11th. This year, it falls on December 17th - its latest possible date. (By the way, for some, it is traditional to intensify their fasting around this time). So, there's always about a full month of the Nativity Fast - and that's the majority of the fast - during which the Liturgy makes no special mention of the Nativity.

Now, there are some liturgical changes that do occur. Mainly, there are throughout this season occasional Days of Alleluia. These are particularly penitential days during which the Divine Liturgy may not be celebrated and the other services become longer and more penitential, with prostrations, the beautiful and convicting Prayer of Saint Ephrem, and other features you would expect, actually, from a liturgical service during the Great Fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Brothers and sisters, we are going to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1Th 4:13-15).

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fire and Brimstone

I don't do a lot of fire and brimstone preaching. For one thing, it seems to me that such preaching is often born of a hypocritical hope for the damnation of one's enemies. We are not to hope for the damnation of anyone. Rather, we are to become ever more like God, who does not desire the death of sinners but rather that they repent and live (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). Life is salvation and it is death that we are saved from (cf. Rom 6:23). Like God, let us desire life for all the sinners – our friends and strangers, our enemies and ourselves.

Nonetheless, Jesus does use the image of flame, for example, to describe the anguish and torment of the rich man in Hades after he dies (Luke 16:24). So, the fire and brimstone preaching comes from somewhere. But let's look at the whole context surrounding this image. Listen to the conversation between the rich man and Abraham.

The rich man, tormented in Hades, sees Abraham far off and calls out to him, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me..., for I am in anguish in this flame" (Luke 16:24). And Abraham answers him. First of all, he calls him "son" (16:25). I think it's worthy of note that Abraham still thinks of the rich man as his son, despite all his waste and neglect of the poor beggar Lazarus.

A great deal is often made of the fact that the rich man has no name. We know the name of Lazarus (Luke 16:20). But not the name of the rich man. (Sometimes you hear the rich man named Dives, but this is simply the Latin word for "rich man" and comes from the Vulgate - the Latin Bible). So, in the context of this parable, the fact that the rich man is unnamed in contrast to Lazarus is seen as meaningful, especially in light of what Jesus says in another place to those who do not do the will of his father in heaven. He says he will declare to them, "I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers" (Matt 7:23). The rich man spends his life in evil neglect of Lazarus who suffers just outside his gates (Luke 16:19-20, 25). Therefore, this reasoning goes, the rich man is unknown to the Lord – and that's why we do not learn his name. We know the name of Lazarus because he is carried by angels to Abraham's bosom. He is received by the Lord and known by the Lord, which is indicated by the giving of his name.

But this meaning of the rich man's anonymity must be held in tension, I think, with the fact that Abraham calls him "son." The rich man, despite his evil-doing, is not so cut off as to have lost all relationship. Somehow, Abraham is still his father and he is still Abraham's son.

Now, certainly, this is not all that Abraham has to say. All the rich man was begging for was a drop of water from the end of Lazarus’s finger to cool his tongue (16:24). He didn't say, “Get me out of here!” He didn't beg to be delivered from the flame that tormented him. He only begged for a droplet of water. Surely this would not be too much to ask. But it would be a good thing – very like the scraps that fell from the rich man's table, which he denied to Lazarus who desired them (16:21). So Abraham must remind the rich man that he has already received his good things and must inform him of the great chasm between them over which none may cross (16:25-26). So Abraham speaks the truth even though it is a hard truth, but he speaks the truth in love – not in vindictiveness. Remember, he calls the rich man his son.

So, yes, we must issue the warning of the real possibility of damnation and fire, but, like Abraham, we must issue this warning out of love and truth, not out of some secret desire to cause the wicked to suffer. Very much to the contrary, Abraham doesn't want the rich man to suffer but rather reveals to the rich man how he is simply suffering the result of his own actions (16:25). The rich man put himself where he is. Maybe he made himself nameless to the Lord.

But, in the context of all the parables, what's more striking about this parable is not that the rich man is unnamed but that Lazarus is named. In every other parable, the characters go unnamed. Their names are unnecessary to make the point of the parable, and so they’re not given. Bearing that in mind, the anonymity of the rich man may not be as meaningful as is sometimes suggested.

So unusual is this naming of a character in a parable that some have suggested that it indicates that, at least in part, this story is not a parable at all, but a true story. The rich man, they say, may be Herod. He was clothed in purple, which indicates him as connected to the state and possibly a king (16:19). Furthermore, he later says that he has five brothers, who stand in need of warning (16:28). Herod also had five brothers. So, I don't know, maybe – but, true story or parable, Jesus tells it to teach us about how to live and how to live forever.

This is the only parable that names a character, and so the meaning of that name may be more significant than the meaning of the rich man's namelessness. St. Jerome says that the name Lazarus means “one who has been helped” because Lazarus “is not a helper but one who has been helped. He was a poor man and, in his poverty, the Lord came to his assistance.”[1]

Another significance of the name Lazarus is that it also belongs to a friend of Jesus who dies and who Jesus raises from the dead, according to the Gospel of John (11:1-44). So, in both biblical cases, Lazarus dies and is helped by the Lord. Both stories are for us important reflections about death – about what happens to us after we die.

What does happen when we die? What happens at the end – at the end of all things?
These are important questions. Maybe some of the most important questions. When studied deeply, I think the parable of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t so much provide concrete answers as invite contemplation of the mystery of death – so that we might prepare ourselves for it.

First of all, by not only taking the opportunities that come our way but also by seeking out opportunities to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned (cf. Matt 25:31-46). The rich man is given these opportunities by the presence of Lazarus at his gate, and he squanders them. The only misery Lazarus seems to not suffer is imprisonment. But his situation may have been better in prison than lying at the gate of this rich man. Prison would have at least kept out the dogs (Luke 16:21). Anyway, even the dogs were treating him better than the rich man was.

Do not live like the rich man. He stands before us as a warning. But show compassion to all others, whether just or unjust, even as Abraham addresses even the rich man with the warmth of the name, ‘son,’ do not cut off from hope and loving solicitude even those who cut off themselves. Maybe, if we speak the truth in love to them (Eph 4:15), rather than cursing them to hell, they will be stirred to repentance and join us in paradise.

[1] Jerome, “On Lazarus and Dives,” in Luke, ed. Arthur Just Jr. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003), 261.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Holy Dirt

Twelve hundred and thirty years ago, our fathers gathered in the town of Nicaea for what would become the seventh ecumenical council (Nicaea II), which is especially remembered for its defense of the holy icons against the iconoclasts – or image-breakers.

There are those even today who will not kiss and venerate the holy icons saying, "Well, they're just wood and paint," or, even more scandalously, some fail to “distinguish the holy from the profane” and they assert “that the icons of our Lord and of his saints [are] no different from the wooden images of satanic idols.”[1] To these, I say, remember what the seventh ecumenical council teaches us.

It is amazing to me that, though twelve hundred and thirty years have passed since this council, we still hear iconoclastic statements exactly like this. Iconoclasm is alive and well among us – not only among Protestants and Muslims but even among some Catholics who refuse to venerate the icons and strip the churches of their holy images. So, let us listen again to the teachings of the fathers of this council. 

The more frequently [we see] the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy Theotokos, and of the revered angels, and of any of the saintly holy men…, the more [we] are… drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models [that is, the prototypes – the holy ones themselves], and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration… which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but… people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. [Remember, already twelve hundred and thirty years ago, the veneration of icons was ancient in the churches. This goes back to the beginning of Christianity.] Indeed, the honor given to the icon passes to the prototype; and those who venerate the image, venerate the person represented in that image.[2]

So, rather than being iconoclasts, let us be iconodules. Let us venerate the holy images and let those of us who are able make many more holy images, even as there are some in the world trying to diminish their importance or even destroy them.

Now, I don't know how many of you have tried to make an icon with the traditional medium of egg tempera. It's a rewarding experience and can be a prayerful experience and I do recommend it. There's a kind of intimacy you can gain with the saint that you are painting, which comes simply from spending so much time before the image as you help to deepen and clarify it with layer after layer of the translucent medium.

To work with egg tempera you must mix the pigment with the emulsion – which is egg yolk – while you are painting. This is because the emulsion does not keep and so the paint will spoil if you don't use it the same day you make it. Anyway, working this way rather than with premixed liquid paints allows you to better see, touch, and smell the material you are working with. And it becomes clear that, for the most part, pigment is dirt. It is various kinds of earth. In fact, some of the pigments even have names like "pale green earth" for example.

photo from Linda Paul

So, when we paint an icon, we are making an image of a holy person out of dirt, out of dust, out of the ground, out of earth. How fitting! Remember, it is of this that we are actually made.

The holy images are made from earth – which is also what you and I and our loved ones are made of. The council says that the holy images may be “painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material,”[3] but all of this has the same source: the earth. And that’s what I’d like to focus on. 

My name is mud. Or, anyway, that's what Adam might have said. The name Adam in Hebrew most literally means “dust man.” Or sometimes you see him called clay or earth or mud. Because it is of this that we are made. We will all “return to the ground, for out of it [we] were taken; [we] are dust, and to dust [we] shall return” (Gen 3:19).

In his parable of the sower, our Lord teaches us in his parable about different kinds of ground (Luke 8:5-15). And he's talking about us – about different kinds of people. We different kinds of people are really different kinds of dirt, see? But you can do a lot with dirt. Remember the holy icons. This dirt that we are, like the holy icons, can become worthy of veneration - because we all receive the seed of the word in us. The spermatikos logos, as St. Justin Martyr puts it.

This is a familiar image. Remember again Adam. Adam – and, in Adam, all humanity – is earth with God breathed in. "The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Gen 2:7). The word of God speaks the earth into human life. So: earth + the word of God = human life. We see this in the account of the creation of humans in Genesis. And we see it again today in the parable of the sower as Jesus tells it. Only now the word is depicted as a seed in the earth.

Whether or not this seed takes root in us, gives life to us, depends on our receptiveness to it.  We must be like the good soil and hold the seed of the word of God "in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance." Humility is clearly part of being like good soil.
Humility is honest and good. Humility is truth. And, the truth is, we are dust. 

Remembering this – being mindful of our earthiness – is humility. The word itself contains this meaning. It comes from the Latin humilis, which literally means “on the ground,” from humus, meaning “earth.”  Another word likely comes from the same root as humus: human.  So, again, this is what we really are and humility lies in embracing that truth. To be humble is to be a human aware of your own humanness – which is really your own creatureliness. We, like all the earth, are created by our creator and exist in that relationship to him. We are not the creator. We do not author our own reality, whatever the world may say to the contrary. The humble know this.

The grace of recognizing our lowliness, earthiness, and creatureliness – the grace of humility – lifts us up from earth to heaven and helps us to grow in ever greater union with our creator.

All this talk of humans being made of dirt may have given you the impression that I am down on humans. But nothing could be further from the truth. Remember where we began - with the holy icons, themselves also made of earth. But these we kiss and venerate and love, just as we do the holy relics of our saints. We do not treat them with contempt, but with veneration. This has everything to do with the seed of the word planted in the earth of the human.

It is God that makes us holy and breathes life into us. It is his presence in the earth of our bodies that makes our bodies worthy of veneration. In the icons, this is well represented by the halo. The flesh is painted with common earth. But the halo is made of gold and represents the grace surrounding the holy men and women of God. It is grace that makes anyone holy and nothing else. Just to recognize humbly that you are soil will make you better soil to receive the seed of the word of God in you. Be of honest and good heart – be humble – remember who you are and who is God – and that will give life to you and make you whole and holy.

[1] Norman P. Tanner, ed., “Nicaea II,” in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London: Sheed & Ward, 1990), 1:134.
[2] Ibid, 136.
[3] Ibid, 136. 

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.

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