Sunday, December 24, 2017

God is with us.

Our Lord and God Jesus, for whom and by whom all things exist – through whom the Father brings us out of nonexistence into being – is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He partakes of our nature. He has a full share of our flesh and blood – just the way it is, even in that it is subjected to death. Through our fear of this death, we have been enslaved to our passions and sins our whole life long. So, he becomes like us even in this mortality so as to free us from our enslavement. (Heb 2:10,11,14). If we are in Christ, we no longer fear death.

Ancestors of Christ
ink, paint and gold on parchment
by Priest T'oros, Armenia, between 1262 and 1266

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ – the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew – profoundly underscores the extent to which Jesus Christ identifies himself with us – even with our weakness and enslavement. Behold the type of ancestors through whom he becomes a man. There are many great saints in his genealogy but also many great sinners. And many great saints who were also great sinners. 

He takes the form of a slave – of a man doomed to die. The one who makes man in his likeness is born in the likeness of man – and not some deathless prelapsarian man – but one who suffers the effects of our sins and even one who dies – “a slave… obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8). He is the new Adam, subjecting himself to the world as we’ve made it and thereby making it all anew. He is not the old Adam before his fall. Paul goes so far as to say that he becomes sin for us. "For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

St. Ambrose writes that he who takes on the sins of all was born in the flesh, was subject to wrongs and pain, and he did not refuse the further humiliation of a sinful parentage – because this did not detract from his holiness in any way. Now, it should not shame us – the Church – to be gathered from among sinners, because the Lord himself was born of sinners. The benefits of redemption in the Lord begin with his own forefathers. Let none imagine that a stain in the blood is any hindrance to virtue, nor again any pride themselves insolently on nobility of birth (paraphrased).

How clear Matthew makes this for us today – with his survey of Jesus Christ's ancestors on this Sunday of his Holy Fathers, so many of whom show forth for us what it is to be mortal, impassioned, corruptible, and sinful, even as they also exemplify for us what it is to be faithful and hopeful, repentant and righteous.

Jerome points out that many holy ones are passed over in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus while many “taken into the Savior's genealogy [are] such as Scripture has condemned, that He who came for sinners being born of sinners might so put away the sins of all.”
Take, for example, Judah and Tamar. St. John Chrysostom points out their sin of incest but to my mind, that’s like the tip of the iceberg. Read their story in Genesis 38, to see what I’m talking about. Only, maybe don't read it to your children. To incest may be added the sins of injustice, deception, and harlotry. These are the ancestors of Jesus Christ.

And then there is David – one of the primary ancestors to whom – as to Abraham – the Lord made promises that are finally and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet, even this great and all-important ancestor was also great at sinning, just like us.

"David begat Solomon with a woman with whom he had committed adultery," says John Chrysostom. To adultery may be added the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.
It’s interesting that Bathsheba is not named in Matthew’s genealogy, while other women like Tamar are. One of the fathers suggests that this is because of her great sin, but great sin doesn’t exclude others from this list, so I disagree. In any case, I see Bathsheba as much less of a sinner, but rather the victim of David’s great sins. That’s how the text reads to me (2 Sam 11).

Notice too that not only are sinners mentioned here but also specifically sinners whose sins resulted in the conception of the ancestors of Christ. Sinful actions themselves result ultimately in the conception of Christ.

This is how God works. He turns all things around to the good. He works through us when we strive for the good and also even when we vainly strive against the good. He brings greater good out of good – and even good out of evil – and even the greatest good out of the greatest evil. Incarnation out of adultery and incest. Resurrection out of crucifixion.

If we could all see our own complete genealogies, I am sure we would all find many examples of great holiness and virtue, but I’m also quite sure we would all soon discover that somewhere along the line, all of our own conceptions – like that of Jesus Christ – are the result of others’ sins. Yet, despite any sin, every conception itself is holy. And no stain in the blood hinders virtue, as Ambrose says. Every conception is an act of God, despite any human or even sinful actions that led to it. God does his work amongst us as we are. God is with us. He overshadows us. He overcomes us. He overcomes any bad intentions with his great holiness. He even becomes us – a man like us in all things but sin.

As a man, Jesus Christ is generated in the same way that we are all generated – with an ancestry and a genealogy. Behold this mystery: Isaiah prophesies, "Who shall declare his generation?" Such cannot be declared of God because God has no beginning. The Divine Messiah, the Son of God who is God, the suffering servant of the Lord is not generated in his divinity. So what is Matthew doing beginning his gospel with the book of the generation of Jesus Christ? St. Jerome says that Isaiah shows that there is no generation of the divine nature but that St. Matthew declares rather the generation of his human nature. God is incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has ancestors and Matthew declares his generation.

Now, as a man and through all his ancestors, God is with us!

Jesus Christ is flesh and blood. He’s not a phantasm. The notion that he might be is not so popular in our day and age as it was during the early centuries of the Church when many denied the reality of Christ’s human nature. But still, we encounter a kind of soft-Docetism when we hear people speak dismissively of Christ's faithfulness and holiness and sinlessness and miracle-working saying, "Well, of course, Jesus can do these things – he's God."

It’s true that Jesus is God. Yet, it is also true that Jesus is Man. We must not pretend to have mastered this mystery, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to speak knowingly of the ineffable, to conceive the inconceivable, to fully grasp the paradox of the incarnation. We must not thus cheapen it – subjecting God and His workings to our own understanding – as if his being were subject to us and not beyond us.

Jesus Christ is fully human. The goodness of his humanity is fully human. He shows forth and makes possible the possibility of us being good and true and beautiful in him. We must not say, "Oh, goodness is for Jesus but not for me – I cannot be held to his standard, he is God and I am not." We must not say this because what he is by nature – divine – we are to become by grace. Our theosis is the whole point of his incarnation. He partakes of our human nature so that we may become partakers of his divine nature (Heb 2:14; 2 Peter 1:4).

He became like us just as we are in all things but sin, and, even though he is no sinner, he became even sin. He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning (Heb 4:15). No matter what depravity we have sunk to, we are not without hope in Christ. If we have hit bottom, he will lift us up. Even if we have died, in him we will rise again. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Faith and Thanksgiving

When a leper under the Mosaic covenant is healed of his leprosy, he is to go and show himself to the priest, who is to examine him and certify that he is indeed free of leprosy, so that he can perform the required rituals and sacrifices at the time of his cleansing (Lev. 14).

Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover, 2013
Today, ten lepers lift up their voices and shout to Jesus from a distance, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" (Luke 17:13). We can identify with the lepers at this point, I think. Wounded and broken, we cry out to the Lord from a distance, repeating these same words again and again in our Liturgy: ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς – have mercy on us. Well, Jesus does not respond by simply healing them – even though that’s what he has done in the past.

This isn’t the first time that Jesus heals a leper. Once, when a leper begged of him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” Jesus simply stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will; be clean,” and immediately the leprosy left him (Luke 5:12-14).

This time, however, he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Remember, that's what you’re supposed to do after you've been healed of leprosy. By rights or at least expectations, Jesus ought to have healed them and then sent them to show themselves to the priests. But that's not what he does. He just sends them to the priests, without so much as mentioning – except by implication – that they're going to be healed at all. As St Cyril of Alexandria says, "He commanded them to go as being already healed" – though they were not already healed.

Remarkably, all ten lepers – to a man – step out in faith and obey Jesus's instruction. And as they go, they are cleansed (Luke 17:14). They believe first and obey Jesus's command and then, while doing so, they are healed. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). They acted as if they had been healed – they were doing what healed people do – in obedience to Jesus Christ, and in doing so, they were I healed.

All ten of these lepers had faith – remarkable faith – and it is their faith that made them well (cf. Luke 17:19). More than seven times in the gospels, Jesus says to those whom he has healed, ““Your faith has saved you.” Or “made you well.” Or “made you whole.” Faith is key to our healing. But, what happens next shows us that faith alone is not enough to please the Lord.

One and only one of the lepers who were healed by Jesus returns to him, falls on his face, and gives him thanks (17:16). Jesus, exasperated at seeing only one-tenth of the gratitude that he should see, says, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?" (17:17). Now, if only one-tenth of the Church offers thanksgiving to the Lord, we will exasperate him again. It's clear that each of us should be like the tenth leper, and not like the other nine who offer no expression of gratitude.

Our Holy Father Athanasius says, "You recall that [Jesus] loved the one who was thankful, but he was angry with the ungrateful ones because they did not acknowledge their deliverer. They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who had healed them" (Festal Letter, 6).

These are like those who offer prayers to God only when they need or want something – who regard God as a sort of divine problem solver whose primary role is to make us happy. These are like those unconcerned with pleasing the Lord and concerned only with being pleased by the Lord. And they outnumber the grateful ten to one.

Maybe they have faith – certainly they do (of a kind) – but faith alone is not enough. It is also necessary to give thanks. How often we forget to give thanks.

As a sign of how rare it is, note that at no other time, in any of the healings recorded in any of the gospels does the healed person offer thanksgiving to Jesus. Others at other times give glory to God, but only this cleansed Samaritan leper glorifies God and then offers thanks.

Scripturally speaking, this thanksgiving is a potent thing. In all but a couple of instances in the New Testament, thanks is addressed to God – and not to humans. So when this healed leper glorifies God and thanks Jesus, I think he is acknowledging that this man who cured him is also the very God who created him.

But he was the only one of the ten to do so. Ingratitude is a common bad attitude – from that day to this. How often the saints among us go unthanked for their many good deeds. Nine out of ten times, you might say. Thanksgiving is what makes this particular healing story so worthy of our proclamation, our meditation, and our imitation.  

Because when Jesus sees our faith, he not only heals us but also saves us and forgives us of our sins (Mark 2:5), which are the cause of all the suffering and death in the world. But take note: this time, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” to only one of the ten he has healed. Among the ten, only this one received in full the mercy for which they all cried out because this one alone thanked him.

The kind of faithfulness that saves us is no mere intellectual assent to a proposition, no mere belief or true opinion that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, as important as that is. All ten believed the Lord could heal them. But only one returned to thank him. And only that one was accounted truly faithful.

So, we must remember to be grateful. It can be hard in the midst of our sufferings to be grateful for the many blessing the Lord bestows upon us each day and is bestowing on us even now and in eternity.

But, He is giving us life and giving it to us abundantly, even when it doesn’t feel like it (John 10:10). Let us thank him. 

He blesses us with loved ones, our families, our neighbors, and our friends. Let us remember to thank him.

He gives us himself in the holy mysteries of our Church. Let us not forget to thank him.

Having offered him many prayers of thanksgiving every day of our lives, let us then also often come together to offer him the most perfect thanksgiving we can muster – the holy eucharist. The word for thanksgiving is εὐχαριστω – that is, eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving. Because the Son of God “took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his holy disciples and apostles” (Luke 22:19).

Thanksgiving not only expresses a feeling of gratitude but also places us in proper relationship to God, in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). And the supreme way of offering thanks is the eucharist, in which we partake for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Every conception is an act of God.

Who are the mother and the brethren of the Lord Jesus? Those who hear the word of God and keep it are his mother and his brethren, says the Lord (Luke 8:21). Foremost among these is the Theotokos. She is the one who hears the word of God and keeps it.

Witness: the angel Gabriel comes from God with God's message that Mary the virgin will conceive in her womb Jesus the Son of God. And Mary says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She hears the word of God and keeps it. She receives the word of God into her own body and gives him flesh. The word – who was in the beginning and who was with God and who was God – was made flesh in her womb and dwelt among us. She who is uniquely the Theotokos hears the word of God and keeps it in a unique way. And so she is uniquely the mother of the Lord.

Today, we reflect that even before she became the mother of the Lord by hearing his word and keeping it, she was the daughter of the Lord. Before she was Theotokos, she was θεόπαις. Before she conceives God in her womb, she is conceived in the womb of her mother Anna in the natural way by the seed of her father Joachim – yet also miraculously and by the hand of God.

“Today the whole world celebrates how Anna becomes a mother by the power of God. She conceived the woman whose conception of the Word is beyond our words” (Kontakion of the feast).

The truth is, every conception is an act of God. I find it just a little irksome when I hear new mothers and fathers say things like, "Look what we made!" about their newborn babies. Better, I think, is what Eve says after she conceives and bears her first child, "I have gotten a man from the Lord" (Genesis 4:1). The Lord is the author of every human life. Our children do not belong to us. They belong to the Lord.

But sometimes the Lord really underscores the fact of his essential and central role in every conception. This is never more evident than in the case of the conception of Jesus in the virginal womb of his mother Mary. There has only ever been one virgin birth. God only ever became man in the womb of one woman.

But there were many miraculous conceptions before this – pointing to it and preparing for it – and none of them is more significant than the conception of Mary by the holy and righteous Anna, which we celebrate today.

God alone creates his own mother. As a son, in his humanity, Jesus is obedient to the command of the Lord to honor his mother and his father, yet he alone can and does honor his mother even in his divinity.  Among other ways, he honors his mother by the extraordinary circumstances of her conception.

Anna was barren and older and had lived in marriage with her husband Joachim for 20 years without conceiving any child. “They prayed to God with their whole heart” for deliverance from “the anguish of childlessness” and for the “fruit of the womb.” They promised, if heard and remembered by the Lord, to “offer the child as a sacred gift” to the Lord in his Temple (Ikos of the feast). Then, the same angel that would later reveal to Mary that she was to bear God in her womb – Gabriel – appears to both Joachim and Anna separately and tells them both that in answer to their prayers, a daughter will be born to them.

In some ways, this is a familiar story for which there are several prototypes in the Old Testament. One of them concerns another Anna – also called Hannah – whose feast day, not merely coincidentally, is also today. She, too, dwelt a long time in marriage – to her husband Elkanah – but was childless. Her womb was closed and this greatly grieved her. So with deep distress and bitter tears she prayed to the Lord and vowed to him that if the Lord would give her a son then she would give him to the Lord all the days of his life (1 Samuel 1:10-11). And the Lord did remember her and she conceived and bore a son and called his name Samuel, saying, "I have asked him of the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:19-20).

Another example is the conception of Isaac in the womb of Sarah in her extreme old age. I think of Sarah and Hannah and Anna and Elizabeth whenever an older couple receives the mystery of crowning. Our Byzantine wedding service is filled with prayers for the conception of children, which can feel a little awkward if the bride and groom are no longer in their childbearing years. Sometimes, hearing these prayers, people will laugh like Sarah laughed at the notion of such a conception. But we can always remember – there are precedents. All children are conceived by the power of the Lord, and nothing is impossible for the Lord.

The many miraculous conceptions in the Old and New Testaments set apart the ones thus conceived for the Lord's purposes.  Each of these miraculous conceptions indicates a person who has been given to God's people and not only to their own mother and father. Isaac, son of Sarah, is a patriarch through whom the Lord fulfills his covenant with Abraham. Samuel, son of Hannah, is the prophet who anoints David King of Israel – David from whom Joseph and Mary and Jesus, the King of Glory, are descended. And Mary, daughter of Anna and handmaid of the Lord, is the Theotokos.

Mary is the holy mountain planted in the womb of Anna; she is the divine ladder there set up; the throne of the great king made ready; the city into which God will enter; and the unburnable bush beginning to bud forth (Sticherion of the feast). So, let us glorify Anna in faith – the mother of the mother of God and the bearer of the Theotokos, the ground upon which is built the living temple of the Lord.   

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 to learn that our lectionary has no readings particularly associated with the coming feast of the Nativity - 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, it is traditional to intensify our fasting around this time - either on December 10th or December 20th). So, there's always about a full month of the Nativity Fast - and that's the majority of the fast - during which our lectionary makes no direct mention of the Nativity.

There are some liturgical changes that occur. For example, starting on November 21st, we sing the katavasiai from the Canon of the Birth of the Lord at Matins. There are also 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 lectionary, as I say, makes no direct mention of the particular reason we are doing this in this season. The changes that do occur in our liturgical life often 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 draws on the lectionary of the Maronite Church for inspiration because, as I say, the Byzantine lectionary 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, which includes readings chosen for their relevance to the coming Nativity of the Lord. 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.  

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