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.   

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