Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Mostly Water

A human body is mostly water.

The Flood of Noah
William de Brailes, circa 1250

Only after the whole face of the ground was watered by a mist or a flood did the Lord God form a man out of dust from the ground and breathe life into his nostrils so that he became a living soul (Gen 2:6-7). So there was water in the mix and not just dust when God made Adam, which is why some people say he was made out of mud. It's hard to shape dust into anything unless you add a little water.

After the Lord God made man and woman – the man out of the earth and the woman out of the man’s flesh – and gave them the breath of life, it seems he would walk with them in the garden (3:8).[i] It’s kind of interesting to note that the Hebrew word for walking here has many senses, and one of them is to flow like a river (halak, 2:14). This is interesting because so much of us is water and water plays a role in our creation, our recreation, and our being and walking with God.

The Lord God wants to walk with us, even though “he knows of what we are made, [and] he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 102/3: 14). He who breathes life into earth wants us – the sons of Adam and the children of dust – to walk with him. Cain walked away from him, which we are free to do, but it's not what God wants for us (4:16). He wants to be with us.

Not all the sons of Adam walked away from God. "Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (5:24). And "Noah walked with God" (6:9). I think somehow I missed that until this year. I knew better that Enoch walked with God, but Noah also walked with God. He is righteous and blameless and so the Lord guides his steps and the Lord does not forsake him but walks with him (Gen 6:9; Ps 36/7:23,25).

God wants us to walk with him like this – to "walk in the way of the good and [to] keep to the paths of the righteous" (Prov 2:20). He wants us to be with him. Walking together is a beautiful image of this. The other day, I walked with my youngest daughter to the park and she held my hand the whole way. Then, I stood by her as she swung and swung on the swings and ran all around. Then, she held my hand again the whole way home. We felt much closer to each other after this. The Lord wants to be closer to us – to walk with us in the cool of the day – simply to spend time with us, regardless of what we’re doing – to be with us – because he loves us as a father loves his child.

Much of the time we are obsessed with what we should do. There's the important question – and it is an important question: What does God want me to do? (Well, for starters, keep his commandments.) But I think ultimately even more important than the question of doing is the experience of being – just simply being with God. Walking with God is, I think, a good image of this. If we walk with God, he will order our steps, and we can worry less about what we need to do. We'll simply find we have done it – step by step as we walk with the Lord.

Yet, Noah was the only one in his generation to walk with God.

"Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth" (Gen 6:11-12).

How can the earth itself be violent and corrupt? Well, remember that we are dust. Our flesh is earth with life breathed in – and this gives us the power to bring violence upon the earth. In us and as us the earth becomes violent. The earth is filled with violence because our hearts, which are made of earth, are filled with violence.

The Lord therefore determined to "bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life" (6:17). It is remarkable and often missed that this is the second time that the Lord watered the whole face of the ground. The first time was, as I mentioned before, just before he created the first man (2:6). Before he forms earth into a human, he adds water.

Now, he is covering the whole face of the ground with water in order “to destroy all flesh.” Not only this, however, but also, in a way, to form a new human. This is a death, but it is also a resurrection – a kind of recreation of humanity. Because the Lord is not only destroying all flesh, he is also establishing his covenant with Noah (6:18). He preserves Noah and his family and two of every creature in the ark and he establishes a covenant with them that he will never again destroy the earth and all flesh with a flood.

I want you to remember another kind of death and resurrection we experience in the water: baptism. When we enter into this water, the mortal flesh of the old man is destroyed as all flesh was destroyed by the waters of the flood. When we rise up from this water, we are clothed with Christ and, even though we die, yet shall we live (John 7:25). Through this water, we are given a life that cannot be taken away, like all the descendents of Noah who can no longer be destroyed by a flood.

And the ark upon which we are delivered from the flood of the world is the Church.

[i] Adam and Eve recognized the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden (3:8, 10).

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Time Alone and Time with Others

My how we need each other! How dependent upon one another the Lord has made us!  The paralyzed man in the gospel needed his friends (Mark 2: 1-12). Through their help and because of their faith, he is forgiven and healed. 

True, we are ultimately dependent on the Lord for everything and we may rely on him to provide.

We are like helpless baby birds in a nest, unable to fly, waiting with mouths open, for our mother bird to bring us back the food that sustains us. She has left us for a time. And her absence may fill us with longing for her return. But we may hope for that return expectantly. And trust in it. And know that she is coming back and that she is bringing with her the stuff of life. And that when she comes, she will not only feed us but she will also teach us to fly.

Our Lord is like this mother bird. He does not fail us. When the Israelites were hungry in the desert, the Lord rained manna down upon them – bread from heaven. Let us never forget the care he shows for us – the good he gives us directly and personally.

We must keep a direct and personal relationship with God alive. In obedience to Jesus Christ and in imitation of him, we must go often into our room and close the door – or go away to lonely places to pray and be alone with God.

Yet, meanwhile, wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in the midst of them. And also, whatever we do for the least of his brethren – that we do for him.

Our real need for solitude with God does not exclude the importance of coming together – of praying together – or of attending to each other’s needs. The truth is, we need both time together and time alone. God is with us at all times. By his grace, let us come to know and experience his ever-present presence.

Saint Gregory Palamas Fresco 
in Saints Three Church in Kastoria
15th century
This tension between our need for solitude and our need for community has been lived out especially by monastics since the beginning. The earliest monastics were hermits and anchorites who dwelt alone in caves and huts in the desert and the wilderness. Yet, they were very soon organized into communities. Because, as St. Basil says, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?” There is a need to serve your brother and sister as well as a need for solitude to do battle in your own heart.

The holy Hesychasts strongly emphasize this need for solitude – but they do find a balance. Our holy father Gregory Palamas, who devoted much of his life to the defense of the holy Hesychasts, lived alone and practiced great askesis usually for five days out of the week, coming down to celebrate the Eucharist and to have fellowship with the brothers only on Saturday and Sunday and on great feast days.

In prayerful time alone with God, we can really experience God, who communicates himself to us in our whole being – spirit and body. As St. Gregory teaches us, God allows us really to experience himself in his energies   to see his uncreated light in our hearts. He gives us himself – reveals himself to us – not just a created thing like himself, but his own uncreated energies. Grace is not a thing God gives us but is really himself – his own life – life in the Spirit, and life in Christ – which he enables us to live.

Our real experience of God in solitary and silent prayer in no way excludes the experience of God we have through others. We need both. St. Gregory sees the Hesychasts’ experiences of God through their solitary practice of the Jesus prayer united to their breathing (which is one means, but not the only means toward experiencing God) as possible for them because of the grace of baptism, which is a holy mystery of the Church and only possible through others. God is always working through his people. 

So it is with the paralyzed man. God provides forgiveness and healing, and he does it through the intercession of the man’s friends. We are dependent on God for everything, but he has also made us dependent on each other.

Those of us who are healthy and strong in body sometimes pretend that we are independent individuals, but this paralytic does not have that option. He is able to do nothing with his body but lie upon his bed. He is dependent upon his friends, who feed him and wash him and clothe him while he waits for the Lord to come – like a helpless baby bird crying out for the return of the mother bird.

But in this case, the Lord waits for the friends of the paralyzed man to help him – and to go to great lengths – climbing onto a roof, dismantling it, and lowering their friend on his pallet before Jesus. Only then and under these circumstances, does Jesus forgive and heal the man. 

In this way, the Lord shows us that, as good and important as it is, solitary prayer alone is not enough. This isn’t a “Jesus-and-me” spirituality that he’s revealing to us. We also need the prayer, action, and intercession of others, just as the paralyzed man needed his friends. Because of their faith, Jesus forgives the man’s sins and heals his paralysis.  

The blessed Theophylact suggests that the Lord forgives and heals many not only on account of their faith but also on account of the faith of those who bring them to the Lord for healing.[i] The gospel says, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven.” It does not say, “when Jesus saw his faith” but “their faith.” It’s in the plural.

Think of this the next time someone asks you “Why can’t I just confess my sins to Jesus in prayer? Why do I need to go to a priest?” Jesus does want us to come to him alone in prayer, but he also made us to need each other. We are not individuals in division from one another with private pipelines to God. We are persons in relationship with one another with a communal connection to the Lord which is what we know as the Church.

The friends of the paralytic are like priests to him. They bring him to Jesus for forgiveness and healing. When we confess or when the priest anoints us, this is what happens. The priest lays us before Jesus for healing. We confess to Christ before His icon with the priest at our side – as a necessary witness to the confession. Because it is when Jesus sees our faith – not just the faith of one but the faith of more than one – that he says “your sins are forgiven.”

The paralytic’s useless body reveals his dependence on others  a dependence we all share spiritually, even if our bodies are strong. Spiritually, we are lost without others, without community, without the Church. Even the good and necessary experience of God we have when we are alone is made possible by the faith of others and the mysteries of the Church.

[i] Theophylactus, Bl. Theophylact's Explanation of the New Testament, trans. Christopher Stade, vol. 2, The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Mark (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 1993), 24.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Listen to Palamas

Our holy father Gregory Palamas is one reason I became a Byzantine Catholic. I wrote a paper about him when I was a student of Dr. Stephen Webb at Wabash College and I became convinced of his holiness and began to pray to him. I think he personally led me into an Eastern Church.

He is "the trumpet of theology" and "the unshakable pillar of the Church" - the one Church.

He is "the invincible support of devotion" and "the zealous defender of the faith" - the one faith.

He is "the teacher of the Church and the herald of the divine light." May the whole Church listen to his teaching because he is "immersed in the Trinity."  His voice is "always ready to teach" and his words are "inspired."

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Nodding in the Presence of the Lord

Kain – unstet und flüchtig
by Wilhelm Groß, 1956/57

"Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, east of Eden" (Genesis 4:16). “Nod” means wandering, so this means that Cain became a wanderer, just as the Lord had said he would (4:12). Note here that Cain had been in the presence of the Lord. Otherwise, how could he go away from it?

Cain was a sinner and a son of those cast out from the Garden of Eden, yet he had been in the presence of the Lord. It is interesting to note that the first time the word "sin" is used in Scripture, it is not used in reference to Adam and Eve – the oft-called original sinners – but to their son Cain. Before Cain sins, he is angry and jealous of his brother Abel, whose offering the Lord had accepted while rejecting the offering of Cain (4:4-5). Seeing this anger, the Lord says to Cain, "Sin is lurking at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it" (4:7). We would do well to remember this when we are angry.

The Psalmist says, "Be angry and do not sin," so the feeling of anger is not a sin (Ps 4:4). And, in fact, it has a good purpose. St Isaiah the Solitary writes, as recorded in the first text on the first page of the Philokalia, "Without anger, a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy." This is the right use of our anger – and our incensive power, as many fathers call it. Our anger is to be used against the demons and our evil thoughts and our own sins. The Psalmist says, "Be angry and do not sin; commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent" (4:4). You see, it is against the evil powers in our own hearts that we must be angry. If we are able to be silent and still and at peace, it is because we are waging war in our own hearts.

Our anger is useful but it is also dangerous. When we are angry, sin is lurking at the door – and also when we are hungry or lonely or tired or in any other way weakened. We must be watchful because these things will lead us into sin if we have no self-control – if we have not mastered our passions but they have mastered us.

Today, anger also leads Lamech into sin. A young man strikes him and vengefully he kills him for it (Gen 4:23). An unmastered anger blinds us to all justice and proportion and turns us into monsters.

Before Lamech, anger led Cain into sin, just as the Lord warned him it would if he did not master it, and he killed his own brother. Yet despite all this, note again that it was Cain who went away from the presence of the Lord. It was not the presence of the Lord that went away from Cain.

The Lord had cast his parents out of the Garden and away from the Tree of Life for breaking his commandment, but still the Lord was present to Cain. The Lord did not regard the offering of Cain, which Cain had offered only in the course of time rather than from the firstlings as did Abel[i], but still the Lord was present to Cain and spoke to him and warned him and told him how he was to avoid sin by mastering his anger. Even after Cain failed to do this and murdered his brother, the Lord continued to speak to him. He punished him,[ii] but he tempered his punishment and would not let Cain be killed for what he had done, even though this is what he deserved. In the end, it was Cain who went away from the presence of the Lord. It was not the presence of the Lord that went away from Cain.

Do not turn away from the presence of the Lord. No matter what sins you may have, turn to the Lord. That's what conversion means – to turn to the Lord. When you turn to him, you will find that he has not turned away from you.

[i] “Honor the Lord… with the first fruits of all your produce” (Prov 3:9).
[ii] “The Lord reproves him whom he loves” (Prov 3:12).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Seeing and Being Seen

A holy icon is an image. That's what the word icon means - image. And an image is something that you see. Today, Philip says to Nathanael, "Come and see" (John 1:46).

Come and see what? Well, come and see something good. Nathanael had asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Instead of answering this dismissive question, Philip says patiently, "Come and see." We know that the answer is yes.

Actually, Philip had already told Nathanael how good Jesus of Nazareth is. He is, says Philip, "him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote" (1:45). Now, from this alone, it's clear that Philip regards Jesus as someone good. He'd already answered the question before it was asked. It's just that Nathanael couldn't believe that anyone good could come from so backwater a place as Nazareth.

It bears thinking about the goodness of the Lord Jesus here for a moment. Again, Philip describes him as the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Of whom did Moses and the prophets write? It's pretty clear that Philip likely has in mind here the coming Messiah – the Christ – the savior of Israel. And Jesus is that – that and more. Of course, Moses and the prophets also wrote about the Lord our God – more so even than they did about the coming Messiah. And Jesus of Nazareth is also this. He is someone good out of Nazareth. He is goodness himself. He is God out of Nazareth.

So, when Philip tells Nathanael to come and see, he may not fully understand himself, but he is telling Nathanael to come and see the Lord – to lay his eyes on God himself, on the image of the Father, Jesus Christ.  As Jesus says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9). Now this is indeed a holy icon. 

But this is not the only image of God in this story.

After Nathanael comes and sees the Lord Jesus, Jesus says to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you" (1:48). So, not only does Nathanael see Jesus but Jesus also sees Nathanael.

Let's consider for a moment a possible meaning of where Jesus sees him – under the fig tree. Fig trees appear elsewhere in scripture. 

After eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hid themselves – covered themselves in their shame – with fig leaves (Gen 3:7). It's possible – and some have supposed – that the forbidden fruit itself was a fig, thus making the fig leaves quite handy after the Fall. It was also a fig tree that Jesus cursed for bearing no fruit (Mark 11:1-14). Therefore, some of the fathers suggest that this fig tree that Nathanael was under may represent a curse or sin or death.

Yet, when Jesus sees Nathanael, he says nothing condemnatory, but rather, "Behold, a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile!" (John 1:47). This is high praise for someone under the fig tree in his sins who was moments ago expressing doubt about the goodness of Jesus.

But it is true, what Jesus says about Nathanael. “It is guile to say one thing and think another. So, if there is no guile in Nathanael, it is because, if he sinned, he confessed his sin; whereas if a man, being a sinner, pretends to be righteous, there is guile in his mouth" (Augustine). It's pretty clear that if Nathanael had a thought, it came out of his mouth. There was all honesty and no deception in him. This, then, is the source of the Lord's praise of him: that he was honest and confessed his sins.

This places him in stark contrast to that other man under a fig tree – Adam, who tried to hide his sins, blaming Eve for them, and covering his shame with fig leaves. Yet this association between Nathanael and Adam brings to my mind something they have in common, as well as this distinction between them. And that is that the Lord went looking for them. At least that's how I see it.

Jesus goes to Galilee to find Philip. Philip doesn't seek and find Jesus. Jesus seeks and finds Philip and says to him "Follow me," which Philip does. Then, Philip seeks and finds Nathanael. I think this is the work of the Lord. I think it is really the Lord who finds Nathanael, through Philip. I think that's clear in the way that the Lord is with Nathanael spiritually under the fig tree before Philip calls him. He sees him and so he is with him seeking him and finding him through Philip.

This reminds me of when God went looking for Adam in the garden in the cool of the day, calling out to him, "Where are you?" (Gen 3:8-9). From the very beginning, God seeks us and finds us. We do not choose him. He chooses us (John 15:16).

Why? What does he see in us? I believe this, too, is there from the beginning. As I said, Jesus isn't the only image of God in this story. Image has more than one sense. Adam is made in the image of God. And Nathanael. And each of us. God sees in us his own image. That’s how he sees us – as we really are. We are images of God – altogether lovable. God made us in his own image. God is an image maker – the creator of his own image. God is an iconographer and we are his icons.

It is good to be seen by God as an image of God. What could be better than that? Nathaniel believed and saw Jesus to be the Son of God and king of Israel because Jesus saw him under the fig tree (John 1:50). That's how great it is to be seen by the Lord! It's enough to give us faith – especially to know that the Lord sees us as his own image, as revealed from the beginning. Well, Jesus says to Nathanael, "You shall see greater things than these." It will be even better, he says, to see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man" (1:51).

This is a reference to the ladder seen by Jacob in a dream in Bethel – the ladder that connects heaven and earth (Gen 28:12). And Jesus identifies himself with that ladder. He is the connection between heaven and earth – because he alone is God and man – creator and creation – being and the image of being.

We who are creatures and finite and circumscribable need Jesus. Only in Jesus can we connect humanly to God because only Jesus is both human and God. No one has ever seen God. But we have seen that the Father has sent his Son into the world (1 John 4:12, 14). Jesus Christ – God in his humanity – we humans can now see. Only now can we paint a picture – a holy image – an icon of the Lord. To deny it is to deny that he is really man, which is to deny us of our salvation. Let none deny it, but venerate the holy images of God all around us, in wood and paint, in fresco and mosaic, and in our neighbors. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Beginning in the Beginning

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza tells of a wheel,
rather like a wagon wheel.
The Great Fast begins in the beginning. It is a good time to stop and reorient ourselves toward the Lord – to go back to the beginning and to remember what we humans really are and why we were created.

In our lectionary, we begin the Great Fast at the beginning of three books – at Terce-sext or Sixth Hour, we begin at the beginning of the prophecy of Isaiah. And at Vespers and the Presanctified Divine Liturgy, we begin at the beginning of Proverbs and, of course, we also begin at the beginning of it all – at the beginning of Genesis.

The beginning of Genesis in particular is a wellspring for theological reflection. Someone said that all of scripture can be regarded as a footnote to Genesis 1. Today, I would like to focus on our creation – on the beginning of us.

Because, without some understanding of who we are, all of our ascetical efforts during this penitential time may seem vain and pointless. What are we reaching for, anyway? The story of our creation gives profound insights into our created nature – of which we often lose sight and which the Great Fast may help us to see again more clearly.

So let's look at our beginning: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). Now, if we listen closely, we’ll notice some very interesting grammar and syntax going on here. The direct object is "man" – "God created man.” And then this one noun – “man” – is referred back to by two pronouns – first, "him," and, secondly, "them" – first singular and then plural.

Now, the second creation story, which we read tomorrow and the next day at Vespers, gets rather explicit about how this takes place, and it's really beautiful if you think about it. God creates one human – a man. And he takes out of this man a part of himself – his rib – and fashions this into a woman. Now, God, being God, could have made two people out of the earth instead of just the one, and then man would never have been alone even for a moment, but that's not how Gods chose to proceed and I think it's meaningful.

Humanity begins as one person. Whatever you may think of this biologically, it is theologically and anthropologically meaningful. The idea that we are all made out of one person, rather than two, shows how deeply and completely we are meant to be in communion with one another. There's no room left for individualism when we look at it this way. We are, in the story of our beginning, quite literally one. Think of the image: all humanity is in one person – one Adam – one man taken out of the ground.

The one God made this one man in his own image. Note this: God is an image maker – a creator of his own image. God is an iconographer and we are his icons. And his first created human is somehow mysteriously both singular and plural – both "he" and "they." That we humans are both many and one – that we are persons and also a community of persons sharing one human nature is an icon of God who is one God and also three Persons. God himself is a community of persons and, inasmuch as we are united to one another by the bonds love and by the grace of God, we are an image of that community and of God.

This is one thing we strive to realize through our prayer and fasting and almsgiving. That is, we are trying to be healed of our infirmities and strengthened out of our weaknesses so that the divisions and rifts between us can be closed. If we will draw near to God, we must draw near to one another.

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza tells of a wheel, rather like a wagon wheel. The center – the axis – is God, and each of us are somewhere along the spokes of the wheel. You see the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to God. To be a true and perfect image of God, we must become one community of persons and not a confederacy of individuals.

Let there be no divisions or hatreds or animosities between us, but let us forgive everything and love one another. If we fast and pray and do works of mercy for one another, it will help us put an end to all division and strife. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A person in need is the coming of the Lord.

West exterior of Voroneţ Monastery chapel, 1550
Today is Meatfare Sunday – the third Sunday of the Triodion – the Sunday of the Last Judgement. This means that we are now but one week and some hours away from the beginning of the Great Fast – and today is the last day before the lesser fast of Cheesefare Week. So, we must prepare ourselves to embrace again the rigor of a penitential season. 

The three pillars of every penitential season are – as is well-known – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These means of bringing us to repentance are revealed to us in scripture – especially in the Sermon on the Mount – and are recommended to us by the fathers of the Church – for example by St. Maximos the Confessor.[i] Today, I would like to focus in on that last pillar, which I feel is often somewhat neglected and which, I think we will see, is particularly important when it comes to the Last Judgement.

Jesus – the son of Sirach, that is – teaches us not to neglect the giving of alms (Sirach 7: 10). And Jesus the Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, assumes that we will give alms. He says "when you give alms," he doesn't say "if you give alms” – just as he says, “when you pray…” and “when you fast….” These things are not optional if we are Christians.

Whatever good things we have are not truly our own alone but belong also to those who do not have these good things. Giving simply helps to restore balance to the cosmos upset and distorted by our sins. We can be covetous even with what we regard as our own property, let alone the property of others, and this covetousness separates us from the God who gave us everything we have so that we can be generous with others.

And Jesus tells us how to give – in secret and not so that we may be seen by others (Matthew 6: 2). Today, he might have said, when you give to the poor, do not film it and post it on YouTube under the guise of a social experiment, but give in secret, and your Father who watches in secret will reward you (Matt 6:4).

It's interesting – I just want to point out – we often hear this list of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – and there's a logic to this order. After all, in one sense, almsgiving results from prayer and fasting – so it comes after. Fasting leaves us with more to give and prayer inspires us to give. Nonetheless, it's worth pointing out that, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts things in a different order – he speaks first about almsgiving and then about prayer and fasting (Matt 6). So maybe this gives a little more primacy to the issue of almsgiving then we are generally wont to do.

In the Book of Tobit, the Archangel Raphael says that "prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than abundance with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life" (Tobit 12: 8 - 9).

Now, first of all, what constitutes almsgiving? Well, it's giving dollars to bums, right? Or, it's donating money to charitable causes? Something like that. Well, these are good things and almsgiving encompasses them, but it's interesting if we look at the Greek word that were translating here. The Greek word is ἐλεημοσύνη. Maybe this sounds a little bit familiar because we so often repeat the phrase, Κύριε, ἐλέησον, which means Lord, have mercy. The word here has “mercy” as a root.  

So the word means a bit more than giving alms as we tend to think of it, though it carries that meaning as well. It refers also to compassion and to practicing the virtue of mercy and beneficence. In other words, it refers to doing the works of mercy – including the very works upon which we will be judged when the Son of Man comes in his glory, according to the teaching of Jesus Christ today (Matt 25:31).

When we give something to eat to someone who is hungry, when we give something to drink to someone who is thirsty, when we welcome a stranger with hospitality, when we give clothes to someone who is naked, when we take care of someone who is sick, when we visit someone who is in prison or bound by whatever circumstances – all of this is ἐλεημοσύνη – these are all ways of showing mercy and compassion – and they are all forms of almsgiving (Matt 25:35-36). Just note that – according to what Jesus is teaching us today – it is our practice of mercy in these ways that will determine whether or not we are entering the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the cosmos (25:34). It is on the basis of our almsgiving – and not our fasting, for example – that we are judged.

Remember that the desert fathers kept a strict rule of prayer and fasting. Well,

A brother came to see a certain hermit and, as he was leaving, he said, "Forgive me abba for preventing you from keeping your rule." The hermit replied, "My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you away in peace."

Love is the highest rule and the greatest commandment and hospitality is the clearest expression of love.

It was said of an old man that he dwelt in Syria on the way to the desert. This was his work: whenever a monk came from the desert, he gave him refreshment with all his heart. Now one day a hermit came and he offered him refreshment. The other did not want to accept it, saying he was fasting. Filled with sorrow, the old man said to him, "Do not despise your servant, I beg you, do not despise me, but let us pray together. Look at the tree which is here; we will follow the way of whichever of us causes it to bend when he kneels on the ground and prays." So the hermit knelt down to pray and nothing happened. Then the hospitable one knelt down and at once the tree bent towards him. Taught by this, they gave thanks to God.

Fasting is good because it teaches us self-control, discipline, and detachment from the things of this world and, when we have learned these things, we can be more hospitable. Again, as Raphael teaches Tobit and Tobias, “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness,” and the Eastern Christian tradition is right, I believe, in emphasizing hospitality as its most cherished form of almsgiving. In giving hospitality, we sometimes give of ourselves in a more personal way than when we give money, food, or clothing. Hospitality causes us to share our homes, our time, and our very way of life. [ii]

Indeed, we must "not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrew 13:2). Remember the hospitality of Abraham to the three strangers who came to his home (Gen 18:1-5). By this, he showed hospitality to the Lord and, through his hospitality, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us. Jesus teaches us today that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to the Lord (Matt 25:40, 45). This is never more clear than in the case of Abraham showing hospitality to the three strangers who are in truth of the appearance of the Lord to him. It's really something – isn't it? – that the icon that we know as the Rublev Trinity was first known as the Hospitality of Abraham. When we show hospitality, the Lord is revealed to us. When we see the face of Christ in the face of all of our brothers and sisters and in every stranger that we meet, we will welcome him in them, show them hospitality, and give them all we have to give. Every person in need who comes to us is a coming of Christ and a theophany of the Lord  if we have eyes to see.

[i] "Almsgiving heals the soul's incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the Intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings" (Maximos the Confessor, First Century on Love, 79).
[ii] Light for Life, Part Three, 48

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Meeting of Time and Eternity

St Simeon the God Receiver
Moscow, Old Believers' workshop, circa 1800

Forty days ago, Christ is born! So now it is time for him and his mother to go to Jerusalem – to the temple – according to the law of Moses (Luke 2:22). The book of Leviticus states that when the forty days of purification are complete after the birth of a son, the mother is to bring a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering (Leviticus 12:2-6). Mary doesn't do this, but rather brings a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24) – because Leviticus goes on to state that if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons – one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering (Leviticus 12:8). The Lord's Christ and his mother come to the temple in Jerusalem in some measure of poverty – unable to afford a lamb – but also with an unseen poverty greater than this poverty which would have been apparent to all. For here is the giver of the law subjecting himself to the law – "him who as God is the legislator, [is seen now] as subject to his own decrees."[ii]  Here is God coming now as a baby boy. Here is an incomprehensible self-emptying – a giving up of everything for us – the creator become a creature – the divine made human – the infinite made finite – the eternal made temporal. Such impoverishment!

We call this feast the Meeting. Here eternity is meeting time. Here an old man is meeting a baby boy. Simeon is meeting Jesus.

Simeon has been waiting a long time to meet the Lord's Christ at this intersection of time and eternity in the temple in Jerusalem – in the house of the Lord. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not see death before he sees the Lord's Christ (Luke 2:26).

Listen to some of what he says when finally lays his eyes on Christ. We hear these words so often – at every vespers and at other services – that maybe sometimes we forget to listen to them as they wash over us day after passing day, night after passing night. Simeon says that his eyes have seen the Lord's salvation, so now he is ready to depart in peace (Luke 2:29-30).

How does the Lord Jesus Christ save us? How can Simeon say he has seen our salvation? As if it is already accomplished here in this baby boy – this baby who has not yet spoken a word, though he is already and from eternity the word of God. Yet, he has not yet preached a single word of the Gospel to the world. He has not yet died for us so that he may rise for us and by his death trample death. Yet here is Simeon saying he has seen the salvation prepared by the Lord before the face of all people (Luke 2:30-31). How can this be?

For one thing, Simeon is a prophet of the Lord and he speaks of what is coming as well as of what is present before him and what has been (eg. Luke 2:34-35). Nonetheless, his eyes have already seen this salvation. And the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus even as a baby can truly be understood and expressed as already accomplishing our salvation by uniting the divinity with our humanity. But does this mean that what was to follow – his life, his preaching, his teachings, his healings, his transfiguration, his death, his resurrection, his ascension – are all superfluous addenda to our salvation already accomplished in this baby boy? No! This is not what it means.

Rather, this reveals to us something of the prophetic mind – the mind we ought to yearn to acquire for ourselves. We ought to "earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that [we] may prophesy" (1 Cor14:1). And we must seek to acquire the mind of Christ (cf. Phil 2:5). When a prophet speaks, the Lord speaks through him. When a prophet thinks, the Lord also thinks in him. When a prophet sees, he sees with the eyes of the Lord. This is the way to be – more and more configured to the Lord – more and more like him in every way, each and every day. Then we can begin to see things as he sees them.

And the Lord's understanding is not confined by our chronology. This is a point we often forget, being so limited in our understanding, but which is greatly helpful to remember as often as possible: God is not confined by our chronology.

In the Divine Liturgy, after the epiklesis, we offer the spiritual sacrifice for the Theotokos and all the saints. Now, what need have they of our prayers? – You may well ask. Their salvation is accomplished. We have need of their prayers more than they do of ours, it seems to us. While from a chronological perspective, this question makes sense, it forgets what the Divine Liturgy is and it forgets that we are in the house of the Lord who is not confined by our chronology.

In the house of the Lord, Simeon looks upon the baby Jesus and sees our salvation already accomplished. In this house of the Lord here today, if we look with prophetic eyes, we will see our salvation already accomplished.

Does this mean our salvation does not require us to work it out in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)? Or that we don’t need what remains of our lives, filled – as they doubtless will be – with many sufferings and blessings? Or that we need not die? Or that the Lord need not come again in glory? Or that we need not rise again to live eternally in Christ? No! That’s not what it means. But at every Divine Liturgy we remember the second coming in glory, in the same breath as we remember the cross the tomb the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven and the sitting at the right hand. We remember these things as already accomplished – for our Lord is not confined by our chronology and today on this Feast of Meeting, our time meets with eternity.

[ii] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 3.

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