Thursday, March 29, 2018

What return can I make to the Lord?

Our Lord has given himself to us. Have we given ourselves to the Lord? 

Just four days ago, it was Annunciation – God became man, taking flesh from the Virgin. God became man. Have we become God? Not yet, right? Yet, that is why he joined our human nature – so that we may become partakers of his divine nature because he loves us and wants to be with us.

To love someone you have to go out to meet them where they are – like the father who ran out to meet his prodigal son returning home to him at last. To love someone you have to see yourself in them – to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, when God looks at humanity, he does see himself – because now he is also human. He has run out to meet us where we are. He has given himself to us completely. He offers us actual union with himself if we will but take the first few steps toward home. Tonight he prays to his Father for us who believe in him: that we may all be one, as he and his Father are one, and that we may be one in them (John 17:21).

Do we take up this offer? Do we do our small part of showing up, of turning to him, of cooperating with his grace? This is called synergy. As Paul says, “We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God' (1 Cor 3:9a). It’s really all the work of the Lord because we are the work of the Lord. We are “God’s field [and] God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9b).

But he’s given us freedom. Without freedom, there is no love and no repentance (and the Lord is in love with the beauty of repentance). So, if we will join with God, we must freely work with God rather than vainly strive against him. Tonight, he shows us how to work with him. Tonight, he freely gives himself to us and in so doing shows us how to freely give ourselves to him.

Cathedral of Monreale

Tonight, he washes his apostles’ feet. Do we wash each other's feet? This becomes a way for us to give ourselves to our creator and our God.

Behold: the creator washes the feet of his creatures. It is clear at this moment, that the creator of all things has emptied himself completely for the love of his creatures. He washes even the feet of Judas, whom he knows will betray him. Are we selective about who we will serve and humble ourselves before? Jesus is not.

“He who made the lakes, the springs, and the seas… washes the feet of his disciples; in his infinite mercy, he lowers himself, and he draws us up.”* The maker of water shows why he truly made it. “The Wisdom of God, who holds back the great waters… today pours water into a basin.” He lowers himself and serves those whom he loves with water. He makes all things for love.

Jesus’s example of emptying himself and lowering himself is nothing less than a path to theosis for us. To become one with God above, we must lower ourselves as he did. He “humbled [himself] and washed the feet of [his] disciples, thus preparing them to walk in the divine footsteps.” To walk this path is to walk “the most excellent way of humility”§ in imitation of the one “who wraps the heavens with the clouds [and yet] now wraps himself with a towel.”** This is truly “the model of humility,” which any who would follow Christ must imitate.†† If we would imitate Christ Jesus, we must have in us “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” and then we will truly become the body of Christ (Phil 2:5).

Tonight, he gives us his body and blood to eat and drink. Have we become the body of Christ?

With Eucharist, Jesus radically breaks down our perceived barriers and divisions and fills all creation with his grace. He comes like a bridegroom in the middle of the night. Unexpectedly, in the midst of the darkness of this Holy Week, there shines the brightness of this Great and Holy Thursday. The “bridal chamber” is “completely engulfed with light.”‡‡ Though until this day we have been wearing dark garments – not wedding garments – in penitence, now, tonight, at his last supper, the Lord gives us the Eucharist, which is – in no small way – a consummation of God’s marital union with humanity.

 “The true Wisdom of God initiates his friends into the mysteries. He prepares a table filled with spiritual food, and, for the faithful, He fills the cup of immortality.”§§ The mystery of the Eucharist is nothing less than the bread of eternal life, given to us today. This is the very means of union with God.

Jesus says,
“Take and eat, this is my Body; you shall find food for your faith;”
“Take and drink, this is my Blood; you shall find food for your faith;”
“Dwell in me, and you shall find food for your faith.”***

We eat and drink the body and the blood of Christ so that we may come to dwell in him. Jesus gives us the Eucharist in order to bring his people into himself.

He gives us himself in this way. We take of him and eat and drink. By this means and by the descent of the holy spirit upon us, we become the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, we may give ourselves completely to God, as he does upon the cross.
Tomorrow, he dies for us. Can we even stay awake to watch and pray with him for one hour?

He gives us everything and gives us himself completely. Do we give him anything? Do we accept even inconvenience for him, let alone death? Is it too much to ask that we spend time with him? Can we be bothered at all? Or, are we like the disciples who keep nodding off in the midst of his agony as he awaits his betrayal?

He delights even in a small movement toward him on our part. If we but begin to move toward him, he runs out to meet us. We must cooperate with his grace, but there is nothing symmetrical about this relationship. Even our cooperation is enabled by his grace. His grace is everything and is altogether trustworthy.

[*] Sessional Hymns at Matins, Triodion 565
[†] The fifth ode, Triodion 566
[‡] Triodion 565
[§] From the dismissal at every service for Holy Thursday, e.g. Triodion 572
[**] Triodion 566
[††] Triodion 566
[‡‡] Hymn of Light
[§§] The first Ode of Matins, Triodion 564
[***] From the third ode, Triodion 565

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

See the Good

Joseph sees the good in the midst of evil. Do we? Or, do we complain constantly about every little thing we suffer without ever stopping to give thanks and praise to God for the good with which we are also blessed?

Joseph sending his brothers back to Jacob with food
illustration from Byzantine bible
Topkapi Palace Museum

This is not to diminish our sufferings. Our sufferings are real and sometimes unjust and it's worthwhile to complain about them from time to time. We see this with Abraham – and the Psalms are full of complaint. But it's not okay to neglect the other part of it. We must give thanks to the Lord at all times even in the midst of our complaints. If we complain to God about every evil, we must also remember to thank him for every good.

Sometimes, we even blame God for our suffering. Things don't go our way and we say to God, "I can't believe this is how you treat your friends," as if he was the one who visited evils upon us. Or, we look at all the evils in the world – the cruelty visited upon the innocent by war, murder, rape, abuse, and neglect; by poverty and ignorance; by natural disasters, earthquakes, fires, floods, and diseases – and we conclude that no good God could let this happen. By this reasoning, atheists and enemies of God conclude that either there is no God or that God is not good. One important thing to remember is that God is not the author of any of these evils. God did not make death (Wis 1:13). It is our sin that brings all these things into the world. It is my sin. We are to blame, and not God, for every evil.

Even so, we might object, "Doesn't God have the power to prevent these evil consequences of our sin?" Yes, he does. He brings good out of every evil he permits, but he isn't beholden to any evil. God is all-powerful and can do anything by any means. So, I don't have all the answers here. I'm not sure there are answers fully comprehensible to our merely human understanding. Yet God alone gives a peace which surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). And this is the only kind of peace that there is.

Yet, somehow, many of those who blame God for every evil neglect to credit him for every good. We experience a great deal of good in our lives and in creation. I dare say it is very good (Gen 1:31). If it weren't, the evil destruction of things that goes on would not be so very evil, which it is. There is great good, for which God deserves all the credit. We must strive to see this good.

If you cannot see the good, it's not because it isn't there, but simply because you lack the eyes to see – the eyes of faith. If a creature lives in a cave underground all its life and never emerges into the light – and there are these creatures – then it cannot see the sun. 

Nonetheless, the sun is there, and the sun is good, and the sun is necessary to that very creature's life. In the same way, there is good, even if we can't always see it. It is there and it sustains us in being. If you cannot see it now, it doesn't mean that you will never see it again. Have hope and pray for the gift of faith. The Lord loves you and in his own time and by his own means, he will answer that prayer and give you that gift.

Joseph sees the good. The Lord has clearly given him the gift of faith, I think, and he was not a man unfamiliar with suffering and evil. He experienced a great deal more of it than most – not all – but most of us. He says to his brothers, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt" (Gen 45:4). This betrayal by his own brothers (37:18-36) was only the beginning of his sufferings. He would later be falsely accused of trying to seduce his master's wife and thrown into prison (39:12-20). Some of us know the sting of false accusation. When you do, remember that you are in the good company of Joseph and draw inspiration from his example.

Despite suffering all of this as a result of their crime, Joseph says to his brothers, "And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5). Do not be angry with yourselves?! That’s what Joseph is concerned about at this point: his brothers’ feelings? He isn’t angry at his brothers who betrayed him and enslaved him. He doesn’t even want them to be angry at themselves! How can this be? If he was angry, I would not fault him. Would you? Yet, he sees the good so clearly, that the evil he has suffered drowns in the good.

You see, the whole land was afflicted with famine, and would be for another five years. Through Joseph’s interpretation of dreams, God had revealed this to Pharaoh, and so Egypt had prepared for the famine. And this now enables Joseph to provide food for his family throughout the famine and preserve their lives. So, he concludes that it was not his brothers who sent him to Egypt, but God (45:8). This is a stunning faith and ability to see the good.

Though he lived long before Christ, Joseph not only fulfills what Christ commands us – that is, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – he even surpasses this command (Matt 5:44). He not only loves those who tried to do away with him, he even tries to convince them that they have not sinned against him, but that it was the work of God.*

Like Joseph, let us not focus so much on recovering our ease and comfort when we find ourselves in trouble and distress that we forget to always seek and offer thanks to the Lord for everything that is good.

* Paraphrased from St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 64 on Genesis.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Holy Repentance leads to Holy Communion.

St. Mary of Egypt
19th century
Our holy mother Mary of Egypt is a glorious example of repentance, and she shows for us, I think, the deep connection that exists between Holy Repentance and Holy Communion.

In her youth, Mary was brazenly impenitent. She was nymphomaniacal, jaded, and profane. For seventeen years in Alexandria, she lived a dissolute and promiscuous life. It is not known how she began to suffer from this “insatiable desire and… irrepressible passion”[i] but I suspect that she had suffered from the sins of others. It is hurt people who hurt people.

Anyway, upon hearing of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to Jerusalem from her home in Alexandria, Mary resolved to accompany the pilgrims, not as a pilgrim but rather to use them to satisfy her lusts.

By choosing young pilgrims to the Holy Land to be her sexual partners and conquests, Mary heaped evil upon evil. These were people who were trying to repent and experience God and Mary resolves to do her best to distract them from that purpose and to seduce them. She is successful, too, and by prostitution, she pays for her passage to Jerusalem. Beyond even this, she “frequently forced those miserable youths even against their own will [into every] mentionable or unmentionable depravity.” So her sins here are manifold and one sin begets another, just as it does in our own lives.

But the grace of God is all-powerful and God's love for us is not diminished by any of our sins. Mary pays for her passage to Jerusalem with sin, and yet in Jerusalem, despite her own impure intentions, she experiences God. She was “hunting for youths,” but God was hunting for her and “seeking [her] repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner.” God brings good out of evil. He does it all the time. Listen to what happens next.

Mary is so jaded and free of compunction for her sins, she is so impenitent about what she has done and is doing that, following everyone else, she marches right up to the doors of the Church of the Anastasis – the place of Christ's resurrection – the Holy Sepulchre – and intends to go in among the pilgrims as if she is one of them – though in her heart there is no piety or fear of God – she is following the crowds for her usual reasons.

God sees through our masks – straight into our hearts. There is nothing Jesus hates more than our hypocrisy. He condemns it again and again with vivid language. We are whitewashed tombs (cf. Matt 23:27). Don't say, “Oh, he's only talking about the Pharisees, not me.” Don't look at Mary's sins and say, “Thank God I am not like her.” Let us remember our own sins and repent of them like the publican (cf. Luke 18:11).

God – who is not mocked and is not fooled by our pretensions – sees Mary coming (cf. Gal 6:7). And, out of love for her, does not let her in. She finds that she cannot walk into the holy place. She tried three or four times to enter but each time was repelled by a mighty force. This is a great mercy from the Lord because this spiritual force opens her eyes to her own sin and brings her to repentance in which is her one hope for salvation – without which we cannot be saved. Take this seriously: St. Mark the Ascetic says, “There is a sin which is always ‘unto death’ (1 Jn. 5:16): the sin for which we do not repent. For this sin, even a saint’s prayers will not be heard.”[ii]

Mary is a creature of extremes. She had sinned boldly and now she begins her repentance with an even greater zeal. After she repents before an icon of the Theotokos and promises to “never again defile [herself] by… fornication,” she is able to enter the holy place. Mary experienced the great mercy of a physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. None of us who are impenitent are welcome in the holy place. Spiritually, we are not in the holy place.

If we are impenitent for our sins, especially if we do not love one another  if we are resentful and unforgiving of those who have wronged us, how can we approach Holy Communion in the body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ? Communion in the Lord is also communion with the whole Church. And who's in and who's out of the Church is not a judgment we're competent to make. When we invite the people of God to Holy Communion in the Lord, we proclaim, “Approach with fear of God and with faith.” If you do not fear God or if you have no faith, do not approach! If you do, you will eat and drink condemnation upon yourself because you are not truly discerning the body (1 Cor 11:29). As I say, the force that prevented Mary's approach was a great mercy.

After she did repent, Mary was able to enter the holy place – the Church of the Resurrection – and there venerate the holy cross and she then went the Church of the Forerunner and received the holy mysteries of the Church. Holy Repentance leads to Holy Communion. You can't really have one without the other.

So clearly and emphatically did our holy mother Mary of Egypt understand this, that she then began a life of severe repentance for many years. For seventeen years, she battled the wild beasts in the desert – that is, her own mad desires and passions. When you go to a place of isolation and quiet, you will see more clearly the battle being waged over your own heart.

St. Mary was not a frequent communicant. Only after more than seventeen years of repentance in the desert with severe fasting, ceaseless prayer, and self-discipline did Mary finally again receive Holy Communion from the priest Zosimas.

I'm not going to recommend this degree of severity to anyone. I believe a more frequent nourishment from the body and blood of Christ is helpful and even necessary for most of us as we seek and strive by the grace of God for ever greater union with God.

However, I am going to insist that for the most part, we Catholics have been taking Holy Communion far too lightly for many years – and we do so to our peril. Frequent reception of Holy Communion without holy repentance – will not save us. You can't have one without the other. The first word Jesus preaches to us is, “Repent” (Matt 4:17).

An essential – that is to say, not an optional – part of repentance is the holy mystery of repentance, which our holy mother Mary received in the Church of the Forerunner the evening she began to repent. Whatever you want to call it – going to confession, the sacrament of penance, reconciliation – we can't skip over this entirely and remain in good with the Church. This must be a part of our lives as Orthodox Catholic Christians. This doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from the Holy Spirit through the Church and through the Scripture. We can't live without it. I'm serious – there is no life without it. 

How often you need to go personally is a discussion that you need to have with your spiritual father or mother. A good general guide is to go four times a year – once during each of the four fasts. If you haven't been to confession in a long long time, please make a point of going before the Great Fast ends. It's not going to hurt you. It's only going to help you. It's sin that hurts us, not repentance. As St. John Chrysostom says, “Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine.” Do not be ashamed to repent. Be ashamed to sin.[iii]

Do not utterly neglect to confess. Do not fail to repent. Let us be inspired by the example of our holy mother Mary of Egypt – by her fervor and zeal for repentance – and let us not take too lightly the discipline of God (cf. Heb 12:5). Let us repent and approach with fear of God and with faith.

[i] The Life of Our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt.
[ii]No Righteousness by Works 41, The Philokalia, London, 1979, v. 1, p. 129.
[iii] John Chrystotom, Homily 8, On Repentance and Almsgiving

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wait upon the Lord

Russian icon of Abraham
The Lord appears to Abram when he is 99 years old and says, "I will make my covenant between me and you and will multiply you exceedingly" (Gen 17:1-2). Those following along in Genesis know that God has been talking to Abram for a long time already. About 24 years previously, the Lord first called him and told him that he would make of him a great nation and in him bless all the families of the Earth (Gen 12:1-4).

As Christians, we know who it is in Abram who blesses all the families of the Earth – it is uniquely Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham, who blesses and offers life and salvation to all people (cf. Gal 3:16). "In Christ Jesus, the blessing of Abraham comes upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal 3:14). So in hearing the story of Abram, we ought to feel as keenly as he does the urgency of his having children. Because it is through the children of Abraham that God becomes Man – that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

But Abram was already 75 years old and childless when the Lord first called him. Even in those days, most people were having children quite a bit younger than this. True, Abram's father Terah had had him when he was 70, but for seven generations back all the other ancestors of Abram had begun having children in their twenties or thirties – rather like today (Gen 11:12-26). And, more to the point, Abram's wife Sarai would have been about 66 years old. So this business of having a child was already at this point a bit out of reach. Nonetheless, Abram believed the Lord and obeyed his commands.

Still, he had no child. He built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord and the Lord was with him through many adventures. He got rich in Egypt, thanks to his beautiful wife Sarai. He rescued his nephew Lot from captivity. He met Melchizedek. All the while, he worshipped the Lord and the Lord looked after him and spoke to him. But still, he had no child.

Eventually, Abram complains to the Lord about his childlessness (Gen 15:2). And the Lord repeats and intensifies his promise saying, "Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able... So shall your descendants be." And again Abram believes the Lord. But still, he has no child.

Therefore Sarai determines, I suppose, that it's time they take matters into their own hands – and she gives her maid Hagar to Abram. By this means Abraham finally has a child – Ishmael – but still, this polygamous solution, which was common in the ancient Near East, was not what the Lord had in mind. Still, Abram does not have the promised child. It is not through Ishmael that Jesus Christ is born. It is not through Ishmael that the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. It not through Ishmael that God becomes Man.

After all this, the Lord God Almighty again appears to Abram and again promises to multiply him exceedingly – now changing his name to Abraham, meaning father of a multitude, rather than Abram, which means exalted father. All the while, Abram has believed, despite having no child until he was 86 – and that by his wife's maid rather than by his wife.

How faithless and impatient we are! Behold the faithfulness and patience of Abraham. He believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness (15:6). Can we be faithful when things don't go our way?

Oftentimes, things don't go our way in life. Maybe we get dumped just when we think our relationship is going so well. Maybe someone we thought was our friend betrays us and talks about us behind our back. Maybe we think we deserve a promotion at work and instead we get fired. Maybe we want a child and haven't been able to have a child. Abram wanted a child – was even promised a child by the Lord – and yet a child, it seemed, was not forthcoming from his wife – at least not according to the apparent laws of nature. Yet, he continued in relationship with the Lord and waited upon the Lord and did not despair. He complained to the Lord, yes, but he did not despair.

I recommend complaining to the Lord. It's important to be honest with God. It's not like he doesn't know how we feel. Trying to hide it from him or cut him off or deceive him isn’t going to work. Abram's complaint to the Lord about his childlessness resulted in the Lord cutting his covenant with him (15:2-3,10,17-18). So go ahead and complain to the Lord but do not despair or turn away from him just because he does not do your will. May his will be done and not our will.

The Lord God does not obey our will but he always does what is good for us. He is not the author of any evil that we endure. Many times, he opposes our will for our good. This does not make him our enemy. Of course, many of us don’t know what an enemy is. We think anyone opposed to our will is our enemy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Lord, like a true friend, often opposes our will for our own good. It takes faith, like the faith of Abraham, to see this.

Even Abraham’s faith may waiver a bit when it becomes clear that his will of fulfilling the Lord’s promise through Ishmael is not the Lord’s will and that the Lord intends, rather, to fulfill his promise through Sarah, who is already 90 years old. Abraham falls on his face and laughs when he hears this (Gen 17:17). ROFL.

Yet the will of the Lord is good and surpasses all expectations. And through Sarah is born Isaac, named for the laughter of his father and mother (17:19; 18:12), and through Isaac, one day, comes Jesus Christ into the world and unites our humanity to his divinity, saving us and overcoming every contradiction. He accomplishes not our will, but our good – our greatest, ultimate, and lasting good. Let us wait upon the Lord with expectant hope, with faithfulness, and patience and without despair.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Weeding our own Garden - or - Don't Garden Drunk

To be honest, most of us have had the experience of having too much to drink. Many people have experienced this, of course. It's a rather common phenomenon for a person who has never had alcohol before – and who doesn't yet understand how it affects people – to drink a bit too much at first and to become drunk.

Well, Noah was apparently the first person to ever drink wine. He was the first to plant a vineyard (Gen 9:20) and when he drank the wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent (9:21). Given his inexperience and the inexperience of the whole human race at this point, this is really an unsurprising and predictable result.

Nonetheless, it is a shameful and embarrassing situation for a father to be discovered drunk and naked by his son and this is what happened to Noah when Ham walks in (9:22). Further unspeakable indecencies may be hinted at by some Hebrew euphemisms in the text but the situation is difficult enough without all that. And, regardless, if we have ears to hear, I think this story teaches us both the importance of sobriety and the proper way to regard others in their sins.

Deliberately getting drunk is a sin. As Catholics, and therefore as adversaries of teetotalers and Puritans, we may not say this often enough for fear of being lumped in with them, so I'll say it again: deliberately getting drunk is a sin. Alcoholism is a disease. Accidentally getting drunk is an involuntary sin or an infirmity.

In each case, we stand in need of healing. Our Lord, who alone can heal us, offers us this healing both directly and through one another, through our prayer and support for one another, through the Holy Mysteries of repentance, of anointing, and of communion in his holy body and blood.

Sobriety, however, does not only refer to the moderation of our use of alcohol. First of all, there are many other addictions. I think almost everyone is addicted to something: to alcohol or drugs, to pornography or sex, to food or sugar, to video games or social media, or to our countless passions. All these things offer us a momentary release or escape from our pain. Those who suffer less are less susceptible to addictions, by the way. There's always a pain at the root of an addiction. So, we addicts stand in need of a healing of the root.

Yet, the way to healing and to life shown to us by Jesus Christ is counterintuitive – it is the way of the cross. We're more inclined to run to our addictions and away from our pain, but the way out is through. This is the only real way out to where we want to go – to "a place of light, joy, and peace where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning" – through the cross. We must deny ourselves and embrace the very thing that hurts us – as Jesus embraces his cross (Mark 8:34). Usually, this means loving and forgiving an enemy, just as Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him, even as they were driving the nails into his hands and feet (Matt 5:44; Luke 23:34). He did not wait for them to apologize. This is the way of the cross – the way to healing and everlasting life. Unforgiveness, on the other hand, is a kind of drunkenness of the soul.

Sobriety is a spiritual condition. In the spiritual life, sobriety is also known as "watchfulness" or "νῆψις". This is the opposite of a drunken stupor. We must stay awake, be alert, vigilant, and watchful over our own hearts, lest we get drunk on our passions.

When the weed of unforgiveness or resentment, or anger (like the anger of Noah when he knew what his youngest son had done to him) begins to take root in our hearts, we must pluck it out before it has time to grow deep roots (Gen 9:24-27). If, for example, we wait for someone to apologize before we will forgive them, we may find that, even if they do eventually apologize, our resentment will have by then grown too strong for us to overcome – its roots too deep for us to dig up. If we are drunk like Noah was drunk – that is, if we are deeply imbued in our passions and addictions – we will lack the careful attention needed to weed the garden of our hearts without uprooting the herbs and vegetables and flowers of holiness and virtue and goodness which the Lord has planted in us.

We must always keep careful watch over our own gardens, but it is not our business to go rooting around in someone else's garden. "Yes, O Lord and King, let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers and sisters" (The Prayer of St. Ephrem). Ham looked upon the nakedness and drunkenness of his father and he told his two brothers about it – instead of keeping his mouth shut (Gen 9:22).

"A prudent man conceals his knowledge,
           but fools proclaim their folly...
He who guards his mouth preserves his life;
            he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin" (Prov 12:23;13:3).

"Lord and Master of my life, spare me from... idle chatter" (The Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Shem and Japheth, on the other hand, acted rightly and with respect for their father. They "took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness" (Gen 9:23). We must never look greedily upon the sins or weaknesses or infirmities of others, whether it is to laugh at them or to puff ourselves up – saying like the Pharisee "Thank God I am not like this sinner" (Luke 18:11). Rather, like Shem and Japheth, let us avert our eyes from the sins of others and focus on repenting for our own sins.

This is not to say that there is never a time to lovingly admonish the sinner or correct the wayward, but these actions are always taken for the good of the other and never for exalting the self by comparison. That is how we can discern whether or not we should say something.   

Sunday, March 4, 2018

There is One Priest

More so than at any other time of the year, we Churches who follow the Byzantine tradition are now immersed in the Old Testament. On the weekdays of the Great Fast, we are reading Genesis and Proverbs and Isaiah. If you’re looking for some good Lenten reading, consider reading these.

It’s well known that – on the weekdays of the Great Fast – we fast from the anaphora – that is, from the Eucharistic prayer, which is why we call these “aliturgical days,” but our lectionary also fasts on these weekdays – from the gospel and the apostolic readings.

While all scripture is God-breathed, not all scripture is equal, and it’s very clear how we feel about the gospel (2 Tim 3:16). That golden book on the holy table contains only the gospels and no other scripture – because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the preeminent revelation and the lens through which we as Christians must interpret all of scripture. So, spending some days without its proclamation is kind of a shock to our system –a true deprivation.  Sometimes the absence of a person serves to remind us of how much we love them and need them. That’s what this is like.

Yet, each Sabbath and Lord’s Day – each Saturday and Sunday – are like oases in the desert. They are moments of refreshment for us in the midst of a great labor – that is if we are really doing the work of the fast. We resume the celebration of the anaphora and even our fasting is relaxed a bit on these days, which traditionally permit wine and oil and allow us to end our total fast in the morning with the Divine Liturgy rather than in the evening with Vespers or the Presanctified Divine Liturgy. Also on Saturdays and Sundays, we joyfully resume the proclamation of the gospel and the reading of the apostolic writings. Specifically, we read the Gospel of Mark and the Letter to the Hebrews.

Given our focus on the Old Testament and especially on Genesis at this time, it is quite fitting that the epistle from which we read on Saturdays and Sundays of the Great Fast is the Letter to the Hebrews – because this treatise is particularly good at showing what the Old Covenant means for us as Christians and describing for us how it is all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It particularly focuses on priesthood and shows for us how the priesthood of the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the great high priesthood of Jesus Christ in which all believers share through their baptism into Christ.

A priest is one who offers sacrifice. We often think of a priest as a presbyter, which is an ordained elder or father of the church – and, indeed, etymologically the word “priest” circuitously derives from the word “presbyter.” These two ideas have been combined in our minds for a long time – and there are good reasons for that – the ordained presbyter has one of the essential roles in the eucharistic sacrifice – but sometimes we lose sight of important distinctions. A priest (an ἱερεύς as opposed to a πρεσβύτερος) is not just an old man (which is my favorite translation of presbyter) but is one who offers sacrifice. And it is about this priesthood that the Letter to the Hebrews is primarily concerned.

Remember that in the Old Covenant there was a complex sacrificial system. Priests were the descendants of Levi and Aaron. They sacrificed lambs and birds and various animals upon the altar in the temple and before that in the tabernacle in the wilderness. And they made offerings of grain and incense. They made different kinds of offerings for guilt, for peace, for thanksgiving, for healing, and for purity. They did all this according to the prescriptions of the law revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai at the establishment of the Lord's covenant with his people Israel.

Well, what are we as Christians to make of all of this? What does it all mean for us? Who are our priests and what is our sacrifice? 

Remember that we read the Old Testament with the eyes of the gospel.

For us, there is really only one priest – Jesus Christ, the great high priest – and there is only one sacrifice – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God – offered upon the altar of the cross, which we especially venerate today. It is Jesus who offers and is offered. Upon the altar of the Cross, our priest Jesus Christ offers for us our thank-offering – our Eucharist, which is for the remission of our sins and the cleansing of our guilt, and which heals our infirmity and raises us from our mortality. This priesthood and this sacrifice is the fulfillment of all sacrifices offered by all priests.

Yet, how can Jesus be a priest? It is clear that Jesus is not a descendant of Aaron or of the tribe of Levi. He is, as the gospels often note and as the Messiah was prophesied to be, a descendant of David and therefore of the tribe of Judah, not Levi. A king, yes, but how can Hebrews claim that he is a priest – and not only a priest but the great high priest?

Well, he is not a priest according to the order of Levi but a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. "Christ… was appointed by him who said to him..., 'You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek'" (Heb 5:5-6). This is what the Lord said of David – or of the Davidic and Messianic Priest-King in the Psalms (Ps 109/110:4). This connects the royal lineage of Jesus with a priestly lineage after all – but it is an altogether different kind of priesthood.

Melchizedek is a rather mysterious figure in the Book of Genesis, which, again, makes for good Lenten reading. Long before there is any Levitical priesthood – indeed, long before Levi was even born, Melchizedek appears. He is named only once in Genesis. And he is a priest! He’s a priest of God Most High and King of Salem. Salem means peace, so he is king of peace. Melek means "king" and edeq means "righteousness,” so Melchizedek means the King of Righteousness. These are high titles!

He, like Jesus – and unlike the ordering of things in the Mosaic Covenant, which was yet to come – is both priest and king. So here is an order, which precedes the other order, which is both royal and priestly, and which makes a sacrificial offering, as all priests do. But Melchizedek does not offer the blood of goats or calves. He offers bread and wine. So, a priest of the order of Melchizedek will offer bread and wine.

This is the offering that the Lord Jesus makes on the night he was betrayed, but he transcends it and transfigures it, showing the bread and wine to be his own body, which he offers, and the wine to be his own blood, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28). This offering is one with the one sacrifice of the cross, offered by the Davidic Messianic King and the Priest of the Order of Melchizedek – Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the only priest and the cross is the only sacrifice offered once for all. Yet, listen to what Jesus says today about the cross: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). Self-denial and losing our life for the sake of Jesus and his gospel is the cross our Lord calls us to embrace. This season of the Great Fast especially calls us to self-denial and away from self-indulgence.

There is only one saving sacrificial death upon the cross. To be saved by it we must participate in it. To rise with Christ, we must also die with him.

How? First, we must believe and be baptized into Christ. Then, if we love him, we will keep his commandments, even when it hurts. Confess our own sins to one another and not the sins of others. Pray for each other so that we may be healed (James 5:16). Fast. Pray. Show kindness and mercy and forgiveness to our neighbors, especially those we dislike. This will feel like hanging on the cross. His sacrifice must become also our sacrifice. His priesthood must become our priesthood.

His one sacrifice is re-presented also among us as often as we come together in remembrance of him and proclaim his death until he comes by eating the bread which is his body and drinking the chalice which is the new covenant in his blood (cf. 1 Cor 11:25-26). Just as Melchizedek offered bread and wine, so now does Jesus offer bread and wine become himself, our sacrificial and Paschal Lamb – in and through us who become his body by our faith, our baptism, and our communion with him. 

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