Sunday, July 22, 2018

In almighty God’s own good time

Our Lord is not bound by time. But our Lord chooses to act in time – in his own good time. The first deacon says quietly to the priest at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, “It is time for the Lord to act.” The Lord acts in time. He is acting here and now. However, it seems to us sometimes that he takes his time.

Not until the fourth watch of the night does Jesus come walking on the water to his disciples (Matthew 14:25). As soon as evening had fallen, the boat bearing the disciples was beaten by waves – and the wind was against them all night long (14:24). But not until the fourth watch of the night does Jesus come to them and cause the wind to cease (14:32). He had been alone in the hills praying. This teaches us something about the importance of prayer as compared to earthly cares.

What are these watches of the night? In the custom of the Roman military, the night was divided into four parts by soldiers who stood watch in shifts. That way, everyone could get at least some sleep and also the watch could continue ceaselessly. Each of these watches lasted 3 hours so that the four watches of the night together made up the 12 hours of night. So, the fourth watch is the last watch and is from about 3 am until 6 am.

This is when Jesus comes to them who are in the boat, walking to them on the windswept water, after they had been fighting the wind and waves all night long. “They had been in danger the whole night,”[i] but the Lord comes in his own good time.

We also wait upon the coming of the Lord. And maybe we are tossed about by the disturbances and cares of the world, by unremitting temptations, and by demonic provocations, just as the disciples are harassed by the wind and the waves. But the Lord is coming in the fourth watch – in his own good time. He will return perhaps to a roving and shipwrecked Church, but he will return.[ii]

We must wait upon the Lord, and, at the same time, practice an awareness of his presence in every moment of time, even when it seems to us that he is distant. Even when Jesus was praying in the hills, he who knows all things knew of the disciples’ plight in the water. And he also knew they would be alright. So, he let them struggle a little while, as he does with us. St. John Chrysostom says that “He was instructing them not too hast­ily to seek for deliverance from their pressing dangers but to bear all challenges courageously.” We must have a little courage for this life.

It’s clear that for his own reasons, the Lord allows us, his disciples, to be tossed about a bit. And it is also clear that he brings some good out of our time of struggle. Through it, he increases our desire for his coming, helps us remember him, and reveals to us our complete dependence on him.[iii]

We must have a little humility for this life. St. Peter, who was in that boat, instructs us from his experience to “humble [ourselves] under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt [us]. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:6). He will deliver us in time. We must have a little hope and a little trust and a little faith for this life.  

St. Paul says to Timothy, that “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ… will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Tim 6:14-16).

As we wait upon his coming, we must paradoxically remember his constant presence with us. Every hour of the day and every watch of the night, we must be waiting and watching for the coming of the Lord. This is why, in our Byzantine tradition, there are services of liturgical prayer for every time of the day and night.

In charts of Byzantine time, one can see that there are still four watches and 12 hours of the night and day. There are traditional times of prayer throughout this cycle. There is Vespers, which belongs to the time of the setting of the sun, Compline, which is prayed usually around 9 in the evening just before bed, Mesonyktikon, which is the Midnight Office, and Matins – or Orthros as it is also called – which is meant to begin to come to an end about dawn. Other times of prayer in our tradition are First Hour, Third Hour, Sixth Hour, and Ninth Hour, corresponding to 7 and 9 in the morning, noon, and 3 in the afternoon. All this is to say, that all the time of the day and night is time for prayer, for calling attention to the presence of the Lord in each time, as we wait upon the Lord to come to us in his own good time.

There was an elderly and saintly priest in the parish I grew up in whose sermons eventually got to the point of always being the same. In every sermon, every Sunday, he said the same things – perhaps in a different order, but there were several key phrases that always got said. One thing he said again and again was that “almighty God will do what he will do in almighty God’s own good way and in almighty God’s own good time.” Wisdom. This is a voice of experience, I believe. We must wait upon the Lord.

God will act on our behalf just exactly when he means to. We must trust in him and hope in him. As we are buffeted by the storms of life, let us wait upon the Lord, watch, and pray for his coming. He is coming and he will calm the storm in due time.

[i] Jerome
[ii] Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 14:14
[iii] Chrys.: “But He suffers them to be tossed the whole night, exciting their hearts by fear, and inspiring them with greater desire and more lasting recollection of Him; for this reason He did not stand by them immediately.”

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Prophet, the Monk, and the Human Struggle against Death

The holy prophet Elijah is probably the most popular prophet in our church. And this despite the fact that he is one of the biblical prophets who does not even have a book named after him. What we know of Elijah we know mostly from the Books of Kings. I'm quite fond of him myself. I named my oldest son after him and John the Baptist. But why is he so popular with us? Is it only because on this day we get to have our cars blessed with his fiery chariot? I think there's more to it than that.

I think that one reason Christians may have traditionally loved Elijah so much is that he, though he lived long before Jesus Christ, seems to live rather like a Christian monk. The prophet has something of the monk about him and now the monks have something of the prophet about them. 

Good monks and nuns keep alive the prophetic spirit in the Church with their radical commitment to life in Christ and death to the world. This demonstrates to the world God's will for our lives. Monasticism is God speaking to the Church about how the Church should be living.

And the Prophet Elijah is a type for monks. He was the first of the prophets to embrace the life of virginity. And he lived an ascetic life of fasting and obedience to God and such a radical commitment to the prophetic message God had given him that he even embraced life in a deserted wilderness for it.

He is also rather like John the Baptist, our other early model of Christian monasticism. They both went into the wilderness, and fasted from ordinary food, and wore garments of coarse animal hair bound with leather belts. When John the Baptist went into the wilderness and behaved in this fashion, many believed that he was Elijah who was to come. Even Jesus says that John the Baptist comes in the spirit and the power of Elijah.

This was important because Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would return as the herald of the coming Messiah. This prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in John the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord. In our troparion today, we call Elijah the second forerunner of Christ. John, of course, is the first

The Messiah whose coming they herald turns out to be not only the deliverer of Israel from its enemies but also the deliverer of all of us who struggle from our last enemy of death. Elijah is important in this human struggle against death because Elijah is one of only two who never experiences death. The other is Enoch.

It is very rare to see an icon in the church of someone who has not experienced death.  Yet on the tetrapod today is Elijah. Notice that his background is red rather than the usual gold. Red for the fire of the fiery chariot that took him deathlessly into heaven.

Some say that Elijah will still return someday together with Enoch as the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation. As we await him, we honor him and remember him especially today on this his feast. Let us look to his example and to that of the monks and nuns who keep his prophetic spirit alive to guide us in a life of radical commitment and obedience to the word of God. 

Some of these ideas are stolen from Presvytera and Dr. Jeannie Constantinou: Elijah

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Faith of the Blind

on Matt 9:27-35. Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Today, two blind men teach us much about faith and about prayer.

When they encounter Jesus, they don’t exactly ask what you might expect – for sight or for healing. Rather, they follow him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Now, mercy is healing, but it also more than healing.

Eventually, Jesus asks them, “Do you believe that I am able do this? So, not only, “Do you believe I can heal you?” but really also, “Do you have faith that I can have mercy on you?” Jesus is not asking these blind men merely what they think of him or who he is in their opinion – he is asking them about their faith – about whom they know him to be in their hearts. And they confess their faith that he is the one who can have mercy on them in their blindness. They do believe and, according to their faith, Jesus touches their eyes and opens them.

The Two Blind Men, detail, 6th Century Mosaic, Sant' Appollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

What drove Jesus to ask the two blind men about their faith? Well, first they followed him for quite some time, it would seem, as he walked from the house of a ruler back to his own house. This was probably quite a way, because Jesus likely wasn't staying in the same neighborhood as such a socially significant person. This in and of itself is a marvel: though they were blind, they were able to follow Jesus all the way to his house. They could not see him, but yet they went wherever he went. Now, maybe they had help, or maybe they were following him by sound, or maybe they simply knew the way to his house – the Gospel doesn’t say – but regardless, I think it is a good image of faith that, though blind, they could still follow Christ. They could see him, not with the eyes of the body, but with the eyes of faith. According to their faith, they could see already. Perhaps this is why they ask for mercy and not only for their sight. “Blessed are they who have not seen, but have believed.”

And all the while as they were following him, they were crying out, “Have mercy on us, son of David!” This kind of prayerful petition, repeated again and again, ought to seem familiar to us who follow Byzantine tradition – for here is one of the roots of the Jesus Prayer. I hope you all know the Jesus Prayer and pray it daily:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

We can hear in this, I think, an echo of the blind men’s prayer: “Son of David, have mercy on us.” But it is also similar in the way that they prayed it – crying and saying their prayer while following after Jesus. It seems to me that they did not cry out their prayer only once, but continuously and repeatedly as they followed Jesus.

In our hesychast tradition, under the guidance of our spiritual fathers and mothers, we pray the Jesus prayer so frequently that the prayer becomes a part of our very breathing – and of the beating of our hearts so that we can aspire to pray unceasingly, as Paul teaches us (1 Thess 5:17). Again and again in peace we pray to the Lord for mercy – as did these two blind men before us.

Their way of prayer also evokes the uncomfortable parable of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke (18:1-8). Not once does the widow plead for justice, but repeatedly. Not once do the blind men cry out for mercy but continuously.

It seems sometimes like we have to nag the Lord; we have to bend his ear; we have to keep after him. Of course, this is only how it seems to us humans. Repetition, I think, helps evoke the eternal for us temporal creatures. And it helps us forgetful creatures to remember. Anyone memorizing lines for a play or multiplication tables for a math test knows the necessity of repetition for a human mind. If we creatures are to remember our creator and our God, we must often repeat our prayer to him and our calling upon his holy name. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

It is only after the widow has often plead for justice that the judge gives her a just judgement and it is only after the blind men have followed Jesus quite a way calling out for mercy and followed him into his house that he asks them if they have faith. Only after they have demonstrated faithfulness to some extent does he ask if they have faith. We must be persistent. We must persevere in the faith even when it seems we get no answer to our prayer the first time or the second time or the seventh time we pray. Pray again! Do not lose heart. Keep following after Jesus with a pure heart – not just in the hope of some material reward, mind you, but in the hope of mercy. This is our petition: for mercy, for healing, for eternal life, and for union with God. 

The physical blindness of these two men has also for us, I believe, a spiritual meaning. We are the blind men – until we through faith receive the grace and mercy of the Lord, for which we must continually cry out. Our vision of all things is darkened until we see them in the light of Christ.

Only in the light of Christ is it possible to see things as they really are.

Only in the light of Christ can we understand the true meaning of the Torah and the prophets.

Only in the light of Christ can we see and love our enemies as images of God.

Only in the light of Christ can we find any meaning in our suffering because without Christ and his cross, all suffering is meaningless. Only in Christ and in his cross can suffering become a means of union with God – because only in Christ and in his cross does the impassible God suffer with us

Only in the light of Christ can we see that for us even death is but falling asleep in the Lord and that the great dawn of resurrection is coming, when we will awaken.

Without the light of Christ, we are blind. And so, according to our faith and due to our unceasing prayer, Christ will open our eyes.

This is a reworking of a sermon I preached three years ago: Jesus Opens our Eyes 

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