Thursday, April 16, 2015

If anyone has ears

“Already in the Western Council of 371 it is supported that councils without the consent of the Pope are invalid. In the East, St Basil the Great mentions the ‘arrogant papal brow’, while the records of the Ecumenical Councils inform us about the papal claims the papist representatives conveyed until the 8th Ecumenical Council (879/880) under Patriarch Photius. It is internationally confirmed by history that the Orthodox East never recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome in administrative jurisdiction and authority, neither in theory nor in practice, but only in ‘position of honor.’ This means that he was first among equals… Finally, the Orthodox East’s refusal to submit to the claims of the West concerning a primacy of authority over the whole Church became the reason the papists broke away from the Church in 1054.”
— Dimitrios Tselengidis

Reading such ‘stuff’ as the above, is it any wonder that Christians cannot see eye to eye, let alone get together, be together, and stay together, following the teaching of Jesus? Why aren’t we ashamed to say such things, why don’t we blush to hear them? Instead, it warms our hearts when we hear our Christian adversaries traduced in this way, yes, but the fires of hell will do more than warm our hearts. Christian adversaries? Well, we wouldn’t call them Christians if we didn’t have to. We’re only being ‘nice’ to recognize them at all, as if we did at least give them the shallowest shadow of a doubt that they just might be trying to believe in Christ, something which we’ve got under our belts, perfect to a ‘T’. No one can hold a candle to us. We’re ‘the light of the world’ that Christ mentions in the gospel.

Anyway, if we’re cantankerous and uncooperative, it’s not our fault. The holy fathers have paved our path long before we ever arrived on the scene. If Jesus wanted us to be any different, He would’ve had the holy fathers express themselves differently. I mean, if St Basil the Great points out the obvious and St Photius guards us against their prideful errors, can we do any better or be any worse than our holy fathers? Certainly not. To the Turk we’ve always said, ‘I was born a Christian, and I will die a Christian,’ and they’ve been gladder than hell to oblige us. So, why shouldn’t we keep up our hue and cry against our mortal enemies on the other side of the aisle? After all, we know what they want—to lord it over us. The leopard can’t change its spots. They’re more dangerous than ever, because they seem so friendly.

Yes, it’s Bright Week, something I recently learned from a Catholic priest I know, they don’t have. It really surprised me. Somehow I just assumed everyone knew that Pascha, Easter, is a liturgical day that outlasts the twenty-four hours from sunset to sunset, that it stretches out, leaps across the chasm of one week’s time to become a septuplet of itself. ‘Aw,’ I thought to myself while trying to not look condescending at Father Bill, ‘they don’t have bright week… It’s so sad.’ Pushing back the walls of denominational bias can be difficult, even when we think we’re liberated from it. Just like the Hebes who couldn’t find a way through the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh if God didn’t open it, we have to depend on His help to do the impossible—love our fellow Christians—or perish like proud charioteers when the sea of grace closes.

Back to the passage quoted above, it reminds me of a sad truth that occurred to me recently. The Church has always acted as though it must protect the holiness of God and especially of the sacraments from us. We have to prove ourselves worthy by public confession of our faith and submission to all the teachings of Holy Church. Only then are we allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper, only after we’ve been shriven and washed in the saving waters of holy baptism. The Church must guard us very stringently and keep outsiders—those who don’t believe as we do—away. The unclean must not be allowed within the sacred precincts. Never mind that Christ invites all to come to Him, to receive Him, without explicit stipulations, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body which is broken for you…’

Why this is so, it seemed to me one day as I watched and heard a priest announce sternly before allowing his deacon to come out with the Holy Gifts that ‘communion is only for the Orthodox’ and ‘only those Orthodox who have prepared themselves by…’ is that the Church operates as a government, as a state. It has laws that must be obeyed. It requires steadfast loyalty and obedience. It expects to be the most important thing in our lives. Although when Christ and the apostles founded the Church, they modeled it on the family, not on the state, the challenges it has had to face have hardened it, so that if it is still a family, it is a very tight one. Though a family can be a place of love and acceptance, when it is dysfunctional it can be the loneliest and harshest place on earth, and more clannish than the Ku Klux.

Sometimes a beautiful family, one that serves God and each other in loving friendship, can devolve, little by little, into something that one must flee from. The kids can’t wait to leave home. Daughters do what they can to escape, even becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Sons escape into gangs or plain debauchery. Somewhere in the devolution the parents get a divorce. In the end, a once beautiful family is everything it cannot be, yet by stretching the imagination and with reluctant patience, forces itself to occasionally get together, but it is an unjoyful reunion, every time a funeral, even when no one has died. It doesn’t have to be this way. Though a family is divided by divorce, the kids can still be friends, still love each other, and together wait for their divorced parents to make peace. Sometimes this actually happens.

Nothing broken by us can be fixed by us, not ourselves though we try, not others because we only break them more in trying. Only Christ can fix what is broken. Only He can unite what we have divided. Only Jesus can call us back who have run away through disobedience, because it is only to Him that we must run. Through all the centuries He has remained who and what He is, and by twos and threes, threes and fours, He has been healing and saving us, all without our help, except that we let Him. Meanwhile the Church has minded its own business, tended the sheep, kept the wolves away, made sure its kingdom was secure and running smoothly, allowing no disturbance, no inspiration or enthusiasm which it could not control. Hearing, but not listening. Praying, but not obeying. Giving, but not let living. Hence, here we are.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:9-17

Yes, ‘if anyone has ears to hear, let them hear’ (Mark 4:23).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Growing up

Historically, from early Christian times till now, we read the stories of Christians who are put to various tests of a blasphemous nature to break their resolve. Those that withstood them are usually killed and become martyrs. As a young Christian I wholly approved of and adulated this kind of ‘witness,’ especially because it is ancient, even going back to the apostles themselves (maybe).

Now, as an older (and rather over-tested) Christian, though never made to trample a cross or offer incense to Caesar—what would be the modern equivalent of the latter? Perhaps, treating the President as if he were God?—I hold to a different view, which is either more mature, or maybe just pragmatic.

I believe that the Divine Nature (God) is above blasphemy just as He is above envy. As for jealousy, yes, you can say, following the Bible itself, that God is a jealous God, but still, He is not an unreasonable One. He wants our full attention, our full obedience to His commandments, but He knows us, He knows He can’t get it, and so He accepts such love as we in our weakness can muster. He waits for us.

The Bible says, ‘precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints’ (Psalm 116:15), and so people have put two and two together, and decided that they will die (like the ancient Hebrews) rather than do anything to dishonor their God. Far be it from me to judge them, but for me there is a different imperative.

You see, God cannot be dishonored, and He knows our hearts. If my soul hangs in the balance between life and death depending on whether or not I will commit a blasphemous act, or even renounce verbally my faith, then to do anything that will cause my death is almost a kind of suicide.

Can the ‘death of His saints’ that the Bible speaks of refer to death in another sense, such as death to sin, death to self? I don't pretend that that was the original meaning of the text, but the text grows as we grow. The Bible then becomes not so much a book of literal laws and commandments, but a gauge of human progress.

Progress toward what, or whom? Towards God, of course, who lets the laws be our caretakers during our racial infancy, but who really wants the true law, that of indefectible love, written on our hearts. That concept is found in the same Bible too, and literally
(cf. Jeremiah 31:33).

I think that we as a race are at a critical moment. I think that the Church is at a critical moment.

The Church needs to understand that its mission is much larger than it once thought. Its mission is to incorporate the entire race into the Body of Christ, because that is where the race must go, where it has been evolving to, since it became a conscious, reasoning entity. To accomplish its mission, the Church must grow up in the sort of way I am alluding to, whereby it knows that there is no such thing as ‘blasphemy’ just as there are no such things as ‘gods’
(cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4).

The Church has been christianizing the universe. Now, the universe expects christification.

The human race needs to understand that religion must be left behind in its evolution, but that leaves no other destiny or objective than to become the Bride of Christ. Neither theists nor atheists will find much comfort in this idea, once they understand that the dichotomy between them loses all meaning when confronted with an ultimate reality neither recognized.

Far from losing ‘God’ in the abandonment of the static structures we know as ‘religion,’ we will find ourselves not merely believing, confessing, or worshiping, but actually being wed to the real God of whom all our religions had only images. Finally, we shall, as a race, be able to honestly follow the first of the Ten commandments, ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ which will unleash us to fulfill the other nine as we enter with Him the Bridal Chamber.

‘The time is near’ (Revelation 1:3), which has been repeated generation after generation in anticipation, at long last will be pronounced with finality. The critical moment—κρίσις (KREE-sees), ‘judgment’—of the race’s stepping up, or falling down, ‘to be, or not to be,’ has arrived, as Christ Himself proclaims, ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The only news worth telling

Good news. Good news. I know there’s good news in the universe, because I see it all around me every day. I don’t have to look far. I can just look outside my window. I can just go out of my front door. I live in a country that has never known war, at least not from the outside, and not on our soil for six generations. As a very young child, I knew very old people who were children during the Civil War. The edges of our land have been nibbled and nicked by enemies, but not the great and boundless middle.

Over ten years ago I stopped watching the television news. Actually, I stopped watching television altogether. The first I stopped watching because it was rewriting my imagination with daily horrors. The second I stopped watching because I realized that my life on earth was not bestowed for entertainments. I grieved for having wasted too many hours watching to dull my senses to the flow of time. I have tried to find entertainment in the things set before me to do, by others or by myself. Yet even there, I waste.

That’s human weakness, of course. Thank God for human weakness and for sleep. Thank God also for sickness, for it forces us to slow down, even to listen instead of just hear. Good news can even consist in that—making us pause, so that we can see the world around us, and even ourselves, as God made both, calling all that comes from His hand ‘good.’ What is news about this, is that this goodness was never just a ‘once and for all’ creation or event. What is, is good, even when God has finished it, no, especially.

For once the Creator hung, unknown to His creatures, stuck on a scaffold like a wild boar pierced and held in a trap, shamed and mocked by passers-by, and before the eyes of all and with bound hands recreated the very universe, redeeming it from sin without its knowing, and with the words, ‘It is finished,’ mysteriously with His last breath breathed into mortal clay the life eternal. That time, He left it to those He saved to declare it ‘good,’ that sixth-day labor after which He rested the seventh in a tomb.

Yet even resting, He worked, clearing the threshing-floor of Hades of its wheat and chaff, certainly worth revealing to the world as ‘news,’ something that has never happened before, nor shall it ever happen again, still not, however, a ‘once and for all’ event, because from beyond time it pours itself continually into time, He taking captives in all directions, from the past, the present, and the future, and presenting them to the Father. This is the good news that I see everywhere I look. This is the only news worth telling.

For the world, oblivious to all the good with which it is surrounded and filled, runs after evil—no, not just ‘bad’ but evil, the news it spreads in writing or ‘live’ reporting—so there can be no surprise that it ignores the only news worth telling, that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life. That news is the good news. That is the message of life to a world worshiping death. All good stories flow into it, and out of it. Yes, that is the only news worth telling.

Day without night

I saw that there was no temple in the City since the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb were themselves the Temple, and the City did not need the sun or the moon for light, since it was lit by the radiant glory of God and the Lamb was a lighted torch for it. The pagan nations will live by its light and the kings of the earth will bring it their treasures. The gates of it will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there…
Revelation 21:22-25 Jerusalem Bible

The whole of the message of Christ is contained and taught in two yearly feasts: Christmas, the nativity of Christ, at the time of the winter solstice, and Easter, Pascha, the resurrection of Christ, at the time of the spring equinox. This isn’t the Church taking over two pagan religious festivals and converting them into Christian ones. This is Nature itself pointing to the truths of faith and existence given a place within the New Creation, demonstrating that there is only Christ, who is in all, and in whom all ‘live and move and have their being’ (cf. Acts 17:28).

The world wants to localize these holidays, wants to contain them within calendar dates, wants to milk us for money as ants stroke and milk their aphids for nectar, giving us short respites between ‘holidays’, between milkings, so we can sufficiently recover. It doesn’t matter to the world whether the holidays are real or not. We tend to blame commercialism for spoiling the holidays, especially Christmas but to a lesser extent Easter, but it’s not their fault. ‘It’s not against human enemies that we struggle, but against fallen spiritual powers’ (cf. Ephesians 6:12).

So, they make Christmas end with a splash of presents and crumpled, glittering wrapping paper on the afternoon of December 25th, and they’d just as soon like to see Easter disappear under mountains of discarded candy boxes and deflowered Easter lilies: all very valuable and costly in the days leading up to the holiday, and suddenly transformed by studied consumption into garbage before sundown of the Lord’s Passover. Just as there is no mention of the birth of the God-Man during official Christmas, there is no mention of His resurrection during official Easter.

For the disciples of Jesus Christ whom He has ‘set free like birds from the fowler’s net’ (cf. Psalm 124), the great and holy Pascha does not disappear after the day of Resurrection, nor does the God-Man’s taking birth from the Theotokos retreat into mere myth and folklore after the day of Incarnation: These holidays are not days that inhabit one number on the world calendar. They are not days at all, as we experience them, but entrances into the Divine Nature, into the life eternal, the life of the Holy Triad, which begins in time but proves to contain even time itself.

In Christ’s birth, God becomes Man, not once, but forever, taking human nature up into the Divine Nature, divinizing the whole Tree that Man is, Himself one of us, by hanging on that Tree as its first fruit.

In Christ’s resurrection, Man becomes God, not once, but forever, reopening to us the gates of Paradise, a Serpent raised on a stake, inviting us to partake of the Fruit of the tree of life, renewing all creation.

In Christ’s birth, the two greatest commandments, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27) become One commandment: to love your neighbor is to love God, thus brotherly love is theological.

In Christ’s resurrection, His entire life as Man becomes the pattern of our life, and only by following Him, by doing what we see Him doing, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill’ (Matthew 5:17), can we fulfill the One commandment, becoming by grace what He is by nature.

Tradition mandates twelve days to celebrate the birth of Christ, and after the day of His resurrection an entire week is gathered up into a single liturgical day, and a total of forty calendar days will hear the greeting ‘Christ is risen! He is truly risen!’ But after celebration, life must go on. We still must live our day to day lives. Tomorrow, I must return to the office and deal with what I find there, pretending to be ‘only human’ when I know by the testimony of His rising from the dead, that Christ is with me, even as He stands in the Presence of His Father, for He says ‘where I am, there will My servant be also’
(John 12:26).

In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus: His state was divine, yet He did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the conditions of a slave, and became as all men are; and being as all men are, He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised Him high and gave Him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11 Jerusalem Bible

This, beloved brethren, is the Day of Resurrection,
the Day without night,
the Life without death,
and the Love without end.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Because the King is asleep

Saturday is the Sabbath of the Lord's Rest, when His body sleeps in the tomb and His Spirit-filled soul descends to Hades (or She‘ol, in Hebrew) to destroy its power over mankind, and lead the captives held there to safety and salvation. It is the work that Christ does on the seventh day that is the most paradoxically powerful act of sleeping that ever was, as the Psalm declares, ‘He provides for His beloved as they sleep.’

Yes, and what a sleep! Both His, in the new tomb, and ours, when we sleep in Him, which is the only way we or anyone can truly awake.

Brethren, let us give glory to the Victor over death whose work is hidden from the world that He has saved, yet He saves them all the same.

Something strange is happening.
There is a great silence on earth today,
a great silence and stillness.
The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.

The earth trembled and is still
because God has fallen asleep in the flesh,
and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.
God has died in the flesh and she’ol trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parents,
as for a lost sheep.
Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve,
He who is both God and the son of Eve.

The Lord approached them bearing the cross,
the weapon that had won Him the victory.
At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created,
struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone,
‘My Lord be with you all.’
Christ answered him, ‘And with your spirit.’

He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying,
‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.
For I am your God,
who for your sake have become your son.
Out of love for you and for your descendants
I now by My own authority command—
all who are held in bondage to come forth,
all who are in darkness to be enlightened,
all who are sleeping to arise.

‘I order you, O sleeper, to awake.
I did not create you to be held a prisoner in she‘ol.
Arise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.
Arise, work of My hands.
Arise, O My likeness,
you who were created in My image.
Rise, let us leave this place,
for you are in Me and I am in you.
Together we form only one person
and we cannot be separated.

‘For your sake I, your God, became your son;
For your sake I, the Lord, took the form of a slave;
For your sake I, whose home is above the heavens,
descended to the earth and beneath the earth.
For your sake, for the sake of man,
I became like a man without help,
free among the dead.

‘For the sake of you, who left a garden,
I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden,
and I was crucified in a garden.

‘See on My face the spittle I received
in order to restore to you the life
I once breathed into you.
See there the marks of the blows I received
in order to refashion your warped nature
in My image.
See on My back the marks of the scourging I endured
to remove the burden of sin
that weighs upon your back.
See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree,
for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand
to a tree.

‘I slept on the cross
and a sword pierced My side for you
who slept in paradise
and brought forth Eve from your side.

‘My side has healed the pain in yours;
My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in she‘ol.
The sword that pierced Me
has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

‘Arise, let us leave this place.

‘The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise.
I will not restore you to that paradise,
but I will enthrone you in heaven.
I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life,
but see,
I who am life itself am now one with you.
I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded,
but now I make them worship you as God.

‘You hid yourselves, as if naked, from God:
but behold—
hidden within you is the naked God.

‘The throne formed by cherubim awaits you,
its bearers swift and eager.
The bridal chamber is adorned,
the banquet is ready,
the eternal dwelling places are prepared,
the treasure houses of all good things lie open.
The kingdom of heaven
has been prepared for you
from all eternity.’

Only one Passover

The world is quite happy to oblige us in helping us celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as if we needed any help. In its grosser, more obvious forms, the pre-Easter deluge of candy, cards, flowers artificial and natural, and the rest is in our faces long before the world is really ready for them. It’s as if it wants to fool itself as well as us, into thinking that Easter is a springtime renewal holiday, a sort of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ holiday, at best a kind of spiritual spring cleaning, as if we could ever really clean ourselves.

But that’s what the world likes to think, and it’d be only too happy if the Christians, for whose sake the world goes to all this trouble, would just settle down and get with the program. Unfortunately, there’s a fringe group of these ‘incredible Christians’ that seems to want to push something else at the world. Well, patience and forbearance isn’t the monopoly of these fanatics. The world can be patient too. Along with its helpers, satan, and the flesh, the world never seems to tire of taking over our lives, even the smallest details.

So we find ourselves going to church services to celebrate Easter, after which many communities have fun activities for the children like Easter egg hunts, and of course, there’s plenty of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chickies to go around. Those Christians who belong to communities that try to take the season more seriously, prepare themselves with fasting, prayer, confession and good works, then trade all this abstinence for an extravaganza on the night of Pascha.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating Pascha, the Lord’s Passover, with feasting and other delights. In fact, Holy Church has been encouraging us to do this at least ever since John Chrysostom preached his famous sermon that we still read in Greek and English at the end of the Resurrection service…

Do you honor God? Do you love Him?
—here’s the very feast for your pleasure.
Are you His servants, knowing His wishes?
—be glad with your Master, share His rejoicing.
Are you worn down with the labor of fasting?
—now is the time of your payment.
Have you been working since early morning?
—now you will be paid what is fair.
Have you been here since the third hour?
—you can be thankful, you will be pleased.
If you came at the sixth hour,
you may approach without fearing:
you will suffer no loss.
Did you linger till the ninth hour?
—come forward without hesitation.
What though you came at the eleventh hour?
—have no fear; it was not too late.

God is a generous Sovereign,
treating the last to come as He treats the first arrival.
He allows all His workmen to rest—
those who began at the eleventh hour,
those who have worked from the first.
He is kind to the late-comer
and sees to the needs of the early,
gives to the one and gives to the other:
honors the deed and praises the motive.

Join, then, all of you, in our Master’s rejoicing.
You who were the first to come, you who came after,
come and collect now your wages.
Rich men and poor men, sing and dance together.
You that are hard on yourselves, you that are easy,
honor this day.
You that have fasted and you that have not,
make merry today.

The meal is ready: come and enjoy it.
The calf is a fat one: you will not go hungry away.
There’s kindness for all to partake of
and kindness to spare.

Away with pleading of poverty:
the Kingdom belongs to us all.
Away with bewailing of failings:
forgiveness has come from the grave.
Away with your fears of dying:
the death of our Savior has freed us from fear.
Death played the master: He has mastered death.

The world below had scarcely known Him in the flesh
when He rose and left it plunged in bitter mourning.
Isaiah knew it would be so.
‘The world of shadows mourned,’ he cried, ‘when it met You,
mourned at its bringing low, wept at its deluding.’

The shadows seized a body and found it was God;
they reached for earth and what they held was heaven;
they took what they could see: it was what no one sees.
Where is death’s goad? Where is the shadows’ victory?

Christ is risen: the world below is in ruins.
Christ is risen: the spirits of evil are fallen.
Christ is risen: the angels of God are rejoicing.
Christ is risen: the tombs are void of their dead.
Christ has indeed arisen from the dead,
the first of the sleepers.

Yes, there is certainly nothing wrong with celebrating Pascha, the Lord’s Passover, Easter (as it is called in English and other Germanic tongues) with feasting and celebration. This is what the Lord wants us to do, though He celebrated it with His disciples at a campfire on a beach, grilled fish on the menu. The world, when it can’t distract us with cheap tricks, still goes in for the big illusions, still hopes to snare us, to make us forget the Truth—or has it already succeeded? There’s a fine line between happiness and joy, between indulgence and celebration.

Let our feasting, like our ikons, be windows into the life of the age to come, reminding us of our destination, letting us see glimpses of it, like the first rays of a sun still below the eastern horizon. Let our feasting not be commandeered by the world, the flesh and the devil, the three of whom delight in deluding us, in denuding us of our covering, the Lord Jesus, turning our anticipation of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb into just another gorging ourselves on the flesh of lambs. We must not be found without our wedding garment, lest we be cast out into the outer darkness.

Brothers, let’s celebrate the Lord’s Passover with spiritual rejoicing and not be satisfied with mere mortal happiness. Let our hospitality toward one another be real and from the heart, for the One who was dead and is alive forever is really in our midst. If we are Jews, let’s live as though the Passover Night and the Exodus from Egypt really happened, for in truth they did, and they still do. If we are Christians, let’s live as though the Passover Night and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, for in truth, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and to those in the tombs, bestowing Life.’

There really is, after all, only one Passover.

King of Glory

Anger can be replaced with love, and ‘warning against’ can be replaced with ‘inviting to,’ but what is most important, is to follow the Lord's instructions every day, as you follow Him in the world.

As for me, I am a servant who has been told, ‘Go to the highways and byways and find wedding guests to fill My banquet hall.’

Loving the stranger may not be as effective in fighting evil in the world in the short term, and you may even have to pay with your life, but in the long term, love wins.

Christ going down to Hades, to She’ol, is no ‘frog in a well’. He went down there and emptied it of its captives, bringing them to Paradise.

The more closely we follow Him, even in His descent into hell, the more miracles and resurrections we will see happening around us, by His power, and the more certain and faithful we will become, as His witnesses.

There is a saying, ‘not the world, my parish, but my parish, the world.’

What you know, what you have learned from your experiences in this world, is part of the armory which the Lord, the King of kings of kings (blessed be He!), has given to you, but the battle is still His.

Let Him direct you in what weapons to use, as you follow Him into battle. You witness by living as though the resurrection were a fact, and the victory already won. Why?

Because He did rise from the dead, and the victory was, and continues to be, won, but only from the throne of His cross, where He is seen to be ‘the King of Glory.’

This is hard for us to assimilate, and to accept, but Jesus said to Peter, ‘Don't you know that My Father could send myriads of angels to defend Me? Put away your sword, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.’

How will the world know who Christ is?

By seeing His disciples loving, not just each other—that is a given—but also those who are not yet one of them, even… their enemies.

The world and life wear down our sharp and cutting edges, and Christ lets the experiences of our lives polish us to a very bright sheen, but He rounds us, and makes us worthy stones to be built into His spiritual temple, His Body.

That is so we will be found worthy to be one of the building blocks of His heavenly City when it finally descends to earth, and the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of Christ and His saints.

Love to you, and peace, brothers and sisters in Christ, love and peace, in the midst of this world of war.

Christos anesti. Christ is risen.

Let's live today as if He really did rise, because He is with us right now, in this very room, to accept our faith, and by means of it, to transform us into creatures worthy of eternal life.

Trophy-bearers of the holy fire

Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 
I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
John 12:44-50 NIV

No matter how you cut it up, the fourth gospel is loaded with meaning, with truth, in each and every utterance of Christ which the evangelist records. We call him John the theologian because we can sense the presence of man’s struggle with God in every line, man wanting and not wanting to be what God has created him to be, and God firmly insisting that there’s no other option. Eternal life is open and free, but only to those who really want to live.

People call church teachings and philosophy ‘theology’ and they say that they go to school and ‘read theology’ eventually becoming ‘masters.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is some value in learning the signs this way, so that when real theology happens to us, we will recognize it for what it is, and not shrug it off as ‘just what happens.’ Theology is struggle, and Christ came to persuade us to take it on and to show us its purpose.

The same words of Jesus can ignite the fires of theology and of hell. ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already’ (Luke 12:49 JB). This is no mythological Prometheus who will steal fire from the heaven of the gods and then be eternally tortured for it, though even in the myth the fire-thieving Titan is said to have created man from clay and then sacrificed himself for their benefit, for the divine fire is the agent of transformation both in myth and in reality.

Curious that the makers of religion can slip through the inferno that Christ provides, and erect towers of their own wisdom to raise them above the flames. All the while, far below them, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, those fire-sifters, the true theologians tread the flames with the Son of God, who cools the fires of their flesh and blows upon the fire of their spirits, transforming them into images of Himself and, like Him, trophy-bearers of the holy fire.

‘The Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life,’ says Jesus, who not only tells us exactly what is in the Father’s mind, but shows us even what the Father looks like. And, far from using threats or force, far from exalting himself over us as our judge—though as the Son of God He has every right—He tells us that not He, but the words He has spoken, will judge us on the last day, making us write our own sentences.

In the gospel, not just according to John but in all four gospels, we have been told and shown everything we need to know about ourselves, where we come from, where we are going. We are even released from religious bondage and fear, not as the atheist imagines himself free by denying Reason and its Source, but by acknowledging Reason in a form we can recognize, a man just like us, who came not once but comes forever, to bestow upon His race the power of words.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Small blasphemies

Athens, April 8, 2015

The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece has made a statement in connection with the fact that shoes with a depiction of the Holy Cross on the soles has entered the market in Greece, reports the Romfea portal. The footgear with the Cross on its soles must disappear from the market – this demand has been put forward in the statement of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece.

The Synod has stated that such use of an image of the Holy Cross ‘is a sheer blasphemy, outrage upon and violation of the sanctity of the Expiatory Symbol of our Orthodox faith.’ The Synod has also expressed its ‘discontent, protest and loathing in connection with this blasphemous action committed, furthermore, on the great days of the Holy Week, and the Synod is requiring removal of the above-mentioned footwear from sale.’

It should be noted that the Synod has issued this statement and expressed its protest following the publication on the internet of photographs advertising these shoes with the Cross pictured on them.

I don’t pretend to understand why people should be so childish and proffer such petty blasphemies to the Lord, who is not moved to anything but pity for them, while our churchly leaders expose themselves to greater ridicule by challenging them.

You are not to be childish in your outlook. You can be babies as far as wickedness is concerned, but mentally you must be adult.
1 Corinthians 14:20

Now, for some history…

When Francis of Assisi was ushered into the presence of the Sultan of Egypt and was told he must walk across a carpet that was covered with images of the cross, he did not hesitate, much to the surprise of the Muslim onlookers. After he crossed the carpet, walking naturally and not trying to avoid treading on the crosses, he said, ‘I have walked on these crosses because they are the cross of the bad thief, which you may keep. I will, on the other hand, keep the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.’ This unexpected outcome so impressed the Sultan that he admitted Francis into his intimate company, and allowed him to evangelize. Though it may be only a legend, there is a tradition that the Sultan told Francis, ‘I know that yours is the true faith, and that Jesus is the Lord, but if I openly confess Him here and now, we shall both be put to the sword. Living for Him in secret will allow me to work for Him openly.’ And before his repose, the Sultan sent for two Franciscan brothers to attend him at death, and they baptised him into life eternal.

Our love must be as mighty and fearless as Christ's, and then every blasphemy, every attack, every unfounded hatred and mockery shall be under the soles of our feet, just as the cross of the bad thief was under the feet of Francis of Assisi on that day.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The sumptuous banquet of the Word

He entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see Him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way.

When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him,
‘Zacchaeus, come down! Hurry, because I must stay at your house today!’

And he hurried down and welcomed Him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’

And Jesus said to him,
‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’

Luke 19:1-10 Jerusalem Bible

How can anyone who hears this true story not feel his spirit leap within him? Another chance to make good on everything that I have ruined, another chance to welcome back joy into my shattered life. Though I have filled my house with every good thing, it has been through pillaging what was not mine. Though I have exploited the poor, defrauded widows and orphans, He has seen hidden inside me the man that He created, and He is giving me another chance. He is letting me serve Him, letting me dine with Him, in my own house which He now has made His. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”

And so the Word of God comes to our personal Jericho, and we, having heard of Him, maybe knowing more about Him than we care to admit, run ahead to find a comfortable spot from which to view this parade of His followers, and actually lay our eyes on Him. All we wanted to do was just that—take a look. But what happens to us proves beyond all shadow of a doubt, that His love bestows on us more than we bargained for. Though we thought, ‘I am one of so many, I can hide among the leafy branches above this crowd, and see Him without being noticed,’ He sees us.

The crowd doesn’t see us, no matter what we do, good or bad, whether we try to be visible or invisible. No one ever sees us as we really are. We don’t even see ourselves. Yet we cannot hide from the One who made us, and who is all Eye. Though Jesus had never seen him in this world, He looked up and saw Zacchaeus and called him out by name, just as He calls each of us by name. ‘How do you know me?’ asks another man whom Jesus called by name. For that man, as for Zacchaeus, there was no gradual development into a follower of Christ; it happened in an instant, in a moment of kairós time (cf. John 1:48).

It always must be this way. Jesus doesn’t wait. He calls us, and we either respond, or not. What must it feel like to be someone who has heard the voice of Jesus, and still turned away?

So Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus Christ into his home, prepared a feast, and dined with the Lord. No one had to tell him what to say or do. “Blessed are you... because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 NASB), he just said it, and did it. “I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.” Zacchaeus returned to his senses, drawn back to reason by the Son of Man, remembered the covenant, came back to the commandments. Why? Because he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.”

We too are the sons and daughters, not only of Abraham, but of God our heavenly Father, through Christ our heavenly Brother, Friend, Master and Lord, who says to us, “I shall not call you servants any more, because a servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (John 15:15 JB) and “You are My friends, if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).

What an opportunity! Jesus calls us by name—even if we don’t know Him, He knows us—to the sumptuous banquet of the Word! With Zacchaeus, let’s return everything that doesn’t belong to us—sin itself—so that we can travel light, as we run the way of His commandments, because He has set us free.

You too can be Christ

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 28:19

Who is Christ talking to? Surely, not to me, I’m just an ordinary Christian layman. I can’t baptize anyone. He must be talking to the apostles and their successors, the bishops and priests of the Church.
I wouldn’t know how to make disciples. I hardly know how to be one myself. He can’t possibly be talking to me. This is the Church’s responsibility.

Well, then, who or what is the Church?

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Matthew 7:24-27

Does it really matter, then, to ask who or what is the Church when we have words like these from the Son of God Himself? Can anyone put Christ’s words into practice for us? Can anyone be blamed if we ourselves do not put them into practice? We may not all be called to be apostles, that is, bishops, priests, deacons, evangelists and other professors of the Word. What is there left for us to do? Have all the important works been taken away and given to these men who are so much closer to Christ?

Jesus said: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’

Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Luke 10:30-37

So, we are not bishops, priests and deacons. They’ve been given the all important work of going out and making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them. That’s not our call. We can’t be expected to go out of our way and do such extraordinary things. But what about the people that we don’t go out to, but who come to us, or who are placed in our path?

The Church fathers take the parable of the Good Samaritan, quoted above, and they tell us some of its meanings. They don’t tell us who the priest and the Levite are, but they do tell us the identities of the Samaritan, the traveler, the innkeeper, and the inn.

The Samaritan, they say, is Christ. The traveler beaten and robbed and left on the road to die is every man in need of salvation. The inn is the Church, and the innkeeper is the ministers of the Church.

Christ is he who does not pass by on the other side, avoiding the inconvenience of helping the wounded man placed in his path. We may not be innkeepers—clergy—that is true. But anyone of us can minister to the one God has placed in our path.

You may not be a priest or Levite either.

But you too can be Christ.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Revealed to be Paradise

Orthodox Christianity is the last preserve of the ancient Christian faith in the world today, a snapshot of the Church from late Roman times, modified locally over the centuries but maintaining with a flexible conservatism the ethos, or environment, of early Christianity. Unlike sects that have tried to revive the apostolic faith on the basis of their reading of scripture, which has produced dozens (maybe hundreds) of variations over the past five centuries, Orthodoxy is remarkably uniform, even when liturgically seeming quite diverse. What unites the joyous yet solemn worship of the Ethiopians and the solemn yet joyous worship of the Russians is the quality of merciful love, a childlike trust, not only in God but in each other, and a subtle retreat from divisiveness. These people want to stay together so badly that they—I should say we—will put up with almost anything to fulfill the high-priestly prayer of Christ to the Father ‘that they all will be one, even as you and I are one.’ Though one encounters pockets, even strongholds, of intensely fundamentalist mentality, as well as spiritual scuffles and even battles from time to time and in various places, the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity flows smoothly, quietly, reflectively, and, best of all, dependably, from age to age.

These characteristics have been called both the strength and the weakness of Orthodoxy. In reality, what the Holy Church is cannot be weighed in the scales of human judgment any more than what Christ is. She is the Bride, and He the Bridegroom.

For the first three evenings of Holy Week, we celebrate Christ the Bridegroom, as we have done for centuries, in the wedding pavilion of the Lamb which Holy Church has erected and into which she invites us. There we behold the holy prophet Joseph the all-comely who, by his blameless life and senseless betrayal and sale into slavery by his own brothers, foreshadows Jesus the Messiah. And the wise and foolish virgins too are there, and we are shown the choices we make to be momentous. They matter, and we matter, but the Son of God cannot do for us what only we can do for ourselves, that is, make sure we have plenty of oil for our lamps, so that they will continue to shine brightly to the end. Our faith is not magic, nor is it like a machine that can be set to run on automatic. Like the material universe in which we find ourselves, everything erodes and must be maintained, on purpose, or else not. This is our part in the synergic relationship each one of us shares with the Creator. Not just the first Adam, but even the Second, even us, He places in the Garden, to tend it. Though the Garden may have been overrun with weeds, if we are diligent, and if we follow the Gardener and do what we see Him doing, it is revealed to be Paradise.

Ten virgins

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
Matthew 25:1-13

The parable about the ten virgins has been clearly and convincingly explained by Seraphim of Sarov in his conversation with Motovilov.

Some say that the shortage of oil of the foolish virgins signifies their shortage of good works in their lives. Such understanding is not exactly correct. How can they be short of good works if they, though foolish, are still called virgins? Chastity is a supreme virtue, the state of being equal to angels, and could itself serve as a substitute for all other virtues.

I humbly think that they were actually short of the grace of God's All-Holy Spirit.

These virgins did good, and out of their spiritual foolishness supposed that doing good was exactly the point of Christianity. They did good works and by this obeyed God, but they did not care in the least beforehand whether they had received or reached the grace of God's Spirit…

This very gaining of the Holy Spirit is that oil which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish because they forgot about the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is saved and no one can be saved, for: ‘it is by the Holy Spirit that any soul is vitalized and exalted in chastity, and any soul is lit by the Trinitarian unity in holy mysteries.’

The Holy Spirit moves into our souls, and this installation of the All-Mighty into our souls, and co-existence of His Trinitarian Unity with our spirit is given only through the gaining by all means, the Holy Spirit, which prepares in our soul and body the throne for God’s creative co-existence with our spirit in strict accordance with the word of God: ‘I will dwell among them and will be their God, and they will be my people.’

This is the oil in the lamps of wise virgins, oil that burnt bright and long, so that the virgins with the burning lamps could wait until the Bridegroom who came at midnight, and enter with Him into the house of joy. But the foolish virgins, seeing that their lamps were going out, went to the marketplace to buy oil but would not come back in time, for the doors were already shut.

The marketplace is our life; the door of the house of marriage (that was shut and did not lead to the Bridegroom) is our human death; wise and foolish virgins are Christian souls; the oil is not works but the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God which is received through these works, and which converts things perishable into things imperishable, transforms spiritual death into spiritual life, darkness into light, the manger of our being, with passions tied like cattle and beasts, into the Divine Temple, into the glorious palace of never-ending rejoicing in Christ Jesus.

Ikon not made by hands

Yes, there seems to be, and it seems that there has always been, a kind of subtle war between the male and female sexes. We have the saying, ‘It's a man's world,’ and in a strange sort of way it's true. In most places, through most of human history, the male sex dominates society, at least outwardly. In recent times, the women's movement throughout the world has won for the female sex ‘rights’ that previously only men possessed. Actually, going beyond the equalization of ‘rights’ this movement has in many places declared war on the male sex in a barely hidden push to gain ascendancy, and even to collect ‘reparations’ from the offending sex. This post will not be a diatribe against feminism, but simply reviews the state of affairs between the sexes as we find them. What God creates is a humanity that is His image and likeness in two complementary forms. What sin results in is a humanity that is fragmented and distorted and at war with itself.

The Son of God comes into the world—yes, as a male human, a man, according to the Divine economy—to integrate the two natures, human and Divine, in a single person, and in so doing, He also integrates the two sexes, female and male, in a single humanity. He proves true in eternity what was true in time. ‘God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:27). He also provides the antidote to the sin of gender supremacy by His death on the Cross, His burial in the Tomb, His descent into Hades and His triumph over it, and by His bodily Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of Divine Majesty. He does so by becoming the Divine Bridegroom, the Second Adam, and by revealing hidden in His side the Divine Bride, the Second Eve. Yes, His virgin Mother is the Second Eve, but not the only one. She is the Mother of all who follow, all who like her become ‘God-bearers.’

The Marriage of earth and heaven makes the earth heavenly and heaven earthly. The divine Bridegroom makes the human Bride divine, just as the unwedded Bride, the human mother of Jesus Christ, makes the divine Bridegroom human. Heaven comes down to earth, so that earth can ascend to heaven. And we, following Jesus, follow her, His mother, and like her also make the divine human. Brotherly love now becomes theological, because to love our brother and sister whom we can see proves that we love God whom we cannot see. In truth, our love for our neighbor, even for all of creation, makes the invisible God visible.

But how does Christ by His Divine economy, His plan of salvation, provide the antidote to the sin of gender supremacy, how does He bring reconciliation and peace between the male and the female? Does He make them equal, as modern social theory attempts to do? Does He remove precedence, privilege, and patriarchy? We still see a male God in heaven, the Father, and a male Son, Jesus Christ. Some see a female God in the Holy Spirit, but all this is just trying to fit the unknowable within the limits of human understanding. We are still thinking in pictures that we have made, but it is the Ikon not made by hands that reveals the Truth.

The Bridegroom and the Bride. This is where we find ourselves when we seek to know the truth of all things. And in the Bridegroom's wounds we are revealed to be His Bride. All of us, male and female, in a single new humanity, one with each other as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are One in the Holy Triad, who was, who is, and who is to come.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Only from Him

‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.’ To many this saying of Jesus seems hard. But how much harder will it be to hear that word of doom, ‘Depart from Me, your cursed, into everlasting fire.’ For those who now cheerfully hear and obey the word of the Cross will not tremble to hear the sentence of eternal damnation. The sign of the Cross will appear in the heavens, when Our Lord comes as Judge. Then will all the servants of the Cross, who in their lives conformed themselves to the Crucified, stand with confidence before Christ their Judge.

Why, then, do you fear to take up the Cross, which is the road to the Kingdom? In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross. Take up the Cross, therefore, and follow Jesus. Christ has gone before you, bearing His Cross; He died for you on the Cross, that you also may bear your cross, and desire to die on the cross with Him. For if you die with Him, you will also live with Him. And if you share His sufferings, you will also share His glory.

See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial. Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross. Arrange and order all things to your own ideas and wishes, yet you will still find suffering to endure, whether you will or not; so you will always find the Cross. For you will either endure bodily pain, or suffer anguish of mind and spirit.

At times, God will withdraw from you; at times you will be troubled by your neighbor, and, what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself. Neither can any remedy or comfort bring you relief, but you must bear it as long as God wills. For God desires that you learn to bear trials without comfort, that you may yield yourself wholly to Him, and grow more humble through tribulation. No man feels so deeply in his heart the Passion of Christ as he who has to suffer in like manner. The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross. And everywhere you must have patience, if you wish to attain inner peace, and win an eternal crown…

… Had there been a better way, more profitable to the salvation of mankind than suffering, then Christ would have revealed it in His word and life. But He clearly urges both His own disciples and all who wish to follow Him to carry the cross, saying, ‘If any will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’ Therefore, when we have read and studied all things, let his be our final resolve: ‘that through much tribulation we must enter the Kingdom of God.’
— Thomas à Kempis,
The Imitation of Christ, Book 2, Chapter 12

Today is Good Friday, though not for me. I am a Greek Orthodox Christian. The Greeks and all other Eastern Christians follow the ‘Old Calendar’ (Julian) for that part of the year which leads into Easter and follows it. This year, our Pascha (Orthodox Easter) is one week behind everyone else’s. It has something to do with our rule that Pascha must follow the Jewish Pesach (Passover), so whenever the Jews celebrate that movable feast (following a lunar calendar), our Pascha must follow it chronologically. Somehow the Western Church (Roman Catholic, Protestant), using the ‘New Calendar’ (Gregorian, which is astronomically more accurate) has decided to cut the link to Judaism. Those years where Orthodox Pascha is five weeks later than Western Easter, you will find the Jews celebrating Passover after Easter. For us, a big ‘no-no.’

Today is Good Friday. I wish I could read out loud for you the entire twelfth chapter of Book 2 of The Imitation of Christ, and it’s too long to quote it here. The opening paragraphs, and the last, are enough. Roman Catholics and some Protestants should need no recommendation from me about this book, which used to be the most widely read Christian book outside the Bible, but many Orthodox will either never have heard of it or else have dismissed it out of hand because it is a ‘Western’ Christian book. Still, I recommend it, because it has also been endorsed by a recently reposed Orthodox saint, Mother Gavrilía (1897-1992). Yes, I know she is not an ‘official’ saint and may never be ‘glorified’ as one, but anyone who knows her life and sayings cannot doubt that’s what she is—a saint. And in her list of books to be read, The Imitation of Christ is one she highly regarded (The Ascetic of Love, p. 178).

Today is Good Friday. As I drove home this evening after visiting with a friend, looking around me at the world passing by, I was struck by the complete indifference to, maybe just ignorance of, the great Event that a small minority was commemorating today. This is one of the few days in the year, maybe the only day, that many churches leave themselves unlocked and open to anyone passing by, to enter and contemplate the mystery of the Cross, through which salvation has come to the whole world.

Yes, I know, it’s through Jesus that salvation has come, but please, let’s remember it didn’t happen by magic. It took courage, effort, perseverance, faith, and especially love, and it cost everything, not just pain and suffering, but life itself had to be surrendered. All of this, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it true or not, is still the pattern of our own human existence. Though the world around me, as I drove home, seemed oblivious to the Cross, it is the Cross which is the key to all of its suffering.

I saw a man wearing a black robe, shouldering a life-sized wooden cross made from two pine trunks fastened together. The wood had not been hewn square at all. It looked a bit odd, but it was definitely a cross and it was obvious he was ‘witnessing’ publicly. Following him were three or four others, men in black robes, and a woman in a black dress, all very young. He did not drag the cross, but carried it aloft. I followed the little group in my rear view mirror till they vanished into the distance.

Back to the Cross. My mother used to tell me of her Catholic childhood. Good Friday she went on her knees into the church like everyone else to venerate the Holy Cross set up in the middle of the nave. She said she had sore, scraped knees, and torn stockings by the time it was over. As a young adult Christian in a High Church Episcopal parish, I did something similar for about a dozen years. Episcopalians aren’t as hard on the knees. We left the pews, single-filed and genuflected thrice on the way to the Cross.

Back to the world. I couldn’t stop thinking, as I drove home tonight, how the Cross is both the questioning and the answering of the human dilemma, how tragic yet typical it is that both are hidden in plain sight before us, yet most, almost all, do not make the connexion. It is either ignored, or else seen as ‘religion’ and rejected. How many Christians, ceremonially approaching a wooden image of a hand- and foot-nailed naked man make the connexion that it is their suffering and death they come to kiss?

As we are warned in The Imitation of Christ, ‘At times, God will withdraw from you; at times you will be troubled by your neighbor, and, what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself,’ and ‘The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross.’ Every pain, every sorrow, every disappointment, every loss, everything, everything—the Cross.

Perhaps it’s too close for us to see on our own. Perhaps it’s so much a part of us, ours and the world’s suffering, that we could never see it, even if we wanted to, just as no one can see his own face, except in a mirror. And here, before us, on this Good Friday (or on Orthodox ‘Great and Holy Friday,’ a second opportunity one week from today) that mirror is providentially supplied. We can crawl, walk, or even run forward to that irrefutable mirror, the Cross of Christ, and taking hold of it, kissing the image of His sacred wounds, find a comfort that comes from no one else, only from Him, who takes our place every day, in every trial, until the end of time.

Λαζαρε δευρο εξω!

Lazarus, come forth!

Don't you just hate it when someone who doesn’t even have a college diploma challenges trained seminary graduates ‘who has letters after their names’ (as Spyros ‘Amerikano’ Chalkiopoulos tried to explain to Mrs. Durrell in the film My Family and Other Animals) on points biblical or theological? I know I do, because it really shouldn’t be necessary. Why don’t the seminaries teach them these things?

There is no Catholic way of salvation, there is no Protestant way. There are only explanations and interpretations, and these are undoubtedly human. These are not what is meant by the concept of παράδοσις, parádhosis, ‘the handing over’ of the truth of the Gospel.

The παράδοσις is what was handed over verbally and practically by Christ and His holy apostles to the believers. Most of what is meant by this term has ended up in the New Testament. In fact, if you believe in the divine economy, all of what was handed over by the apostles is in the New Testament. The problem seems to be all about interpretation. It is this human failing, the desire to ‘be right,’ that has tried to rip asunder the seamless robe that clothes the Body of Christ.

Staying in the Word, reading, hearing and living it as it is, we will have returned to that place where we again put on that seamless robe. There is one faith, one Lord, one baptism, as we know. It is mankind in its argumentative and speculative vanity that has tried to tear the robe to shreds, while all think that they have gambled for the entire robe, and won it. The seamless robe is intact, but only for those who really want to wear it, and who want to share it with Christ's holy and pure Body.

Like Lazarus, we are still tangled in our strips of mortuary linen like dead men. Jesus still calls out to us, ‘Come forth!’ We don't have to remain dead, unless we want to. Like Lazarus, once you know for sure that it is the voice of Jesus calling you out, who would want to stay in that tomb?

Wake up from your sleep,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
Ephesians 5:14 Jerusalem Bible

There is only one way of salvation, and it is simply but amply testified throughout the scriptures. We need to really believe that the Word of God, not our interpretations of it, is what constitutes the Truth. That is the παράδοσις. That is what the apostles handed over to us. That is what makes our faith, if we believe their testimony, apostolic.

I am for tearing off the costumes we wear in front of each other as we go into battle. Why? Because our battle is not with each other, but against the powers of wickedness in the heavens. If we really want to fight each other, let’s strip ourselves, and see—we're all the same! Then, let’s put on the only garment worth having, because He gives it to all who believe in Him, His own skin! All who have been baptized have put on Christ, as the scriptures say. And what baptism is that? Being buried with Christ in His death, so as to rise with Him in His glorious resurrection.

I’m trying to move beyond thinking about God, to just living in Him. I’m trying to cut through the knots of tangled lore that have kept us encamped on the devil’s playground so long, fighting each other.

What would happen, if suddenly the various Christian missions and denominations in a majority Muslim country like Indonesia or Malaysia (which still allow the existence of Christianity) suddenly were seen to absolutely and without reserve support each other in everything, even without coalescing into one uniform institution? Everything that they disagree about, they would agree to just pray and ask the Lord to intercede for each other’s folly, and then, with that out of the way, just ‘go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.’

Hey! What if we can’t agree on how and whom to baptize, and when? Well, that’s just some more folly that we have to ask the Lord to forgive and correct. Meanwhile, let’s all just go in to the harvest field, and work, because night is coming when no one can work, and because ‘the time is close.’

But what about groups like the Mormons, who say they are Christians, but really aren’t?

I’ve thought about groups like the Mormons, and of course, there are others besides them who straddle a ‘gray area.’ I think the fearful divide is the question whether one accepts the Holy Bible as the only divinely revealed scripture on earth. If the answer is ‘yes,’ then we start from there, if we must, to peel people ‘off the salvation list’ by testing them on other things.

But do you see what that makes us? Judges, and corrupt judges at that, because we can only see as through a glass darkly and have no view at all of what is happening in a person's soul, where they meet God face to face.

We have to learn to trust more in God and in the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and simply follow His directions and instructions without adding to them. Look where we have ended up by adding to the παράδοσις: ‘The world’ drives past mega-churches and through intersections where there’s a different church on each of the four corners. Shameful, and blasphemous, that we who say we believe in Jesus Christ trash His words and His prayer so boldly, thinking it will not bite us in the end.

One more time—what would happen if we all supported each other (barring those groups, I suppose, who deny the Word of God is the sole divine scripture on earth) and defended each other against every attack from ‘the outside’?

Overnight, the non-Christian world would be astonished and possibly fall like a house of cards, because at last, they have seen what Jesus said, ‘They will know you are Mine because you love one another.’

This is not a plug for the ‘ecumenical movement’ which I do not believe in. This is a plea for obedience to the word of Jesus.

Blind faith

Blind faith, good or bad? Even faith unqualified puts a person at risk. You must accept that something is, or will be, on trust. Reasoned faith seems to me to be no faith at all, because faith doesn’t wait, it simply obeys, and moves, following the Lord’s command. Reasoned faith is just another name for reason, riskless, not reckless, and follows one’s own views as to what is, or will be.

I don’t think that Christ expects what most people think of as blind faith, but He’s the only one who can ever really be trusted blindly. That is, of course, if you believe, or know, that He is God. Impossible for the natural man, no fault of his, that’s just how we are. To know that another human being, now or in ages past, is somehow God, is not possible for human nature. We know too much.

Still, the Christ calls us into regions of action, thought, and perception (what else can I call the movement of the spirit?) that are completely uncharted, unexpected, out of sync with everything we take for granted as a part of ordinary daily life. He calls us out, and we must follow, and that blindly, and immediately, or not at all, because when He commands, Christ doesn’t wait.

When we accept the claims of Jesus Christ, we place ourselves immediately at risk, though most of us think we are now in a safe place and bound for glory. Well, yes, glory it is, but not what we naively imagine. The strange thing is, there is no compulsion with Christ. He simply states the facts, and then He acts, and expects us to follow Him, now or, in some cases, never. Choose Christ or comfort.

The disciples thin out now as they did when He told them they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Today we clamor to eat His flesh and drink His blood, and we surge forward in a mob to commune, mindlessly as well as blindly, and call this ‘faith.’ I wonder what the disciples who left Him were thinking, and where did they go after they abandoned Him. Did they sink back into the safety of tradition?

When Christ went to Bethany to raise His beloved friend Lazaros from the dead and declared to Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, do you believe this?’ was He expecting her to accept this on blind faith? I don’t think so. Martha, along with the other disciples knew Jesus personally, followed Him, heard His teaching, and witnessed His miracles. He wanted to test and deepen her faith.

As He told the unbelieving Jews, ‘If you don’t believe in me, at least believe in the works that I do.’ That is a strange thing for Him to say if He were expecting blind faith. There is a danger in blind faith that even the Son of God wanted to avert and save His disciples from. Blind faith yields in turn to blind obedience, and the only authority to whom man owes such faith and obedience is God.

Though the Church is the Body of Christ as well as His mystical Bride, and though He has given it, given us, the power to forgive and remit sins in His name, the evil one has planted in this divine field seed of a different kind, which has sprouted and sought to command and exact undeserved obedience through all the ages. Yet we know when it is the Master’s voice speaking in the Church, and when not.

Yes, the disciples thin out, and considerably, as we follow more closely behind Jesus, moving as He moves, when, where, and how. Yet the Church remains full, the recipients of His mercy. For though He calls and commands us, and does not wait for us to follow, He nevertheless doesn’t cease to call, and that grace stretches out time, giving everyone, fast or slow, the chance to be saved.

For salvation is not the fruit of blind faith, but of love, and love that obeys, that keeps close watch on the Master’s every move, that does not sleep but watches, to miss nothing and no one that is sent, that is placed in its path. That is what kept the disciples close to the Lord when the others took their leave, and what brought the disciples back after they had abandoned Him and fled.

I am the resurrection and the life, do you believe this?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

In everyone I meet

The morning, sun rising invisibly behind my house in the southeast, making a beautiful start to this spring day, which I know may very well go through many changes, dark clouds may still pile up later, full of rain or maybe hail, and winds may blow these down on my little house. Yesterday, the opposite. The morning began with thick gray clouds hiding the sun, the earth moistened by tiny mist-like raindrops, which gladly yielded to sunny skies later, letting me spend some time weeding the soft soil in my garden, only to be forced indoors by a sudden cloudburst, which took its time, many hours, in dissipating. This is life, inevitable, unpredictable, irresistible, inconstant, reliable in only one aspect, it changes forever.

I awoke with vestiges of my last dream in mind. Guests peopled my sky house, nameless and faceless, with whom I had been conversing, we talked about the cross of Christ, how we must bear it in this earthly life, and I heard myself say, ‘But in the world to come, thank God, we have no more crosses to bear,’ and I was surprised to see my beloved Dad slowly pass by, hunched over a little as he was in his last years, on the other side of the kitchen bar. ‘No, Norm, that isn’t quite right,’ he said with his characteristic, knowing smile and slight twinkle in his eyes, looking as he used to, when he had to correct me. ‘We still have crosses to bear, even on this side, for all we did and all we didn’t do.’

I felt flooded with contrary emotions, as came to mind ‘Among the spirits of the righteous perfected in faith, give rest, O Savior, to the soul of your servant. Bestow upon it the blessed life which is from You, O loving Lord…’ and my heart rose in defense of my sentiment, of my expectation, as continued the words of the mnimósynon, ‘Within Your peace, O Lord, where all Your Saints repose, give rest also to the soul of Your servant, for You alone are Immortal.’ And I remembered, and quoted, imperfectly from memory, to those standing near the saying of Sergei Fudel, that as we approach the end of our lives, we feel drawn to our departed family members, and our love for them opens doors to their presence.

The world of dreams is built out of the materials of our everyday, working life. Guests, not family members as usual, were in my house yesterday. That bright morning rearranged the start of my day, as I took the opportunity to weed the garden, after my morning coffee. While I worked at the edge of the road, I sang in French, ‘Marima Kabalingué, ma petite amie d'Afrique, a épousé le Seigneur et rayonne de Bonheur…’ and noticed, coming up behind me, an elderly couple. As they drew near I switched to English, ‘Good morning!’ and after their returned greeting, small talk ensued. I noticed a familiar accent in the woman’s voice. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked. ‘We are from Lebanon,’ she replied.

Though I had never met them before, nor knew their names till that morning, we instantly became friends, joined by our common faith and shared community. Souad’s cousin is married to the sister of a dear friend of mine at church. Faris, the husband of Souad, who conforms to his name (which means ‘knight’), can no longer drive, and the couple sold their car. Now they have no way to come to church. As we were making arrangements for them to accompany me on Palm Sunday, out of nowhere rain began to fall, first lightly, then torrentially, and we scrambled into my house. There we sat down around the dining table while we exchanged phone numbers. Briefly I had guests. Then, I took them home.

They must have been the unseen guests in my dream. Their presence in my life, through a quick encounter, still reoriented my inner house. Eastward, always east, must face our hearts, for the sake of the Daystar. I remembered waking during the night at about three and wanting to take a little breakfast, but stopped, thinking it was Sunday, so I could not break my fast before Communion. I had to sober up a little more before I realized it was only Wednesday morning. Relieved, I was about to eat something when I remembered, ‘Oh no, it’s recycling day, and I haven’t taken the bins out to the curb for pickup!’ Relief doesn’t last long. Correction always comes, because we are, no, I am, so stubbornly about myself.

Hence, no doubt, Dad’s gentle correction, ‘We still have crosses to bear, even on this side, for all we did and all we didn’t do.’ And I continue to ponder here and now, as I remember his words, the crosses that await us there on the other side, yet without fear. Love fills not only the earth, but the universe, more reliably than the flow of time, more abundantly than the harvest of moments, all of them loaded with joy, if only we are ready for whatever and whoever comes. As I start this new day, not only is the Lord with me, but so are the saints of heaven and earth, I am literally surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, and whether awake or asleep, He comes to me in everyone I meet, if only I come out.