Friday, April 18, 2014

Cease from struggle

When I am confronted by Christians, well, by anyone but particularly by Christians, who are anything from indignant to militant and antagonistic as they report to me this or that latest outrage against morality, or freedom, or the faith, or the church, I cannot help but become very calm and, though I see I do not speak, I think of the words of Jesus Christ, 'Offer the wicked man no resistance…'

This is not the verse I remember when I read in history or in the news all sorts of accounts about wars between nations, or people defending themselves against violent crimes. Though many kinds of struggle look the same, often they are very different and require very different responses. The words of Jesus are always there to aid us, and though they seem to be saying one thing now and later the opposite, this is why.

The truth is, we seem to be a contrary and contentious people, the human race as a group, but I don't think we are born that way. It is something we learn to be. Argument and confrontation surround us, and almost nowhere in human society can we find peace. One would hope that peace might be found within the Church enclosure but, alas, it is not. Instead, that seems to be where the worst bickering and backbiting occurs.

Lord, help us! So an American Christian missionary of Iranian origin goes back to his ancestral country and gets in trouble somehow. He is put under arrest and confinement, and hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition to induce the American government to press for his release. The State department doesn't even show up when the petitions are presented. That's what I heard from a fellow Christian 'struggler' anyway.

I get quiet inside. I suffer inwardly, knowing a man is wrongly held somewhere, but then, he's one of many millions who are now, and through time, wrongly accused, held, punished, even executed. I can't rouse myself to the indignation my informant feels as he adds, 'We have to protect the brothers!' His words remind me of Charlemagne's knights declaring, 'We wouldn't have crucified Christ like those Jews did, if we'd been there!'

I think of the words of Saint Basil, 'We are all deceived.' I think of my own life, my own situation. I joke with my friend, 'Who will sign the petition to get me released from my imprisonment?' nodding at the workshop where I spend most of my day, making machinery parts. He doesn't get it, but continues his diatribe with another co-worker who listens and adds a bit of affirming chit-chat. The struggle goes on. Us against them.

When really, this is not a struggle we can win. I mean, we almost never win these kinds of conflicts. True, sometimes we do win, or at least appear to; taking the long view which is denied us by the present moment but which history affords us in retrospect, very few of our wins, even when the winners are righteous, can be maintained. All victories but one include concealed slippage. All must pay the piper in the end.

That one victory, though, didn't look anything like victory when it was won: A naked corpse that was once a man, so disfigured we couldn't even tell who He was to look at Him. No one knew what struggle was being fought in His hanging on the Tree, nor what was won when He spoke, 'It is finished' and breathed His last. Even now that we think we know, we really do not. Otherwise we would not be fighting, struggling as we do.

Causes, there are always causes that we must support, wars we must fight, whether with swords or words only. Now, in this enlightened age, it's a wonder we don't wear our tongues out with incessant complaint or lose our voices by raising the hue and cry every morning and evening. What of the real struggle, the one that goes unnoticed within us and ingloriously? He revealed it to us and showed us the way to win: the Cross.

Hanging on the Cross, we cease from struggle. The war of words falls silently on deaf ears. To see all, and yet to say nothing. 'As a Lamb is dumb before its shearers,' that is our model. Peace there is in this, to cease from struggle. Wars wear themselves out around us, finding in us no enemy, no one to attack, no one to subdue. Morning and evening, ours is the victory song, 'Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of Sabaoth…'

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Nothing less than the Cross

Photo from The Dwelling Place blog
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God’ (Matthew 5:9), a saying of Christ we all know by heart and give lip service to, but if it comes right down to it, none of us really wants to be that blessed, though we’d love to be called ‘sons of God’ as long as it required nothing more of us than to say, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ We don’t reflect on that fact that the only One who really was ‘Son of God’ by nature and not merely by name, was a peacemaker, in fact the ultimate peacemaker, for He makes peace between God and man, and between man and men—if we let Him.

Yes, I know He also says, ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34), and I think I know why He says it. If we follow Him, if we do what we see Him doing, say what we hear Him saying, yes, if we decide once and for all that we want to be peacemakers, we will be cut off from the bulk of humanity, yes, cut off, with a sword that will not be put away from us until we surrender.

We work for peace, yet we are denied peace. It is when we work for war, between people, between nations, that we are approved—not by God, of course, but by man.

No, there will always be people who say they want peace, and some of them may even give those who do work for peace a nod of approval, but they do not lift a finger to help. Peace is too threatening, because in that environment, our every failing is laid open to the eyes of all, and we would rather not be discovered. In war all crimes can be hidden, even ours, and so war is what we wage with our tongues and sometimes our bodies, the better to hide what we are, and what we have chosen.

When you choose to be a peacemaker, the world no longer looks the same. You can see ‘the sin of the world’ in a way you could not before, in the world, and in yourself. It is an awakening, but one without worldly glory. To work for peace does confer enlightenment, but not of religion. It is the enlightenment of Christ, which He shares willingly with you, to see whether or not you will accept it. And why wouldn't you? Because it is nothing less than the Cross.

‘He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near’ (Ephesians 2:14). ‘For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the Cross’ (Colossians 1:19-20).

Yes, ‘blessed are the peacemakers, 
                          for they shall be called sons of God.’

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dread

Like everything else he said and did, it didn’t make sense at the time, and we began to understand the significance of his words and deeds only much later, only when it was too late.

Yochanan, the youngest of his disciples, the one who gave me the name by which I was to be forever known after that day, Ari, had given me the instruction to do the impossible. On the Master’s orders, to find and buy a large leavened loaf and bring it before sunset to our upper room, where he would eat the Passover with his disciples. His exact words were, ‘The Master says, my time is near. It is at your house that I am keeping Passover with my disciples.’ I was standing right there when Yochanan delivered the message to my widowed mother. The Master to share the seder with his talmidim at my house? I was stunned, but not for long. Yochanan took me aside and gave me his astonishing instructions.

‘Where am I to find unleavened bread on a day like this?’ I protested. ‘We just burned every last bit of chametz we had in the house, and no baker will have anything but unleavened matzah on the first day of Unleavened Bread!’

‘Ari Shim’on! Come on, I’ll go with you. If the Master has instructed us to do the impossible, we can do the impossible. He never sets anything before us we can’t handle.’ I always marveled at Yochanan. No matter what Jesus asked of him, he always rose to the task with a confidence I wish were mine. The other disciples, well, they might sometimes doubt, some of them, but never Yochanan, and never me, either. He’d never let me. As the youngest disciple of Jesus, the others wouldn’t listen to him, but I was even younger than he, and scrawny and timid at that. Yochanan had noticed me following them all at a distance whenever they were in my street, and one day he took me by surprise and cornered me. I thought I was in for a beating. That was the story of my life.

My father—may he rest in the peace of Hashem—died before I was old enough for him to teach me how to defend myself, and in my boyhood, brotherless, there were many who mocked and even beat me. One day—may the name of Hashem be forever blessed—I was following after the talmidim of the man from Nazareth, and one of his disciples broke ranks and approached me. ‘Who are you? And why do you keep tagging along behind us? If you want to be with us, just join in!’ Instead of running away, which is what I wanted to do, I stammered, ‘Sh-shim’on, I am called Shim’on.’ Yochanan suddenly laughed. ‘Here it comes,’ I thought to myself, ‘he’s going to mock me for not even being able to say my name.’

‘Ari! Ari’el! God’s little lion, that’s the name for you! Look at that head of hair, like a lion’s mane! I bet you can really roar, and take down a whole gang of elilim that came against you!’ And he grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Brother, I like you! Come on, join us!’ I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears, but here was a boy just a few years older than me, like all the others, energetic, handsome, confident, only he wasn’t shaking me and then knocking me to the ground with a cruel guffaw. It was at that moment, that my constant feeling of dread vanished, and the world suddenly looked new and different to me. I liked him. No, I loved him, even then, and now, years later, even more.

These memories always assail me when the year comes round to the days before Pesach, the Passover. From that first encounter with my new brother, the one I never had, my life began to change. It wasn’t just having Yochanan as my friend, my special friend, but watching how the Master’s love for him, he passed on to me in exactly the same way. My father and mother loved me as best as they could, but the love that Jesus and his disciples had for each other, and for me, was different. It wasn’t a sour kind of love, always judging, always bossy, hateful of the stranger, bullying. No, it wasn’t that kind of love at all. In fact, I never knew what love really was, until I saw how the talmidim of Jesus from Nazareth loved each other, and how he loved them.

But it is getting close to the Passover, and my heart is full of dread. Remembering that day when I was sent on the errand to find the impossible, at the time full of wonder, ‘What’s he going to do with that? It’s the Day of Unleavened Bread!’ I didn’t understand, but I did it, we did it, anyway, we did what Jesus commanded. I can’t even remember where we found that loaf, but Yochanan made me promise to bring it safely home and place it on the seder table that my mother was getting ready. He had to run, no doubt, to fulfill a mitzvah that the Master gave him. Jesus was always full of love for us, but mitzvot, commandments, too.

My heart is full of dread, not remembering that night—what happened after the seder is too awful for the eyes of my mind to look upon. My heart is full of dread, remembering the Master’s eyes and voice, after he raised his friend Lazarus from the tomb. At the supper that Martha prepared to celebrate her brother’s resurrection, Jesus should have been full of joy, but the same look he had when, seeing the tomb of his dear friend, he wept, never quite left him from that moment. I could sense, though I did not understand, that there was some dark cloud advancing towards him, and toward us. Once again, as it was with me before I met Yochanan and Jesus, there was dread.

Yochanan is the only one remaining of the Twelve now, though he left to follow the Lord Jesus to Ephesos in the north, to follow him in a land far from our home in Jerusalem. The world is changed forever after what happened the third day after that strange seder. At least, it changed forever for me. Yochanan did not abandon me. His love for me is as secure and true as Jesus’ love for him. He joked with me that day I saw him off at Joppa, when he took ship with Miryam of Nazareth, to follow her son beyond Galilee of the Gentiles, to the Greeklands.

‘You know, Ari, how the Lord’—yes, now we call him not only Master, but Lord, for that He was proven to be by his rising from the dead—‘you know how the Lord told big Shim’on’—that’s Kephas. With so many named Shim’on among his followers, we all had nicknames—‘you know how he told Shim’on “Feed my lambs”? Well, brother, I will tell you a little secret. He may have told Kephas to feed the little lambs, but he told Yochanan to feed his little lion—and that is you! Remember, brother, that wherever I go, I will always love you and feed you by my prayers, because Jesus said so, and because he loves us, always, and for ever.’ And after sealing me with the love of God, and with his own love, he thus departed.

And remembering that love, the dread that dismayed me
too has departed.

Follow behind Jesus

Miracles are not seen. The human eye is not large enough to ‘see miracles.’ What the religious person thinks of as miracles are sometimes not miracles at all, but the effect that the presence of the miraculous has on people and things. For example, what is miraculous in a weeping ikon?
Is it the mysterious liquid that oozes out of the wood (or even out of the paper) of the ikon’s eyes? Or is it the opening of a unique doorway to a moment of real faith?


Some Orthodox Christians want to venerate every ‘miracle-working ikon’ that comes their way. Some want to pray before it as well. Some want a miracle in their lives. Some just want to be there, in the presence of the miraculous; for them, that is enough, not even their eyes could ask for more. Others don’t go; they don’t find anything to add to what they already have. For them, the present moment and the place they are standing seems enough.

‘I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles.’
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of the Open Road

As for Christians in general, history writes no tall tales about miracle when it writes the truth. Hoping to force God to mimic His mighty acts in the book of Exodus by their ‘faith,’ the children’s crusaders waited in vain for the Adriatic sea to part so they could walk dry-shod to Jerusalem. Compliant helpers were found to transport the infant armies in sea-worthy ships to the slave markets of North Africa, whose harems for decades heard French folk songs sadly sung.

And today, we have faith healers, but to what avail? Do they heal men’s bodies, their minds, or just their souls, or none of these? I have known enough healed, and heard enough testimonies from them of miraculous healing by the likes of these. One sister told me confidently that her extreme nearsightedness was instantly cured when she placed the palms of both her hands against the television screen, while an Oklahoma faith healer cast out the demon in her.

Not long after this, she was also instantly killed along with her innocent daughter, in a head-on collision with a dump truck on the narrow coast highway. Their Pentecostal sisters sang beautifully and in strange tongues over their coffins at the cemetery the morning their bodies were consigned to the earth. She called her instant healing from nearsightedness a miracle. What would she call this?
Yet the Lord was fully present in both moments, all His acts.

Yes, I too want miracle in my life. I want my faith to move the hand of God. I used to pray with the pleading father in the gospels, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief,’ but I pray so no longer. For me, the miracle is to trust God to act according to His will, which is always the best for us. If He should ‘tear the heavens open and come down’ as Isaiah pleads, I am content, no, more than content, for that means it is the end of all things. That, to me, would be the greatest miracle.

Because the end of all things is the end of sin and death, for that is what we are, by our weakness and our bad choices. Miracle springs from the beginning and the end of God’s work in us, and between the First and the Last, all time is filled with His presence. If we do not in fact ‘stop here… and do miracles,’ in whom have we doubted? Of whom have we been afraid? ‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more…’

The miracles we seek will always proceed from the miracle that eyes cannot see, that ‘two of you on earth agree about anything…’ That is the hurdle to get over. That has more to do with love even than with faith. That is where all true and permanent healing comes from, from that love, because that is the source of all miracle from beginning to end. By love the universe was made out of nothing. By love, what was lost in the First Adam was restored in the Second.

‘Miracles’ that do not begin in love and end in love are no miracles at all, only magic. The faith that moves mountains is nothing less than the confidence that God can do all things, and that everything He does is for the best.

‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’
(1 Corinthians 2:9). Yes, we walk by faith, not by sight, and yet miracle follows us and precedes us wherever we go, because we follow behind Jesus.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trisaghion

Αγιος ο Θεός, Αγιος Ισχυρός, Αγιος Αθάνατος, ελέησον ημάς.
Aghios o Theós, Aghios Is’chyrós, Aghios Athánatos, eléïson imás.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!

One only is Holy, but He is God, He is Mighty, and He is Deathless. Not three Holies, but One, we know Him as God the Father, as His Mighty Son, and as His Deathless Holy Spirit. Even in this most ancient of all prayer cries, the undivided Triad is manifest. The undivided Trinity, as believed in and lived in the Holy Church for, yes, we do not presume to know the how, but the Who, of God.

We know that God is One. This is no secret even to the polytheist if he is a thinking man. Humankind did not evolve an idea of One God by gradually adding spirit to spirit, god to god, by a sort of mathematical reduction. If anyone has arrived at the idea of such a ‘one god’ in this fashion, that ‘god’ is certainly not the God of the Bible, not the God of Jesus Christ.

No, for the only God that is, the self-existing Divine Nature, revealed through His manifold works, the material universe and seen by the mind of rational men, was at the beginning with man, just as the Bible tells in the story of Adam and Eve and the original paradise. ‘The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…’ (Genesis 3:8).

It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world, as well as the worship of many gods. Man devolved from relational monotheism to religious polytheism. Religion in the Garden of Eden? Hardly! What would be the need? There God walked with man and spoke to us face to face. Religion only came upon our race as sickness comes, a sickness called sin that brings death.

Human beings the world over have always believed in the immortality of the soul, but this is an unfounded belief. It is more of a hope, and a vain hope, as there is no proof in nature of our personal survival of death. ‘Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?’ (Ecclesiastes 3:21). We find ancient graves well-stocked for living somewhere.

Almost all religions believe something like this: ‘The soul of man is immortal and cannot die.’ This is what you find among Hindus, for example, who believe what is taught by their god Krishna, ‘That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul’ (Bhagavad Gita 2:17). For them, the ‘imperishable soul’ lives on through reincarnation.

For others, especially in East Asia, the souls of their ancestors are alive ‘somewhere’ and must be appeased, cared for, and helped. This is the most prevalent belief of most of humanity. In the three ‘Abrahamic’ faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this belief takes on added content: the good ‘go to heaven’ at death, the bad ‘go to hell.’ This is, of course, at the level of popular religion.

As C. S. Lewis has written, ‘To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression — like believing the earth is flat’ (Mere Christianity, Book 4, Chapter 1), and the same is true of the popular religion of the biblically illiterate everywhere. For many people, it’s just not worth the time and effort to learn and understand the truths of faith, what man is, who God is, and how He deals with us.

The soul of man, despite our wishful thinking, our pious hopes, and our individual speculations, is not immortal by nature. Only One is Immortal, just as only One is God, and only One is Mighty. Having been originally made in His image, our first parents shared in the Divine Nature, in Might, and in Immortality, but by their rebellion, the image of God in them and us was broken.

We are born into a fallen world, disfigured, that is, dis-imaged, damaged, and what would have been an immortal soul in us, is immortal no longer, by nature.

We live and move and have our being only in God, only by His grace, only by His gift, only by His remembrance of us. Why else do we find in the psalms the petition to ‘remember us’, why else did the thief say to Christ, ‘remember me’?

We are living souls only by the good will of our Creator, who remembers us in life and in death. The soul of man, as it turns out, is immortal after all, but not by nature. Our lives are in His hands. Whether we are alive in the body or gone to ‘be with the Lord’, it is all by His will, by His mercy. How totally we are dependent on Him for everything! Knowing He loves us removes the fear of death.

When we pray the Trisagion, ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!’ how true this prayer is, how wonderful that it has been revealed to us! We can depend on God, in fact He expects us to depend on Him, for everything, especially for our earthly life, and for the immortality that only He can grant us. There is so much more I would say if I could, but all I can say is, Thank You, Lord.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Homily on true happiness

I am happy with the ancient Church of which I find myself a member. I delight in her endless cycle of lavish worship, poetically crafted and lusciously ceremonious. I even love the unscheduled pauses in worship when the cantors have to fill the time with nonsense syllables till the next stage of the liturgical dance is reached. All these things were carefully designed centuries ago to administer teaching and healing to barbarous nations who knew nothing of reading or writing, and were fallen into sometimes hideous diseases of body, mind and morals. This the ancient Christian architects knew prophetically would have application and relevance from their time till the end of the age. Human nature never changes, except when it is joined by transfiguration to the Divine Nature, in the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

Yet, there is an horrific proviso to my happiness with and delight in the elaborate, soul-fulfilling and mystical tangibles (but not the faith) of this Church. All that is seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched in the conveyance of the mystírion to the logical flock of the great Shepherd King Jesus must be rooted in, must rest upon, must grow out of, must lead to, and must nourish in us, the evangélion, the eternal gospel, the living good news of the living God, which alone makes us disciples, alone heals our iniquities, alone frees us from bondage, alone empowers us to be passion-bearers, alone realizes in us our divine sonship, our royal priesthood, and finally brings us to the threshold of incorruption and life eternal. For all that is grasped by our senses is worthless unless we are made worthy by Christ to enter Paradise.

The world enthralls us and purchases our loyalty by its false promises and tantalizes us with the fear that we will be ‘left behind’ if we do not conform to its every demand. This is true of the world outside the walls of the ancient Church, and of the world within. But no matter, for all have been given equally the privilege of the yoke of Christ, from hierarch to humble believer. If you are a bishop, you are shepherd of souls in place of Christ, and your worldly life is forfeit for the sake of the burden laid upon you by your own choice. If you are a presbyter, your life is now and forever hidden with Christ in God and no longer your property, and you too must be willing to be broken but not divided, eaten but not consumed, as your Divine Prototype. If you are a deacon, your call begins with ‘waiting tables,’ but where does it end?

As for the rest of us, there is next to nothing to do, who live in the ancient Church, but to worship the Lord, to glorify Him by our every move, to consecrate our every thought and all our words to the work of mercy enjoined on us by Him who says, ‘blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’ To this nothing superfluous can be added, nor anything essential cut away. Our lives in Christ are all or nothing, and we know where our treasure is. No, not our treasures, for there is only One, and everything else is His gift to us, who says ‘and all these other things shall be added to you as well.’ How can any of us forbear to be in Christ and not just say we are, when God has revealed Himself to us, face to face, in Jesus, who unashamedly tells us by way of invitation, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’?

Yes, the ancient Church, the one built on the Rock, no, not on St Peter though his name means the same, but on that Rock of which the psalmists chanted and to whom they cried incessantly for salvation. That Rock followed them in all their wilderness wanderings watering their bodies and souls, and then, when they least expected it, reappeared among them, as He does among us, as a Rock against whom all our iniquities crash and break. They rejected Him and refused the water He gives that wells up forever and gives drink to all who thirst, and still He offers without stint that life-giving spring to us who ring the miraculous font of new birth. Will we allow ourselves to be triply immersed, yield all our members to that death-defying plunge, and come out truly alive to join the cherubim, and not just represent them?

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.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday in Rome

‘If there must be a pope,’ I said to myself when I saw this photo, ‘let it be this one.’ I am not a Roman Catholic. Doctrinally, I know what separates Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox Christians. Practically, I also know what separates them, or rather, us. As to faith, however, there is only a single divide, a great chasm, a very great, deep, and maybe impassable chasm, between those who believe, and those who deny, the Christ, the God-man who appeared bodily two thousand years ago and then disappeared so He could appear universally among us till the end of time.

Today the whole Church is on the same page, celebrating each in their own way the entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem the week before Passover riding on a donkey and acclaimed by the crowd. The photo above of Pope Francis (I do not add a ‘I’ after his name, e.g., Francis I, because I do not believe there could be another) engulfed by enthusiastic supporters armed with cameras, looks very like a modern replay of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and on many levels.

Yes, according to Roman belief, the Pope is ‘Vicar of Christ,’ in other words, since Christ can’t be here with us bodily in a single place, He has a proxy, a kind of religious stunt man to do all the dangerous stuff— well, maybe—so that He can stay where He is and reign in heaven on His throne—not!

We have seen for centuries a whole succession of their Holinesses wearing triple crowns and fairly buried in heavy, glistening vestments, being carried around in sedan chairs above the heads of the teeming multitudes, their right arms raised with tricky fingers in benediction. Then came a humble pope, John Paul I, who wasn’t given the chance to show us his stuff, spirited away by death in a month, as if fulfilling St Malachy’s disputed prophecy de mediatate lunæ, ‘from the midst of the moon.’ Yet, as if passing to his successor and namesake, John Paul II, a new spirit of simplicity entered the occupant of St Peter’s chair.

We had come to expect that the popes would now be rather more than ceremonial oracles, when Benedict appeared. He disappointed everyone, it seems, and after a short pontificate, notoriously retired. Was he, like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the whole affair (Christianity in the rough) when the going got tough? I don’t think so, but perhaps he sensed that human error really had, at least this time, chosen the wrong man for the job. But little did we think, let alone hope, that his successor would turn out to be a man with the courage to turn the world upside-down as did the holy Apostles at ground zero, or Francis of Assisi, a millennium later. This pope, a Jesuit on top of it all, taking the name of the saint remembered more for his love of animals and nature than anything else, seems to be doing what popes were meant to do all along, not ‘interfere and rule’ but ‘gather the lambs.’

Well, who knows what it will look like in the end, these crowds of photo-flashing admirers hemming Pope Francis in on all sides? Something like this happened that week before Passover in Jerusalem. Not cameras held aloft, but branches of palm and olive, engulfed the Prince of Peace.

With the world around us descending, it sometimes seems, to that hell on earth where ‘the love of men has grown cold,’ it is of good omen to see this man come down to raise up the fallen, who has been chosen to fill the unfillable chair, which all along was meant by the King of all to be His mercy seat in Rome, but which was often used as Satan’s stool. Let’s hope that the adoring camera-clung crowds that surge around him now will follow this shepherd when he calls them to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,’ and not turn on him as they turned on the Son of Man that Passover in Jerusalem.

Weeping


Nothing more beautiful than a woman weeping.
Nothing more humbling than a man weeping.

These thoughts kept me awake nearly all night.

Nothing more beautiful than a woman weeping. How can this be? Why aren’t images of weeping women on the covers of magazines to grab our attention? Why aren’t there “Miss Weeping America” pageants? People think a woman beautiful if she is well-dressed, cosmetically enhanced, has a trim figure, and is always smiling, always positive and outgoing, someone who it’s a pleasure to be with.

A woman weeping, she has given up for lost whatever made her think she could ever be happy. She weeps because of the death of her husband or her only son. She weeps because even what little she had has been taken from her. She weeps because she no longer cares who is looking on, or what anyone thinks of her. She weeps because she has returned everything that she relied on to keep her safe, knowing now that there was no salvation in it. Not her public image, her reputation, matters anymore. She has laid down her rebellion and given up her insistence on having her own way. She has died before her death. That’s why she weeps. That’s why nothing is more beautiful than a woman weeping. She is now herself as God made her, and empty so that she can be filled, and filled so that her cup runs over.

A man weeping, he has come to the end of trying to be what he could never be. He weeps because his self-image, what he was taught he must be, has been broken. He weeps too because he has wasted his life pursuing a deceit, believing as true what could never have been true, without even having checked its credentials. He weeps because he now knows that all he took for his manly strengths were weaknesses. He weeps because he now understands that all he took for weaknesses were really his manly strengths, and there is so little time. Not his appearance, not his prowess, not his wealth, not his education, not his accomplishments, matter anymore. He is ready to die, and he weeps because he now knows that he can never die. That’s why he weeps. That’s why nothing is more humbling than a man weeping. He is now himself as God made him, and empty so that he can be filled, and filled so that his cup runs over.

A girl, a young woman weeps, because she knows that this weeping will continue for many more years, but for how long?

A boy, a young man weeps, because he doesn’t know if he will make it through to the end. His father tells him, ‘Son, I was once as you are now, and I am still the same, and yet, here I stand. I carried you on my shoulders when you were small, and you are tall in my eyes, always tall, as you stand on my shoulders now.’

Nothing more beautiful than a woman weeping.
Nothing more humbling than a man weeping.

They went away, went away weeping, carrying the seed;
They come back, come back singing, carrying their sheaves.
Psalm 126:6 Jerusalem Bible


This image of Jesus weeping, by Tissot, is from the official website of St. Takla Haymanout Coptic Orthodox Church, Alexandria, Egypt.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Into that darkness

Farewell, beloved brother! Farewell, brother beloved of the Lord! Though we loved you well, our love could not heal you of that sickness, nor stop you from descending into that darkness of the grave. But we knew, I knew, that the man who loved you would heal you, would not let his holy one experience corruption, would not leave his lover’s bones scattered at the mouth of She’ol. I sent word to him by a servant, ‘Come, Master! The man you love is ill,’ knowing he would come in time and raise you from your bed of sickness as he had many others. I knew he would come, but he did not.

I was devastated. I was destroyed. But then as now, I prayed, ‘I have faith, even when I say I am completely crushed.’ Only now, I know for sure that which before I had merely hoped, because he who said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?’ proved on the battlefield of his body that even the vanquished is victor, that not sickness only is swallowed up in health, but death in life. Yet here I sit beside you, watching, as I did many years ago, a second time talking to you as alive, though you sleep, and this time for good. I need send no message by a servant. I know he comes. He knows I call.

He comes, yes, but nothing ever happens the same way twice. Then, our house in Bethany was full of rich Jews, friends from Jerusalem, come to help us through those awful days of wretched mourning, only to see that all they could do was nothing. The grief of death remained in me, cold, stiff, dead, incapable of rising on its own, except as a statue with sculpted sorrow on stone lips, with unseeing eyes, unhearing ears, locked forever in formal poise. Then, sister roused me from my hopeless reverie, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ I fell at his feet, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother…’

That time by his words he remade the world, yours, and ours. The crowd of consolation looked on, in consternation, as he stood among us before your tomb and wept, and they said to each other and to us, ‘So now he weeps! Where was the wonderworker when his beloved lay dying? He could have prevented…’ but we didn’t listen to them. Already by his presence, my eyes were beginning to see, my ears to hear, as they saw and heard you, brother beloved, emerging in your swaddling like a wrapped babe, as his words, ‘Lazarus, here, come out!’ undying resounded from that first moment, and even now.

Yes, even now, as I sit here before your quiet body a second time, but nothing ever happens the same way twice. Our house on this Greek isle again hosts your mourners, few Jews among them, but gentiles, and their sorrow is not grief, nor is mine, only a chill to the bones and a quietude, the same as we experience when we pray in the purple, pre-dawn darkness in a cemetery of the just, waiting with them for the final sunrise. ‘Eternal be your memory, dear brother, for you are worthy of entering into life,’ this song cutting broad swathes of melody in the fields of our hearts, healing us as he has healed you.

Healing you, brother beloved of the God who walks among us, who loves us more, invisibly, even than when he was visible among us. Healing you he comes, even as he knows I call. Yet the day is dark. Dark as that prayer cried out in the house of separation. Once, he delayed his coming, that we might descend into that darkness with you, proving us in the weakness of our human faith helpless and lost. Then, standing before that darkness, he called you, and us, out of it once and for all. Yet the darkness remains. It is the world. It is where we must live, no, where we must die in order to live beyond it.

I remember our last walk together, yours and mine, before you took to your bed, and our last talk. We reminisced. We were wealthy, once, many years ago, living in our villa in Bethany outside of Jerusalem. I could not remember how you met the Lord, but you reminded me, ‘I was that rich young man who at first went away.’ The Lord was attracted to your beauty. You always were a handsome man, even as you are now, lying before me, asleep in the body, soul listening to my thoughts. He was attracted to your beauty, but not to what is only seen, for he knows all men. He looks into our hearts.

Even in letting you go, after telling you, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell what you own, and give to the poor, and come and follow me,’ he knew. He knew you would return. And he has replaced our former riches with treasure that cannot be depleted, his words, even taking from us our old wealth and granting us a new, ‘A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “Go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it, and went,’ and again, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ Wealth not to buy things, but to purchase men’s souls.

He who is infinitely rich became poorest of the poor to walk among us, teaching us, we are all poor in the eyes of the Lord. Yet that poverty is true wealth, because he has bestowed it. You reminded me of these, and other sayings you heard from his lips. And I revealed words he spoke to me, or heard him tell to the crowds when I followed him into Jerusalem that final week. I remember how surprised I was when I heard him tell of what you dreamt when you lay in your tomb, ‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple… and at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus…’ and like Joseph, interpret it.

These things, dear brother, let me rehearse in your presence as I sit watching over you. By mercy you were once raised from death, and by grace you have now been freed, this time forever. We spend all our lives trying to hide from the darkness of the fact that everything is moving, unstoppably, toward dissolution and death, towards nothing. Then a man appears who not only commands the dead to ‘come out’ but at last even disappears himself into that darkness, and then reappears, alive. ‘Man makes an end of darkness when he pierces to the uttermost depths the black and lightless rock…’

Friday, April 11, 2014

Come out, and live!

The Saturday of Lazarus, absolutely my favorite liturgical Saturday of the year, except for the following one, Holy and Great Saturday, is dawning upon us.

This is the day in the life of Christ that finally sealed His fate in the minds of his earthly opponents, the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine. Preaching, teaching, even performing miracles of healing—I’m sure his enemies did not accept the other miracles, such as the feeding of the five thousand—were bad enough, in their eyes, but now this! He doesn’t claim to have raised a man from the dead that was entombed for four days. No, he doesn’t claim it, but everyone else does! The story must be considered the first example of information gone viral. With this evidence in front of them—not that he raised a man from the dead, but that hordes of people believed he did, and then, there was the man himself, Lazarus of Bethany—they had to act, and quickly.

Thus begins the final week in the mortal life of Jesus of Nazareth. Though the events probably did not unfold lickedy-split in factual history as they seem to do in the eight days from Lazarus Saturday to the Saturday of the Harrowing of Hades, they do come at us speedily, just as they did to the people that experienced them when they happened. We, like they, almost have no time to catch our breath, or, at least, starting tomorrow, we shan’t feel much at ease or relaxed. The Lord of all whom we now know to be among us goes to His ever-memorable and glorious humiliation, emptying Himself for us whom He has always filled with good things, in order to make our inheritance in Him, in God, permanent and more certain than any other truth we can ever know.

He dies, that we may live. And not just the way Lazarus was given life again when he was raised from his four-day burial. No, this life which we are granted by Christ, Him ‘who was dead and is alive forever,’ is outside the bounds of what we normally experience as life and death. It is outside physical nature, and yet not entirely within the realm of spirit either. It seems to be that point where times past, present and future, as well as heaven and earth, come to a fruitful conjunction. It is the singularity in which lies latent the new universe that will burst forth with more than a ‘big bang’ on that Day of Resurrection of which Pascha, the day of the resurrection of Christ, is harbinger, first-fruits, and ineffaceable ikon. For ‘all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, alleluia.’

Alas for the earthly authorities who put to death the God-man who would otherwise never have tasted death, for He is the only sinless one. Alas for their vain hopes that He who raises the dead to life could ever be buried in the depths of a grave, for He opens the tombs, then as He did with Lazarus of the four-day burial, now as He does for all those who do not die but only fall asleep, believing in Him who says, ‘he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’ Alas for death itself, for it was plundered not just once in the raising of Lazarus, but once for all in the harrowing of Hades, which now lies in darkness below, having been emptied by the One who commands all who have ever lived or shall live, as He commanded Lazarus, ‘Come out!’ and us, ‘Unbind him, let him go free!’

There is no more darkness. There are no more tears. The dwelling of God is with men. He, calling us back to life who lay dead in our sins, commands us, as He commanded His beloved friend, as if each of us were His one and only, ‘Come out, and live!’ Let us join with Lazarus who like his Lord ‘was dead and is now alive’ and follow Him, as He goes once for all to ascend of His own free will the Tree of Life. Brethren, let us assemble with palms to welcome Him who comes to us a poor man, and not rush to reject Him and hand Him over, as did he who lusted after glory, and having betrayed the Truth in human form, hung himself in despair. That misbelieving man descended to Hades and was bound there, captive. But He whom he betrayed descended to dissolve darkness and bondage forever.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Forgiveness

Of all images or ikons of Christ, this is my favorite.
Why? It is His look. His eyes say,
‘I know everything about you,
and I love you.’
O God, You show Your power especially by granting pardon.

People recognized Christ because He remitted sin. That was the Good News, the meaning of His advent: ‘Go tell everyone his sins can be forgiven!’ Jesus is essentially ‘the Savior.’ ‘Where there is much sin, there's even more grace’ (Romans 5:20). He came, not to abolish sin, but to forgive it. ‘I've come for sinners,’ He used to say, ‘not for the righteous’ (Luke 5:32).

Those who couldn't tolerate such mercy rejected Him. Mohammedans, for instance, refuse the believe in the divinity of Christ because they can't accept the idea of a God who's so ‘unjust,’ as they see it—who doesn't take vengeance on His enemies but suffers all manner of abuse from them, who lets the wicked do as they please and, instead of pulverizing them, anxiously hopes they'll reconsider returning to Him. ‘There's more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…’ (Luke 15:7).

If this thought fills us with warmth and gladness, we're close to Christ. If it annoys and vexes us or makes us shrug our shoulders in resignation, that's because we still have none of His spirit. We're deists, perhaps, but certainly not Christians. Many of us are Mohammedans and don't know it.

‘God alone can forgive sins’ (Mark 2:7). Above and beyond its juridical meaning, we must read this statement as a sort of description of God. Only He ‘knows how’ to pardon. We surely don't. According to the old saying, women forgive but never forget. And as for men, they're so self-centered they forget and very rarely take time, thought, or trouble to forgive.

All in all, human forgiveness is a crushing thing, an unpleasant memory we can't shake off. The superiority of those who grant pardon utterly quashes those who receive it. There's forgiveness, but no reassurance, no consolation, no encouragement. God is the only one who can manage all four together. You see, forgiving kindly entails humiliating oneself.

The prodigal's father doesn't want to hear another word about the whole episode. He gives a banquet. That's how God does it too. He alone can make forgiveness something glorious to remember. He is so glad to absolve us that those who have afforded Him that joy feel, not like disagreeable, troublesome pests, but like pampered children, understood and heartened, pleasing and useful to Him, and infinitely better than they thought.

‘O happy fault!’ they could cry. ‘If we weren't sinners and didn't need pardon more than bread, we'd have no way of knowing how deep God's love is.’

I wish these words were mine, but I have only made them mine by trying to live out what they say. The passages above are taken from Fr Louis Evely’s book That Man Is You (1966). I offer them to you, brethren, following the precept,

“Remember who your teachers were…”
2 Timothy 3:14

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Not a bone was broken

Like the scourged and beaten body of Christ, nailed hand and foot to the wood of the Cross, punctured by a lance, pierced by a circlet of harsh thorns, left to die for lack of water, stripped of a robe that would not be rent but gambled for by enemies, but of which not a bone was broken, so are we, His suffering body, His church.

Like that body lying in the rich man’s virgin tomb, cold and dark, waiting to be embalmed by precious oils that were never to be, sealed away from the land of the living by a seemingly immovable stone, so are we, His body dead to the world, hidden from its eyes, buried like seed scattered on good soil, dying in order to live.

Like the risen body of Christ, still marked by the sign of the nails in hands and feet, still bearing the gash in which unnumbered souls find new birth and release from the curse, unrecognizable to its enemies except by their astonishment and dread, seen by all eyes from farthest east to farthest west, so are we, when He comes again.

Lord, hear my cry!

Why is it that we stone one another so frequently? Why is it that we love to triumph over our defects in others but not in ourselves?

The heartless reasoning that we put on as mental clothing, wrapping ourselves in the very vanity that we thank God we’ve been delivered from!

Don’t we understand yet that fig leaves will not cover our nakedness before the Lord? Don’t we understand yet that He has already provided for us a covering, the fleece of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world?

We stand proud and cast glances of pious false pity at everything and everyone we feel ourselves superior to. We are caught dead in our tracks as we ready ourselves to stone our infidelities in the other harlot, while ignoring the written Word of God, that His own finger carves not on tablets of stone, but doodles in the dust of our hearts.

O heavenly God hidden in weakness and rejection!

Becoming sin for us, You have taken away our shame and hold out to us in Your open, pierced palms the Bread of Life, yet we turn away to consume the bread of suffering, of tears, we prefer to remain in our camps and grumble at manna and quails!

Forty years are not enough to purge us of our insane cravings, we want to enter the land of promise but without walking there on the only road possible, following Jesus. Instead, pining after dead Moses whose body has disappeared, we collect fragments of broken tablets and stay in the wilderness.

Save us, O Lord! Save Your people and bless Your inheritance!

Help us, heavenly Shepherd.
Guide us, quietly but firmly, back to the flock,
back to dwell close by the shepherd’s tents.

Make us meek again, renew our childhood,
open to us the gates of repentance.

Lord, hear my cry!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Written on the palms

Mary of Egypt, yes, this is her Sunday, and her feast-day was just a few days ago, on April 1st. I always thought it was appropriate that her feast was the same as our ‘feast of fools’ or April Fools Day, though her life story puts almost every other fool on the planet to shame. She gave up a life of self-indulgence and entered what to most of us would be a life of hell on earth. No clothes, no house, no food, no friends, no entertainment, not even church!

As a Sunday School teacher, it was always a challenge for me, how to explain her story to my group of sixth grade students, most of whom were from faithfully correct and affluent families. One or two of the boys were working class and probably had different experiences than the others of what ‘real life’ is like. But most of my students were both young and inexperienced, well, so I thought. It was still the early 90’s and all the girls, anyway, were still virgins.

Since the Church has made the story of Mary of Egypt as visible as possible, giving her not one but two commemorations, and one of them a Sunday during Lent, she has become an important if misunderstood symbol of personal self-denial, an historical example of one woman living out the precious words of Christ, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).

And could anyone’s life be more extreme? The excitement of the story, both when it first appeared centuries ago in her very generation, and now, seems to stem from the theme of ‘filthy prostitute becomes holy saint,’ it centers on the subject of sex, first its abject misuse, then its complete disuse. There is simply no in-between. Mary’s conscience could not find a way to cleanse herself of her past except by becoming an altogether new creature.

And what a creature! After hearing the story year after year, my memory sees nothing much but the bright white naked female ascetic lying dead face down in the sand, waiting for burial. Of course, I know the whole story more or less by heart. I always wondered, when she entered the life of a prostitute, how it wasn’t noticed that she was probably forced into it, or even sold into it, by poverty. Or how it went without remark that she was a Christian, even if in name only.

Or does sexual immorality in a Christian make one a non-Christian? I don’t know, but if it does, then a large part of the high profile ‘Christian’ world is probably not what they say they are. I also asked myself, who were these men taking ship to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem who would offer a berth to an obvious harlot, so that she could see the Holy City too? The story implies they didn’t just give her clean passage, but made use of her along the way, yet they, not she, were able to enter the church.

There, she was stopped from entering by an invisible force, while her generous clients went in. That always baffled me. Perhaps they didn’t belong to Christ and the Theotokos, so they could go in and venerate the Holy Cross, as religious tourists, but not as Christians, surely? But Mary, because of her unblameless life, was stopped and denied entry, until she should be made blameless. How is it that she, a prostitute of Egypt, must be purified before kissing the Cross, when her clients went right in?

For me this story is not about sexual sin being cleansed by lifelong self-denial, but about how God works, how He selects those who are His, befriends and leads them, even before they are worthy, sometimes even before they recognize who it is that has chosen them. Nobody knows what happened to those pilgrim men who had their way with Mary on the ship. They probably venerated the relics and attended the services and returned home to their wives and families, unchanged.

But we do know what happened to Mary. At least we know a very little part of what happened to her, all that she was able to tell us. The most important and edifying part is her testimony of what is possible with God. What she tells us seems miraculous to us. Before leaving for the desert beyond the Jordan she bought a couple of loaves of bread. That’s what sustained her, along with wild plants, for fifty years. This reminds us of Christ’s words that ‘man does not live by bread alone…’

She wandered, yes, for ‘all who wander are not lost’ as the saying goes, in the wilderness in places where there was nobody to see her, and naked, for the clothing she left with had worn out and fallen off her frame. This reminds us of the apostle’s words that ‘all who have been baptized have been clothed in Christ…’ and also reflects upon Mary’s reality: Like Adam and Eve before the fall, Paradise had been opened to her, to whom clothing was wholly unnecessary.

Yes, her story is another glimpse into the reality of the earthly Paradise, which we know, or at least believe, has not disappeared from the earth, but which is invisible to us because of our transgressions and our willfulness to sin. Mary is the real Psyche whose palace and kingdom we cannot see, just as the mythical Psyche’s sisters could not see her sky palace on the holy mountain.

But her life has also, like Paradise, not disappeared from the earth. She is still with us, yes, still here with us. What to us would be unendurable ascetic suffering is to her walking in the Light of the Lord. Though her body now rests in an unmarked grave, her soul was not abandoned to Hades, but with the saints continues to sojourn in the heavenly Paradise of which our earthly one, even while invisible to most of us, is the dim reflection despite its glory. How can we join her?

For now, she is no longer a prostitute nor, in the regeneration of Christ, has she ever been, for He that makes all things new has already trampled death by death, and she who once had a beginning and now is without end, partakes also of the Divine Nature, and has neither beginning nor end. So it is with us, who following Christ, allowing Him to do in us what He did in her, and forever, will find ourselves hidden in the cleft of the Rock, and our names written on the palms of the Lord of Life.

When Christ walks in hell

                    When Christ walks in hell,
                    will I follow Him even there,
                    will I walk inside His footsteps,
                    out of fresh and sunlit air?

                    He suffered, yes, and suffers
                    though no longer on the tree,
                    whose standing from the grave
                    gave God glory freeing me.

                    Do I go down as He descends,
                    delve deep my brother’s grave
                    to hold him close and cradle him,
                    help Him one soul to save?

                    The nether regions of the dead,
                    not painted myths and lore,
                    are open if I only dare
                    to go through Him the Door.

— Romanós

Love is greater

This is a strange truth that we are all familiar with, usually even knowing the bible reference, 1 Corinthians 13 (verse 13), by heart, and without being a bible scholar. Yet, on the whole, we often act as though we'd never heard it.

Confessional Christianity (that's most of us) put doctrine first so we can protect ourselves from those who do not accept the truth, that is, the doctrine set that we believe in.

Then, maybe next in priority we place faith, that is, trusting in God and not just believing in Him—for even devils do that!

Hope we put in there somewhere but not always, since many of us have long ago given up on the unsaved who are just so darn ornery that they probably deserve to be damned, and so we don't bother to witness to them.

But love, if we even know what it is, since the culture has hijacked it and uses the word to describe anything from pure, unadulterated lust to any fleeting desire of the moment, yes, love, well, we know how to show it to those who love us (if they love us back) and we know how to love ourselves, but the kind of love that apostle Paul is writing about here, it's just a fairy tale to be read aloud in quaint wedding services or, if we're liturgical, it finds its place somewhere during the year in a regular Sunday service.

Christ help us! Even when we know what love is, how hard it is for us to really show it while forgetting ourselves!

As for the Orthodox, we have a saint, recently reposed and probably not to be canonized, whose name was Gavrilia Papayanni. She was an unsung moneyless missionary of love to the poor of many countries, particularly India, where she performed the healing arts (she was a physiotherapist) including working with the lepers as did her famous contemporary Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We call her 'Mother Gavrilia" and the Indians call her 'Sister Lila'.

She used to say, 'Love alone is enough to make a miracle happen. Neither Prayer nor the Komboskini (Prayer rope) have such power.'

I think for us who try to live the ancient faith, we understand exactly what she means. Yes, we can and should pray for the healing and salvation of our neighbors, but we can really do so only if we love them first. Love not only covers all offenses, but heals all wounds. Yes, as apostle Paul says, 'and the greatest of these is love.'

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dignity of the thrones

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Mark 10:35-40


Christians, like James and John, have a request to make of their Lord. They want to be near Him, but they think that this means to be enthroned at His right and left. After all, they know the scripture which says they have been given an unshakable kingdom, and that Christ has gone to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house, a mansion in fact. That is the glory and reward of following Jesus, they believe: to reign with Him. They never think past the dignity of the thrones, their ideas of what that really means. It becomes a picture for them of what their devotion to Christ deserves, their heavenly reward.

James and John had faith in Jesus. They knew who He was, that He was the Anointed One, the true King of Israel, and the Holy One. They could have no other idea of His role but what they had been brought up believing about Mashiach. They were excited beyond measure, they were willing to risk everything, because they knew for sure that He was the One sent by God to redeem Israel, and they had been chosen by Him as companions. They were special. Being confident of this, of their closeness to the Redeemer, they felt emboldened to ask Him for a favor.

Surely, the Christ can grant whatever He wants to anyone He likes. After all, He has said, ‘As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to anyone He chooses’ (John 5:21). If He can give life, surely there is nothing He cannot give. Why not ask Him this, to sit enthroned at His right and at His left? Why wouldn’t He do that for us? He loves us more than anyone, and He can do anything. Forgetting that the Son is not the Father, we ask Him for what it is not His to give. Is it our faith that prompts us, or something else?

But it is not Christ’s to say ‘yes and no’: for with Christ it is always ‘yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:19), and so He prefaces His ‘yes’ with a simple warning, ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ and then asks them a simple question, ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ This is the same question He asks us when we go forward to meet Him in baptism. We think it over quickly and rush to respond, ‘Yes, Lord, whatever is necessary, I will do it’ and we mumble a proviso, ‘if I can.’ Like James and John, we know who it is we’ve believed in, and what He can grant us. We are already counting on it.

Real life breaks in on our dreaming of heaven, and the crowns and thrones we imagine in our spiritual infancy grow stranger as they begin to materialize before our lives. Do we really want to be at His right and left? What if that means we will be seen and treated as criminals? What if that means we will be accused, judged and condemned? And for things we may not even have done? What if that means desertion by a husband or wife? Or betrayal by our closest friend? What if it means being cast out of the family, being shunned, despised, left for dead?

‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ Now, we realize that His ‘yes’ means more than we ever thought possible. Now we grasp what He meant when He asked us if we could down the cup and endure the baptism that He did, and we wonder how we could not have noticed where all this was leading us. Discipleship to Jesus, following the greater commandment to love God and neighbor, leads to this?

It is true, my brothers. Don’t be surprised if it happens to you. Don’t be astonished if Christ really answers your prayer and grants your request. It may not look like what you were expecting. It doesn’t have to conform to your reading of scripture, or to what your pastor told you yesterday. The promises of God are not man’s promises, but something better: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, yet we are held, we are lifted up in His thoughts to a place on high with Him, to share in the high priesthood of His Son, whose kingdom is the Cross, by which joy has come to the whole universe.

Just a small stone

Here is an age-old pattern (and no pun intended) that as people get older, they have a tendency to remember the past in rosy hues and talk about the ‘good old days’ in contrast to the present, which seems cold, corrupt and indifferent to them. I know this well because I see it happening in myself, as I am now in my sixty-fourth year, but I don’t let it get past my vocal chords but nip it in the bud. No, the past is not an idyllic world, only a world to which we cannot just turn back the clock and return. It had its problems too, just as the world of the present. Scripture says, ‘Do not be hasty with your resentment, for resentment is found in the heart of fools. Do not ask why earlier days were better than these, for that is not a question prompted by wisdom’ (Ecclesiastes 7:9-10 JB).

Yet, though the first step in the direction of wisdom is to understand this, that the past was not categorically better than the present, the second step in that direction is to be able to see the present in the light of wisdom, to appraise it and, yes, even compare it to the known (not the imaginary) past, and if the present is found wanting, to work to better it. Human society as a whole is not monolithic. At any given time there will coexist healthy societies and sick ones, but one must be free to analyze them with reason, unrestrained and unaffected by political, religious or social conventions. What I mean is, if a sick man has been told repeatedly that he is not sick but the very picture of health, he will hesitate to complain of the pain in his lower right abdomen, and not seek medical attention, until it’s too late.

As I look out of my window and step out of my door into an America that has drifted so far from its moral foundations that it is almost a nation of free people no longer, but a slave state, with slave behaviors, immoralities and expectations, I realize that my country is in very deep trouble. We seem to have, many of us, lost all trust in human systems to the point where we are living just for the day, and so in effect inhabiting a world that functions as an anarchy regulated by an institution that is already dead but is hiding the fact from us. We see this in state, in church, in business, almost everywhere we look. Scripture prophesies, sees straight through us, ‘everyone tries to catch his brother in their father’s house to say, You have a cloak, so you be the leader, and rule this heap of ruins!’ (Isaiah 3:6 JB).

There has been no golden age, not since mankind exiled himself from the state of Paradise. The past was not categorically better than the present, but human society has risen and fallen in the seven thousand years we have inhabited this world. The world of today has many improvements over what we had before, but it has also many corruptions of what came before. It does us no good to cling to the past and dream, but even less good to cling to the present and not look back. At the moment the only country I know is declining rapidly because it is clinging to the present, abandoning the past, and destroying its future. ‘O my people, oppressed by a lad, ruled by women. O my people, your rulers mislead you and destroy the road you walk on’ (Isaiah 3:12 JB). I am not inciting rebellion, only revolution.

And not political, not religious, but social. What was wrong with us in the recent past was indicated by the rise of Godless Communism, which acted as a threat and containment to prevent us from devolving further. What is wrong with us now is indicated by the rise of militant Godly Islam. The one was Godless, the other claims to be Godly, but it is God Himself who chastises us into remembrance and will finally provoke latent champions to action by these forces He raises against us. There was much in Communism that was right, and there is much in Islam that is right. But the first failed as a system, and so will the second fail, because they were not sent to succeed, and because humanity never has been, never is, and never will be saved by systems, political, religious or social. Ideologies are the last and subtlest of idols.

‘I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no gods except me’ (Exodus 20:1-3 JB). Yes, this is the first of the ‘Ten Commandments’ and the most easily glossed over. Since God, our God, the living God—if He exists—does not interact with us in a manner we would like, we feel perfectly justified in imprisoning Him deep inside the human conscience—not in ours, of course, but in others’. The so-called separation of Church and State has given us permission, even a mandate, to allow every atrocity, from ‘the slaughter of the innocents’ renamed ‘a woman’s right to choose,’ down to the least noticed legalizing of institutions we would recoil from if given their true names, high-interest debt seduction formerly called ‘debtors’ prison.’

What more can I say? A better question is, what more can I do? For we have become a people of unintelligible speech, and have smiths who twist words to reshape our thinking, to shackle our wills. But the man of action, whoever he (or she) be, from least to greatest (especially since the ‘greatest’ refuse to show themselves), now can fell a giant with just a small stone by careful aim. To be faithful wherever we are, to encourage the good, to correct the teachable, to be patient with the ignorant, to be strong for the weak, to stand upright when others lie, to openly confess so imprisoned hearts may be loosed. These are the acts, not mere words, of the disciple of Christ, and also of His true friends wherever they may be, who work for the good they know, for ‘happy are the merciful, for mercy will be shown them.’

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jesus, Taker of Souls

Jesus, you are the taker of souls,
you are the secret thief of souls.
Under cover of night you steal your daughter
from pirates who curse and strike the air.

Jesus, you are the holy piper
and every soul who hears you
throws away his living and runs after you
leaving his winding-sheet in the road.

Jesus, you are the all-loved man.
Masked in darkness, you draw out the soul
of a dying man from its lifelong home.
Though he is terrified he surrenders.

Jesus, you are the taker of souls
for every soul that hears your name
immediately tries to give away his life
so he can be free to join your Company.

Jesus, you are the teacher who sings to souls.
A shock went through the body human
And all men in their souls looked wildly
for the light that suddenly shined on them.

Jesus, you are the all-loved man
for every one who thinks he runs from you
leaps into your arms and he who chases you
tries to hold a bundle but drops it in the path.

Alana Roberts
the latest from her blog