Friday, February 12, 2016

12th Day Orthros

Psalms for the 12th Day
62 63 64 65 66 67

O God, in the night my soul awakens early to You, for Your laws are a light.

Prayer, morning and evening. These are times of thankfulness. I awake in the pre-dawn darkness. I say, ‘Lord, help me! Have mercy!’ Is this a prayer of gratitude? Perhaps it doesn’t seem so, but for me, it is. I awake, a sinner. I should awake fresh and bright. That is how God made me. But I am a fallen creature, and each morning by His power and grace, He must remake me in His image, restore the ikon of myself in Him that I have broken by my dreams. Yes, my dreams. For there is only one reality, one world, and that is His. Into it I must, we must, all awake, leaving behind mere dreams, awaken to the Light.

Enlighten the eyes of my understanding that I may not sleep to death in sins.

And He gives me grace to greet the new day with joy, to know that He is here, with us, even with me, and that unlike our images of Him, He is not angry with me. He loves me. He assigns the psalms for me, this twelfth day, as my prayer to Him, reveals in them to me His answer, teaches me in the words I offer what He knows I need to follow Him today, feeds me by them our daily bread.

God has spoken once,
twice I have heard this:
it is for God to be strong,
for You, Lord, to be loving;
and You Yourself repay
man as his works deserve.
Psalm 62:11-12

‘What works?’ I ask Him, and He makes me remember, ‘How blessed are those who show mercy! for mercy shall be shown them. How blessed are the peace makers! God shall call them His sons.’

And while I am in wonder about these things, time doesn’t stop for a moment. I am awake now, and forgetting myself, I approach Him in the psalms.

God, You are my God, I am seeking You,
my soul is thirsting for You,
my flesh is longing for You,
a land parched, weary and waterless;
I long to gaze on You in the Sanctuary,
and to see Your power and glory.
Your love is better than life itself,
my lips will recite Your praise;
all my life I will bless You,
in Your name lift up my hands;
my soul will feast most richly,
on my lips a song of joy
and, in my mouth, praise.
On my bed I think of You,
I meditate on You all night long,
for You have always helped me.
I sing for joy in the shadow of Your wings;
my soul clings close to You,
Your right hand supports me.
But may those now hounding me to death
go down to the earth below,
consigned to the edge of the sword,
and left as food for jackals.
Then will the king rejoice in God,
and all who swear by him be able to boast
once these lying mouths are silenced.
Psalm 63

Yes, may those now hounding me to death. Who are they? No, what are they? For the holy apostle says, they are not earthly enemies, but powers and principalities—they may be unseen, but they are very much heard, inwardly, accusing those who listen to them of crimes they never committed, except in thoughts or dreams. But the Lord by His Word has dispelled the darkness, and silenced those lying mouths that say, ‘You are unworthy. You have sinned. You aren’t worth redeeming.’ He has made us ‘a nation of kings and priests to serve our God.’ Not then, but now, ‘will the king,’ even I, ‘rejoice in God,’ for ‘these lying mouths are silenced.’

All flesh must come to You
with all its sins;
though our faults overpower us,
You blot them out.
Psalm 65:2-3

What God is this, who treats us this way? Though my faults overpower me, yes, He blots them out. Can there be a miracle greater than this?

The nations are in uproar, in panic
those who live at the ends of the world,
as Your miracles bring shouts of joy
to the portals of morning and evening.
Psalm 65:8

And I offer the rest of the thanksgiving hymn, remembering who is in control of the whole earth, who provides its bounty, who curtails its pride by drought, who blesses and who withdraws blessing when He sees fit, yet doing everything out of love, for love is His nature, and He shows us what love is by what He does.

You tested us, God,
You refined us like silver,
You let us fall into the net,
You laid heavy burdens on our backs,
You let people drive over our heads;
but now the ordeal by fire and water is over,
and You allow us once more to draw breath.
Psalm 66:10-12

I offer these words and breathe a sigh of relief, for neither have I come too late nor been spared these ordeals. My life has had a share in these tests of God’s people, so I must be one of them. He validates me again and again, even as my faults overpower me, and I can praise and thank Him with no better words than He put into my mouth before I ever was born.

Blessed be God,
who neither ignored my prayer
nor deprived me of His love.
Psalm 66:20

O Lord, grant us to greet the coming day in peace…

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Let us grieve

Come, brethren, let us grieve together. We are locked in the tension between a world that has been irredeemably ruined by us and the gate to a world that is still what it always was and to which we have access if we only ever really desired it—Paradise. We know and live the only news we ever want to hear, the bad news, and avert our eyes from what we know is inevitable, but not for us because we can’t be trusted with it—the Good News. We do our daily rounds, wake, work, feed, forget, sleep, start again, never giving ourselves a moment to stop and see ourselves as we really are, only the world as it is, and if we are believers in whatever transcendent God, apply ourselves assiduously to escaping His impatient glare. We feel our failure but do not know how to please. We turn away and accept yet another day.

Not far the time is coming as the year cycles round again, what the revelator John repeats with untiring voice, ‘for the time is near.’ For us who believe in Christ or attempt, at least, to follow Jesus, the time allotted us as preparation, as pre-judgment, even as repentance, the time we do not give ourselves to stop, and turn around instead of away, is close at hand. ‘There,’ holy and divine scripture says of Him, ‘He proclaimed the Good News from God. “The time has come,” He said, “and the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”’ So we have Holy Church, that strange country which we say is ‘what salvation looks like’ coming to us with its tales, as it leads us patiently back onto the battlefield where we were born, this time with eyes open, and offers us the way out, and in.

Great and holy Lent. We hear its name mentioned and inwardly cringe as at a lion’s roar while outwardly we seek to escape by conforming to the ‘joyful sadness’ and the litanies of self-denial both spiritual and physical that lie ahead. Suddenly, in a moment, we are shown whatever one sin we are guilty of committing night and day with all our being, that for all our unconscious self-justifications we remain ignorant of, thinking ‘I am okay, I’m a good person, I haven’t killed anyone.’ Now we have something to tell the priest at our annual confession, leaving us only to worry whether we will have enough money to assist our hand-picked poor, whether we will be able to subsist on peanut butter sandwiches and lentil soup for six blessèd weeks, and whether we can apply our paltry efforts at prayer to fulfill our obligations.

Yes, let us grieve together. We are not Jews, who yearly repent for ten days, confident that they will be just as saved as we think we are, by these acts. Lucky for them, their Temple has been destroyed, is no more on this earth, and they need only repent, no longer offering bloody sacrifice. But luckier still, the Messiah whose name they dare not know stands before the only Ark of the Covenant there ever was to sprinkle His own blood, not that of bulls and rams, on the Mercy Seat, and so save them who know Him not as well as us who say we do. We are not Muslims, whose fast follows the moon as it migrates around its shortened year, impatient of the day when their Mahdi appears, accompanied by our Jesus who stands behind him. They know better than to wait for someone else to straighten out the world.

No, brethren, we are Christians, who confess the God-man, who says ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing,’ and yet who tells us, ‘You will do even greater things, because I am going to the Father.’ We are caught between His words, paralysed by our doubt, but we have our excuses. Doubt Him, no. Only doubt ourselves. We can’t believe that He has entrusted us with the keys to the Kingdom. That He has added us to the angels who guard the entrance to Paradise. ‘The world, just like us, is evil. We can’t make it better. We can only watch as it burns, and weep. Yes, just as we weep for our sins, even as we stand in them, bathing in our own blood. The old man must die before the New Man can be born. The old world must be destroyed, so the City not-made-by-hands can descend. It is all God’s work, not ours.’

And so the year keeps cycling round. It will be Lent soon, a time of Light, not of ‘night, when no one can work,’ but a season to prepare our soil, to plough it, to fertilize it, to seed it for the only crop worth planting. Yes, the old man must die in us, but we need not kill him, only keep our eyes on the New Man who we are to become, as we follow Him. Yes, the old world is evil, but that is not the world Christ comes to save, nor the world He calls us to live in. For the path He treads He walks in us, and that land is redeemed by our footsteps, or not at all. Come, brethren, let us grieve together. Then, arise and take hold of the ploughshare. Yes, we were all born on this battlefield, yet not to fight but to plant, for the prophet declares, ‘These will hammer their swords into plowshares, their spears into sickles…

‘O House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of Yahweh.’ 
Isaiah 2:4b-5 Jerusalem Bible

Deep is calling to deep

I have been a practicing Orthodox Christian since I was thirty-seven years old. I just turned sixty-five last Monday. I began my intentional, adult Christian life at the age of twenty-four, when after an intense personal encounter with the Lord, I gave my life to Him. Let me tell you, it was no shallow ‘born again’ experience. That meeting grounded me from that moment till this. The divine lightning flash that finds human flesh a good conductor of divine power found me and earthed itself in me, as it does in anyone receptive, and I began noticing gradually that I was burdened with gifts. The first one was easy, and I could’ve wished for no more. What was that first gift? To be able to see God wherever I looked, and in such a way that His divine image was indelibly apparent to me, in other people, and even in myself. For Christ clothes us with Himself as a majestic garment, and in such a way that He hides nothing true in us from ourselves. Yes, He clothes the nakedness of our personal sin with, not the skins of beasts, but with His own skin. For me, when this happened, it was not a matter of my choice. He called. I answered, ‘Yes.’

Why do I mention a little of this personal history? It is because though I always wanted to find the faith and the church that was pleasing to Him, following His verbal instruction to me, ‘Put yourself on the ways of long ago, inquire about the ancient paths: which was the good way? Take it then, and you shall find rest’ (Jeremiah 6:16 Jerusalem Bible), I was not immediately aware of Holy Orthodoxy. I was drawn at first to the Episcopal Church, to Anglo-Catholicism as it is called, seeing how closely it resembled, at the time—this is forty years ago!—the Church I was reading about in the New Testament and the early Church fathers. It was a gentle beginning, for life in the Church is not always a dinner party, but there are conflicts within just as there are conflicts without. Sandaled, toga’d and halo’d saints exist in holy pictures. When you meet them in the Church, along with others not so holy, they don’t usually look like what you expect. Hence the saying, ‘When you go to the Temple, be on your guard. Go near so that you can hear; the Sacrifice is more valuable than the offering of fools, even if they are unaware of doing wrong’ (Ecclesiastes 4:17 JB). As I learned the ropes, I drew closer to the Truth, and to the Church.

Of course, I was a member of the Church, even when I was an Episcopalian, yes, even from the moment I gave my life to Christ before crossing the threshold of a church. The Holy Mysteries had already been given to me as a child, but the children’s version of Christianity hadn’t satisfied me—it should have, but it didn’t—and so I went off, like the Prodigal Son, who asks his (heavenly) Father for his property (in Greek, ουσια, oo-SEE-ah, ‘essence’) and then departs to waste it on inanities. Like the Prodigal Son, and not after very long, about seven years, I came back, albeit reluctantly—no, not exactly reluctantly: I wanted to be a Christian, but I was afraid of the Church. The Voice that spoke to me that cold November morning singed my soul but curiously warmed it, removing instantly any fears I had. I knew the Church was my home, her God my eternal and heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ my Lord. I never looked back from that moment. Why? Because there was no longer anything to look back to. ‘The world of the past has gone’ (Revelation 21:4 JB). I wasn’t able to burn my bridges and keep mankind’s enemy from pursuing and capturing me, but I was given grace to ask Someone who alone could, to burn them, and He did.

Again, why this personal history? I am thinking of how the Church, even how Christianity, must look to those who stand outside, and why they stand there. Is it from pride, or is it perhaps, from fear? This was not my fear (when I said earlier I had been afraid; I can’t even remember anymore what exactly I feared: I think it was simply self-consciousness), but for many I think the fear is that Holy Church will make impossible demands. They have seen and heard the most visible and vocal, yet the least Christian, of the followers of Jesus doing exactly that—making impossible demands. Being outside the Church and thinking they’re looking in, they are misled, because Holy Church does no such thing. She doesn’t combine faith in Christ with advocacy of anti-scientific biases, or with degrading and judgmental legalisms. She does not teach that you must be a ‘young earth creationist’ to be a Christian, nor that you have to believe in the subjugation of women. Nor does she accept you only if you believe in such (unscriptural and modern) speculations as the ‘end times rapture,’ nor does she teach that you are truly saved only if you exhibit ‘pentecostal’ behavior: speaking in tongues, having visions, or miraculous powers.

Here in North America the peoples have been singed, not by the One, True Holy Spirit, but by the ravages of myriads of demon-driven, unspiritual dysangelists (not ev-angelists, bringing of the ‘good’ news, but dys-angelists, the opposite). Yes, singed and even burned, so that they are right to avoid contact with them, but wrong because they have not really given the Message a hearing. The misanthropy (hatred of humankind) that afflicts these people rightly scares off the unsaved. Who would want salvation from God on the terms they say are alone acceptable? And whether we admit it or not, the same affliction often finds members of Holy Orthodoxy avid recipients, so that they propagate not the Message, ‘for God so loved the world…’ (John 3:16) but radiate a rigorous, law-laden counterfeit ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power’ (2 Timothy 3:5). I am not saying that this is a problem of the clergy particularly, but of ordinary believers who, being ignorant of the Bible (because they fear looking like Protestants if they read it), turn to the fabulous in tale-telling and the miraculous in undiscerning self-delusion, or even worse, unashamedly accept the lies of popular ‘preachers’ outside the Church.

Lord, have mercy! And yes, He has had mercy, on us, and on all humanity when it comes to His divine οικονομια (ee-koh-noh-MEE-ah), His plan of salvation, revealed, taught and practiced from the time of Christ and the holy apostles until this very moment. Nothing has changed, nothing been added or taken away (though some has been lost through negligence and presumption, yet not forever). The Message is forever the same, cannot be combined with indulgence in our fantasies, speculations, or carnal passions. If you, brother or sister standing outside the Church, refusing to call yourself ‘Christian’ because of the history of abuse and even crime, or the obsessive man- and woman-hating blasphemies spoken by the ignorant and self-willed in the name of Christ at this very hour, know this: Our God is not their god. Ours is the One whose nature to us and to you is fatherly love, and yes, motherly love too. Our God is ‘the only lover of mankind,’ but you must come to Him, even if in your own way and when you really hear His call, in your own time, but to Him you must come in the end, for there is no other. He is mercy to those who run to Him, but judgment to those who run away. Do not hold back because of anyone, or anything.

‘Deep is calling to deep as your cataracts roar…’ sings the psalmist (Psalm 42:7 JB). Yes, the Lord knows us to our very depths, and from His depths He calls to us, and He honors those who hearken to His voice.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem…

‘As we entrust our Diocese and its mission over the coming years to Our Lady, may her example of obedience and perseverance in faith help this Local Church of East Anglia, in communion with the Universal Church, to deepen our faith and to be strong witnesses for Jesus Christ. Through our faith and witness, may the world be given a glimpse of the possibility of a different way of living, a world transformed by faith, hope and love – the world of the one true God – who shares in our human so that we might one day share in his eternal life.’
— Alan Hopes, (Roman Catholic) Bishop of East Anglia (UK),
from a sermon preached in July, 2013

This drew the following comment from a reader of the online Catholic Herald (UK),

‘ ... the possibility of a different way of living, a world transformed by faith, hope and love – the world of the one true God – who shares in our human life so that we might one day share in his eternal life.’ If this is what the Church has to offer the world, one cannot but wonder how much of religion do people need to live that different way or whether religion has become a distraction from doing so—a self-perpetuating, self-obsessed enclosed system of doctrines, rituals and morality—so that the best service the Church could do mankind is to attain the point where there is no more need for religion. Just asking! But if that did happen at least we would be spared the endless bickering about who is the true Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Muslim etc. that seems to be what most preoccupies religious people.’

Although this Socrates—the reader’s online identity—seems to be rather cynical about Christianity, I have asked myself these very same questions, and I am still ‘just asking!’ As an ‘insider’ in the Church that Socrates is querying, I’ve already heard many of the possible answers to his question, and they don’t satisfy me either. I am a little taken aback by his suggestion, reminiscent of lyrics in John Lennon’s song Imagine, that the Church should do us all a favor, and just die. Well, his British reserve helps him say something that sounds like he might mean this, but even if he does, ‘the point where there is no more need for religion’ doesn’t have to mean the end of the Church. Quite the contrary!

The Marxist-Leninist regime of the Soviet Union tried its best to deal Orthodox Christianity, as well as every other religious faith within its domain, a death blow. We already know what happened. All that persecution, though it cost untold misery and countless lives, simply strengthened the Church. Incredible that even the Church’s sworn enemies never seem to learn either from history, or from watching the survival instinct at work in the natural world. Someone told me once—I don’t know if it’s true—that cockroaches have no other weapon to fight back extermination but irrepressible reproduction. I’ve always thought of the Church as surviving every challenge the same way.

No, I don’t mean physical reproduction. Anyone can breed, and yes, at worst the Church expands and fights back annihilation even that way, but ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’ At least that’s how it’s been so far. History, though, has shown a mixture of this kind of Church growth and another kind, that of domination by worldly wealth and power. There’s no guarantee, despite our official ‘belief’ in the indefectability—or even the infallibility (a scary thought!)—of the Church, that it won’t turn on us—and on the ‘unsaved’ world—and even at the cost of becoming hirelings instead of true shepherds—to force us into a version of the life of salvation that is theirs, not Christ’s.

Theirs? Well, yes, for the life of salvation in the Church is actually ours—the whole people of Christ’s—but there are always ‘those others’ who, depending on our laxity and our easy regress into being mere laity, will take every chance they get to talk us down, ‘dumbing us down’ is the current expression, so they can turn the Church of God into a multi-level religious marketplace, souls and sometimes even bodies sold to the highest, or most prestigious, bidder. Humanity doesn’t change. I mean, human nature is still subject to the built-in law of failure—in plain English, ‘sin’—and being ‘in the Church’ visibly doesn’t cure us of it if we don’t want to be cured, people satisfied to be sick, as long as they can rule.

No, brethren, this is not a diatribe against the Church and its human heads. The Church is still, above all else, the Bride of Christ, and He is still her one and only Head, so there need be no reformation by malcontents. Christ is here with us. He is in our midst. He is and always shall be. Till the end of time. Do we ever ask ourselves what that means? Do we ever ask ourselves if it’s religion or our risen Lord, our divine Master, our Savior Christ, who is the true life, both ‘on earth as in heaven,’ of us, His people? If there is religion, it can’t be anything other than living in, walking in the presence of the God-man. This is what I believe the bishop of East Anglia is talking about, and maybe even what Socrates yearns for.

Yes, I know it is, even though they appear to be looking for it from opposite directions. ‘ ... the possibility of a different way of living, a world transformed by faith, hope and love – the world of the one true God – who shares in our human life so that we might one day share in his eternal life.’ How is it that we cannot grasp that the Church is a pan-human reality? that all human beings—‘all’ means ‘everyone’ irrespective of any other ‘fact’ about them—is automatically a member, redeemed by Christ through His self-sacrifice and reconciled to the Father, even when they don’t know it, even when they don’t care about it because they are not instructed? How long must He wait for us to be members of one another?

Members of everyone we despise, because we are better than them? because they don’t believe what we believe, think like we do, because they’re irreligious and unrighteous by our standards? All of these gripes and prejudices of ours are our real religion, that which drives those outside either to contempt or to despair, so we can’t really be expected to include everyone, can we? Lord, have mercy! In a moment of clarity, we who are ‘of sinners the chief,’ could pray to God, ‘Religion is our protection, against You,’ and at last unbend our wills and let His straighten us. Yes, not our wills, but His. Yes, not my will, but Yours, O Lord. Make me an instrument of Your peace, for night is coming, when no one can work.

Yes, the world’s last night will soon be upon us, the night that sees the world’s Creator and Recreator betrayed by the kiss of one He loves, the night that sees His captors slain in the spirit at His admission to their question, ‘I am He!’ the night that sees His followers scatter in fear, on the morrow to separate into twin camps, those who hide themselves from His glory as He is lifted up, and those who in His face ask for His execution, their ‘Crucify Him!’ unknowingly acclaiming Him the King of all. On that night all the religions of the earth are put to shame as their Hades-bound adherents are set free once and for all, and death the deceiver’s lying mouth is forever shut, its teeth shattered, and its captives freed.

Soon, we shall hear, ‘Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem…’

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth. The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ, the Son of God, came to earth, was made man, uniting His divine life with that of humanity. This divine-human life He gave to His brethren, who believe on His name. Although He died and rose again and ascended into heaven, He was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it. The light of the resurrection of Christ lights the Church, and the joy of resurrection, of the triumph over death, fills it. The risen Lord lives with us and our life in the Church is a mysterious life in Christ.
Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church

When Orthodox Christians read the above passage in Bulgakov's classic The Orthodox Church, most of us assume with an unconscious smugness that we have it, the ‘Church of Christ on earth,’ that we are it, the true Church, and this belief is reinforced at every liturgy when we sing ‘We have seen the true Light…’

But in the very next sentence Bulgakov states an alarming proposition—‘The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.’ The man has let the cat out of the bag. I mean, the Church is not something that is ‘set on automatic,’ or can rest on beds of laurel.

Well, yes, we know that, but still, we're the true Church, we have the true faith, otherwise what's the point of being an Orthodox Christian? Once again we are confronted by the obvious but well-hidden fact that the point of being an Orthodox Christian is to be united to Christ, to partake of the Divine Nature.

More than confessing Christ before the world in verbal testimony or churchly announcement, as Orthodox Christians we are here to give our lives, as Christ did and does, for the life of the world. We are here both to taste and to share His literal, not just symbolic, presence in our midst, living in and among us, as us.

For yes, brethren, we are the Body of Christ, and Jesus our Saviour and good Lord, is our Head, our only Mediator and Advocate, who ‘was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it.’ The resurrection started with His literal rising from the dead, and as we are born into it, born again, we are saved.

Saved from what? This is no mere self-betterment regimen. The world offers plenty of these, and if it doesn't destroy our planet first, it will undoubtedly save the world. Save it for what? The world knows no heavenly kingdom, no kings. It strives to create a perfect social order, in which all are its slaves.

There is no kingship in the works of the flesh, but in the faith of the saints, all become kings and queens, ‘they will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 22:5). This is why the Orthodox Church is. This is the point of being an Orthodox Christian. Not to pressure wash the world, but to be what Christ says we are,  ‘the Light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14).

Let's look at the same passage of Bulgakov again, this time, as Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church, maybe as a Roman Catholic, but especially as a bible-believing Christian, or maybe as one who believes in Christ, in whatever manner, and tries to follow Him, without belonging to a church.

He states, ‘Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth.’ Instead of starting with Orthodoxy, let's start with the Church of Christ. If we are believers and followers of Jesus, if we believe the Bible to be God's message to humanity, or at least to us, we must know of the Church and consider ourselves members of it.

If we are members of the Church, we must be asking ourselves, ‘How does that make me Orthodox? I don't want to accept any kind of label, or submit myself to some earthly authority.’ But brethren, read on. Don't you agree with what Bulgakov states in the rest of the passage? Aren't these your beliefs too?

He states the Orthodox Church is not an institution, but rather life in Christ. This is where I now have to leave you to your own internal deliberations, just as the Orthodox left me to mine as I was coming to them as an Episcopalian a quarter century ago. I found out not that I belonged to the Orthodox Church, but that it belongs to me.

Orthodoxy, that is, the Orthodox Church in its visible and invisible aspects, is the property of all the believers in Jesus Christ, it is their, or rather our, true home on earth, where all are welcome and, therefore, all should be made welcome. In it live the saints of all ages, not in agreement only, but in merciful love.

This is the only reason why we should feel joy, once we have arrived at Holy Church—for that, and not its more formal designation ‘the Orthodox Church,’ is what we call her once we are inside her fold—this is the only reason we should feel joy when we chant

We have seen the true Light,
we have received the heavenly Spirit,
we have found the true Faith,
worshiping the undivided Trinity,
for He has saved us.

Let not man put asunder

Somehow it seems a brand of specious nonsense to say that you believe in Jesus but not in the Church. Of course, I should say, ‘but not in His Church’ because the Church has no validity or reason to exist if not for Him, if He weren’t its Founder. Yet you say, not His Church because He didn’t found it, others did. You find this in so many writers, this idea that there is a huge disconnect between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian Church, as if the two were completely unrelated, except for the use of the names ‘Christ’ and ‘Christian.’ We find an excuse for every assertion to the contrary. Notice I changed the target pronoun from ‘you’ to ‘we’? Well, I write as a Christian, and I too fall into the same category as many of my fellow ‘believers,’ except that we act as if Christ and the Church were unrelated without admitting it.

How is this possible? Of course we believe in Jesus and in His Church. We say so every Sunday when reciting the Nicene creed, ‘and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,’ some of us making the sign of the Cross while saying this part. Surely, this proves that we believe in the Church, but what, then, does this say about our belief in Jesus? And do we really believe that Jesus started the Church, or do we think as most moderns do, that Jesus did His thing, and the Church was only invented later by a whole different group of people? How else, then, do we explain why the teachings of Christ and much of what goes on in the Church, both beliefs and practices, seem so different? I must be careful here, to say ‘seem’ and not ‘are’ because I am only a layman, and what do I know? Precisely nothing, just what it looks like.

Back to the basic unbeliever’s notion that Jesus, if He existed, has nearly nothing to do with the institutional Church. Some of these basic unbelievers even call themselves ‘Christians’ because they say they’re getting behind the institution and finding the ‘real Jesus’ as if there were an ‘unreal Jesus.’ That’s one set of unbelievers. Another set, slightly more honest, ‘believe’ in Jesus but say that the Church is an invention by Saul of Tarsus, a conniving manipulator and subtle egotist who, having missed meeting the ‘real Jesus’ made up a religion that he could control, stealing the whole show and selling salvation through Jesus as a product. I said ‘slightly more honest,’ because at least they reject religious Christianity as a business, whereas the first group make a living off their interpretation of the Message of Christ.

But what we actually find if we are serious enough to study the biblical record is that Jesus existed, that He taught a supernatural ethic that exceeded the Law of Moses, that He bent the laws of nature to effect miraculous cures, multiply rations, and even bring dead people back to life. Some of us want to stop Him there and follow Him up to that point. Christ Himself didn’t stop there. Though He didn’t promote Himself as ‘messiah’ He consistently moved along a path predicted by the prophets of Israel as that of the Suffering Messiah, while His followers persistently moved along a slightly different path, that predicted of the King Messiah. The two paths converged in a literally death defying event now called ‘the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ’ which ended one phase and initiated another.

What do I mean by ‘phase’? Well, if you read the Bible you will notice, as have those who disconnect Jesus and the Church so readily, that what ‘the Good News’ means as preached by Jesus, and what it means as preached by Paul (and supported by the other apostles who actually did know Jesus ‘in the flesh’) seems different, even disconnected. Salvation in the mouth of Jesus has something to do with being ‘born from above,’ with believing that He is ‘the resurrection and the life,’ and that it represents an idea of living forever more than anything else. Sin is not even mentioned at all. But when we get to salvation in the mouth of Paul (previously mentioned as Saul of Tarsus), it has everything to do with our obedience to the commandments, rejection of sin, and integration ‘into Christ’ through His resurrection.

It is exactly the resurrection that has, it seems, transformed ‘Jesus’ into ‘Christ,’ and that’s exactly what Paul (not Jesus) says when he writes that Jesus was proclaimed Christ through His resurrection from the dead. Yes, if anything, the resurrection of Jesus is to blame for changing the Good News. In fact, it has replaced the ‘original’ message preached by Christ with ‘another’ message preached by Paul. First there was no Church, now there is. So, how can we say that Jesus and the Church are connected? It’s obvious, isn’t it, say they who believe in Jesus but not in the Church, that there is no ‘real’ connexion between them. Jesus said and did one thing, the Church another. To connect the two is begging the question. The historical Jesus, if He existed, cannot have intended to start a new religion, or found the Church.

There are only two points I can think of, but I am sure there are many more, to prove wrong those who say that Jesus did not found the Church. Actually, they are not proofs, only questions to be answered. If Jesus did not found the Church, to what was He telling His apostles to draw men to, when He made them ‘fishers of men’? And if He did not found the Church, why did He, after His resurrection but before His ascension, tell His apostles to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’? I purposely leave out ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ because so many, even within the Church, say that this part of the Divine Commission was added later, and that He didn’t really say these things. What are we left with? It all boils down to who we really think Jesus was, and is, not what He did.

Why did I call it ‘specious nonsense’ to believe in Jesus and not in the Church? Well, it’s because I am not preaching to the choir or trying to start a semantic squall, but trying to reconnoiter my own inner battlefield and engage the enemy within by reckless taunts. It’s just as easy to love the Tree so much that you miss the forest, as to love the Forest so much that you miss the tree. The connexion between Christ and the Church is so integral that it almost cannot be identified. Somewhere around the neck is the Head attached to the Body. We have little trouble believing that, especially when it’s our own. A head without a body, and a body without a head—horrible mess! Let’s not go there!—but nevertheless we’re not always happy about heads and the bodies that go with them, our own in particular.

Finally, what I am thinking about here is division, how there can be things that can be divided mentally but not in reality—physically, socially, historically. If Jesus were to come back today and ‘go to church’ where you live, would He be able to recognize anything? The Church, for its part, goes back in time and place to where Jesus lived, listens daily to His teaching, witnesses His miracles, suffers inwardly His rebukes and is shamed by His love, but claims Him as her Bridegroom for better and for worse, and forever. The fact is, we cannot ask some questions, even though we have the words, because reality is always ‘real’ but our thoughts are not. We cannot propose, ‘If Jesus were to come back today,’ because the truth is, He has never left and, ‘what therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’

Exclusive

The primitive Church was very puritanic concerning the Christian spirit. She was not particular as to the vessels in which to pour the new wine, but she was extremely particular as to the wine itself. She borrowed the vessels in Judæa, Alexandria, Athens, Rome, but she never borrowed wine. The Christian spirit and the pagan spirit were just like two opposite poles, like white and black, or day and night. The Church was conscious of it, and jealously watchful that no drop of any foreign spirit should be mixed with the precious spirit of the New Gospel. There existed no thought of compromise, and no idea of inclusiveness whatever regarding the spirit. The terrific conflict of Christianity and Paganism through centuries sprang from the irreconcilability of two different spirits. Were the Church as inclusive as to the spirit as she was to forms, doctrines, customs and worships, conflicts never would arise—but then neither would Christianity arise.

The modern Church is particular as to its institutions, but not particular at all as to its spirit. The Roman Emperors never would persecute the modern Church, for they would easily recognise their own spirit included in her. Nor would the Pharaohs from Egypt persecute modern Christianity. Nor would Areopagus or Akropolis be puzzled so much had St Paul preached to them the modern European Christianity with its complicated spirit of all kinds of compromises with Heaven and Hell, compromise with the State, Plutocracy, Nationalism, Imperialism, Conquest, War, Diplomacy, Secular Philosophy, Secular Science, Agnostic Parliaments, Tribal Chauvinism, Education, Officialism, Bureaucracy, etc., etc. All these things have their own spirit, and every such spirit is partly or wholly included in the spirit of the Church, i.e., of modern Christianity. None of the Christian Churches of our time makes an exception as to this inclusiveness of all kinds of spirits. Even Protestantism, which claims the simplicity of its Christian ritual and administration, represents a lamentable mosaic of spirits gathered from all the pagan corners of secular Europe and mixed up with the Christian wine in the same barrel.

The Church of the East excommunicated thousands of those who crossed themselves with two fingers instead of using three fingers. The Church of the West burnt thousands of those who did not recognise the papal organisation of the Church as the only ark of salvation. Yet there is rarely to be found in the Church annals an excommunication on the ground of chauvinism or brutal egoism. No one of the world conquerors—neither Napoleon nor Kaiser William—have been excommunicated by the Church. It signifies an extreme decadence of the Church. And this decadence penetrates and dominates our own time. Speaking on the reunion of the Churches the peoples of the East are anxious to know, not whether the Church of the West has preserved the unmixed Christian spirit in its integrity, but whether this Church still keeps Filioque as a dogma, and whether she has ikons, and whether she allows eggs and milk in Lent. And the people of the West are anxious to know whether the Eastern Church has a screen quite different from their own screen at the altar, and whether she has been always tenaciously exclusive in teaching, worship and organisation. Who of us and of you asks about the integrity of the Christian spirit? If St Paul were amongst us he would ridicule our controversies on Filioque and all the trifles concerning Church organisation and the external expressions of Christianity. He would ask: What happened with the spirit he preached? What happened with this spirit which excommunicated de facto the Jewish narrow Patriotism and the Roman Imperialism? Have we still this exclusive spirit which moved the world effecting the greatest revolution in History? I am sure he would have to repeat with good reasons to every Church and to everyone of us: ‘If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His.’

Well, we must come again to this source of Christian strength and greatness, which is Christ’s spirit. A new revival, yea, regeneration of Christianity, could be possible only in a united Christian Church; and the union of the Church is possible only upon the ground of the primitive Church, which was inclusive in teaching, worship and organisation, but exclusive in spirit. On the day when we all exclude from ourselves the Jewish and Greek and Roman spirit, and retain only the pure Christian spirit, we shall be at once ready to include each other’s Church into one body, into one Christianity. We must be clear about it, and we must confess that the divisions of the church are due to the invasion of a foreign spirit, an unclean spirit, into the Church. When the Church cleanses herself from this foreign unclean spirit she will be victorious over herself, and from this victory to the ultimate victory of Christianity over our planet will be a very short distance.

Nikolaj Velimirović, Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča

Only One Church

There is only One Church, just as there is only One Christ. How can we know this? Well, the Church is personified as ‘the Bride of Christ’ and Christ is ‘the Bridegroom.’ Christ is named ‘the Second Adam’ and so His Bride is named ‘the Second Eve.’ The pattern revealed in Genesis, ‘a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one,’ demonstrates that marriage is a joining of two previously individual beings. Plural marriage, both polyandry (several men, one woman) and polygyny (many women, one man), cannot be ‘marriage’ at all. By definition it is a joining of one with one to become one. There is one Bridegroom, Christ, and one Bride, the Church.

Does this bear any relationship to what we see in the world? No, it doesn’t. In America, as in most countries of the world today where Christians live, the concept of ‘One Church’ is completely unknown. ‘Church’ has become another name for a social expression of Christianity without reference to its historical source. Only in a very few countries, Greece, for example, does ‘Church’ continue to mean ‘the Christian community of this land which, with minor exceptions, means everyone.’ In other European countries which still maintain ‘state churches,’ a legacy of the Christian Roman Empire of Constantine the Great, the memory has not completely faded. The Church of England is still ‘the Church.’

Back to America, this country never had a state church or official religion, except ‘God.’ The cardinal tenet of ‘separation of Church and State,’ however, has radically changed from its original meaning of ‘no institutional church supported by the government to which everyone must belong’ and been gradually revised to mean ‘no introduction of any overtly religious activity into the administration of government or other public offices.’ Strangely, most legislative bodies open their sessions with a prayer, originally to ‘Almighty God,’ now to any supernatural being or force. Officeholders and witnesses in judicial proceedings still take oaths on scriptures, originally on the Bible but now on any sacred book.

This same country and its constitution, separate from any state church, curiously mandate the currency to bear the inscription, ‘In God We Trust,’ a motto which was only added after the Civil War. Hardly anyone objects to this because to do so would seem un-American. Even many of the unchurched in this country ‘believe in God,’ whatever that means. The freedom of religion that is the bedrock of spirituality in America has produced exactly what it intended, thousands, not hundreds, of small ‘churches,’ each promoting its own version of the Gospel. Entering into this multiplicity of denominations come the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and they cannot help falling in line with them.

Roman Catholicism is now seen as just a denomination, though from its point of view, it is ‘the Church.’ As a Greek Orthodox, I have no problem with that. Why? Because ‘they’re on to something,’ even though I’m not sure they know it. As for the Orthodox, split, in America, into multiple jurisdictions, most of them in intercommunion, are also seen as denominations if they’re recognized as Christian churches at all, though from our point of view, we are ‘the Church.’ Sounds familiar? Don’t the Catholics say the same thing? Well, they do, and they have an advantage that we don’t—their claim is almost believable. As for us, we are ‘the Church’ and so confident of that, that we can squabble all we want.

Proud of popelessness, but too humble to give even an inch to our opponent in any controversy where status quo might be in jeopardy, making our claim to be ‘the Church’ as we do should make us blush. St Paul, were he to visit us today, would be more than scandalized. To him, our differences would seem trivial. It was bad enough when ethnic biases separated us into Arab, Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian parishes. At least our ‘cradle Orthodox’ priests knew that there was still only one Church. Now, with so many convert priests carrying ‘the need to be right’ along with them and playing denominational rugby, pitting Orthodox against each other, and Orthodoxy against ‘the world,’ we too have lost our vision.

What vision? The vision of the Kingdom of God, ‘when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea,’ where the whole land and all its inhabitants belong to the Lord, where there is a single Church, because it comprises all people who believe in and follow Jesus. This is the charter of the Church, ‘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.’ The church that knows that it is ‘the Church’ acknowledges all Christians in its territory (in this case, the United States) as its members, and treats them as such while ‘going and making disciples,’ opening wide its doors, because it knows, there are no other doors.

What might this look like? Start from either the Roman Catholic or the Orthodox Church. First, be completely united among ourselves, one hierarchy, one jurisdiction (these terms are meaningless from Christ’s point of view) because ‘there is only One Church.’ Next, put away all non-essential requirements for membership in the Church, make the Symbol of Nicaea the only test and testimony. Then, ‘send them out two by two’ to every Christian gathering as witnesses, named neither ‘Catholic’ nor ‘Orthodox,’ to announce the Message, ‘one Christ, one Church,’ as permanent ambassadors in every place. Make no demands on conformity of customs, but invite all to the unity of faith and accept all who do not resist.

Of course, this is a lot of work! This means that the Church—whoever decides to take on the responsibility for being in reality what Christ calls us to be—must again become twenty-four seven Johnny-on-the-spot, must be willing to teach, preach, pray, heal, reconcile, restore, rescue, adopt, make room for every kind of person and group of persons. This means that the Church cannot ‘pick and choose’ only those whom it wants, who fit in, who pay the bills, who give it a voice. No, for Christ Himself is the Voice, He is the Teacher, the Healer and Physician of our souls, the souls of all of us, leaving no one out, no one except those ‘who chose to be lost,’ not by accident, but on purpose.

Yes, this really is a lot of work! And wait, there’s more! The Church, being in theory, but becoming in reality, the people of this nation and the people of God, has a hand in every good work, not just the ‘religious’ ones. Why was the local parish the center of the life of Church in previous ages? Because there was only one Church, and it was essentially inclusive. All aspects of life were seen as part of its work, and all people. Today, what would that mean for the church that ‘steps up to the plate’ to show itself as ‘the Church’? That means ‘the parish becomes the world’ around it, instead of what we are seeing at the moment, ‘the parish against the world.’ In practical terms, we don’t protect Christ.

Because this is what the churches do, they try to protect Christ instead of letting Him protect us. The announcement is sternly made before delivering the Holy Mysteries, that they are ‘only for the Orthodox, who have prepared themselves by…’ cutting off many who need His help because they are now imprisoned by ignorant scruples, while infants, children, and others, quite possibly sinners and blasphemers, go up to receive, stating their baptismal name, ‘the servant of God…’ But the Church does not do this. The Church that knows herself and her place, God’s presence amidst the people, is Christ’s Bride and Mother of all who have faith, sinful and righteous, ignorant and learned, stranger and friend.

Make the way easy, remove all obstacles, before the path of those who are running towards Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and welcome them into the Kingdom. Make the way difficult, throw up barriers, before the route of those who are running away from Him, so that they may come to their senses, and return. Christ says, speaking to His holy apostles who complained of others, not of their number, promoting the Message, ‘Whoever is not against us, is for us.’ The Church that knows herself also knows that these words are spoken for her protection and also for the healing of the nation, binding up its wounds, restoring its sight, releasing it from bondage, and for the unity of all in Christ.

O Church of the living God, our Savior Jesus Christ, you are His Bride and our Mother. Open yourself now and receive all who seek to know your Divine Husband, and welcome them into the Paradise of Life.

Save, O Lord, Your people, and bless Your inheritance.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Beauty

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
— John Keats (1795–1821), Ode on a Grecian Urn

Early one morning I was at the market purchasing some medicine and a couple of items of grocery. As I was walking past the refrigerated displays, I approached a woman who was making a careful selection of a carton of eggs. Her back was to me, and she was rather tall, but she looked very familiar somehow.

A feeling of my childhood came over me and then quickly yielded to speculative thought. It was very cold that day. Even though it was still November, an autumn month, the air was very chilly that week. In fact, that's probably why I started to feel sick the afternoon of the day before, catching a chill sitting at my desk at work. The office was very cold.

The woman was dressed in a simple but elegant long coat with luxurious fur collar, something that seemed a little out of place.

Her head was covered by a white scarf with subtle raised patterns on it. The way the head scarf was arranged over her head, combined with the long coat, and underneath a long skirt, summoned feelings I hadn't had since a young boy.

That's exactly how my grandmother dressed, my sophisticated Warsaw busia, who would never go out unless she was sure of being properly attired and head covered, but not with any old babuszka on her head, rather, something elegant like this woman's head covering. I could tell from her height and her confident stance, even from behind, she was no grandmother.

As I passed her, I very quickly and shyly looked at the face peering out of the white silken head scarf. Ah, just as I thought! An African woman. I looked hurriedly away so as not to make her uncomfortable. The speculation that my mind played with as I came up behind her, that she might be an Eastern European Orthodox woman, quickly dissipated.

One part of me fully expected to see a Polish or Russian face with rosy cheeks peering from under that headscarf, but another part of me wasn't surprised that it was probably an Ethiopian or even a Somali woman, though neither of them should have been dressed quite that way. The Somali women especially are too colorful, and their head coverings are Islamic.

This woman wore her clothing and scarf like a European woman. I'm still at a loss to decide what her ethnicity was, but she was definitely an African, and though I did not look at her facial features long enough to visualise them, I knew she was a beautiful woman. Her beauty radiated from her feminine heart, expressed in her choice of clothes, and her womanly confidence.

I haven't seen such women in a long time.

I grew up in inner city Chicago in the 1950's and early 60's. My mother wouldn't dream of leaving the house without something on her head. This wasn't just something to wear to church. No, every journey outside the home, her head was covered. My mother was very modern, though, and I knew by her style, she would do everything differently.

My older sister, five years my senior, reluctantly covered her head too when she went out, from about the age of 8 to her high school years. She would wear the head scarf, but once she passed the first house on the opposite side of the street, I think she often took it off and put it away in her purse. I did the same with my spectacles, because I was ashamed of being ‘four eyes.’

I remember, in my 7th and 8th grade class, most of the girls still tied at least a skimpy little scarf over their bouffant hair styles, and it made them look almost comical. They were all very pretty, and it seemed to me a bit ridiculous that they'd cover their heads like that. We were almost all second generation children of Polish, Ukrainian, Slovak, Greek and Italian immigrants.

We moved away suddenly as I entered high school to a new, suburban village where everyone was a transplant from somewhere else. Everyone had to form new relationships and evolve new customs and ways of dressing. I almost never saw girls or women with covered heads in that town, or anytime after that. Femininity would learn to express itself in a different way.

A lot of thoughts like these passed through my mind as I walked past the woman selecting eggs. The mystique of woman, something totally absent in today's society, was located in her. I could feel that too, and ‘I was awed by the beauty’ of it. Again, quickly, images of the Theotokos and all the women saints in the ikons, surrounding Christ the true Man, held me.

‘What have we lost?’ was answered with ‘What we have lost!’ in my rational mind, as I realised that I had just experienced a glimpse of a lost world, the world of my childhood, where men and women knew who they were, were confident enough in it that they could be different, where the secret doctrine of ‘man builds the outer world, woman nurtures the inner’ was still happening.

Strains of Chopin's Nocturne #2 in E-flat major drift through my head, as I remember that lost world. The autumn sun filtering in through the lace curtains in Busia's sitting room, as I sat quietly with her while she taught me to embroider. Embroider? Yes, for Poles it is not an art for women only. Perhaps my older sister was too rambunctious, but I could sit still.

Women's things were for women, and men's for men. Busia never went down to Grampa's workshop where he handcrafted small items of carved furniture. She let him be, and he returned the favor. There she was, all afternoon, tending the roses and vegetables in her half-lot garden, while he sat on a wooden stool talking man things with my other grandpa.

Beyond all argument in words, wisdom is proved by living, and living by the Word of God.

Passions

Εξ ύψους κατήλθες ο εύσπλαγχνος,
ταφήν καταδέξω τριήμερον,
ίνα ημάς ελευθερώσης τών παθών,
Η ζωή καί η Ανάστασις ημών, Κύριε δόξα σοι.


You descended from on high, O merciful Lord,
and accepted the three‑day burial
in order to free us from our passions.
Glory to you, O Lord, our life and our resurrection.

Resurrectional Apolytikion, Tone 8


I don’t know why, but this was the first Greek hymn I ever fell in love with. I sang it constantly for years, and I still do from time to time. Later, after worshipping the Lord in the Anastasis service for many years, and having heard my beloved bishop Anthony (of blessed memory) sing with great gusto the apolytikion of Tone 2, Ote katílthes, ‘When You descended,’ in which occurs a phrase I love more than anything, ti astrapí tis theótitos, ‘by the lightning flash of deity,’ that hymn became my favorite. Now it almost sings itself inside me wherever I go, keeping me always present at the moment when the angel speaks the words, ουκ εστιν ωδε, ηγερθη γαρ καθως ειπεν, ‘He is not here, for He has risen as He said’ (Matthew 28:6).

But, back to the 8th tone hymn, it is the words τών παθών, ton pathón, from the passions, that has kept catching my ear from the first time I ever heard it sung.

The passions? What are they?
Some translations propose ‘from the sufferings.’ The word ‘our’ is implied earlier in the verse where it’s the direct object of the verb ελευθερώσης, eleftherósis, You liberate. Whatever is meant by ‘passions,’ Christ came to free us from them. That’s what we’re singing about.

Yet, in the world today, outside and inside the Church, we hear voices throwing around this word ‘passion’ in relation to good things as well as bad, positive as well as negative. Young Christians intent on serving the Lord often say, “I have a passion for Jesus,” or “I have a passion for ministry,” and what they’re saying is that they have a strong feeling. But is it feelings, if that’s what they mean by ‘passion,’ that will keep them going and strengthen them to follow Jesus, or to serve His people, from beginning to end?

The ‘passion’ that young people have, how many times does it get traded or sold for something less than they bargained for? How many Christians have in middle age the same fervor for Christ that they had when they first decided to follow Him? These people are not hard to spot, if you know what to look for. They are those who, no matter what their age, seem somehow to be always young and fresh, their spirits unaffected by the physical deterioration that comes with age.

Living fulfillments of Psalm 1, planted by water streams, yielding their fruit in season, their leaves never fading. Age they have eluded, as they will also elude death.

Εγω ειμι η αναστασις και η ζωη. Ο πιστευων εις εμε καν αποθανη ζησεται… Πιστευεις τουτο? ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. If anyone believes in Me, even though he dies, he will live… Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26)

We sing of Christ that He ‘accepted the three‑day burial in order to free us from our passions.’ Perhaps following Him even there, to the rich man’s virgin tomb, in the darkness of death we will shed our passions as the souls in Hades shed their shadows. He emptied the graves once. He will do it again. And that, very soon.

For the time is close.

Psalms for the 8th day

Yahweh, do not punish me in Your rage,
or reprove me in the heat of anger.
Your arrows have pierced deep,
Your hand has pressed down on me;
no soundness in my flesh now You are angry,
no health in my bones, because of my sin.

Psalm 38:1-3 Jerusalem Bible

Lord, all that I long for is known to You,
my sighing is no secret from You.

Psalm 38:9

I said, ‘I will watch how I behave,
and not let my tongue lead me into sin;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked man is near me’.
I stayed dumb, silent, speechless,
though the sight of him thriving made torment increase.

Psalm 39:1-2

So tell me, Lord, what can I expect?
My hope is in You.
Free me from all my sins,
do not make me the butt of idiots.
I am dumb, I speak no more,
since You Yourself have been at work.

Psalm 39:7-9

Yahweh, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for help,
do not stay deaf to my crying.
I am Your guest, and only for a time,
a nomad like all my ancestors.

Psalm 39:12

Happy the man who puts
his trust in Yahweh,
and does not side with rebels
who stray after false gods.

Psalm 40:4

How many wonders You have done for us,
Yahweh my God!
How many plans You have made for us;
You have no equal!
I want to proclaim them again and again,
but they are more than I can count.

Psalm 40:5

You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation
opened my ear,
You asked no holocaust or sacrifice for sin;
then I said, ‘Here I am! I am coming!’
In the scroll of the Book am I not commanded
to obey Your will?
My God, I have always loved Your Law
from the depths of my being.
I have always proclaimed the righteousness of Yahweh
in the Great Assembly;
nor do I mean to stop proclaiming,
as You know well.
I have never kept Your righteousness to myself,
but have spoken of Your faithfulness and saving help;
I have made no secret of Your love and faithfulness
in the Great Assembly.

Psalm 40:6-10

As a doe longs for running streams,
so longs my soul for You, my God.
My soul thirst for God, the God of life;
when shall I go to see the face of God?
I have no food but tears, day and night;
and all day long men say to me,
‘Where is your God?’
I remember,
and my soul melts within me:
I am on my way to the wonderful Tent,
to the house of God,
among cries of joy and praise
and an exultant throng.

Psalm 42:1-4

When my soul is downcast within me,
I think of you;
from the land of Jordan and Hermón,
of you, humble mountain!
Deep is calling to deep
as your cataracts roar;
all your waves, your breakers,
have rolled over me.
In the daytime may Yahweh
command His love to come,
and by night may His song be on my lips,
a prayer to the God of my life!

Psalm 42:6-8

That very word which I spoke

Then Jesus cried out, "When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees 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. As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. 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

God is truth and light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The ‘books’ will be opened. What are these ‘books’? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice in seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation – and there really is – it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:6).


In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.

St. Symeon the New Theologian

The quote of Saint Symeon is from Fr Milovan's excellent blog, Again and Again.

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.

Just preach Christ

Tissot, Abraham and the Three Angels
The follower of Jesus does not proselytize; he evangelizes.
He does not preach Church,
he preaches Christ.

In this he follows His Master, who in the gospels does not seek converts, but seeks that which is lost.

Never do we find that Jesus in His earthly ministry went after people.

Never do we see Him arguing a philosophical point to win over an opponent.

Never does He proselytize, but He does have words for those who do.

Ουαι υμιν γραμματεις και φαρισαιοι υποκριται οτι περιαγετε την θαλασσαν και την ξηραν ποιησαι ενα προσηλυτον και οταν γενηται ποιειτε αυτον υιον γεεννης διπλοτερον υμων.

Matthew 23:15 NIV

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.


What do we find instead?

Two disciples of a Jewish prophet, John the Forerunner, are directed by him, pointing to Jesus walking by and saying, That is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ (John 1:29)

What did the two disciples do?

They followed after Jesus.

Why?

Because they believed the word of the prophet.

How did they approach Jesus?

They asked, Rabbi, where do you live?

How does Jesus respond?

He says, ‘Come, and see!’

The encounter with the Truth is gentle. There is no compulsion exerted from the outside. Everything is accomplished inwardly. All movement is internal first, in the heart. Then, it is manifested by the feet, running after the Lord.

This is why the follower of Jesus does not argue semantically to win over an opponent. He does not preach Apollos. He doesn’t preach Paul. He doesn’t preach himself. No, he preaches Christ, and Him crucified, and risen from the dead.

People want to draw us into arguments, wrangling over words, but it is precisely this tactic that the evil one used when he wanted to entrap Christ. To every argument, Jesus responded not with human reason, but with the plain words of scripture.

The Word of God does not need to defend Himself.
He simply is what He is.

In the same way, brethren,

all who follow Jesus, all who believe and stand on the Word, who preach, like the angel of the last days, the eternal gospel,

just preach Christ,

to yourself
by submitting all your thoughts to the Word of God,

to others by proving on the battlefield of your body that you follow Christ the Victor over sin,

and to all those whom the Lord places in your path
by your courtesy and generosity,
and by always having a spirit of welcome,
‘for men have welcomed angels without knowing it’ (Hebrews 13:2).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Seek His face

“Seek His face.” 
Psalm 27:8 Jerusalem Bible

Psalms for the 5th Day:
Psalms 24 ~ 29


The psalms of the fifth day include many, many prayers. Reading them this morning ushered me into my prayer room like a welcoming old friend. Let me share some of the verses from this morning…

Who has the right to climb the mountain of Yahweh,
who the right to stand in His holy place?
He whose hands are clean, whose heart is pure,
whose soul does not pay homage to worthless things
and who never swears to a lie.
 

Psalm 24: 3-4 JB

The next verses form the text of the consecration service of an Orthodox house of worship. The epískopos raps the butt of his staff against the closed western doors reciting the first part. A voice from within asks the question. The epískopos answers. This is done three times, and then the doors swing open, and the congregation, waiting outside, enters the newly consecrated temple.

Gates, raise your arches,
rise you ancient doors,
let the King of Glory in!

Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh the strong, the valiant,
Yahweh valiant in battle!

Gates, raise your arches,
rise you ancient doors,
let the King of Glory in!

Who is this King of Glory?
He is Yahweh Sabaoth,
King of Glory, He!

Psalm 24:7-10 JB

Psalms 25 to 28 are full of prayers.
These are some that speak for me…

Yahweh, make Your ways known to me,
teach me Your paths.
Set me in the way of Your Truth, and teach me,
for You are the God who saves me.

Psalm 25:4-5 JB

Do not remember the sins of my youth;
but rather, with Your love, remember me.

Psalm 25:7 JB

Let innocence and integrity be my protection,
since my hope is in You, Yahweh.

Psalm 25: 21 JB

Test me, Yahweh, and probe me,
put me to trial, loins and heart;
for Your love is before my eyes,
and I live my life in loyalty to You.

Psalm 26:2-3 JB

One thing I ask of Yahweh,
one thing I seek:
to live in the House of Yahweh
all the days of my life,
to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh
and to consult Him in His temple.

Psalm 27:4 JB

Yahweh, hear my voice as I cry!
Pity me! Answer me!
My heart has said of You,
“Seek His face.”
Yahweh, I do seek Your face;
do not hide Your face from me.

Psalm 27:7-9a JB

This I believe: I shall see the goodness of Yahweh
in the land of the living.
Put your hope in Yahweh, be strong, let your heart be bold,
put your hope in Yahweh.

Psalm 27:13-14 JB

Yahweh is my strength, my shield,
my heart puts its trust in Him;
I have been helped, my flesh has bloomed again,
I thank Him with all my heart.

Yahweh is the strength of His people,
a saving fortress for His anointed.
Save Your people! Bless Your heritage!
Shepherd them; carry them forever!

Psalm 28:7-9 JB

The last verse above, ‘Save Your people…’ I remember well the beautiful roar of song that the mighty man of God, bishop Anthony, let out when he was with us at Aghía Triás, blessing us with this verse, in English and in the original Greek, ‘…και ευλογησον την κληρονομιαν σου.’ Though he has gone to be with his Lord, I can hear him singing still…


The last psalm for the fifth day, Psalm 29, didn't have the meaning it has for me today, until I heard the Jews at the Sephardi synagogue of Ahavath Achim, ‘brotherly love’, singing it, in Hebrew of course, during the Shabbat evening service. Since then, I have also taken to reading and praying the psalms in Hebrew at home from my copy of the Tehillim. You can read it, and even hear it being read, in Hebrew at my Tehillim blog, here.

Pay tribute to Yahweh, you sons of God,
tribute to Yahweh of glory and power,
tribute to Yahweh of the glory of His name,
worship Yahweh in His sacred court.

The voice of Yahweh over the waters!
Yahweh over the multitudinous waters!
The voice of Yahweh in power!
The voice of Yahweh in splendour!

The voice of Yahweh shatters the cedars,
Yahweh shatters the cedars of Lebanon,
making Lebanon leap like a calf,
Sirion like a young wild bull.

The voice of Yahweh sharpens lightning shafts!

The voice of Yahweh sets the wilderness shaking.
Yahweh shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of Yahweh sets the terebinths shuddering,
stripping the forests bare.

The God of Glory thunders.
In His palace everything cries, “Glory!”
Yahweh sat enthroned for the Flood,
Yahweh sits enthroned as a King for ever.

Yahweh gives strength to His people,
Yahweh blesses His people with peace.

Psalm 29 JB

End of the Psalms for the 5th Day.