Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yes, a new law of existence

…strictly speaking, those who have accepted baptism, and kept the grace of baptism, should not die even a physical death; they die ‘by economy’, by a special dispensation, says St. Maximus the Confessor, the greatest theologian of our Church. They die by a special dispensation, so that the same judgment of Christ might be repeated in them, that death also be put to shame in them - as unjust…. And in those faithful, who keep the grace of baptism and are continually fed by the Body and Blood of Christ, the same judgment takes place in that occurred in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every time we perform a commandment, every time we participate worthily in the Body and Blood of Christ, we abolish death in us, we make death unjust…. Through Christ a new law of existence was inaugurated. What begins with an unjust death, or even with unjust suffering that leads to death, has glory, says St. Peter (cf. 1 Peter 4:13), and leads to life…. This is the new law, which the Lord established by His voluntary Passion, Cross and Resurrection.

—From The Enlargement of the Heart: ‘Be ye also enlarged’ (2 Corinthians 6:13) in the Theology of Saint Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex by Archimandrite Zacharias Zachariou (South Canaan, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2006), pp. 238-241.

No one, but a mentally ill person, wants persecution, wants others to persecute him, seeks it with single-hearted passion, goes out of his way to put himself into situations that he knows will arouse the world system to persecute him, so he can glory in suffering for Christ, or for whomever or whatever it is he follows—no one but a mentally ill person, or maybe a “fool for Christ” (and maybe there isn’t a real difference between the two; maybe God just uses us in the condition He finds us at our call, electing not to heal us just there and then, but letting the result of sin condemn itself in us, in our diseases).

The hope of the Christian, the expectation, is that by following Christ in fellowship with other followers of His, we can live our lives “in peace and quietness” and reap the earthly as well as the spiritual benefits of the Kingdom of God. In modern terms, live an abundant life, grow up, marry, raise a family of God-believing children, prosper reasonably, be spared more than our share of calamities. In modern terms again, we hope to claim the promises we find in scripture or which our pastors in Christ have taught us are there. That seems to be the hope and expectation of the average church-going Christian, anyway, our inheritance as heirs of emperor Constantine’s “peace of the Church,” whether we know it or not.

The problem with this rosy picture is that the “peace of the Church” is rapidly vanishing before our eyes (which in most cases are looking the other way). Where many of us live it is already entirely gone, except in worn-out ceremonial.

The peace of the Church meant that Christians were the protected class, the privileged citizens not only of the heavenly kingdom but also of the kingdoms of this world. The Church seems to have jumped ahead in prophetic terms and seized upon the words written down by John the Revelator, that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ” (Revelation 11:15), but was it justified in doing this, or is its claim rather premature? The rest of the cited verse says, “and He will reign for ever and ever.”

There is no question in my mind that these words of holy and divine scripture are true and to be literally fulfilled; the question is when—the Church has acted, in the past, as though they were fulfilled already, yet as the vestiges of Christian cultural hegemony sink below the horizon, we see that perhaps something else is indicated by them.

Ever since I stole the quotation placed at the head of this post from another blog, the words have not let me go, but have driven deeper into my soul. There is great meaning in them for the Body of Christ today, and though they are written by an Orthodox ascetic, they are applicable to everyone who confesses Christ.

What has taken hold of me is the idea that by the close and persistent following of Jesus in this world, we will draw down upon us persecutions—Christ Himself tells us so, “who will not be repaid a hundred times over…not without persecutions” (Mark 10:30), and “if they persecuted Me, they will persecute you too” (John 15:20). Especially telling in this regard is what Christ said later in the same discourse, Himself quoting scripture, “They hated Me for no reason” (John 15:25 citing Psalm 35:19). As holy apostle Paul writes, “since they refused to see it was rational to acknowledge God, God has left them to their own irrational ideas and monstrous behavior” (Romans 1:28).

This is what we, brethren, have to deal with, at the present time. With Jesus we have to go to Jerusalem, “to suffer grievously, to be rejected…to be put to death and after three days to rise again,” and to any voice that tries to convince us otherwise—that we should do our utmost to preserve ourselves in our Christian “bubble”—we have to with boldness say, “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s!” (cf. Mark 8:31-33).

Why? Because the Lord speaks to us from the scriptures, and His Word is always true, “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Life, yes, this could mean physical life, but it can mean a lot of other things as well—lifestyle, livelihood, health, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness, “the American dream.” It’s whatever it is that makes us feel, safe, secure, at ease, at home with ourselves. It’s what we always wanted and hoped we could have in this world. And we were so close to having it, but then…

The choice was put before us, to witness to the Truth, or to keep quiet, for fear of reprisal.

A news story says that a law was just passed. The header reads: House agrees to muzzle pastors with ‘hate crimes’ plan.

Apparently this is a move towards making it illegal for Christians, or others, to say, teach or do anything that would offend the gay community. The article warns us, “In Sweden, for example, a minister who preached out of Leviticus was sentenced to 30 days in jail,” and “In Philadelphia several years ago a 73-year-old grandmother was jailed for trying to share Christian tracts with people at a homosexual festival.”

And this is bad? If the reports are true, the minister and the grandmother were just fulfilling the words of Jesus. They knew what the consequences would be, but that didn’t stop them. What could they expect but that “the same judgment of Christ might be repeated in them, that death also be put to shame in them - as unjust,” as Maximos the Confessor wrote, quoted above.

Let the world legislate against the Truth. That makes it all the more visible when the Truth appears in the form of its witnesses. Can the Christ-bearers escape the judgment that Christ Himself chose not to escape? No, and neither do we choose to escape.

Our choice is to follow Jesus, and to say and do what we see Him saying and doing, come what may. This is the outworking of a new law of existence in us, and the only way to hold out to a lost world the offer of salvation, an offer which it really can accept, or really can reject, deliberately and not with excuses.

As archimandrite Zacharias wrote,
“What begins with an unjust death, or even with unjust suffering that leads to death, has glory, says St. Peter (cf. 1 Peter 4:13), and leads to life…. This is the new law, which the Lord established by His voluntary Passion, Cross and Resurrection.”

Yes, a new law of existence, and it leads to life.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Only three years

Sometimes looking back on my life, searching for those moments of real happiness, it seems that the longer I look, the shorter and fewer those times become. Maybe in a lifetime of fifty or sixty years, one might find only five or six years when the memory shows times of pure happiness, and not all connected either, but scattered about. This kind of pondering leads nowhere and belies the fact that one is happy right now, else there could be no leisure for such plundering of the vanished past. What’s more, everything looks and feels different in retrospect. We find that looking back seldom recovers the truth. In this body of sin, memory like everything else doesn’t work right, but always partakes of that fatal flaw that taints everything on this side of the resurrection. But on the other side of the resurrection, it’s a different story, literally.

Thinking back to my own youth, I remember how I spent four years of my life in training to become a traditional furniture maker under an old Norse-American cabinetmaker. This man was 32 years my senior, and I was his last apprentice. He grew up on a farm in the borders of Minnesota and North Dakota, one of twelve brothers (there was also one sister). His family was swept up in the pentecostal revivals of the 1920’s and 30’s, and he told me many stories of tent meetings and other experiences in his early life.

I was a new Christian, just having accepted the Lord at the age of 24 just six months before hiring on at the Sterling Furniture Company in Portland. I had prayed, while still living in Corvallis, to be led to a workplace where there would be at least one other Christian.
In short order, the prayer was answered.

The four years I spent with this elder were hard but happy years. Along with his teaching and example in the crafting of wood, without intending it, he passed on to me the legacy of his life in Christ, and little did he know (or perhaps he was aware) that I followed his every move so as to make it my own, my soul being stamped, like communion bread, with the cross of Christ. I was not a pentecostal, yet there was never a difference between us. Knowing about the ancient faith, he would sometimes say to me, when I had done something that especially pleased him, “May the saints bless you!” For my part, it never occurred to me to think of him and his faith as different from my own. Certainly not. How could I judge him? In my eyes he was perfect, what a Christian man should be. I wanted to emulate him in every way.

Only four years with this man shaped the rest of my life to this very day. And we wonder sometimes, what effect our own lives have on the people around us. To be a Christ-bearer in the world, what possibilities, if only we live in the light of the risen Christ! In only a moment, Christ in us can change the world, forever.

Then, there is the reason behind this all. The reason being the divine Word, through whom the world was made, and in whom we live and move and have our being. Though He is God, He entered into our time and assumed our flesh, living secretly, that is, unknown to the world, just as we live. No one will remember us after we’ve left this world, at least not for long, but the world remembers Him.
The world doesn’t remember Him for anything He did in the first thirty years of His earthly life, or at least not much, but for what He did in the last three.

Only three years was all it took for the world to remember Him, and not only to remember Him, but to be changed forever. No other time period in all of human history has had as great and lasting an impact on the rest of time as those three years. Yet, at the time they were happening, very few noticed those years at all, in terms of the world’s population. Only a few thousand people at most, and in a land which, though it has become the center of the world’s attention from time to time, is still just a small spit of rocky soil between empires.

Only three years of one man’s life, and billions of other men’s lives are changed forever, even the lives of those who don’t know Him, who don’t ask themselves the question, “Who is that man?” If that isn’t power, then I don’t know what is, and only one could have that power, the Lord Almighty, who is alive and present with us at this very moment, the risen Christ.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Three challenging and comforting thoughts

I receive short, weekly messages from an evangelical church in India, written by a pastor of incredible insight. Sometimes the message is so good I just have to share it. This is the second time I've posted one of his messages on my blog. Most of what he says applies universally. His second point is very much like what Mother Gavrilía says in her biography Ascetic of Love, and that doesn't surprise me, as she spent a good part of her life in India. God is at work, winnowing the wheat from the chaff on every threshing floor, in India no less than anywhere else. Δοξα τω Θεω!

Three Challenging And Comforting Thoughts
by Zac Poonen

1. God delights in honest people

"If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another"
(1 John 1:9). To walk in the light means first of all that we hide nothing from God. We tell Him everything, exactly as it is. I am convinced that the first step towards God is honesty. God detests those who are insincere. Jesus spoke against hypocrites more than He spoke against anyone else. God does not ask us to be holy or perfect first of all, but to be honest. This is the starting point of true holiness. And from this spring flows everything else. And if there is one thing that is really easy for anyone of us to do, it is to be honest. So, confess sin immediately to God. Don't call sinful thoughts by "decent" names. Don't say "I was only admiring the beauty of God's creation" when actually you lusted adulterously with your eyes. Don't call "anger" as "righteous indignation." You will never get victory over sin if you are dishonest.

And don't ever call "sin", "a mistake", because Jesus' blood can cleanse you from all your sins, but not from your mistakes!!
He does not cleanse dishonest people. There is hope only for honest people. "He who covers his sin will never prosper" (Proverbs 28:13). Why did Jesus say that there was more hope for prostitutes and for thieves to enter God's kingdom than for religious leaders? Because prostitutes and thieves make no pretence of being holy (cf. Matthew 21:31).

Many young people are turned away from churches because church members give them the impression that they themselves have no struggles. And so those young people think, "That holy bunch of people will never understand our problems!!" If this true of us, then we are unlike Christ Who drew sinners to Himself.

2. God works all things for our good

"Who can harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?"
(1 Peter 3:13). God is so powerful that He makes ALL THINGS work together for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose—that is, for those who have no ambition on earth outside of His will for their lives (cf. Romans 8:28). One who has selfish ambitions cannot claim this promise. But if we accept the will of God totally, we can claim this promise every minute of our life on earth. Nothing can harm us. Everything that others do to us—good or evil, accidental or deliberate—will go through the filter of Romans 8:28 and will come through working for our very best—conforming us each time a little more to the likeness of Christ (cf. Romans 8:29)—which is the good that God has planned for us. This filter works perfectly every single time for those who fulfil the conditions listed in this verse.

Further, 1 Peter 3:13 tells us that no one can harm us if we are "zealous for what is good". Unfortunately, this is not as well known a verse as Romans 8:28 is. But we must popularise it now. However, this promise too is applicable only to those who are zealous to keep their hearts good towards all people. It will be impossible for any demon or human being to harm such a believer.

So whenever any Christian complains that others have harmed him, he is indirectly admitting that he does not love God, is not called according to God's purpose, and has not been zealous for what is good. Otherwise, whatever those others did to him would have only worked for his good, and then he would not have had any complaints at all. Actually, the only one who can harm you is you yourself—by your unfaithfulness and your wrong attitudes to others. I can honestly say that no one has ever succeeded in harming me in my entire life. Many have tried to do so, but EVERYTHING they did only worked for my very best and for the good of my ministry. So I can praise God for those people too. Those who have opposed me have been mostly so-called "believers" who have not understood God's ways. I am giving you my testimony only to encourage you to believe that this can be your testimony too, always.

3. God detests all that this world considers great

"That which men esteem highly is detestable in God's sight"
(Luke 16:15). The things that are considered great in the world, not only have no value in God's eyes, but are actually an abomination to Him. Since all worldly honour is an abomination to God, it must be an abomination to us too. Money is something that everyone on earth considers valuable. But God says that those who love money and long to get rich will suffer the following eight consequences sooner or later (cf. 1 Timothy 6:9, 10):

(a) they will fall into temptation,
(b) they will fall into a trap,
(c) they will fall into foolish desires,
(d) they will fall into harmful desires,
(e) they will plunge into ruin,
(f) they will plunge into destruction,
(g) they will wander away from the faith, and
(h) they will pierce themselves with many a pang.

I have seen this happen again and again to believers everywhere.

One of the main reasons why a prophetic word from the Lord is hardly ever heard these days in our land, is because most preachers are lovers of money. Jesus said that the true riches (the prophetic word being one of them) would not begiven by God to those who were unfaithful with money (cf. Luke 16:11). This is why we hear so many boring sermons and so many boring testimonies in church meetings and conferences.

Friday, April 24, 2009

His banner over us

Nothing we do, however good or well-intentioned, is completely free of the will of our flesh. Yet if we did nothing at all, Christ could not work through us, since He has made us witnesses of His resurrection to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8, 22).

Though we work as hard and as faithfully as we can, He still instructs us to say at the end of each day, that we are unworthy servants who have only done what was given us to do (cf. Luke 17:10), and not only to say it, but know it.

Jesus is with us, and He is so close to us as we walk with Him that His shadow over us heals us of our iniquities great or small. If only we can manage to stay close to Him and not wander off on the paths of our own imaginings, we will remain safe.

With the eternal Word speaking to His Father on our behalf, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” we can have no better assurance of our eternal salvation or better proof of His banner over us from day to day.

And His banner over us is love. (cf. Song of Solomon 2:4)

A runner's prayer

Psalms for the 24th Day
116 117 118 119 ד ג ב א

Down in the dust I lie prostrate:
revive me as Your Word has guaranteed.
I admitted my behavior, You answered me,
now teach me Your statutes.
Explain to me how to keep Your precepts,
that I may meditate on Your marvels.
I am sleepless with grief:
raise me as Your Word has guaranteed.
Turn me from the path of delusion,
grant me the grace of Your Law.
I have chosen the way of fidelity,
I have set my heart on Your rulings.
I cling to Your decrees:
Yahweh, do not disappoint me.
I run the way of Your commandments,
since You have set me free.

Psalm 119:25-32 Jerusalem Bible

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The risen Christ

It’s nice, isn’t it, when the weather is just right for the season or for a special holiday?

Pascha, that is the feast of Christ’s resurrection for the Orthodox Christian, fell a week later than Easter, and last Sunday was the first real day of the warm side of spring, almost summery, here in Oregon. The light was intensely bright and has continued to be ever since. The cherry tree outside my window on the east side of the house finally bloomed victoriously, two weeks later than all the others on the west side where the warm afternoon and evening sun burst open the blossoms earlier.

People get the idea that Easter time, the season of resurrection, should be all flowery and cheerful, with nature coming back to life and all. It seems to make the idea of Christ’s coming back to life more meaningful, in fact, it seems to push out almost any other meaning His resurrection can have, for some people. Hence, the fascination for floral arrangements, colored eggs, baby chicks and bunnies. But it’s really just a coincidence of nature, an instance of God’s ikonomía, His plan of salvation, interacting with the created world. In the southern hemisphere, the world is descending into autumn at Pascha, not ascending to spring.

That’s really alright. Christ is not a “dying and rising god” whose myth tries to infuse meaning into the annual cycle of vegetation. That’s the function of the baalim and elilim, the divine “nothings,” Osiris, Tammuz, and Adonis. No, Christ is nothing like them. For one, He lived as a real man in a country and time we know with reliable certainty. Not only that, but the stories about Him are not folk tales and myths full of imaginary exploits. He really did do the things the bible says He did. Moreover, His dying and rising again to life, though it seems at shallow glance to be just another example of the dying and rising gods of folklore, also really did happen, and it’s attested to by a multitude of witnesses who agree in all but minor details. That’s the history lesson part of it…

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not even mere history, though it’s rooted there. It’s not even a “one point in time” event, but rather an opening out of time into another realm of being, one that unlike the myths is not just a story to be retold or reenacted, but a reality in which a man can live even to this very day. Why is that? Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, death has no hold on Him, and He dies no more, and neither does anyone who believes and lives in Him. “I am the resurrection and the life…”

Back to the weather. Yes, it’s glorious. The winds are warm and the sun seems supernaturally bright, yet with a kind of brightness that opens our eyes even wider and permits us to see what we couldn’t see as well before. It’s no mere word play that the week following Pascha should be called “Bright Week.” Nature may be cooperating this year and providing a natural metaphor to accompany the real brightness—that of the Son of God, the Light of the world, who was dead and is Alive—but it is that other radiance that is the effect of Pascha. It opens our spiritual eyes to see ourselves and the world around us as we really are.

Knowing thus the Lord in His resurrection, and walking in this unwaning brightness, how is it that we can still sin?

We learn that we do not sin less because we don’t want to sin more, but because we can’t sin more. We would sin more if we could, but Christ has removed our sins as far from us as the East is from the West. When we are weak, He strengthens us and so arranges circumstances that we can find an escape from occasions of sin, if we want to. In fact, He makes it hard for us to sin, so when we do, we can see by the brightness of His resurrection the truth about ourselves, and turn to Him asking for mercy.

Christ is the faithful, the true. We can know this not by mere hearsay, but because He has treated us with such kindness by remaining with us to this very hour, just as He promised.

“And lo, I am with you, even unto the end of the world…”

This is the risen Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, the Pantokrator.

Now, real Time begins

Check out Fr Stephen's excellent post, Relative to Pascha. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts…

…we must be “adjusted” to fit Pascha.

The simple reason is that everything that exists does so only in relation to this event. This is Creation. This is salvation. This is purification and deification. Everything we want and everything we are must find its basis in Pascha or it will find no basis at all (utimately).
We are told in Scripture that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Revelation 13:8). What takes place at Pascha is more than a resurrection that holds out promise to the human race for everlasting life. When viewed in such a manner, humanity becomes the center and the meaning of Pascha. Rather we are told that creation itself is groaning for this very thing.

Pascha, in its eternal consideration, is simply older than all creation (cf. Rev. 13:8). It underlines the fact that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son…” The Son was given before ever Adam and Eve drew their first breath.

Thus when we encounter Pascha in our own day and age, it is not simply a piece of ancient Church ceremony. We stand as witnesses to the foundation of the earth. Time does not exist for us in Pascha, or rather, time begins in Pascha.

Holy unreason

I picked up my Jerusalem Bible and began to read again the 1st book of Maccabees, just because I like to read history sometimes. I’ve read this book a dozen times or more cover to cover. It’s the book that underlies the Jewish feast of Chanukah.

What struck me today, and what always strikes me when reading the history of God’s people, whether Jews or Christians, when they are under attack by their enemies, is how reasonable, sometimes, their enemies try to be in attempting to convince them to submit to their overlordship.

True, when it’s an invading enemy like the Seleucids, the successors to Alexander the Great, who subjected the ancient Near East to Greek rule, they start out with quite violent and merciless attacks. That’s stage one, and its method is to break resistance and dishearten the victim people by an extreme show of force and cruelty. After the political conquest, though, they have to somehow keep it, and to do that they have to win over the vanquished.

Antiochus Epiphanes, like the modern statesmen of today, wanted to establish peace and order under his iron-clad rule, and his method, stage two, was to make all the nations he conquered give up their ancient culture and religion, and adopt his—Hellenism. For all the nations, this wasn’t a problem: just add a new layer of pagan gods and ceremonies to what they already had. For the Jews, it was another matter. They were the worshippers of a single God, the only God, Yahweh, and they had a Law from Him they must obey. Though some Jews complied with the king’s command, many did not.

As the king’s representatives visited each village, they came to Modein where the family of Mattathias Maccabaeus had taken refuge after the conquest and desecration of Jerusalem. They were addressed by the king’s officer in friendly terms and promised special status and an increase of wealth, if they only would come forward and make the official sacrifice, to show that they obeyed the king’s new “one empire, one people, one religion” edict. Mattathias refused, and while he was refusing, a Jew stepped forward to take his place at the pagan altar to offer the sacrifice. Filled with zeal for the Law and in righteous indignation, Mattathias threw himself on the Jew and killed him on the spot, then turned and killed the king’s representative. That was the beginning of what is now called the Maccabaean Revolt.

But really, how unreasonable of Mattathias and his five sons and their followers not to comply with the king’s decree! The king wasn’t asking for much, just a token performance of a pagan ceremony to show that they accepted their new rulers and agreed to shed their out-dated, fussy religion. The rewards offered were great, amounting to prestige and success as members of a new elite, the “friends of the king.” How unreasonable of them!

This is not my feeling, of course, but the sentiment of those who saw no harm in going along with what was apparently the “wave of the future.” It would bring Israel a lot of benefits to become part of a world government that stretched from Egypt all the way to the frontier of India. Think of all that they would forfeit by resisting! Why couldn’t they just be “nice” Jews and cooperate like the others?

I notice this same pattern when I read the stories of the Christian martyrs. They are so much closer to us in time and culture. There are reports that have come down to us that read like today’s newspapers. The Romans weren’t all that bad. Except for mob violence against Christians, the authorities always tried to do all in their power to make it easy and attractive for a Christian to show allegiance (or worship) to Caesar, who represented the Roman one world government—in fact, when reading the dialogs, one is impressed by the fact that in most cases, the Romans were being as reasonable as they could be; it is the Christians who seem stubborn and unreasonable.

Drawing even closer to our own times, we have seen the same thing happening in the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, with Turkish judges trying their best to get a Christian off the hook and live, rather than die because of his stupid insistence, “I was born a Christian, and I will die a Christian.” How unreasonable! The Turks really had to exert a lot of patience with these “new martyrs of the Turkish yoke.” Some caved in to the friendly persuasion, but many didn’t. That’s why there are still countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia even today. If it weren’t for their holy unreason, they would all have become part of the mass of Islamic states that now fills the Near and Middle East.

Knowing a little bit of history like this helps as we face the next surge of that “Prince of Persia” (it really all started with Nimrod, and continued through tyrants like Xerxes) who wants to make us all one under his authority. All we have to do is give in, just a little.

We are not alone, brethren. From the time of the three hundred Spartans, to the Maccabees, to the Christian martyrs through the last two thousand years, we are in good company as we face the age old enemy, the shape- and name-shifter, as he again amasses his millions with their sky-darkening cloud of arrows aimed at us.
Let us stand firm, as we approach the Day. Our redemption is always close at hand. Our God is faithful, and true. Let us continue in our holy unreason till He returns.

Free will

Something that the Father did not deny us, He could not deny His only-begotten Son, and that is free will. Christ was not secretly arrested, falsely accused and unjustly tried as if He could not have saved Himself, but He went freely and voluntarily to His life-giving death. He permitted Himself to be captured and killed—even secular text books are forced to describe it in these terms—of His own free will, and following Him we still have free will also.

Though we call ourselves His bondsmen and servants, He calls us His friends, and even more than that, He gives us power to become children of His Father.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
John 15:12-17 ESV
The verse in blue is written on the gospel book held by Christ in the icon above.

…to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
John 1:12-13 ESV

Monday, April 20, 2009

A new law of existence

The following was stolen in its entirety from Fr Milovan's worthy blog, Again and Again, which you should visit anyway, in which case I wouldn't have to steal quite as much…
(I'm shameless! I even stole the icon!)

…strictly speaking, those who have accepted baptism, and kept the grace of baptism, should not die even a physical death; they die ‘by economy’, by a special dispensation, says St. Maximus the Confessor, the greatest theologian of our Church. They die by a special dispensation, so that the same judgment of Christ might be repeated in them, that death also be put to shame in them - as unjust…. And in those faithful, who keep the grace of baptism and are continually fed by the Body and Blood of Christ, the same judgment takes place in that occurred in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every time we perform a commandment, every time we participate worthily in the Body and Blood of Christ, we abolish death in us, we make death unjust…. Through Christ a new law of existence was inaugurated. What begins with an unjust death, or even with unjust suffering that leads to death, has glory, says St. Peter (cf. 1 Peter 4:13), and leads to life…. This is the new law, which the Lord established by His voluntary Passion, Cross and Resurrection.

—From The Enlargement of the Heart: ‘Be ye also enlarged’ (2 Corinthians 6:13) in the Theology of Saint Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex by Archimandrite Zacharias Zachariou (South Canaan, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2006), pp. 238-241.

A Christian asks himself

How can I be living my life as though the resurrection didn’t really happen?
I say, “Christos anesti” with my lips, but what do I say with my heart?
What do I say with my life?

What is belief?
Is it just the mental agreement that a statement is true without experiencing the truth it expresses?

Can I live my life in the resurrection of Jesus while living it as though He did not die on the cross, and die on the cross for me?
I can humbly bow and cross myself with my body and kiss His image, but what worship does my spirit offer?

But the hour will come—in fact it is here already—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants.
John 4:23 JB

Can I believe in the resurrection without believing in the Lord’s death?
How can I believe in the Lord’s death without experiencing it?
Can I believe in it by attending the services, or reading the bible, or is there more to believing than being a “good Christian”?
And what is a good Christian?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 16:24-25 JB

“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
—Jim Elliot, Martyr of Ecuador

Can’t I be a follower of Jesus without dying?
Isn’t all the talk about being buried with Christ in my baptism just a metaphor?
But if it is, what is there to do?

Back to my original question, why am I living as though the resurrection didn’t really happen?
Is it really because I don’t believe in the death of Christ and in the power of His life-giving cross?
What is this “power” of the cross?

All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death.
Philippians 3:10 JB

Living as though the death of the Lord did happen will give you the power to live your life as though the resurrection did happen.
There is not one without the other.

You cannot live as though Jesus Christ died on the cross,
and still lie, steal and kill.
You cannot live as though He died for you,
and still treat others with disrespect.
You cannot live as though He endured temptation,
and still fornicate, alone or with another.
You cannot live as though He said from the cross,
‘Father, forgive them,’
and still hold grudges, envy the good fortune of others,
and judge your neighbor.

You cannot live as though He endured being stripped naked
and beaten,
and still look the other way and wink at wickedness,
and let the innocent be slaughtered.

You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution, so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth.
Ephesians 4:22-24 JB

“Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: My own will shall become yours.’…”
—C. S. Lewis

So, this is the way to live a resurrected life, to live as though the resurrection of Christ really happened, to know that it happened, not just to say I believe in it:
To live a dying life, to let Christ nail not only my sins, but also my very self, what I think is me, what I think I want, to the cross.

…the thing that is sown is perishable but what is raised is imperishable; the thing that is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; the thing that is sown is weak but what is raised is powerful; when it is sown it embodies the soul, when it is raised, it embodies the spirit.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44 JB

If we have died with him, then we shall live with him.
2 Timothy 2:11 JB

Lord, let me live as though You really rose from the dead, by living as though You really died for me.

Already dead

It is the Day of Resurrection!
Let us be radiant, O people!
It is the Passover, the Passover of the Lord!
From death to life, and from earth to heaven
Christ our God has passed us
who sing the hymn of victory—

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling death by death,
And bestowing life
To those in the tombs.

…when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
John 19:33-34 NASB

A man who is alive hears, sees and experiences things in one way, and a man who is already dead hears, sees and experiences things in another.

The robbers were burly men, hardy from their lives of hardship, and could withstand much abuse, having bodies that dealt out harsh punishments to their victims, they were also trained to receive harsh punishments. Hence, though nailed to their crosses, they did not die very quickly. The evening of the holy Day was approaching, and they had to be dead before sundown, so as not to cause any further defilement. Their legs had to be mashed with mallets to hasten their dying. Even so, they outlasted the Lord who was nailed to the stake between them.

The young rabbi, though a carpenter, had a body delicate in comparison to theirs. Why He died so quickly, whether it was because His scourging and the pressing down into the flesh of His skull the circlet of thorny twigs had caused Him to shed more of His blood than the robbers had, or whether the gentleness of His physique were enough, is unknown. So quickly did He die, that Pilate was amazed. He sent a message to the guards, “Just make sure he’s really dead…”

Those who don’t die quickly have their legs broken. They feel it. It’s excruciating, literally, it crosses them out. They’re finished, and fast, but they still feel the pain, and they don’t die willingly, but by force.

Him who dies quickly, the world is aghast at.
It can’t believe he gave up so easily, and got off so lightly. It can’t really believe he’s dead, so even though he is already dead, it has to make sure. A lance is thrust into his side. He doesn’t feel it, because he is already dead. What exudes from the puncture—it can’t be called a wound anymore, because he is now beyond all suffering; it’s just a gash in the side of a corpse—is not a fountain of live blood gushing out, but a mixture now of blood and water that is at rest, and only the relief of pressure causes it to spurt a little and then pour out in a steady stream onto the rocky soil.

…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Psalm 23: 5 NIV

What table in the presence of my enemies? What anointing, Lord, and what cup to drink that overflows? The same table upon which You were offered up? The same anointing of sweat and blood mingled that ran down…

…like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes?
Psalm 133:2 NIV

Yes, Lord, this death is as it is written,

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
Psalm 133:3 NIV

A man who is alive hears, sees and experiences things in one way, and a man who is already dead hears, sees and experiences things in another.

Lord, let me be the second kind of man, that doesn’t feel the spear thrust into his side because, like You, he is already dead. Let me, like You, trample death by death that, with You, I may also bring life to those in the tombs.

It is the Day of Resurrection!
Let us then make ourselves
resplendent for the festival
and embrace one another.
Let us say, brethren,
even to those who do not love us:
“Let all be forgiven in the Resurrection,”
and so exclaim—

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling death by death,
And bestowing life
To those in the tombs.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How God uses madmen

A true story, retold. What would you do if faced with this situation?

Sergios was a madman. One would like to be able to say that he was a “fool for Christ,” but there were just too many things that made one uncomfortable about him, things he did and said, to classify him as one of God’s special lambs. Yet, as we shall see, by those same signs he could be called a fool for Christ, or a madman—one could just never be sure, and that always unhinged us when having to deal with him one on one.

Sergios always lived a few miles outside the village. In his youth he had been a concrete worker, but after four years of marriage, his wife suddenly left him, taking their two young children, for a succession of lovers. Whenever she found someone who didn’t want the children, she would bring them back to Sergios. When she changed lovers, or was alone, she would return and take them back. Perhaps it was this that drove him mad, or made him a fool, for he never divorced her and was always there for them.

Nobody knew how Sergios lived, for he rarely worked. He had a bicycle that got him where he wanted to go, though with the state of the country roads, he had to carry a hand-pump with him at all times, because he was always getting flats. His almost daily routine was to ride his bicycle into the village to assist at daily liturgies. He was usually so regular that the father just expected him, and whenever he attended, he was to be found in the altar, helping by making sure the details “behind the ikonostasis” were carried out.

The villagers got used to Sergios and his strange ways, seeing him ride his rickety old bike down the road, dressed immaculately, even down to wearing a jacket, waistcoat and tie, on hot days, or in the rain, on his way to serve at church, sometimes stopping every half mile to pump up his tires. When we didn’t see him for awhile, we would get worried about him, because even at a young age, he had been diagnosed with some kind of heart problem, though due to his poverty, he never did anything about it.

When we hadn’t seen him for a few days, one of us would drive out to where he was living, and knock on his door to make sure he was well. Sometimes there was no answer and the lights were out, so we were sure he was away on one of his mysterious errands perhaps to another village. Other times, we would find him asleep on an old sofa at a time of day when most people are up and about. Once or twice I myself found that I was interrupting him at a very special moment.

Sergios came to the door with his large black bible open in his hands and welcomed me into his hovel. “I was just praying and having communion. Would you like to join me?” The first time that happened, I was taken aback, but then remembering his ways, I responded, “Can I just come in and pray quietly?” because on that occasion I had come with a specific purpose in mind, though I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps I was bringing him something—he was always reluctant to receive “charity” and we usually had to trick him into receiving it.

On the top of a wobbly old bookcase full of Greek bibles and prayer books mingled with small packing boxes and stacks of magazines, Sergios had set up a likeness to the altar at church, with a plate with some chunks of bread and a cup with some kind of dark juice, a ceramic pot in which incense was burning, and a few glass lampadas burning votive candles. He went back to standing in front of this and continued, mingling prayers from the liturgy with his own prayers, switching between church Greek and the vernacular.

Finally, he turned to me and asked, “Are you sure you won’t break bread with me?” And I said, “No, not this time. Maybe when I visit you next time,” lying to him and humoring him, not knowing what else to do. So he concluded his prayers, and then we talked and I accomplished whatever it was I came for that time. As usual, before I left, we prayed together for each other’s welfare and health and the mercy of God on our sins, and I left.

It was obvious to anyone who engaged in conversation with Sergios, even after five minutes of talk, that there was something not quite right with him. After fifteen minutes, if the talk were on a religious topic, it was obvious that he was ignorant of the teachings of the Church and possibly a heretic. After half an hour, if we had the patience to learn how to dialog with him, we were certain that he wasn’t a heretic, only unlearned and simple, but very stubborn, creating for himself a whole series of taboos based on his reading of a bible verse.

For example, for years he would not eat or drink anything containing grapes or raisins. This was from something he read about Nazirites. Another taboo he had was not calling the priest “father,” because of Christ’s saying “Call no man on earth father…” These taboos, however, were not permanent. Sometimes he would hear something in the liturgy, or read a bible verse in another frame of mind, and he would get it right. We knew it was pointless to argue with him.

One year during Holy Week, Sergios was having a horrible time with his bicycle—both tires continually going flat, then some mechanical part broke—and so we made a point of stopping at his place to bring him with us to the services. Then, on Holy Saturday, one of the wealthy villagers presented him with a new bicycle—not brand new, but as good as new—and he accepted it, just as he accepted our offers to bring him to church that week. He seemed to be softening towards our desire to help him.

Not knowing about the new bike, I went over to fetch him to the vigil of Pascha, as we had arranged that, because it was a very late service lasting till 3 in the morning, he would accept a ride there and back. He was, however, not feeling well, and decided not to go. He had already received the communion at the Holy Saturday morning liturgy, as to the rule to receive communion during Pascha, so to miss the Resurrection service, was not a serious matter.

The service was very long, and I remember that I was very, very tired. Coming home that night just before dawn, I was in no mood to break the fast but went straight to bed. At about 9 in the morning, I heard a persistent knocking at my door, and so I threw on my work pants and went to the door bare-chested. It was a very bright, sunny morning of Pascha, and standing there at my door, one hand steadying his new bicycle, the other clutching a small sack, was Sergios. My eyes were hardly able to open. I felt like an old bear awakened from hibernation a month early.

Opening the door, I came out to greet Sergios, and asked him how he was feeling today—though I needn’t have asked: he was as beaming and bright as the morning. He said he was well, and showed me his new bicycle. He was dressed in his best, and I asked him if he was on his way to church, and what time it was, because I knew that the Agapé vespers was not going to start for another two hours. He said he was going to church, but that he wanted to stop and have communion with an Orthodox brother before going to the service, because it was only a vespers. In the sack was a bagel and a small bottle of grape juice.

What to do? The fathers and the bible both teach that whenever two brethren break bread together, Christ is in their midst. I know that this is true and have done the same many times. Then, there is the word of Christ in His institution of the Eucharist, which we follow when we gather at the church, and only the priest prays for us all the prayers that call down the Holy Spirit “on these gifts here presented” so that we can break the bread and drink the cup that memorializes Christ’s sacrifice till He comes again, and in so doing, partake of holy communion.

Here was this man full of joy and in simplicity coming to my door and inviting me to break bread and receive the risen Christ. Would he simply sit down with me at table, say a prayer or two as before meals, and then share some food and drink? Or would he assume the role of a priest and consecrate a bagel and some grape juice under my roof, as I’d seen him do at home? In my suddenly awakened state, I felt lost in a forest of conflicting dreams, all of which were true, yet none of which could co-exist in a mind not given over to madness.

Sergios sensed in my hesitation my reluctance to fulfill his request and covered it over with, “It’s too early for you, I can see that!” and got himself ready to mount his bicycle.

“If you want to break bread with an Orthodox brother, there will be many at the church this morning, but oh, my head hurts! I’m going back to bed, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Christos anesti!” I said, as Sergios rode off towards the church, casting an “Alithos anesti” over his shoulder at me with a smile.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Old Testament Gospel

Psalms for the 18th Day
90 91 92 93 94

Psalm 91
God's protection

If you live in the shelter of Elyon
and make your home in the shadow of Shaddai,
you can say to Yahweh, ‘My refuge, my fortress,
my God in whom I trust!’

He rescues you from the snares
of fowlers hoping to destroy you;
he covers you with his feathers,
and you find shelter underneath his wings.

You need not fear the terrors of night,
the arrow that flies in the daytime,
the plague that stalks in the dark,
the scourge that wreaks havoc in broad daylight.

Though a thousand fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
you yourself will remain unscathed,
with his faithfulness for shield and buckler.

You have only to look around
to see how the wicked are repaid,
you who can say, ‘Yahweh my refuge’,
and make Elyon your fortress.

No disaster can overtake you,
no plague come near your tent:
he will put you in his angels’ charge
to guard you wherever you go.

They will support you on their hands
in case you hurt your foot against a stone;
you will tread on lion and adder,
trample on savage lions and dragons.

‘I rescue all who cling to me,
I protect whoever knows my name,
I answer everyone who invokes me,
I am with them when they are in trouble;
I bring them safety and honor,
I give them life, long and full,
and show them how I can save.’

This is the God, the Father whom Jesus our Lord trusted with such certainty that he was willing to take every promise with Him to the Cross, so that we too, believing in His name, can go boldly forward into whatever adventure Yahweh sends us.

Friday, April 17, 2009

No empty ritual

Here I go stealing again! And on Great and Holy Friday to boot! But reading Fr Stephen's excellent post this afternoon, I couldn't help flying the flag of my admiration for at least one part of it. So, like the wise thief whom Christ let steal paradise in a single moment,
I hope to be forgiven for stealing this bit of wisdom, and sharing it out to you, my brethren and co-thieves of paradise…

I have heard the phrase “empty ritual” so many times in my life that I know I confront a cliche when I hear it. The speaker has put no great thought into his/her words. Nor do they understand the most basic gifts of God. Worse still, there is an anti-Semitic component to this phrase. The Old Testament, filled with instructions for the ritual of the Temple, is seen as somehow inferior (by nature) to what is imagined to be a “spiritual” approach in the New Testament. Though the first Passover in historical terms (in Christian understanding) was but a shadow of the eternal Pascha of Christ - the feasts are both quite physical in form. One eats the meat of a lamb in a ritual manner; the other eats the Body and Blood of God in a ritual manner.

For those who think of ritual as “empty ritual,” the argument is with God, not with me. He gave us these forms.

Liturgical actions are not to be done mindlessly, but with deep care and concern. Mishandling the Body and Blood of Christ can get an Orthodox priest deposed from his priesthood, or, at least, suspended for a time as a disciplinary measure. It is a most serious matter. In the same way, the laity is not to approach Christ’s Body and Blood in a nonchalant manner.

The “ritual” aspects carry no inherent value, but instead a discipline and a respect, lest we treat holy things in an unholy manner. Those who despise the outward forms of this great gift are gnostics who are despising Christ’s gift to us. There can be no “drive-through” communions, or lunch bag communions (I’ve heard of both). These are ignorant blasphemies on the part of a people who have been taught that physical things do not matter, only the spiritual. As a result they do not know the spiritual things of God, only thoughts about spiritual things.

Take, eat. It is a simple commandment. But it gives us what had once been forbidden. It teaches us as well how grace is generally received. It comes to us in cup and spoon, in oil and water, in smoke and fragrance. In the bowing of the head or the prostration of our bodies. It comes to us in our words of forgiveness for another and in the daily rituals of kindness we perform for one another.

God has not made the acquisition of His Life hard for us - unless you despise the simplicity of His method. Those who do may go with Naaman and enjoy the beauty of the rivers in Syria. But do not expect to be healed on your own terms.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hard to accept, but true

The following is a short message by pastor Zac Poonen, of Christian Fellowship Church in Bangalore, India that I received in my email this morning. This is a lesson that I have learned in my life, and one that was reluctantly learned, something hard to accept but true. As we grow older chronologically, it is harder to hide behind our carnal façades, and if we finally let the Lord have His way with us, well, maybe we'll finally begin to understand who it is we really are, as Moses did. Here's pastor Zac's message…

Learn to Value Divine Wisdom

Moses was a man who got a certificate of approval from God. God said concerning him, "My servant Moses is faithful inall My household" (Numbers 12:7). It was recorded of Moses at his death that, "since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10).

It was not through Moses's first forty years of training in the palace and the military academies of Egypt that he became a spiritual leader. No. It was through God breaking the strength of his 'Self', when Moses spent the next forty years looking after sheep in the wilderness.

At the age of eighty, with his confidence in his own abilities shattered, Moses could lean upon God and become the deliverer of God's people.

In the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, we read one phrase repeated eighteen times in Exodus chapters 39 and 40 - the phrase, "just as the Lord had commanded Moses". The pattern of the tabernacle given by the Lord was a very simple and modest-looking affair. It was a far cry from the fantastic pyramids that Moses had seen built in Egypt.

If Moses had been given the plan of the tabernacle at the age of 40, when the strength of his 'Self' was in full bloom, he would certainly have modified it and made it look more attractive. But at the age of 80, Self had so died out, that he did exactly as the Lord commanded him. And that is what brought the glory of the Lord into the tabernacle.

Our human wisdom has to be dethroned if we are to obtain Divine wisdom.

The Bible says, "If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise."
(1 Corinthians 3:18).

God could approve of Moses only when the chaff of the wisdom of Egypt had been thrashed out of him.

The apostle Paul had studied for three years at the feet of Gamaliel, the great professor of theology at the Jerusalem Bible school. That's why he had to spend three years after his conversion, in the wilderness of Arabia to have the wisdom of Gamaliel removed from his system and replaced with Divine wisdom. Paul refers to this period in Galatians 1:17,18: "I went away to Arabia… Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem."

Only then could Paul become a servant of the Lord.

The dethroning of human cleverness is fundamental for anyone who would serve the Lord. Yet there are few who learn this lesson fully.

God tested Moses when he made the tabernacle to see whether he would make it exactly according to the pattern that he had received on the mount. The glory of the Lord coming on that tabernacle was the visible indication of God's satisfaction with Moses' work.

How is it with us in what we do and build for the Lord? Is it exactly according to the pattern found in the Scriptures? Or have we modified it with some of the wisdom of this world? If so, then that must certainly be one reason why the glory of the Lord is not found in our lives.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ichabod, or the Reverse Pinocchio Effect

Here is another worthless blog post from Romanós the sinner.
Pray for me, brethren.

Somewhere I’ve read (and it may have been in C. S. Lewis) that we are always to be found either arising out of (and repenting of) sin, or hastening into it. As for me, I am at this moment repenting of sin, but I can be no more tired of repenting than I am of being human, because to be a man is to be somehow trapped into a body of death, as holy apostle Paul says, and with him I echo, “who will deliver me from it?” and “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ,” who has mercifully hidden from us most of our sins, and who has ultimately nailed them to the Cross in His own body.

Being an Orthodox Christian, and not in name only, but by choice and by entering into the life of struggle, is really a great blessing, though it costs very dear. The cycles of the Church year are not for nothing, and not for show or adornment, as think some Evangelicals who like to borrow this and that from our “tradition,” to make their own worship more interesting. I was accused once by a well-known Pentecostal woman “evangelist” of being a religious tourist, from the pulpit, when she noticed me and my fifth grade Sunday School class, strangers in the congregation that we both were visiting, she as a guest speaker, we simply as guests. "Foolishness!" I said to myself, but kept mum, and hoped my students didn’t hear.

But being an Orthodox Christian means that you willingly let the Lord take you apart piece by piece and then reassemble you, very much like surgery while awake and at times (it may seem) without anesthetic. Only later, after each operation, do we look back and say, “No, it wasn’t that bad!” and then notice that another part of us has ceased being wooden and is now real flesh. This process, though, familiarizes us with our sins and with the nature of sin generally as it exists in other people, both Christians and unbelievers, to the extent that after many years of this surgery, we can often instantly tell what sin another person is struggling with, or giving in to. Neither clairvoyance nor magic, not practiced intentionally but permitted sometimes to us as discernment for the ministry of empathy, the Lord opens our eyes when and as He wills. He often takes us by surprise.

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:26 KJV

Last night was Good Friday according to the Western calendar, and it came to me that I should attend the evening service at the Anglican parish where I started my Christian life while on the way back to Orthodoxy. It was at this church that over twenty years ago I was a lay minister, leading the Friday weekly vespers service, and doing impromptu street witnessing and ministry out of it in the local inner city neighborhood. I have gone back there on a very few occasions during the last two decades and have noticed, sadly, a diminishing of both the congregation and the spiritual climate there.

What met my senses, even knowing this, I was quite unprepared for. The church was barely a quarter full (in former days, this service was packed, sometimes with extra chairs brought in). Looking around, I saw not a single person I knew. The choir loft was full, as I noticed eventually. "Hmm, so about half the congregation is in the choir," I thought to myself. What I had heard from one of the brethren whose mother still attends there proved to be quite true, the congregation no longer sings; the choir takes over.

As I gradually began to remember the service, which I still have for the most part memorized, and joined in spiritually, I tried to pray and worship. The first part of the service is a sung version of the Passion. I couldn’t pray during that part, of course, but listened prayerfully. Stiff, very stiff and formal, and the choir making the responses, too loud, too operatic. Later I was to discover that the choir was indeed polished, so perfect and so loud that when they were singing, I could do nothing but listen as at a concert. Chanting and singing in church, whether Orthodox or Western, if it is too poor or careless, or if it is too loud and too perfect, it disturbs my ability to pray and worship. Simple, unadorned signing from hearts of faith, that’s what my spirit responds to.

When it came to the prayers, they were intoned beautifully and perfectly, but without any hint of human warmth, almost as if done on a voice synthesizer. Nonetheless, I joined in the prayer, prayed and said my amen’s. “Whatever it looks like, and even whatever it is they think they’re doing,” I said to myself, “it’s still prayer, and that’s my intention.”

What bothered me most about this service was that everything about the clergy costume and their liturgical movement was unremittingly mechanical and perfect, as if they were not human beings at all, but wooden statues with jointed limbs that followed prescribed paths along steel tracks hidden in the floor. Every one of them, from the oldest white hair, to the youngest pony tailed and ear ringed, displayed faces as static as carved wooden masks. When not carrying something, their hands were all held rigidly before them, together and pointed up and a little out. Their steps were mincing and hidden beneath their priestly robes or black cassocks and white lace tops, as they performed their choreography—though I hesitate to use that word, as it was nothing like a dance. Watching them put into mind those carved wooden clocks with mechanical figures that come in and out with predictable regularity.

"Ichabod" kept coming to my mind, as what I was experiencing compared itself to my memory of how this church was when I attended there. Though the rudiments and rubrics of the service were of course the same back then and carried out with a perfectionism that would astonish the Orthodox (whose worship, though elaborate, is not perfectionist at all), there was a quietness and awe, and an environment of sensible faith and sympathy, and even a hint of humor, that permeated the place. There was no remnant of that now, as far as I could see. Just a little group of worshipful spectators watching a bunch of purply-clad marionettes scurrying around on their mysterious, little wooden feet.

"The reverse Pinocchio effect," I mused. "In the fairy tale, a wooden marionette eventually is transformed into a real boy. In this place, it looks like the opposite has happened. Is that what Christ came to bring, in His life, His life-giving death on the Cross, and His glorious third-day resurrection? Did He come to make us less human and more like the statues that are mounted across the top of the rood screen?"

No, of course not. He came to give us life, and that in abundance, and to transform us from being merely human to something more, not something less, to become sons and daughters of His Father, our Father in heaven.

I looked up at the majestic icon of the Ascension of Christ that completely fills the wall above the main altar (where in an Orthodox church would be the image of the Theotokos with Christ in her lap). As I have done many times in the past, I prayed to the Lord while gazing up at that huge painting. Strangely, I don’t usually pray with my eyes open before icons, but I have always felt different about this one, and always pray looking up, eyes open. “Lord, descend on this house of worship and restore it to the glory it had before, when You filled it with Your glory!” And the rest is between me and the Lord, but our God is faithful, and He will accomplish His purposes in us.

At the end of the service, the clergy and acolytes, taking all the holy things with them, filed out the side door and disappeared, and the lights suddenly went out. I knew this would happen, of course, and I lingered as long as I could in the dark church, praying and remembering to the Lord the great things He had done for me and my friends in this place. And the wonderful chant came to mind, that always seemed the “motto” of this special church…

Oh, how dreadful is this place,
this is the house of God and gate of heaven,
and men shall call it
the palace of God.

To the brethren who are celebrating the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ this Lord’s Day,
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rescued by wedding guests

Whenever I return to a stint of reading the early fathers, that is, those before and just after the peace of the Church wrought by Constantine, I’m always struck by their modernity and the freshness that leaps out at me as I read. It makes me wonder just what “modern” means.

I’ve read somewhere that the beginning of “modern” times occurred in different centuries in different places. Some say in Europe they began in AD 1300 with Dante, others that Francis of Assisi is the first “modern” man in the West: it all depends on when the writer thinks the medieval age ended. In the Far East, modern times are said to have begun during the Northern Sung dynasty, around the year AD 1000, and the criteria are such things as the appearance of printing, paper money, and machinery.

In my view, what I mean as “modern” has to do with machinery definitely, but even more with the frank and unafraid willingness to question everything to get at the root of truth. This is something that I think we lost during the “Church Age” in the West, when other priorities were substituted for it. The religiosity of medieval Christianity did not even make room for real questions to be asked, hence, the stagnation that took centuries to overcome.

Back to my topic, the written testimonies of the early Christians.

Eusebius’ History of the Church was my leisure reading matter this morning. His text reads as fluently and frankly as if it were written just yesterday, and the events he recounts are both easy to picture and believe as accurate. What a far cry from the miracle stories of Christian piety, always avid to believe anything as long as it’s monstrous—like Nicholas of Myra reassembling and revivifying the bodies of some boys who were hacked to pieces and then hidden in some barrels of pickles, or was it wine?
Golly, the stuff of nightmares!

I read for a long while about the Church Father Origen of Alexandria who escaped being canonized as Saint Origen for some of his eccentricities of belief or at least of expression. One of his funnier speculations was that our resurrection bodies would be perfect spheres, but he also speculated on pre-existence of the soul and other ideas bordering on pagan philosophy. This speculation, in spite of his sufferings in the Decian persecution, earned him the indignity of being a suspect of heresy. Looking at him through the “modern” approach that one finds in Eusebius’ history, I’d say that Origen deserves better from his “carping critics” as Eusebius calls them. I guess Origen will just have to be classed with Martin Luther, who also falls under the axe of true piety, as he cries out, “Let the saints canonize themselves!”

Now, for the real topic, a story that I found both exciting and interesting, written in History of the Church, Book 6, Chapter 40, entitled What happened to Dionysius. The account itself was written in a letter by Dionysius, and it is quoted in the book.

I speak as in the presence of God, who knows whether I am lying. I did not act on my own judgement or without God when I made my escape; but even before that, when Decius announced his persecution, Sabinus then and there dispatched a frumentarius to hunt me out, and I stayed at home for four days waiting for him to arrive. But though he went round searching every spot—roads, rivers, fields—where he guessed I was hiding or walking, he was smitten with blindness and did not find the house; he never imagined that when an object of persecution I should stay at home! It was only after four days, when God commanded me to go elsewhere, and by a miracle made it possible, that I set out along with the boys and many of the brethren. That this was indeed a work of divine providence was proved by what followed, when perhaps we were of use to some.

Let me interject two observations:
Dionysius tells, almost casually as if it were nothing remarkable, that God commanded him to go elsewhere. These early Christians like us had, and knew they had, direct access to God, without having to resort to a chain of command as later develops in the Church, eventually making it unimaginable in the Dark Ages that anyone but a perfect saint could actually talk to God and get His personal attention, as does Dionysius. This, to me, is a sign of modernity. The other thing I want to notice is his use of the word miracle. As he continues to tell his story, the miraculous aspect reveals itself to be the acknowledgment that God was personally and intimately directing the flow of events. This too strikes me as modern, that is, frank and honest, not given to exaggeration or tale-spinning.
Now, to finish the story, Dionysius continues…

About sunset, my companions and I were caught by the soldiers and taken to Taposiris; but by the purpose of God it happened that Timothy was absent and was not caught. When he arrived later, he found the house empty except for a guard of servants, and learnt that we had been captured without hope of release…

And how was God’s wonderful mercy shown? You shall hear the truth. As Timothy fled distracted, he was met by one of the villagers on his way to attend a wedding-feast—which in those parts meant an all-night celebration—who asked why he was in such a hurry. He told the truth without hesitation, whereupon the other went in and informed the guests as they reclined at table. With one accord, as if at a signal, they all sprang to their feet, came as fast as their legs could carry them, and burst in where we were with such terrifying shouts that the soldiers guarding us instantly took to their heels. Then, they stood over us, as we lay on bare mattresses.

At first, God knows, I thought they were bandits who had come to plunder and steal, so I stayed on the bed. I had nothing on but a linen shirt; my other clothes that were lying near I held out to them. But they told me to get up and make a bolt for it. Then I realised what they had come for, and called out, begging and beseeching them to go away and let us be. If they wanted to do me a good turn, they had better forestall my captors and cut off my head themselves. While I shouted like this, they pulled me up by force, as my companions who shared all my adventures know. I let myself fall on my back to the floor, but they grasped me by hands and feet and dragged me out, followed by those who witnessed the whole scene, Gaius, Faustus, Peter, and Paul, who picked me up and carried me out of the village, set me on a donkey bareback, and led me away.

Now, in conclusion I ask you, brethren, isn’t this a great story? Doesn’t it ring true, and even entertain us in a way that doesn’t offend true piety, by the candid artlessness of the author? Here we have an example of what a Christian was like in the third century, before the beginning of the Church Age. There’s a lot here to be learned, and also to help us examine ourselves, to make sure that the faith that we have is the same as that of these early Christians. Reading books like these makes me think that what we have known as the “modern” age has not so much to do with an era of chrónos time, but rather with moments of kairós time scattered through human history.

And if this be true, what then of those who call the present “post-modern”? Must we, like Dionysius, have to be yanked out of our resignation by Christ’s wedding guests, set bareback on an ass, and set free?