Thursday, March 31, 2011

One thing more

Follow the Lord to Golgotha.

A man wounded, knowing how to bear weakness

Isaiah 53:3 Septuagint

Be wounded
and know how to bear pain.
The Cross must be familiar and acceptable to you as a place to be and a mode of existence.

Then the Lord will come at some time, without fail, as He knows best. He will come and find you. He will touch your aching head, as "…He touched the leper" (Matthew 8:3).
He will speak to you. He will enter into you like light, repose, paradise. You will be aware of Him. You will feel Him. You will actually live His passion and resurrection. You will find yourself inside the icon of the Resurrection, of the Descent into Hades.

This icon will be an expression of your life. Christ will be constantly leading you by the hand, bringing you to light, to freedom, to an unending journey which is Himself.


You understand then the words of the Lord, "Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:26) Christ had to suffer and to come forth as a Bridegroom from the tomb.
A great mystery!


You feel that you had to suffer, to endure pain, to die in the earth like a seed, so that there might shoot up from within you something that does not pass away.

I am created for some specific purpose, for something intangible, invisible to the naked eye, and yet incarnate.
I know it. I believe it. I experience it.


When I move away from it, everything goes awry, in my soul and in my body. When I am within it, I am firmly grounded and recover everything, the health of my soul and body. When I am alone, I am in communion with the saints. When I am in a crowd, I am nourished by the pure spring welling up in the desert within.

Reverence for this least and greatest thing takes the form of constantly going outdoors without protection, of asking at every moment only that His will should be done. Asking it not with my mouth and voice, but with my whole manner of living, all the time.

And when you ask that His will should be done, when your whole being is one bleeding petition, it happens. But this happening is not something you can determine in advance. It may happen by happening or by not happening. It may be that before your petition is even finished, the answer comes. Or you may wait years and wear yourself out, and be disappointed, and reach utter exhaustion, and be destroyed. And then, when you are no longer expecting anything—neither you nor anyone else—He Himself will come to raise you up, to take you with Him on a new journey.
Then you will understand why He was slow in coming for you. He was with you "in another form" (Mark 16:12), even when He had not come and you were waiting for Him.

How everything functions as a whole! How nothing is irrelevant, nothing is wasted! How the blessings go deeper than we hoped! How the afflictions, the pains and the perplexities till the field of our souls like a deep-cutting ploughshare! How totally and utterly the strange and heaven-sent rest differs in nature from the rest and satisfaction afforded by any earthly and temporary success! How it teaches us humility, how it schools us in love, how it reconciles us with others! It strengthens us, it invigorates us, and at the same time it makes us weaker, without any prickles or sharp corners which could wound others!
—Archimandrite Vasileios

Of old testaments, and new

It’s an odd thing, but it seems to me that natural religion, not the kind of religious philosophy that evolves out of it as from a base, but pure, natural religion, that is, man’s immediate response to the natural world in which he lives, is much the same the world over.

This natural religion is a kind of ‘old testament’ for every nation, its body of traditions and ceremonies and native wisdom, passed down often orally but almost universally by copying the behaviors of the previous generation, with a minimum of critical thinking.

Into this world divided and united by natural religion, which is man-made but based on real relationships and events in nature, comes a man who is not a culmination of all that is best in natural religion and who transcends it, like the Buddha, but rather, One who appears ‘on the spot, ready made’.

Born into this natural religion, He embraces yet transcends it, as though He had two natures, accepting and affirming the natural religion and fulfilling its expectations, yet appearing and manifesting a Being emphatically beyond the natural religion.

Whereas all the natural religions can be studied in parallel and found to possess many similarities, thus demonstrating their equal validity as expressions of man’s interaction with and experience of the natural world, no individual can be compared to the Christ.

He does not merely reveal the truth in nature, nor does He convince by argument or exposition, nor does He refute the natural religion but comes, as He says, in a way to fulfill it, not to provide but instead to be the One about whom all natural religions and gods have enquired (cf. 1 Peter 1:12).

‘Truth. What is truth?’ ask again and again the world rulers (cf. John 18:38), not interested in the Truth but fearing Who it may be, that what they have created and called ‘truth’ must in the end cave in to the Reality that was hidden in the natural world all along, about Whom religions arose.

Reading about the beginnings of Japanese religion, 神道 Shinto, the way of the 神 kami, it became quite clear to me that Shinto is a natural religion, like that of Native Americans, like primitive European religion, like early Judaism, all of them ‘old testaments’ waiting for the New.

“In other words, farmers, hunters, artists, and those engaged in other occupations were regarded as instruments of the kami who worked through them, for they knew that without the invisible creative aid of the kami they could not perform anything. The meaning of human life was understood in terms of man’s relation to the kami who would ‘enable’ (yosasu) men to act in their behalf. Herein lies the early Shinto conception of correspondence between the realm of kami and that of man.”
Religion in Japanese History, by Joseph M. Kitagawa, pp. 12-13.

The same recognition that it is only by the power underlying the natural world that human beings can act, let alone exist, is the summation of the essential religious knowledge of all nations, and yet here is a Man who comes and says, ‘Apart from Me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).

It doesn’t matter whether the power underlying the natural world is conceived of as a God or gods, as One or as many, because until the One chooses to reveal Himself, all that can be known about it is that it seems to be a single power working through many, or many sharing a single power.

What cannot be known by natural religion arising out of man’s interaction with the natural world is that the power, be it spirits or kami or a divine substance, is One in essence but in Three persons, not a thing but a Person, not a projection of our nature, but ours being an ikon of His.

The Oneness of God is not a mathematical oneness, nor is His being a Triad a countable plurality, nor is our deification a polytheism, nor is the sanctity of nature a pantheism, nor our partaking of the Divine Nature an abandonment of our human nature, nor His becoming man a negation of His being God.

Brethren, let us be gentle towards those who approach Him who is the light that enlightens all (cf. John 1:9), as we awaken Him who sleeps in the boats of their souls (cf. Luke 8:23), for the sake of the new wine, ‘wine flowing straight to my Beloved, as it runs on the lips of those who sleep…’ (Song of Songs 7:10 Jerusalem Bible).

Unknown

The week after the Lord’s Day of the Holy Cross, third Lord’s Day in the Forty Days, has me thinking more than usual about the Cross, what it means, and all the ways it impacts our lives.

In reading a bit of history today, in an account of the 1901 world’s fair in Buffalo, New York, there was made mention of the fact that William McKinley, president of the United States, was assassinated at this expo. An anarchist shot him, but he did not die immediately. He was operated on to remove the bullet by surgeons in a medical pavilion set up at the fair, under sunlight reflected onto the operating table by reflector. Though the exhibition buildings were covered in electric lights, ironically no electrical power was supplied to the medical tent. The doctors thought their surgery was successful and expected the president to recover.

On the morning of September 12, he felt strong enough to receive his first food orally since the shooting—toast and a small cup of coffee. However, by afternoon he began to experience discomfort and his condition rapidly worsened. McKinley began to go into shock. On September 14, 1901, feast day of the Holy Cross, eight days after he was shot, he died at age 58 from gangrene surrounding his wounds. His last words were ‘It is God's way; His will be done, not ours.’ Here was an ordinary man, a Christian whose faith was perhaps known to God alone—as president his faith and everything else about him was under public scrutiny—but with his last breath he formed words of trust, going out of this world on the wings of his testimony.

Unknown, though known to many, yet unknown as he really was. The same is true of all of us, of any man, woman or child. We are really nobody special, not even when we are president and in everyone’s eyes, we are still nobody, we are unknown. But One does know us, and His Son has declared it to us, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows’
(Matthew 10:29-31). That we are known, not by other men, but by God, that is what is important. This is why with the thief we must be intent to steal paradise if we can, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom’ (Luke 23:42). The slain president, a man as unknown as any of us, had faith.

‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.’ For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ Romans 10:8-13

Happy

I am happy with it.
I am happy with it, Lord,
What You have given.

It isn’t what I expected.
What I wanted was taken,
Is taken, will be taken,
Away from me,
So that I can live.

Live as You would have me live,
Live as You live,
Aimless, wanting nothing,
Wanting for nothing
But what You give.

Aimless because
The arrow is already plunged
Deep into the target
And has nowhere else to go.

Wanting nothing
Because having everything,
Wanting for nothing.

All I have is Yours.
All you see is Mine.

Glory to You, O Lord,
Glory to You!


— Romanós

Three hurdles

‘Look at all the trouble and all the suffering in the world. There is no god. How could a god allow this to happen? Despite all your pie-in-the-sky and wishful thinking, when the worst suddenly happens, you’re no better able to deal with it than anyone else. Face facts. There is no god,’ says the atheist.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ There was a written notice above him, which read: ‘This is the King of the Jews’. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ Luke 23:35-39

Here we have it. Both the atheist and those who believe in God or in ‘the gods’ have the same attitude. When the worst suddenly happens, both are at a loss. Irreligious or religious, there’s no help for us. Looking at the universe in the bare nakedness of our souls, we see both the beauty, and the terror, of it. ‘Why have they left me alone here without a pass key.’

Those who believe in no supernatural power sneer at faith. To them, faith is just a blind belief in spite of what really happens in the world. To many who believe in a supernatural power, whether or not they are religious, their belief is a vague mental consent to a proposition they don’t fully grasp.

Between the atheist and this kind of theist there is little difference. The apostle writes, ‘You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder’ (James 2:19).

If God were in fact the kind of god that the atheist rejects, then I too am an atheist. That is the first hurdle, to see that you don’t believe in a god you have made up in your mind, a god who is too small.

The second hurdle is to realize that to believe there is a God is not a mental exercise or a convenient way to integrate into society. This is belief in a god who is too big. If there were ever a case for atheism, it would be to leap these two hurdles.

Can we leap the third hurdle without knocking it, and ourselves, over? without tripping over it? This is the hurdle of faith, not belief, of trust, not mental assent, of honesty, not evasion, of clarity, not unfocused vision. Can we really have faith in the God who is, just as He is, in the goodness of His will for us in the face of all that happens?


This is not a god too small or too big, but the only God there is, who though infinite became finite, who though alive became dead, who faced the irreligious and the religious with the same unblinking eyes, who came answering questions we didn’t even think of asking.

Unbeliever or believer, go back and read the gospels with the same unblinking eyes, unafraid to face the facts, the reality of the world in which we find ourselves, unafraid of all questionings, by others or ourselves.

What He calls us to is not religious belief, but to enter into friendship, even into partnership, with Him. His story is not just another tale. When you read it, forget everything you ever heard or were told about it.

Start fresh, as though reading a book you’d never seen or heard of before. I’m not talking about the bible, that religious book. I’m talking about the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Read them with a mind that sees through unblinking eyes, and see what you make of them, and of Him. This is not mere history. It is His story. See what happens to your unbelief or your belief. Leap over the third hurdle, and see where you feet take you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Two lights

The New Testament is, for Christians, composed of two lights.
One light is the holy gospels, the other is the holy apostles.
One light is the mind, the other is the heart.
We need both lights to see our way.

The holy gospels, the words of Jesus,
are the light of our life as servants and sons of God,
revealing to us what Jesus does, so we can imitate Him.

The apostles, their acts and letters,
are the light of our life as members of one another,
revealing to us how the Church lives.

If you use only the first light,
you have the cornerstone but nothing with which
to finish the building.
If you use only the second light,
you have the building blocks but nothing on which to align them.

Following only the gospels, we are a head with no body:
we become everyone’s enemy.
Following only the apostles, we are a body with no head:
we end up worshiping ourselves.

Brothers, the way is simple. Let’s walk in the way of the two lights.
With the mind in the heart, we will see our way.
With the mind we attain vision of God.
With the heart we are saved.
Let us walk together
by the two lights.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Again, the peace of Christ

Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The Blood of Jesus whispers peace within.

—Edward Henry Bickersteth
Hymn writer

Peace, that which comes from above and is granted by God alone through Christ is not easy to define, but it definitely does NOT mean something like "all's well" or "peace and quiet" in the usual sense. Peace from God does not necessarily mean that there is no trouble anywhere in our life, nor that we are not faced with problems to which we cannot find a solution.

It's easier to talk about this peace that comes from God through Christ and is bestowed on us in prayer than it is to actually have it. Why? Because we usually talk about it when we are NOT in any great distress, emergency or need, but after we have been delivered from it. We look back in retrospect and thank God for the deliverance and find words of testimony to give about God's faithfulness.

What is the best definition of and the most convincing testimony to the "peace from above"?

When we are presently in distress, in danger, at risk, beset with problems we see no end of, when we are suffering persecutions, slander, unjust accusations, when no one believes us, when no one cares about us, and we are not sad, not unhappy, not anxious, not disturbed, not reproachful, uncomplaining, unmoved to anger or revenge, still hopeful, still forgiving, still loving our enemies, still seeking God’s Kingdom first and His righteousness, never giving in to despair or abandonment. When we are in this place, and can define "the peace of God which passeth all understanding" not only by the word of our confession, but also by our passionlessness, then we have understood and accepted what that peace is. It's the same peace that Jesus knew when He was crucified and when He uttered with His last breath, "It is finished. Into your hands I commend my spirit." It is the same peace which Jesus gave to His disciples when He said, "My peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give."

This is the peace of Christ.

Undeniable

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Matthew 10:32-33

This news story, published at the blog
Blagodatniy Ogon’, seems to have missed the English-speaking mass media. I noticed it first at Fr Milovan's blog, Again and Again.


Alina (Elena) Milan died at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv, having been transferred there from Moscow for an urgent liver transplant. Alina died without receiving medical treatment, for it transpired that she had been refused Israeli citizenship, herself having refused to renounce her Christian faith. Alina Milan (Elena by baptism) died on the 14th of March, 2011 [in Israel]. Alina was a fifth year student at Moscow State University's Law School. This event might have passed unnoticed had it not been for certain details.

Alina Milan was 23 years old. Three years ago she was diagnosed with alveolar hydatid liver disease: the sprouting of parasites in the hepatic vein and all the veins of the liver (she required an immediate liver transplant, which in Russia is not performed).

In October of last year, with the help of charitable funding, Alina was admitted to the Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in Israel. Before her departure, doctors informed Alina's mother that Alina had at best two weeks left to live...

While Alina had been preparing for her departure to Israel, her mother and she were faced with a very serious decision. They were given the opportunity to become Israeli citizens, in which case the medical treatment would be free of charge. To gain citizenship it was simply necessary to fill out an application form, by where in one blank it asked for ‘religious confession.’ According to state laws it is only possible for Jews and atheists to gain Israeli citizenship. Alina refused point-blank to fill out the application form. ‘I will not take off my Cross, I will not deny Christ, it's not worth it.’

Despite the strong support of of Alina's friends and fellow students of the Moscow State University Law School, the necessary sum for the transplant was not met in time (the transplant costs around USD $300,000).

Now we can only pray for her, however, a person who has abandoned life rather than abandoning the faith, is more likely to intercede on behalf of us, sinners, before the Lord. 14 марта 2011 года умерла Алина Милан (в крещении Елена), студентка 5 курса юридического факультета МГУ. Это событие могло бы остаться незамеченным, если бы не некоторые подробности.

Алине Милан было 23 года. 3 месяца назад ей поставили диагноз – альвеококкоз печени: прорастание альвеококка нижней полой вены и всех печеночных вен (необходима срочная трансплантация печени, что в России не практикуется).

В октябре прошлого года на благотворительных началах Алину отправили в медицинский центр «Сураски» в Тель-Авиве, Израиль. Перед отъездом врачи предупредили маму Алины, что дочке осталось жить не больше двух недель в лучшем случае...

Когда Алину готовили к перелету в Израиль перед ней и мамой был поставлен серьезный выбор. У них была возможность получить израильское гражданство и тогда медицинскую помощь им оказали бы бесплатно. Для этого нужно просто заполнить анкету, в одном из пунктов которой значилась графа «вероисповедание». По законам страны стать гражданином Израиля может только иудей и атеист. Алина наотрез отказалась заполнять анкету. «Я не сниму крест и не буду отрекаться, оно того не стоит».

Несмотря на то, что большую поддержку оказали друзья и многие студенты юридического факультета, необходимую помощь для трансплантации печени в виду огромных сумм (порядка 300 тыс. долларов США), к сожалению, вовремя собрать не удалось».

Теперь можно только молиться за нее, хотя человек, который отказался ради веры от жизни, скорей сам может ходатайствовать перед Господом за наши грехи.

Let us also go


It’s really quite impossible to save a man. It takes all that God can do to deliver him. Everything that a man’s neighbors do to try to save him is really of no help. As well-intentioned as they are, when mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, teachers, pastors, co-workers, psychiatrists and social workers try to save a man, they can do little more than alter his outward complexion, and that’s the best they can do. The worst they can do is push him to profound despair and death, and this despite their good intentions.

But how then can a man be saved?
It’s certainly not by his own efforts, nor is it by the will of the people around him, but it is by God alone. All that is needed on his side is to keep saying “yes” to whatever God asks of him.

How does He ask?
It is by His acts, what He send us, the people, the situations and circumstances that He places in our path. Knowing that God uses everything that happens to us to be for our benefit, regardless of appearances and human judgment, we can rely on Him to save us, unconditionally. This is true, whether we trust God or not, He is out to save us. When we say “yes” to what He sends us, we let Him save us. When we say “no” to what He sends us, we don’t trust Him, we tell Him in effect that we know best, that we can save ourselves—an impossibility.

This seems to be a hard road and, yes, it is the way of the Cross, and following it, as did Mary the Lord’s mother, we are led to a place where the unthinkable happens—the betrayal and sacrificial death of the Good—but that which is beyond all thought and imagination, that which we can only hear told with wonder, happens to us. We are saved. Yes, by His stripes we are healed, and saved. We believed His Word, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” and when He asked us, by these acts in our lives, “Do you believe this?” our response was, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:16 NIV

Once upon a cross

Ton stavrón sou proskinoúmen, Dhéspota, "we venerate your cross, O Master," is the first line of one of the two hymns of the third Lord's Day of the Forty Days’ fast before Pascha. The rest of the hymn, kai tín aghían sou anástasin dhoxazómen, "and we glorify your holy resurrection," reminds us of the inseparability of suffering and resurrection. Notice, I didn't say "death and resurrection," because Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7), has tasted death for all mankind (Hebrews 2:9), He suffered and was buried, on the third day He rose from the dead (Symbol of Nicæa) and so His work is finished, for us. We may have to suffer, but He has taken our place by His death. Now, for us who keep His Word, we will not see death (John 8:51). The cross. I used to wear a cross once. All Orthodox are supposed to wear the cross they received at baptism. That original cross of mine is packed away among my memorabilia, I hope. I did wear a cross for at least 20 years of my adult Christian life—the cross of San Damiano, an ancient icon painted by Serbian Orthodox monks that found its way into a small church in central Italy, dating from the days when Italy was still an Orthodox land. The cross of San Damiano was the icon from which Christ spoke to Francesco of Assisi, "Repair My Church which, as you can see, is lying in ruins." I stopped wearing my cross because it was worn out, and because at some point, my cross changed from something metallic and detachable, to being a part of me, something others can't see, something I can never take off. When I knew that for sure, that I was bearing my cross, then I didn't have to wear it. The cross is something you can't really talk about, when it's the reality of your life. All the jabber and blab about the cross, however eloquent, is still just words. To enter into the reality of the cross is a gift of God. When He grants it to you to suffer, and to suffer in ways you never knew existed, then there is no longer an image outside yourself that really stands for anything much. The whole panoply of Orthodox iconography, in fact, dies away into mere imagery, when the cross is your life. I know I wanted to communicate something in this post, but it isn't really possible, I know that now.
But crossbearers know each other. Their sanctuary is the time and place where in this world they meet for even a moment, their communion is feeding each other with the broken fragments of their lives that Christ has taken to Himself and returned to them, "This is My Body broken for you."
No matter how large the visible cross, whether it's empty, plain wood, or has an icon of Jesus on it, whether the ceremony is slow and awe-inspiring, or the quick, efficient march that we sometimes experience, it would be the same. It can never compare to the reality of being pressed like raw dough with the seal of the true cross, so as to be baked in the oven of tribulations, to come out as pure communion bread. That's our life in Christ, broken but not divided, eaten but not consumed. Christ is in our midst. He is, and ever shall be. Καλο Πασχα! Kaló Páscha! See you at Pascha!

Mother

Of the sons of Korach, psalm, song.

Yahweh loves His city
founded on the holy mountain;
He prefers the gates of Zion
to any town in Jacob.

He has glorious predictions to make of you,
city of God, selah.

‘I will add Egypt and Babylon
to the nations that acknowledge Me.
Of Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia,
“Here so and so was born,” men say,
but all call Zion “Mother,”
since all were born in her.’

It is He who makes her what she is,
He, the Most High, Yahweh;
and as He registers the peoples,
‘It was here,’ He writes,
‘that so and so was born,’ selah.

And there will be princes dancing there.
All find their home in you.


We know the Lord, we know whom we have believed in, we know what the essential content of the Christian faith is, the trust in God alone, the following Christ at all costs, the confession of a true word, and we know that somehow, we are the Church, we are in her, we are part of her, because we are in Christ, and we know each other when we meet, and if we have learned our lessons well, we come to our meetings with one another totally unarmed, totally disarmed if we ever bore weaponry against anyone but the devil, for whom hatred is reserved, if for anyone. Yet even the Lord, did He hate the evil one? It's hard to tell, because all He does is speak the word of truth to him. Isn't it the evil one, after all, who alone hates, hates God, hates Christ, hates woman for bearing Him, hates humanity for following Him, for trusting His word, for not listening to the lie?

Knowing what I know and having experienced everything from best to worst in the Orthodox Church, I still can swallow my neighbor along with his sins when I partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, just as the Lord has swallowed me and mine, and I can still defend him even when he makes himself my personal enemy. Why, and how? Because Christ defends me, even when I fall into sin, even when I cruelly wound Him, and there is no other path to life but through death on the Holy Cross, through letting one's flesh be nailed down for love of our neighbor, who is Christ.

The institutional Orthodox Church at best is the enduring ikon of the Bride of Christ, and at worst it is the stumblingblock that can snare a soul or put it into a tailspin from which it might never recover. But our God is merciful, He is loving, and I want to be near that kind of love, not just as it is sung about and proclaimed by words, but I want to be near it, where it is proved on the battlefield of the Body, where even wounded and wounding it heals by its faithfulness even amidst its sin. Faithfulness? What faithfulness? The faithfulness to stay through every conflict, through every victory, to stay the same, to be the deep well whose water may be hard to reach, but once brought up and drunk becomes that spring of living water inside us that leads to eternal life.

All Christians belong to this Church, yet our eyelids are stuck together and we, blinded by our own prejudices and fears, do not see light. The Orthodox who think of themselves as the sole possessors and owners of what can only belong to us all, only to us who are in Christ, just as blind as those who refuse to call her Home, those who hold her up to judgment—it doesn't matter by what standard. Mercy, mercy and love is how we express our discipleship and following of Christ, wherever we call 'home', and neither Christ nor His heavenly Father are fooled by what we call or do not call the Church. He (for they are One) knows.

I am a Greek Orthodox Christian, and I want everyone to know the Lord at least as intimately as I know Him, and receive at least as great a blessing as that which I receive within this ancient and venerable utterance of His Holy Church, but I know that all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord before men can expect no less salvation, whatever else they may believe in or about, than that which they receive from Him, who has created, called and saved them.

Glory to Your forbearance, O Lord, glory to You!

Honestly

Honestly, I used to have a saying, ‘Under the Roman Empire, the Christians were persecuted for their faith; now, since the Empire is no more, we have the Church to do the job.’

That’s how it sometimes feels. But there are other times when we have found ourselves in a perfect moment in the Church’s history, when pastors and people were full of love, respect, evangelical zeal, self-sacrifice, love for the lost, generosity for the needy. Those moments we wished would last forever, but they didn’t last long. Whose fault was that? Did the Church change, or did we? It is with the eyes of the Spirit that we look upon the Church with faith and declare to our souls, ‘This is the Body of Christ,’ and at other times, after ‘placing us on a peak impregnable’ the Spirit ‘turns away His eyes, and we are terrified’ (Psalm 30).

But without a doubt, the follower of Jesus knows who is speaking when he hears the preacher’s words, whether it is the Good Shepherd he is hearing, or just the hired man. And without a doubt, the disciple of Christ knows what is happening when he sees the Church’s works, whether it is the making disciples of all nations, or just lavishing itself in applause. It is then that the believer is tested: In Whom has he believed? In whom has he trusted? For whom does he live, in whom does he move and have his being? And finally, is it for what, or for whom, that he lays down his life?

We see around us the field white for harvest, yet stand our ground pulling up tares. We do the work reserved for the angels at time’s end, and let lie acres of dry bones waiting to be clothed in flesh, and live. There is only one Bridegroom, and only one Bride, yet we wander through the harems of our minds seeking under which veil she hides, and fail to see she is happily unveiled and seated beside her Lord. There is nothing to do now but plant the seed, because as soon planted, it springs up into the reaper’s hand, by the Lord of the harvest who alone gives increase. We have nothing else to do.
‘Come, labor on, claim the high calling angels cannot share.’

The people among whom Christ appeared continue, as Pascal writes, to deny Him, and for our sakes, otherwise they would be suspect witnesses, owning both the Kingdom and the King, that we might be slaves only, and not sons as they. And so they persist, and wisdom has still not abandoned them, for they guard and treasure her words. Their rabbi Tarfon says, ‘The day is short, the work is abundant, the workers are sluggish, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.’ He would also say, ‘It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.’

For me there is no male or female, Greek or barbarian, freeman or slave, catholic or protestant, priest or layman, sophisticate or simple, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, friend or enemy, in short, no pairing of opposites to adulate one and outcaste the other, that is, if I am a follower of Jesus, who defended even those whom He knew to be unworthy, by human standards, of mercy and love. Every foundation of judgment has been shattered and scattered to make way for the only foundation that can be and has ever been laid: Jesus Christ, in whom there is no variation, no shadow of change, whose love is infinite, whose mercy boundless, who raises to life all the dead, yes, who raises even me.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mercy is

‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ This was quoted to me by a friend who told me the story I am about to relate, as a way of understanding what happened. When I first heard the story, it brought to mind, rather, this saying of Jesus,

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

Now, it isn’t as though we believe in Christ because of His teachings: He was in most cases only restating what was already known as far as the tradition is concerned, and He was ‘preaching to the choir’ when He taught the Jews of His day, just as He is preaching to us.

We already know what He says is right, we already agree with it, and if we read the teachings of other ‘great men’ we will in most cases see that their teachings are no different, at least on the moral front. As for doctrines, Jesus teaches very few. He is more concerned with actions.

What can He mean by ‘in the same way you judge others, you will be judged’? Well, I think we all know what He means. Religious and irreligious, everyone knows from experience this is true. As soon as you open your mouth to criticize another, not long after ‘it catches up with you.’

My friend in Hokkaido told me the following story. For their daughter’s birthday, he and his wife took her on a special trip that culminated at a ski resort. As one of her birthday gifts they also presented her with a wonderful new camera.

At the ski lift, their daughter somehow lost the new camera and this upset my friend’s wife, who took her to task for it. After all, it was an expensive camera: she should have been more careful. I’m sure that everyone involved felt quite badly about it. Loss is loss.

Later that day, as she was enjoying the onsen, the Japanese bath, my friend’s wife discovered that her wedding ring was missing—she had lost it in the bath. You can imagine how embarrassed she must have felt, and how sorry for scolding her daughter. Loss is loss.

What we find in our lives is that this seems to operate as a law, just as Jesus says, and as popular sayings tell it, all deriving from the same source: what actually happens. Modern westerners intent on sophistication would say, ‘it’s all karma.’

But it isn’t all ‘karma’ and the eyes of our minds play tricks on us and make us see patterns where there are none, especially whenever our status in our own eyes can be elevated. The laws of cause and effect are not the ‘end all’ of existence. Instead, mercy is.

What happened in the real story I just retold? By the end of that day, both the lost camera and the missing wedding ring had been turned in to the resort staff, and my friend’s wife and daughter recovered what they thought they had lost. Yes, mercy is.

Mercy is, all that is waiting for us when we show mercy. After all, Jesus is right when He says, ‘How blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them’ (Matthew 5:7). And, oops, yes, even when we have not been very merciful, we are often shown mercy.

Looking over our shoulders at all the times we seem to have escaped by the skin of our teeth, let us remember and give praise to our good and loving God, who has such care for us that He shows us mercy even before we show it to others.

Glory to Your forbearance, O Lord, glory to You!

Abolishing this world

Abba Zosimos said: When I was once with the blessed Amma Dionysía, a brother asked her for some alms; and she gave him whatever she could.

However, since he received less than he had asked for, he began to insult her, speaking improperly about her and about me.

When she heard this, she was hurt and sought to harm him. Therefore, on learning this, I told her: What are you doing, conspiring against yourself? You are removing every virtue from your soul. For what is it that you worthily endure, by comparison with those things, which Christ endures for you? I know, my lady, that you have distributed all your possessions as if they were worthless.

Nevertheless, unless you acquire meekness, then you will be like the forger beating an iron nugget but producing no vessel. Ignatios the God-bearer says, ‘I require meekness, through which all of the power of the prince of this age is abolished.’

The sign of abolishing this world is not being troubled when someone insults you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Third Lord's Day - The Cross

What our Saviour saw from the Cross - Tissot

There is much more to this Lord’s Day than a mere commemoration of the physical relic of the Cross, glorious though it may be. We can never forget, amidst the trappings of religion that often encumber and conceal it, that the Cross was endured for us, and it is also meant for us, those of us who follow Jesus. What does the world look like to us? Are we standing with our feet on the ground, looking up and adoring the crucified Lord? Or is our flesh nailed down to the Cross for love of Him, with whom we look upon a world that, lost in its own sin and suffering, gazes upon us, uncomprehending?

In Paradise of old, the tree stripped me bare, for by the eating thereof, the enemy brought in death. But now, the most holy tree of the Cross that doth clothe all men with the garment of life hath been set up on earth, and all of the world is filled with most boundless joy. Seeing it exalted, ye people, now, let us the faithful all cry out with one accord to God in faith: Thy house is full of glory, O Lord.
— Elevation of the Holy Cross - Sessional Hymn of the Canon


Here follow some gleanings on the Cross from earlier posts on
Cost of Discipleship.

Discipleship means the Cross

The knowledge of the Cross
is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross.
Gregory the Great

The Cross is the door to mysteries. Through this door the intellect makes entrance in to the knowledge of heavenly mysteries. The knowledge of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross. And the more our participation in its sufferings, the greater the perception we gain through the Cross. For, as the Apostle says, "As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ."
Isaac of Syria

God does not create a cross for man. No matter how heavy a cross a man may carry in life, it is still just wood, from which man himself was made, and it always grows from the soil of his heart.
Ambrose of Optina

The way of God from the beginning of time and from the creation of the human race has been the way of the cross and death. How did you get your idea that everything is just the opposite? You must realize that you are outside the way of God, that you are far from Him, that you do not wish to walk in the steps of the Saints, but want to make some special way for yourself and travel by it without sufferings. The way of God is a daily cross. No one has climbed to heaven by living a life of pleasure.
Ignatios Brianchaninov

Christians often assume that to ‘take up our cross’ means simply to carry a burden. When we run into a life trouble, we will say things like ‘oh, this is just my cross to bear.’ We basically shrug it off, totally missing the significance of the cross.

Ever consider that the cross is not meant to be a burden?

It is meant to cause death.
The cross is meant to kill us!
It is an instrument of death!
Oh that wonderful cross!{+}


Christianity can be many things to many people, but unless it is first and foremost the cross, it can devolve into ritual, culture, or magic. Not that everyone will have the same cross to bear and to die on, not that what it looks like or feels like will be the same for all, not that those who follow Christ to Calvary will all understand what is happening to them the same way, but nonetheless the cross awaits us all, at least all of us who seek to follow Jesus.

Why, then, do you fear to take up the Cross, which is the road to the Kingdom? In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross. Take up the Cross, therefore, and follow Jesus. Christ has gone before you, bearing His Cross; He died for you on the Cross, that you also may bear your cross, and desire to die on the cross with Him. For if you die with Him, you will also live with Him. And if you share His sufferings, you will also share His glory. See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial. Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross.
— Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 2, Chapter 12


Cross, do not fail me
when it comes my hour
to bleed. As to a strong-masted vessel,
let me be bound to you to share your power.
Hug me close as the wind we together wrestle.

Lost, let them nail me
as my ransomed soul
a steed of spirit mounts and my hungers hang.
Let me inherit what the jailer stole
and hidden, as I thirst, what prophets sang.

— Romanós

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dignity of the thrones

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 25, 2011

Speaking of silence

The summer after I graduated from the eighth grade, my family moved away forever from my childhood home in Chicago, to a small and modest house in a village surrounded by farmland and forests. The change was too much for me; I was a very high-strung and nervous boy, and almost immediately, I began to stutter. I could barely get out even one sentence without stuttering. I didn’t stutter much before that, as I remember, but in my new high school, and in the social insecurity of knowing no one and having to make new friends, I began to stutter.

My best friend—he literally adopted me into his family—was a Puerto Rican boy, Freddy Iglesia. He was physically bigger than me, and of muscular build, in contrast to me, a skinny, unathletic runt. He spoke English with a little bit of an accent, and I spoke Spanish to him, the language I had studied at school for the last two years. When I spoke Spanish, I didn’t stutter, and so I enjoyed hanging around with him at school and at his house, where Tia was always cooking something for the large family. I spoke Spanish and felt at home there.

After our freshman year in high school, gradually we came to see each other less and less. Why? Because he became popular, with sports, with the girls, and I was shy, stayed out of the limelight, tried to cover up my stuttering as best as I could, without success. When it was my turn to read aloud, I almost always stuttered. It terrified me to be in literature classes. I couldn’t even say the word ‘literature’ without stuttering. To this day, the ghost of my speech defect still haunts me and occasionally shows up.

An odd fact about my stuttering was this: I didn’t stutter if I was speaking my lines from memory in a dramatic presentation. I had to recite some of the well-known dialog from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I memorized it and can probably still recite it if I try, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…’ I also didn’t stutter if I was made to stand in front of the class to read a poem out of a book. Once, our assignment was to pick a poem, read it aloud in front of the class, and then comment on it. I chose the poem ‘Silence’ by Edgar Lee Masters.

I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence for which music alone finds the word,
And the silence of the woods before the winds of spring begin,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths
Of what use is language?
A beast of the field moans a few times
When death takes its young.
And we are voiceless in the presence of realities—
We cannot speak.

A curious boy asks an old soldier
Sitting in front of the grocery store,
"How did you lose your leg?"
And the old soldier is struck with silence,
Or his mind flies away
Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
It comes back jocosely
And he says, "A bear bit it off."
And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
Dumbly, feebly lives over
The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
The shrieks of the slain,
And himself lying on the ground,
And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
And the long days in bed.
But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.
But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
Which he could not describe.

There is the silence of a great hatred,
And the silence of a great love,
And the silence of a deep peace of mind,
And the silence of an embittered friendship,
There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
Comes with visions not to be uttered
Into a realm of higher life.
And the silence of the gods
who understand each other without speech,
There is the silence of defeat.
There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
And the silence of the dying whose hand
Suddenly grips yours.
There is the silence between father and son,
When the father cannot explain his life,
Even though he be misunderstood for it.

There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
There is the silence of those who have failed;
And the vast silence that covers
Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
There is the silence of Lincoln,
Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
And the silence of Napoleon
After Waterloo.
And the silence of Jeanne d'Arc
Saying amid the flames, "Blessèd Jesus"—
Revealing in two words all sorrow, all hope.
And there is the silence of age,
Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
In words intelligible to those who have not lived
The great range of life.

And there is the silence of the dead.
If we who are in life cannot speak
Of profound experiences,
Why do you marvel that the dead
Do not tell you of death?
Their silence shall be interpreted
As we approach them.

I can still hear my boyish voice reading this poem to my classmates. I have never forgotten it, and it has had a lifelong influence on me. I never stuttered even once when I was reading it then, and I don’t remember stuttering when I was commenting on it. I think this poem came as a sort of turning point in my life. I could see that there might be a different kind of life than the one I was living. The line ‘…and the silence of Jeanne d’Arc saying amid the flames, “Blessèd Jesus”…’ grabbed my attention somehow. I was a Catholic, but who was Jesus?

There is really only one question, it seems, that ever needs to be asked, and it was at that time, probably in my twelfth grade English class, that I think I first asked it. Conversion to Christ doesn’t always begin with a consciousness of sin. We don’t often really understand what sin is. Other things, what we perceive as our defects, come to the fore to torment us, as I was tormented by my stuttering as a high school student. It isolated me from others, marginalized me. I wanted to belong, but I was rejected. ‘Silence’ became a door to acceptance.

After high school I followed my friends to a small town college where I tried to major in the natural sciences and mathematics, but my heart was always tugging at me to read history, to learn new languages, to read and write, literature—the word I couldn’t even say without stuttering. I changed majors, not to literature—I couldn’t handle reading all those books!—but to history, where there seemed to be more freedom. I wanted to save literature for my ‘fun time’ and history could be what I did for a living.

Thinking a lot about silence lately, I’m not surprised these memories came back to me. Something a friend said to me some weeks ago, ‘Silence is the language of the age to come,’ has kept circulating in my blood. Loving languages as I do, I’ve often thought, ‘If only I could live a thousand years, I could learn all the languages I want to know.’ But there really is only one language, and that is of the Spirit of God, who has flattened our towers so that in humility and repentance we can find the stairway to the heavens.

Selah

There are many ways to avoid getting angry in situations where it would be a natural reaction to do so. For me, if I am able to get away and just pull back, not taking offense, not wishing offense, not desirous of revenge, not seeking to justify myself, but just to retreat into silence and await the Lord's judgment: He lifts me up, He answers for me, He silences my mind and heart, He empties me of sorrow, and in the end, He shatters the bonds that hold me.

But I can do something else: I can take offense, I can react, I can seek revenge, I can try to justify myself, I can dig up history to add to my arsenal, and I can recklessly run into anger and, clothed with it, go to destroy the person or situation that I have convinced myself to hate. I will avoid silence because it might convict me. Noise, even mental noise, is better, anything is better than being a wimp and letting the other get advantage of me.

I am a simple man whom reading books will not help much. Only one word, one word only will do, and after that, silence.

He comes, He comes to judge the earth, to judge the peoples, to judge even me, with justice and truth.

Lord, have mercy!

Praise to the holiest in the height

This hymn has been going through my mind today, and I want to share it as part of my praise offering for this feast-day of the Annunciation. By the way, happy name day to everyone named Evangelos and Evangelia, Gabriel and Gabriela, Mario, Mary and Maria… Chronía pollá! Many years!

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise;
in all His words most wonderful,
most sure in all His ways!

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe,
should strive, and should prevail;

and that the highest gift of grace
should flesh and blood refine:
God's presence and His very self,
and essence all-divine.

O generous love! that He who smote
in man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo.

And in the garden secretly,
and on the Cross on high,
should teach His brethren, and inspire
to suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise;
in all His words most wonderful,
most sure in all His ways!

— Words: John Henry Newman (1801-1890), 1866

But what do you believe?

Adapted from my original post of March 23, 2007.

Four years ago, for my 56th birthday, I received a beautiful, leather-bound NIV study bible. After reading it here and there, checking the commentaries and notes, and finding them reasonably reliable, I settled down with a serious study of the book of Exodus/Shemót. This book has always represented for me the beginning of my life in Christ. After youthful years of wandering, I was brought back to the Living God by reading this passage in the Jerusalem Bible:

Then Moses said to God, “I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?” And God said to Moses, “I Am who I Am. This,” he added, “is what you must say to the sons of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” And God also said to Moses, “You are to say to the sons of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come.
Exodus 3:13-15 JB


Spiritually, I had to become first a Jew, before I could fully return to Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Meeting Him first in YHWH, Yod-hey-vav-hey, Yahweh, Him who Is, the Living God of my fathers, it wasn’t lost on me that ‘the God of’ was repeated three times, nor that earlier, in Genesis/Bereshít, God as Elohim (the plural of El, ‘God’) spoke to someone, ‘Let us make man in our own image’ (Genesis 1:26). I was ‘born a Christian, and I was going to die a Christian,’ I guessed. This was already decided, because ‘God is faithful’ (2 Timothy 2:13).

I was studying Exodus, and when I came to the Ten Plagues which YHWH inflicted on Egypt to induce Pharaoh to ‘let His people go,’ and read the study notes, I was surprised to find this kind of commentary:

7:17 ‘the water of the Nile… will be changed into blood.’ There is some reason to believe that the first nine plagues may have been a series of unprecedented intensifications of events that were part of the Egyptian experience, events that in their more usual form did not have anything like the catastrophic effects of the disasters God brought on Egypt… If that was the case, the first plague may have resulted from an unparalleled quantity of red sediment being washed down from Ethiopia during the annual flooding of the Nile in late summer…

Following this train of thought, similar explanations of ‘what may have been the case’ were presented in the notes as each of the Ten Plagues was recounted. I expected that a good commentary on scripture, especially when it’s published in the Bible, would leave alone this kind of speculation. If I were a new Christian, reading this kind of thing might prepare me to regard the Word of God as something to pick apart in the same way, instead of letting the Word pick me apart.

In my case, by means of studying the Word and letting it interpret itself to me and mold my thinking for over 30 years of living within the Church enclosure, I am able to ‘pass over’ these glosses and accept them for what they’re worth. Still, they demonstrate ‘what’s out there,’ a culture of speculation and human thinking that is suffocating the Church—miracles just don’t really happen.

Today is Evangelismós, the annual commemoration of the Good News, the announcement to a virgin in Israel that YHWH the Holy One, blessed be He, had selected her to be the mother of the Messiah.

For Orthodox Christians, understanding this historical event helps put Mary the Theotókos in right perspective—she is the first Christian, the first to hear the Good News and to receive it, ‘Let what you have said be done to me’ (Luke 1:38). Her cooperation ‘got the ball rolling.’

In the same way, according to Archimandrite Vasileios, by our cooperation with the Good News we also become theotókoi (God-bearers), incarnators of the Word. Anything beyond this becomes speculation. But one thing is for sure—it really happened! It was miracle, pure and simple. Thankfully, the comments in my new study bible were ‘orthodox,’ they did not introduce any speculation. It still left me wondering, why is an Old Testament miracle open to naturalistic explanation, and not this?

Why talk about the Ten Plagues and the Annunciation in the same breath? Are they related somehow?
Well, yes, they are. They are both instances of God’s direct intervention in human history, where He bypasses the zigzag of interlocking events and renews His creation through a rent in the curtain of existence ‘with the lightning flash of His divinity,’ tí astrapí tís theótitos (Resurrectional Apolytikion, 2nd Tone). They are both ‘miracle,’ and they are both liberating. The world system, the kósmos, has a hard time dealing with these. It neither wants nor needs them. It will do anything to explain them away. But what do you believe?

At this time of the year we have a curious concurrence of the main holy days of two ancient faiths, Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, Pesach, Passover, the feast of freedom, the commemoration of their liberation from slavery and Egypt, the historical event that defines them as God’s people. For Christians, Pascha, Passover, the feast of freedom, the commemoration of their liberation from sin and death, the historical event that defines them as God’s people.

Wait a minute! What’s wrong with these statements? Why do they seem so similar? Is there some mistake, or are we really talking about the same thing? Didn’t you mean to say ‘Easter’ when you said ‘Pascha, Passover?’

No, not really. There’s only one Living God, the Holy One of Israel, blessed be He, and ‘He is the One who will justify the circumcised because of their faith and justify the uncircumcised through their faith’ (Romans 3:30). The Church was never intended to deviate from Judaism. At this point, I should probably just direct you back to the Word of God, to holy apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly chapters 9, 10 and 11. Why have I written down these thoughts of mine at all?

Because, Israel the old and Israel the new, ‘the time is very close’ (Revelation 1:3). The time is very close for your coming back together again, where ‘there will be one flock and one shepherd’ (John 10:16). Messiah is coming. ‘The One who guarantees these revelations repeats His promise: I shall indeed be with you soon’ (Revelation 22:20).

But what do you believe?

Ramblings…

…on the Annunciation, the Cross, and Freedom. This is a reprint of what is probably my first personal post on this blog—March 25, 2006—as I mention at the beginning of what follows. It is significant to me that my first post would have been on this feast-day, Evangelismós, which can also be considered the first day of the New Covenant in Christ, the first real good news sent to mankind since we were expelled from Paradise in Adam and Eve.

This may in fact be my first real blog entry, all the others being quotes from foundational Christians (except for my last entry, which is just one of my testimonies in song format). This weekend two important Orthodox holy days coincided: Annunciation on March 25th, and Veneration of the Cross Sunday on the 26th [this year, it is March 27th], with a third important day of human interest, Greek Independence Day. Auspicious the conjunction, as the good news of salvation was first announced to Mary, and the salvation was accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ submitting to the death of the Cross. And what means this salvation? Isn't it freedom in its truest sense, freedom from sin, hell and death?

The Greek community of Portland is large, diverse and successful in human terms; it casts a long shadow, even to the steps of city hall, the houses of Congress, and the White House (especially in the days of the late Father Elias Stephanopoulos, uncle of George, who was a Clinton era insider).

On the 25th we observed the feast day of the Annunciation, in Greek, ‘Evangelismós’ (the announcing of the Good News, the ‘Evangelion’). There were services, and afterwards, a gathering at City Hall, where the mayor read the proclamation of Greek Independence Day, some other speakers sounded off, and the public was treated to Greek folk dance performances. I was unable to attend any of these events. Instead, I attended the regular Sunday services of the 26th which have the theme of the Cross of Jesus Christ, after which I attended a luncheon in honor of Greek independence, a sort of repeat for the community at large, since many of us could not attend on the actual day. This is how it is with us. We call it ‘ikonomía’ which loosely translated means ‘making do.’ If the rules seem to prevent what they're supposed to promote, we bend them a bit. ‘…so the Son of Man is master even of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28).

I've found in my middle age that my heart lies very close to the surface. Is it because I've finally learned to really listen to what I'm hearing, reading, or saying? It doesn't take much to get my eyes watery anymore. I'm not ashamed of this, but sometimes a little embarrassed (for them) when I'm with someone who's not used to it. In his novel Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis writes parenthetically, describing a barbarian king's Greek tutor, ‘Greek men cry as easily as women.’ But then, he wasn't talking about crying from being physically hurt, or from fear. When your heart has been emptied so completely by sorrow for your sins and the sins of others, doesn't the Lord fill it with the tenderness of His mercy, and so fully that it has nowhere to spill, except through your eyes' tears?

Flashback to the luncheon: The three dozen or so Greek dancers, led by two boys carrying side by side the Stars & Stripes and the Cross & Stripes, processed into the hall. People stayed sitting. I could do nothing myself but stand up, and soon everyone else did the same. I am not a patriot, but when I saw those two striped flags, my heart leapt up before the millions of heroic souls to do them honor, and my body just followed. I didn't know their names, but I knew I was able to stand because they sacrificed everything for me, just as Jesus Christ did.

Am I getting emotional? I don't think so. The Truth is the Truth. After the flag bearers reached the podium, led by our young proistámenos (senior pastor) we began to sing The Star Spangled Banner à capella. Everyone was with it, and on key. Sorry, folks, but my voice died away a little past the half-way point. I simply cannot sing this anthem anymore without crying. I saw their faces passing before me, and their heroic lives, in an overload of living imagery that surged into my heart from somewhere outside, and then surged back out again. My usual annoyingly fervent singing voice just sank to a whisper. ‘Deep is calling to deep as your cataracts roar; all your waves, your breakers, have rolled over me’ (Psalm 42:7).

The Greek national anthem was sung (unfortunately I don't have it memorized!) and I just stayed standing very still, soaking in the love of the people around me who were singing this song about the love of true freedom, ‘elefthería’ as bestowed on us by Christ, who said ‘You will learn the Truth, and the Truth will make you free’ (John 8:32).

Next, a couple of elders in the community spoke briefly about the occasion, and its meaning for people today. This can be quite dry and academic, but not in their case. The second speaker summarized the spiritual history of the Greek people from their ancient beginnings up to the revolution of 1821 which eventually secured their independence from the Turks. The negative experience of the Greeks was minimized and their positive contribution to Western democracy and civilization emphasized, which was a good thing. He closed his 6 minute long address with the exhortation that we must continue to live our lives as Hellenes and Philhellenes (Greeks by birth and by adoption) and as Orthodox Christians, especially in this time and place, when almost everything we hold true is under attack, or soon will be. Here is this island of people who still live and act (when we are together) as the early Christians, who consider themselves the same people, and who live out the truth that ‘Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday and as he will be for ever’ (Hebrews 13:8).

Then came the Greek dancing. For those who don't know, this is NOT belly-dancing, as you might see in some of the Greek restaurants who do this kind of thing (which is a left-over from the days of Turkish rule). Greek dancing can be done solo, as you can see in some films with Greek themes, but essentially it's a group experience.

The kids doing the performances at the luncheon ranged in age from about 6 to 20, and they all danced very well. They are a kind of testimony to the staying power of Hellenism. The dance with us is a spiritual, but not a religious, experience. It's a way of expressing our bodily fellowship with Jesus Christ who is alive and dwelling in our midst. Though the dancers be beautiful, their dancing is chaste. Though they are unbreakably tight, arms overlapping and resting on each others' shoulders, their feet working out a sometimes complex pattern, their whole bodies being tugged rhythmically forward and then taking a half-step back like the retrograde orbits of the planets, they are dancing as angels before the Lord, conscious of nothing but each others' joy in the dance, instinctively recognizing that the Lord of the Dance is among them, and that in another sense, they have His world as their dance floor. His world, mind you, not this world. And this brings me to my last comment.

The second speaker exhorted us to persevere in our Hellenic and Christian civilization, even here in America. From outward appearances, at the services and at the luncheon it does appear that we are doing that, and successfully. As a member of this community for eighteen years, one can say I have ‘seen it all.’ Even now, there are unresolved conflicts among us that cry out for loving ministry, there are hearts yearning to serve, to give all for Christ, and yet the Church seems somehow stifled in manifesting the Christ among us that we experience (when we are together) not only to the world outside, but also to those Christians among us who are estranged from each other, in our homes, in our extended families.

We have the anomaly in this community, as have all churches of Christ, of the co-existence of two churches, really, under the single visible body of believers.

Sergei Fudel, in his book Light in the Darkness calls this other the ‘dark double of the Church.’ It is also described in the great English classic, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in these (archaic) words: ‘Neither will it out of my mind, but that that man that takes up Religion for the world, will throw away Religion for the world; for so surely as Judas designed the world in becoming religious: so surely did he also sell Religion, and his Master for the same.’

We must be quite clear to which kingdom we belong, to the Kingdom of Heaven, or to the kingdom of this world, which is no kingdom at all, but only a principality whose adherents are under a death warrant. Let's not take up ‘religion’ for the world, because when that which is hidden will be revealed, we will throw away this pretended ‘religion’ for the world.

Do you see, my brothers, the enticements to apostatize to Islam (surrender to a false god) are not only ‘history’? They are here and now. Despite our apparent ‘religion,’ whom do we serve? ‘No man can be the slave of two masters…’ (Matthew 6:24).

Soon I shall be with you: hold firmly to what you already have, and let nobody take your prize away from you.
Revelation 3:11