Monday, April 30, 2012

Yes, at once

Και παραγων ειδεν Λευιν τον του Αλφαιου καθημενον επι το τελωνιον και λεγει αυτω, Ακολουθει μοι, και αναστας ηκολουθησεν αυτω.

And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphæus, sitting at the place of toll, and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. Mark 2.14

The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. The cause behind the immediate following of the call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once.

This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. There is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road — only obedience to the call of Jesus.
What does the text inform us about the content of discipleship?

Follow me, run along behind me! That is all.

To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after.

At the call, Levi leaves all he has — but not because he thinks that he might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus. The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead.

He is called out, and has to forsake his old life in order that he may ‘exist’ in the strictest sense of the word. The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of the finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality).

Again, it is no universal law. Rather is it the exact opposite of all legality. It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking every program, every ideal, every set of laws. No other significance is possible, since Jesus is the only significance. Beside Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters.
When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.

The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between the law and the gospel. Christ calls, the disciple follows; that is grace and commandment in one.

‘I will walk at liberty, for I seek thy commandments.’ (Psalm 119.45)
Discipleship without Jesus Christ is a way of our own choosing. It may be the ideal way, it may even lead to martyrdom, but it is devoid of all promise. Jesus will certainly reject it.

And they went to another village. And as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of heaven have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head. And he said to another, Follow me.

But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But he said unto him, Leave the dead to bury their dead, but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God. And another said, I will follow thee, Lord; but suffer me first to bid farewell to them that are at my house. But Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand unto the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Luke 9.57-62

The first disciple offers to follow Jesus without waiting to be called. Jesus damps his ardour by warning him that he does not know what he is doing. In fact, he is quite incapable of knowing.
That is the meaning of Jesus’ answer. No man can choose such a life for himself. No man can call himself to such a destiny, says Jesus, and his word stays unanswered. The gulf betwen a voluntary offer to follow and genuine discipleship is clear.
Where Jesus calls, he bridges the widest gulf.

The second would-be disciple wants to bury his father before he starts to follow. He is bound by the trammels of the law. He knows what he wants and what he must do. Let him first fulfill the law, and then let him follow. A definite legal ordinance acts as a barrier between Jesus and the man he has called. But the call of Jesus is stronger than the barrier.

Nothing on earth, however sacred, must be allowed to come between Jesus and the man he has called — not even the law itself.

Now, if never before, the law must be broken for the sake of Jesus. Therefore Jesus emerges at this point as the opponent of the law, and commands a man to follow him. Only Christ can speak in this fashion. He alone has the last word. This call, this grace, is irresistable.

The third would-be disciple, like the first, thinks that following Christ means that he must make the offer on his own initiative, as if it were a career he mapped out for himself, but the third is bold enough to stipulate his own terms.

He lands himself in a hopeless inconsistency, for although he is ready enough to throw in his lot with Jesus, he succeeds in putting up a barrier between himself and the Master. ‘Suffer me first.’ He wants to follow, but feels obliged to insist on his own terms. Discipleship to him is a possibility which can only be realized when certain conditions have been fulfilled.

This is to reduce discipleship to the level of human understanding. The trouble about this third would-be disciple is that at the very moment he expresses his willingness to follow, he ceases to want to follow at all. His desires conflict not only with what Jesus wants, but also with what he wants himself.

If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps.

The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. Jesus makes it clear from the start that his word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus.

The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God. The first step places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe.

This step is not the first stage of a career. Its sole justification is that it brings the disciple into fellowship with Jesus, which will be victorious. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. If men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.

Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ. It is only the call which creates the situation, and the situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith.
Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.

If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will be only pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own.

This first step starts as an external work, which effects the change from one existence to another. It is a step within everyone’s capacity, for it lies within the limits of human freedom. To take this step it is not necessary to surrender one’s freedom.

Come to church! You can do that of your own free will. You can leave your home on a Sunday morning and come to hear the sermon. If you will not, you are of your own free will excluding yourself from the place where faith is a possibility.

Once we are sure of this point, we must add at once that this step is, and can never be more than, a purely external act which can never of itself bring a man to Christ. Nevertheless the external work must be done, for we still have to find our way into the situation where faith is possible.

We can only take this step aright if we fix our eyes not on the work we do, but on the word with which Jesus calls us to do it. In the end, the first step of obedience proves to be an act of faith in the word of Christ.

Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe.

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

Church Fathers and Councils

Thanks to the reports of eye-witnesses, we have a lot of historical documents telling us about the lives of early Church fathers, in addition to having their writings. It helps to know something about those times, as we reflect on what is happening in the Body of Christ at the present moment.

If we think that the Church has problems today, or that bad behavior is the specialty of contemporary Christian leaders, we should delve a bit into the past. On the other hand, if we tend to equate the ancient fathers with an idea of a ‘golden age’ of Christianity, or think that their writings and opinions are to be held uncritically superior to ours, we should think again. C. S. Lewis observed that ‘we are still the early Christians.’ Every Church father, just as every Christian pastor, teacher or writer, still has to be examined in the light of the scriptural Truth, which remains the source and measure of the Christian ‘tradition.’

We’ve heard, with unthinking amusement, of the incident at the Council of Nicæa where Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, slapped or punched the 80 year old presbyter Arius, whose teaching about the non-deity of Christ was the reason for calling the council. Supposedly he was placed under house arrest until some of the bishops had a common dream that made them release him and restore him to the Council. I read in another place that this story is found for the first time in a 14th century Latin manuscript. To me, that smacks of tale-spinning, as do many of the other tales told of the saints in West and East.

Be that as it may, violence, at least in speech, was not rare among some of the Church fathers. An excerpt from the authentic transcript of the Council of Chalcedon follows. The moment is that of the Imperial officers ordering that Theodoret, the bishop of Kars, should enter the assembly:

“And when the most reverend bishop Theodoret entered, the most reverend the bishops of Egypt, Illyria, and Palestine shouted out—‘Mercy upon us! The faith is destroyed! The canons of the Church excommunicate him! Turn him out! Turn out the teacher of Nestorius!’ On the other hand, the most reverend the bishops of the East, of Thrace, of Pontus, and of Asia, shouted out—‘We were compelled [at the former Council] to subscribe our names to blank papers! We were scourged into submission! Turn out the Manichæans! Turn out the enemies of Flavian! Turn out the adversaries of the faith!’ Dioscorus, the most reverend bishop of Alexandria said—‘Why is Cyril to be turned out? It is he whom Theodoret has condemned!’ The most reverend the bishops of the East shouted out—‘Turn out the murderer Dioscorus! Who knows not the deeds of Dioscorus?’ …The most reverend the bishops of Egypt, Illyria, and Palestine, shouted out—‘Long life to the Empress!’ The most reverend the bishops of the East shouted out—‘Turn out the murderers!’ The most reverend the bishops of Egypt shouted out—‘The Empress turned out Nestorius! Long life to the Catholic Empress! The Orthodox synod refuses to admit Theodoret!’

“Theodoret then being at last received by the Imperial officers, and taking his place, the most reverend bishops of the East shouted out—‘Axios! Axios! [He is worthy!]’ The most reverend the bishops of Egypt shouted out—‘Don’t call him a bishop! He is no bishop! Turn out the fighter against God! Turn out the Jew!’ The most reverend the bishops of the East shouted out—‘The Orthodox for the synod! Turn out the rebels! Turn out the murderers!’ The most reverend the bishops of Egypt—‘Turn out the enemy of God! Turn out the defamer of Christ! Long life to the Empress! Long life to the Emperor! Long life to the Catholic Emperor! Theodoret condemned Cyril! If we receive Theodoret, we excommunicate Cyril!’ At this point the Imperial commissioners who were present put a stop to the clamor, as unworthy a meeting of Christian bishops.”

It’s really ironic how these bishops are described repeatedly with the honorific ‘the most reverend,’ in view of their atrocious behavior. After reading this account, it’s easy to see that blood had a low boiling point in that era, even among shepherds of the flock. Admittedly, the Council of Chalcedon was one of the more violent ones, and most historians consider the 1st Council of Nicæa much more civil. Yet even there, what we have from letters written at the time, indicate that tempers flared.

And why not? The understanding of the content of the revelation of Jesus Christ, who He is, was at stake. Moreover, we are so far removed from that time that we can’t be sure, always, that we’re understanding what we read in those old books. Still, it does seem that many of the things that were debated, argued about, and even fought over back then have little bearing on the gospel, on the good news.

It’s good that we look at what the Church fathers said and did, what they taught, how they lived, and how they died. They were people like us, living in a culture not really too unlike our own, facing very similar social and ethical challenges. To their glory they laid down the foundations of our common orthodox faith, to their shame they quibbled and sometimes nit-picked each other to death over trifles, or over speculations on divine things for which there was never any warrant in scripture.

The contemporary Orthodox Church sometimes idolizes them, even seems to put them above scripture, while quietly shuffling their misdeeds under the rug, but the fact is they were humans just like us, their squabbling no different than modern denominational disagreements, and yet, underneath it all, they had a common faith that they could have practiced in peace and love, had they put away the works of the flesh.

Yes, faith in God and in His Christ is one thing, and faith as a body of doctrine quite another, yet we use the same word for both. This has been largely responsible for the decline of Christianity throughout the ages, and especially now, when we are living not in a post-Christian age, but deservedly in a post-church one.

Church is people in Christ. We can institutionalise ‘church’ just as church has institutionalized ‘faith.’ We think we do this to preserve both, yet we do exactly the opposite.

Christianity is not and never was perpetuated by institutions, only by what C. S. Lewis so aptly called ‘good infection.’ In our studies of the Bible and the Church fathers, we should never forget that it is only God and His Christ, Jesus, and what He has won for us, that matters.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A religionless Christianity

Is there enough grace in Christ to enable us to follow Him without religion? People have called me a hypocrite because I say, ‘religion is a sickness, and Christ is the cure,’ and ‘I am not a religious Christian,’ yet they still see me going to church. Those who have lived with me have seen me reading and studying scriptures and the Church fathers, a few have even seen me praying (more have, of course, prayed with me than have seen me praying ‘in secret’). Visitors to my home are met immediately at the front door with the image of Christ crucified—the Cross of San Damiano—as well as a small tapestry ikon of the Holy Triad. When I open to them—if they didn’t know to open the door themselves—they can see in the vestibule to their left, hanging on the wall right inside the door, a bas relief carving representing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew script, then a small ikon of Christ holding an open book that says, ‘Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that ye should go and bring…’ and then a plain olivewood cross with budded ends. There are dried laurel leaves and palm crosses stuffed behind the ikon.

A small dark mahogany Chinese table with a carved top under glass is next, with a ceramic three-legged toad sitting on it, holding a cash coin in its mouth, facing the doorway. I place my keys and my bible there when I first enter, so I can take off my shoes and hang up my coat in the closet across the hall. Down the runner on the same side of the wall is a little bench to sit down on to untie your shoelaces or drop off your things. On the wall are family mementos from Indonesia. When I hung up my guest’s coat in the front closet and closed the door again, he may have noticed a cartoon poster of ‘Comparative Religions in a Nutshell’ hanging on the door, and next to the door on a narrow spit of wall, an ikon of Christ blessing the children. Then, there’s the stairway up to the private rooms of the house. I will invite my guest in and ask him to sit down on a sofa and make himself comfortable, while I go to bring tea and some sweets, usually loukoumi—Turkish Delight—or some Japanese mochi, anything light and natural. While I am momentarily away, my guest, if new, may look around.
I am not a religious Christian, but I have already given something away, something that I never intended to hide, that I am a follower of Jesus. If my seated guest looks to his left or across the room if seated on another sofa or in one of the becak chairs by the windows, he will see a strange little paneled roll-top desk, barely a cubit wide and little taller than a kitchen table against a narrow east wall. On its top stands an incense burner, a green copper candlestick in the shape of a book-reading field mouse whose tail has unexpectedly grown long enough to rise up and support a candle, and some other strange objects, like three tiny pine cones clinging to each other, and a small ceramic pot with a lid. Centered on the wall above this little desk, or whatever it might be, there is a small photographic image of a man who looks like he might be Jesus, set in a simply carved wooden frame. To either side are ikons of two somebodies. (In fact, holy prophets Daniel on the left, and Moses on the right.) Another very tiny ikon with gold and silver shines out below these three, but above a hole in the wall that offers its shelf to a thick book with Greek writing on its cover—that’s my synekdemos, the priest’s prayer book with all the liturgical services. Then there’s an oil lamp hanging in front of these pictures.

Looking into the dining room, above the table a large leather parchment covered in strange writing hangs on a canvas scroll backing, flanked on the same wall by two brass scallop shells that hold candles and reflect their light when they are lit. There’s another hanging oil lamp in front of this. This is not the home of an non-religious person or a non-Christian, for sure. Whoever lives here has to be religious, has to be a Christian. Well, that’s what people think, but looks can be deceiving. Anyone can pretend, anyone can act. That’s what it means to be a hypocrite—an actor. But the man who lives here says he is not religious. What is he then? Enough people call themselves Christians but do not live like one to drive the world to despair or contempt. Why then, go to church, read the bible and study the fathers, why pray, why fast, why keep oneself from wanton acts, why refrain from lying, stealing, committing adultery? Why would anyone do any of these things, if he is not religious? Is he living in denial? Is he living in a fantasy world? Anyone can easily see that religion is the law of this house. What can he possibly mean—the man who lives here—when he tells us he is not a religious Christian?Again I ask, ‘Is there enough grace in Christ to enable us to follow Him without religion?’ And of course, the answer is yes, but it’s not that simple. There is enough grace, but most of us, even followers of Jesus, cannot bear the weight of that grace, light though it is. Religion is what it has always been, both a crutch for the weak and the refuge of sinners. But a crutch can become permanent, when no effort is made to walk without it, and a refuge can become a prison as much as a protection. Religion without Christ is crippling, it is a prison. Religion with Christ is a clinic with the Physician in residence. But this is a strange clinic. Those whom the Physician heals do not depart, but they stay and assist in the cure of the other patients, not because they must, but because they want to. Those who claim they are healed, but leave the clinic, what of them?
I don’t know the answer to this. I still say, ‘religion is a sickness,’ and by this I mean the crippling and the imprisoning of souls. I still confess, ‘and Christ is the cure.’ Who else but Him? Though ‘He came unto his own, and his own received him not’ (John 1:11), those who ‘received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God’ (John 1:12). What else can this mean but a religionless Christianity? ‘To walk in the Light, as he is in the light’ (1 John 1:7): this is what awaits us when we follow Jesus. It is what this looks like when it appears that confuses us. But only until we forget what we believed, and only keep what we received.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

To have a heart

Abba Pambo said, ‘If you have a heart, you can be saved.’

To have a heart is to love your neighbor, to hold him and every creature with love, tenderly, inside of you, in your will, your prayer. It is the willingness to welcome not only Christ into you, but your brothers for whom He died, as well.

Welcome them into what? into where?
That is the heart. It wasn't there before, not until you began to welcome others with love. At that point, the only Lover of mankind entered into you and built a mansion where both He and the brethren could be brought in and welcomed.

If we have a heart, yes, then we are sure to be saved, for ‘with our brother lies our salvation.’

This is what life in the bridal chamber of the Lord, the Holy Orthodox Church, has taught me, and not by words, but by actions.

You too, brother, have a heart, I know you do, and having one is a risk, it can be broken, but not for long. And the breaking is necessary, so that it can grow larger and larger, becoming in the end a tree in paradise in which the birds of heaven, the souls of the redeemed, can build their nests.

‘Welcome them all as you welcome Me,’ says the Lord, ‘for verily, in them you have welcomed Me’ (cf. Matthew 25:40).

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lost and found

Why do we witness?
Is it to save people from hell and from the wrath of an angry God?

No, only Christ can save people, and hell is the fruit of mankind’s choosing—and the wrath of an angry God? Well, let the scriptures teach men of that, if they will only read.

We witness out of love for the lost, yes, we do, but also with trust in the man-loving God to move the hearts of those who are stuck, to actually create clean hearts in those who have no hearts, or whose hearts are filthy.

Love for the lost is akin to love for our own souls which we have already delivered to the foot of the Throne. We only want to share what has been bestowed on us, knowing that
outside of God, all is nothing.

Yes, we witness out of love for the lost, but only because we are driven to it by knowing what ‘lost’ really means.
‘I once was lost, but now I am found.’

To speak of people ‘going to hell’ is not part of our vocabulary, except to speak in terms of common parlance. Who can utter the words with meaning?

When we hear the mention of ‘hell’ we see the image of the Day of Judgment, whose nature and timing are known alone to God. We see the Lord separating the sheep from the goats. We hear the voice speaking, ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it unto Me’ (cf., Matthew 25:40), and we tremble as we realize that the ‘lost’ we say we love are they for whom Christ died.

Our love becomes the greater. It becomes our life, not just an idea we say we believe in. We sing the song of the redeemed by our witness, and our worship is like that of holy apostle Paul, who writes, ‘the God I worship spiritually by preaching the Good News of His Son…’ (Romans 1:9).

How great is the mercy of God our Savior, the God of Israel, who makes His home among us, in our praises! And what are those praises if not our testimony that ‘God is great!’ not by His mighty power only, but by His condescension, His longsuffering love, His mercy?

And what is our testimony if not our witness, our love for those whom God places next to us, our neighbors? And how can we love those for whom Christ died? By telling them they are lost? That they are going to hell? Or by telling them the Good News that even before they knew they were sinners, Christ gave His life for them, even before they could say ‘in sins, my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51)?

This is our witness, our testimony, our life, our love, our faith—that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst’ (1 Timothy 1:15).

Mercy and grace

Before all else let us list sincere thanksgiving first on our prayer-card. On the second line we should put confession, and heartfelt contrition of soul. Then let us present our petition to the King of all.
John Klímakos, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28: 7

Without having read John Klímakos, except in excerpts as presented here (from Aunt Melanie's blog, Repentance and Ascent), my (informal) prayer order matches his exactly. I rarely ‘read’ formal prayers, since my ‘read’ prayer is always the psalms of the day. But without a doubt and almost without exception, my talking to God starts with thanking Him for answering my requests, needs and even wants before, and oft without, my asking. 

Then I reflect on the fact that He is a good and loving God, and incidentally that without His grace I am sinfulness incarnate (but I do not dwell on that, since He knows me through and through, and there’s nothing I can do about my condition, except want His will to be done in me). 

As I wind down and begin to come in for a landing, I will think of those whose need I want to present to Him. He knows I am carrying these persons in the pocket of my heart because He sees the bulge in my chest. 

As I skid onto the run way of my earthly life, I have to thank Him again for granting me a safe landing. I could crash. He knows that I know that. He knows that I know that He knows I know. It, no He, is all mercy, and I am all naked need, and my only response can be thanksgiving. There is no other candle I can bring Him as offering, and no other flame to light it from, except His mercy

Yes, mercy, mercy, mercy. Mercy and grace.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

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 thirty-two 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 twenty-four, and only 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 very 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.

Here and now

Historical perspective gives depth to our picture of the Church and to ourselves as individual Christians, enabling us to see over the horizon of merely today. Yet history can also become a kind of false ‘ark of the covenant’ that subverts our worship ‘in spirit and truth’ by preventing us from seeing Him walking ‘in our midst’ whose death rent the veil of the temple, and blinding us from the reality of living the heavenly life on earth.

Christ is not only born, not only did He pitch His tent among us in history, but He is risen, He is truly risen, and He who was dead is alive, and alive for ever, pitching our tent for us among the Holy Trinity. As the Church believes, God in Christ becomes man, so that man, yes, we who live in love and walk by faith, become God. In Christ, Heaven did not pay earth a courtesy call, but moved in with us, not in the remote past alone, but in every moment. ‘I am with you till the end of time,’ says Jesus.

Yes, He was, He is, He is to come. The real ark of the covenant is revealed to be in Heaven, which is shown to our unveiled eyes to begin here and now, for God is with us. With us, within us, among us, and in us. History is the prophecy of the marriage of Heaven and earth, but we live its fulfillment and partake of the wedding feast of the Lamb here and now.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

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 your feet take you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When Christ walks in hell

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

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

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

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

— Romanós

Sorrow, and gladness

Fruitless, even dead, trees in the landscape,
like the fig tree withered by Christ’s curse.
There are almost no other instances in the gospels,
maybe even no others, where Christ actually curses.
He sorrows. He chides. He calls to sanity and truth.
He feeds. He forgives. He sympathizes. He sorrows.
Yes, He sorrows, almost more than anything.
For our ignorance, our hatred, our greed.
He sorrows for the dead. He sorrows for us.
He even sorrows for Himself.
But He curses only that fig tree to its very barren branches.
Even unbelief, He does not curse, but warns, and laments.
‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 
For if the mighty works done in you 
had been done in Tyre and Sidon, 
they would have repented long ago…’
Such is the work of the pre-crucified Christ.

Now He who was dead and who lives forever cries,
‘Awake, and let the Light shine on you…’

Φωτίζου, φωτίζου, η νέα Ιερουσαλήμ, 
η γαρ δόξα Κυρίου επι σε ανέτειλε. 
Χόρευε νυν και αγάλλου Σιών… 
Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem, 
for the glory of the Lord has arisen on you. 
Dance now and be glad, O Zion…

Asleep, and awake

I used to avoid Thomas Merton because I thought he had evolved out of Christianity and Christ by his explorations and experimentation with Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Consequently, I've read very little of what he wrote. In the final analysis I think what he did was confuse a lot of people, and blur the distinction between following Christ and merely believing in Him.

Now, I don't avoid Merton for any such reasons, but just because our paths are not probably going to cross. I have found Christ sleeping in the boats of the non-Christian religions and cultures, and all I want to do for the crews of those boats is awaken Him for them, and let Him awaken them to the Truth.

Now, I also find myself written off by some people because I am not afraid to go among the non-Christians and learn of them and from them. It startles people that I should know about the gods of India, for example, and that I don't think it is blasphemous to visit their temples or even to sing or hear their songs.

But there is only One Divine Nature, One God, to whom all paths do not lead from our end, but by Whom all things are possible from His end. And there is only One Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God from before the ages who came to us as a little child, and as a young man died for us, and not only for us, but for the whole world.

And not the gates of Hades or its captors could keep Him down, or out, or defeat Him in any measure, for He takes it captive, and releases all who seek Him from its darkness, all without asking our leave. And where I walk, following Him, takes me on many journeys 'where angels fear to tread,' and yet I trust Him. As I often say, there is no loss with Jesus.

No loss, nothing and no one. ‘I have saved everyone You gave to me, except the one who chose to be lost,’ says Jesus.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The ways of the Affectionate

We're nowhere close to the day of Christ's ascension yet, but I cannot pass by these words without leaving at least a trace of them for visitors to my blog. They are from a homily posted by Fr Milovan on his blog Again and Again. To read the entire homily, click here.
In the excerpt below, I have made a few corrections to spelling and grammar. Otherwise, it is presented here as it is (italics added).

…If He is the beauty that is within you, then He must have passed by your world. He set it alive within you and through you. The world has no existence without you, it does not exist apart from you. The world is your quadrant and you are its playground. Your world is printed, in its magnitude, on the face of God. Since this world is His creation, it will remain forever after He has baptized it, in the Last Day, in His global and eternal Light. It shall remain united in its matter, mind and light all together.

The world will become your Lord’s vestment upon the Second Coming of Christ.

Starting from this vision, Christianity is then knit into history and rooted in eternity at the same time, global and covering the universe with light; Christianity is responsible in time but free from its bondage. It is present in matter and motivates this matter with the motion of the spirit. That is why Christianity does not withraw from the flow of time just for the sake of a “romantic” eternity, nor does it passively stand like a viewer watching the course of events as if it were independent of human beings.

The believer doesn’t escape to a desert—not even if it became his hermitage—for he will have the whole world in his heart and prayers. Someone of us may seek solitude for peace and tranquility’s sake, but he has never deserted. His profoundness will become deeper as he stands in the divine presence.

The world is entirely included in Christ’s salvation plan.
Everything in the world is His dearly beloved with the exception of sin. Everything in it is attracted to heaven. Our mind is attracted towards heaven as far as this mind is awake, loving and hugging existence. But never in a way that we shall detest all the good in our world, not in a way that we should become indifferent to the construction, improvement and organizing of the world.

We can never say that this world ascends through its own powers, nor does this world progress automatically towards the better.
But we do preach that God elevates humans, surrounding them with His loving care.

The world is elevated and does not ascend by itself.
It struggles, and God accepts it and pulls it up to Himself. He, who is sitting up on high in His Bright Body, opens up and embraces him who is longing for Him.

After the Ascension of Christ, tomorrow the universe, in its turn, will be received up. These are the ways of the Affectionate.

—Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I was in that room

A lot of things have gone through my head, both before and after I met Jesus son of Joseph. Sitting in the synagogue and hearing the Torah read, commented upon, for years, and then comparing what was said with what they did, those betters of mine, made me sense a cleavage in my mind, a breach impossible to mend, a wound that could not be stitched together and healed.

With the others, those of us who now understand what no rabbi or teacher of the Torah could ever know, I was attracted to this man whose words seemed to have an authority, a power and grasp of reality, that we had never encountered before. Not only that, but as we came to walk with him more often, we noticed it wasn’t just his words. What he did—sometimes incredible things—shook the very foundations we thought our faith was built on.

We were an odd bunch, those we began to call ‘the brothers’ as if we had the same mother. Before we met Jesus, our hearts hungered for something but we didn’t know what. Other tradesmen thought about their work all day, but we, even before we knew him and one another, were always preoccupied with thinking through questions that seemed to have no answers.

Some of us found ourselves thinking so much, we were bound to become insane, so we thought. All of us felt so close to the solution, yet infinitely unable to grasp it. When he appeared, as he was first pointed out by the baptizer John, a few of that righteous man’s followers began to follow him around, and then very soon they were telling us, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about.’

‘A likely story,’ I thought to myself and laughed out loud. I always laugh when I don’t understand, and why not? It’s better than weeping. It seemed to me then, after all my thinking, I had never gotten any closer to the answer to my question. In fact, I hardly even knew what my question was, but my mind never ceased its revolutions, sifting, straining, funneling, and soaking up what I could.

But I started following him, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth, with the others. He told us things we’d never heard before, opened our minds to fill them with what we never knew existed. In my bright moments, I believed him wholeheartedly, and with the others followed this peculiar rabbi, and went along with whatever he told us. His ideas at least made sense. I felt I was finally making progress.

In my dark moments, ah, well, what can I say? His teachings, even his doings, incredible and miraculous as they were, seemed somehow just talking and tricks. Maybe he was just a charlatan after all, a magician and smooth talker, all in one. As dark as I sometimes felt in those moments of doubt, though, even my doubt turned upon itself, and taunted me like the demon who says, ‘I never tell the truth.’

Towards the end, we all felt we were being dragged along behind him on a journey we’d hoped we’d never have to make, one which we couldn’t believe was happening. After all we had experienced with him, our hopes were held captive in the thought that everything would turn out victorious in the end. Instead, after ignoring his many warnings, we found ourselves driven with him at our head towards, not the kingdom of our people restored, but to the enactment of a hideous crime.

Impossible when it happened, and so quickly that we barely understood what was going on, he was arrested after our mystical passover together as we rested afterwards in an olive grove.

I was already descending from bright to dark in my mind and heart, one part of me believing, ‘He won’t let this happen,’ and the other part despairing, ‘It’s all over. It was never real. What a fool I’ve been.’ Neither my belief nor my doubt was right, as it turned out.

What happened that night launched all of us into isolation, fear and self-pity, even though it was Jesus that was captured, beaten, mocked, stripped, and nailed to a stake. We didn’t really give him a thought at all, though we wouldn’t admit it to ourselves. All we thought about was how our hopes and dreams had been dashed to pieces. We didn’t want to even be around each other at first and, except for the young one John, and his mother and a couple of the women, we didn’t want to watch him die either.

After his body was taken down from that scaffold, I didn’t want to live. I felt so ashamed, of myself, of him, of my dashed hopes, of my foolishness in loving him like I did. Yes, loving him, though when he was alive I didn’t let anyone know. I kept up my reputation of doubting and questioning, right up to my last moments with him and the others.

Later, when I heard that Judas had hanged himself, I couldn’t believe that either. Was that really Judas who led the guards to Jesus with a kiss? Or was it someone that just looked like him? It was so dark. In the even greater darkness that was my mind I thought, ‘It might as well have been me that led the guards to him. Did I ever really believe what he said or did?’

Still oppressed in a dark moment that I thought would never end, I hid myself from the brothers for days. Finally—I don’t know what possessed me—I got up the courage to look for them, going back to that room where we had all had our last supper with him. I almost couldn’t say his name. They told me some fool story about him being alive. I was overcome with doubt. I said words I now wish I’d never spoken.

I opposed Cephas and the others to their faces, my doubt flashing like sharp shards of broken glass to cut their hopes to slivers, as mine had been shredded. ‘You say he’s alive? How’s that? Can I see him too and poke my finger through the holes in his hands and feet and jab my hand into that spear cut slash?’ Little did I know that my scathing words, meant to hurt, would in the end heal.

They let me go, saying nothing, nor defending themselves. I hated them for that. I’d wanted them to oppose me, to counter my barbed accusations so I could feel justified in making them. ‘Hah! So they have faith, and I don’t!’ roared inside my head where no one but I could hear. Why did things always have to end this way? Why can’t anything good ever last? What is the point of it all?

Days passed. I hated the brothers because they seemed to have something that I would not permit myself to have. I hated myself more, I hated how I was, I hated my doubt, I hated my hateful words and the dark thoughts that produced them. That’s what drove me back to where they were hiding out. Hiding, yes, but at least, together. I was envious too of their company, where their first fears seemed to have yielded to a gentle, abiding love.

‘Why are they like that?’ I asked myself. ‘How can they still love one another and seem so peaceful and happy, when everything we lived and hoped for is finished, when it was crucified between thieves? Are they pretending? He can’t really be alive. We all saw his body, limp and dead, being moved somewhere by that rich man, what’s his name.’ Such were my thoughts as I approached the door and knocked.

Cephas let me in. He could tell, he said, that it was me by my knock. ‘What’s so special about it?’ I thought but didn’t ask. I barely had time to walk into the room as I heard the door slam behind me and the thud of the bolt falling. Then I heard my name pronounced from somewhere behind my back. I turned around quickly, almost running into Cephas who was right behind me.

We all turned to face the one who spoke my name. It was Jesus.

‘No! This can’t be happening!’ the words died on my lips as I felt every muscle in my body liquefy. I fell to my knees as though the weight of the world were crushing me down to the floor. Jesus looked at me and was softly asking me something, but my eyes and ears were both overwhelmed by what is beyond sight and hearing. I was blind and deaf for a moment.

‘My Lord and my God! My Lord and my God! My Lord and my God!’

I couldn’t stop babbling these words that didn’t even come close to what my spirit groaned inwardly. He came close to me, laying one arm across my shoulders and lifting me gently with the other. At His touch I felt weightless. I rose effortlessly and my mind was suddenly clear. I could see with my eyes, hear with my ears as He said to me, ‘You believe because you can see Me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’

Now, no matter what thoughts assail me inside or out, no matter what wars of words between men sunder the world’s peace for vainglory, I am no longer safe in what I know or merely believe or doubt, for beyond all this is the peace that only He can give, because I was in that room.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Making religion fun

There is a notion that religion has to be relevant to the times. That is, religion must be transmitted in such a way as to reach people and bring them into the faith. Often, this means making religion fun, especially for young people. Did Christ ever have fun? There is no mention of fun in the Gospels. There was some emphasis on food: the preparation and serving of food and eating together. We might imagine that during these meals there was sometimes levity in the conversation and some laughter. But, we have no indication that Christ (in His ministry) had fun as we know it today or that he attempted to make religion fun.

 Let us look at Martha and Mary as possible examples (Luke 10: 38). Martha was “anxious” and “worried.” By today’s standards, we might say that she was stressed out. What was Christ’s response to her? Did he tell her to take a vacation, go out with the girls for the afternoon, take a swim in the pool, or whatever the equivalent forms of relaxation might have been in those days? No, Christ told her to focus on discipleship, like Mary.

 “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” 
 Luke 10: 42 

And, what was Mary’s discipleship? Was it one of relevance to the times? No, it meant sitting at the feet of Christ and listening to His teachings. Mary was not having fun, but she was gaining an interior disposition of peace and joy which surpasses any form of fun. Of course, between Martha and Mary, there is also the contrast of the traditional housework role of Martha and the elevated discipleship role of Mary which was made possible by liberation through Christ. It is not wrong to be a diligent homemaker, but discipleship or taking advantage of an opportunity to focus on that discipleship is better because it leads to Eternity.

 If you want to have fun, go to an amusement park. If you want to relax, go fishing. If you want to be entertained, watch a good movie. If you are stressed out, re-assess your priorities. If you want to be a disciple of Christ, however, do not confuse fun with sitting at His feet.
— Aunt Melanie, Repentance and Ascent blog

Not only on paper

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.
Ephesians 3:17

A person does not have Christ 
who has Him only on his tongue.
Neither does a person have Christ 
who has Him only on paper.
Neither does a person have Christ 

who has Him only on the wall.
Neither does a person have Christ 
who has Him only in a museum of the past.
A person truly has Christ who has Him in his heart.
For Christ is Love and the throne of Love is the heart.
If Christ is in your heart, then, for you, He is God.

If He is only on your tongue, or on paper, or on a wall, or in a museum of the past—and even if you call him God—for you, He is but a toy. 

Beware then, O man, for no one can play around with God without punishment.

The heart is a seemingly narrow organ, but God can dwell in it. When God dwells in it, then it is filled, and filled to overflowing, and nothing else can stand in it. If, however, the whole world were to settle in it, it would remain empty without God.

Brethren, let Christ, the Resurrected and Living Lord, pour faith into your hearts, and your hearts will be filled, and filled to overflowing. He cannot enter and dwell in your hearts except through your faith. If you do not possess faith, Christ will remain only on your tongue, or on paper, or on the wall, or in a museum of the past. What benefit is there for you in that? 

What benefit is there for you in holding life on your tongue and death in your heart? For if you hold the world in your heart and Christ on your tongue, you hold death in your heart and life on your tongue. Water on the tongue of the thirsty does not help. Let the living Christ into your heart, and your will be permeated with the truth and you will sense unspeakable sweetness.

O Resurrected Lord, cleanse our heart from the deadly guests who dwell in it and do Thou Thyself take up dwelling in it, that we may live and glorify Thee. To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

Nikolaj Velimirović, Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča

Friday, April 20, 2012

Dying and reviving gods

The theme of death and resurrection is a common one in the religions of mankind, starting from the earliest ages. The Egyptian Osiris, the Akkadian Tammuz, the Greek Adonis, and yes, according to Wikipedia, the Christian Jesus. All of these are listed, and many more, under headings of mythology, yes, even under Christian mythology. You can’t blame Wikipedia; they have to stay objective.

What all of these deities, except Jesus, have in common is that they are all in some special way related to the annual cycles of vegetation. Even the Canaanite god Baal is a dying and reviving god. Fraser’s The Golden Bough has taken us on an imaginative, guided tour of many of these deities, and C. S. Lewis has easily debunked the lumping of Jesus into this group of vegetation myths in his writings, and I have nothing to add to either of these.

What I have been thinking of is the effect of these dying and reviving gods on their worshippers. We have little to go on except the historical record of some of their rites, but not much on what, if any, was the moral effect they had. This is where, I think, there is a big difference between Jesus Christ, the only historical figure known to have been executed and resurrected, and all these other gods.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ, even if the world does not accept its reality, has an effect on His followers that is consistent and can be documented from the earliest times until now. In fact, one does not have to be a scholar to research this effect: it is open to anyone who dares to follow Jesus, not just study Him.

Everyone who has followed Jesus has had this experience: There is always something in them which they cannot at any cost keep and still follow Jesus. For some it is a specific experience they desire, something they want to be, or have or do, which they cannot be, have or do and still, in good conscience, claim to follow the Master. Why is this?

Because Jesus is the Word of God, the only Teacher of mankind, and there is a book, the Holy Bible, the only divinely revealed scriptures ever given to humanity, which claims to be the written image of Who He is. Jesus said to His disciples, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.” Christians have something from Jesus that the devotees of the dying and reviving gods did not have, divinely revealed scriptures, the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Greek New. These two scriptures mean endless trouble for those who want to keep living in the ordinary human way and still try to please God. In fact, they say it’s impossible.

And so, that’s the predicament we find ourselves in, with Jesus.
This is why the only true dying and reviving deity is paradoxically called the Living One, the one who was dead but is alive, while His remedy for His disciples’ dis-ease is, in fact, Death.

Though He was Himself God, He humbled Himself, hiding His glory (as do many of the pagan gods in the myths when they come down to man), assumed the condition of a slave (this none of the pagan gods was able to do), and became as all men are, experiencing with us and for us all that it means to be a human being, including physical death. Somehow, His work for us has achieved what man could not do on his own: He reopened for us the gates of Paradise, and gave us access to the Tree of Life which, it turns out, was the very Tree on which He was suspended between heaven and earth.

But back to us, we cannot have things the way we want and still follow Him on the path He led the repentant thief, the path to Paradise.

Religion would make rules for us, forbidding this and that, and give us methods of self-denial that, if followed religiously, would somehow make us worthy of the Garden, but the makers of religion hide from us and from themselves the certain truth of Christ’s own words, that if we want to live, we must die. Back we are to acknowledging that there are some things we cannot take with us when we follow Jesus into Life, and among those things there will always be at least one that we know we cannot live without. Hence, we must die.

Dying and reviving gods, before Jesus, there were none in reality: all were but myths, mankind’s dreaming of heaven.

Dying and reviving gods, after Jesus, literally following Jesus, there have been, are and will be many: these are they who, laying down their lives for love of Him, follow the Lamb wherever He goes and, like Him, dying they live forever.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Only one Passover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There really is, after all, only one Passover.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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.