Monday, April 29, 2013

Ikon not made by hands

Yes, there seems to be, and it seems that there has always been, a kind of subtle war between the male and female sexes. We have the saying, ‘It's a man's world,’ and in a strange sort of way it's true. In most places, through most of human history, the male sex dominates society, at least outwardly. In recent times, the women's movement throughout the world has won for the female sex ‘rights’ that previously only men possessed. Actually, going beyond the equalization of ‘rights’ this movement has in many places declared war on the male sex in a barely hidden push to gain ascendancy, and even to collect ‘reparations’ from the offending sex. This post will not be a diatribe against feminism, but simply reviews the state of affairs between the sexes as we find them. What God creates is a humanity that is His image and likeness in two complementary forms. What sin results in is a humanity that is fragmented and distorted and at war with itself.

The Son of God comes into the world—yes, as a male human, a man, according to the Divine economy—to integrate the two natures, human and Divine, in a single person, and in so doing, He also integrates the two sexes, female and male, in a single humanity. He proves true in eternity what was true in time. ‘God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:27). He also provides the antidote to the sin of gender supremacy by His death on the Cross, His burial in the Tomb, His descent into Hades and His triumph over it, and by His bodily Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of Divine Majesty. He does so by becoming the Divine Bridegroom, the Second Adam, and by revealing hidden in His side the Divine Bride, the Second Eve. Yes, His virgin Mother is the Second Eve, but not the only one. She is the Mother of all who follow, all who like her become ‘God-bearers.’

The Marriage of earth and heaven makes the earth heavenly and heaven earthly. The divine Bridegroom makes the human Bride divine, just as the unwedded Bride, the human mother of Jesus Christ, makes the divine Bridegroom human. Heaven comes down to earth, so that earth can ascend to heaven. And we, following Jesus, follow her, His mother, and like her also make the divine human. Brotherly love now becomes theological, because to love our brother and sister whom we can see proves that we love God whom we cannot see. In truth, our love for our neighbor, even for all of creation, makes the invisible God visible.

But how does Christ by His divine economy, His plan of salvation, provide the antidote to the sin of gender supremacy, how does He bring reconciliation and peace between the male and the female? Does He make them equal, as modern social theory attempts to do? Does He remove precedence, privilege, and patriarchy? We still see a male God in heaven, the Father, and a male Son, Jesus Christ. Some see a female God in the Holy Spirit, but all this is just trying to fit the unknowable within the limits of human understanding. We are still thinking in pictures that we have made, but it is the Ikon not made by hands that reveals the Truth.

The Bridegroom and the Bride. This is where we find ourselves when we seek to know the truth of all things. And in the Bridegroom's wounds we are revealed to be His Bride. All of us, male and female, in a single new humanity, one with each other as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are One in the Holy Triad, who was, who is, and who is to come.

Revealed to be Paradise

Orthodox Christianity is the last preserve of the ancient Christian faith in the world today, a snapshot of the Church from late Roman times, modified locally over the centuries but maintaining with a flexible conservatism the ethos, or environment, of early Christianity. Unlike sects that have tried to revive the apostolic faith on the basis of their reading of scripture, which has produced dozens (maybe hundreds) of variations over the past five centuries, Orthodoxy is remarkably uniform, even when liturgically seeming quite diverse. What unites the joyous yet solemn worship of the Ethiopians and the solemn yet joyous worship of the Russians is the quality of merciful love, a childlike trust, not only in God but in each other, and a subtle retreat from divisiveness. These people want to stay together so badly that they—I should say we—will put up with almost anything to fulfill the high-priestly prayer of Christ to the Father ‘that they all will be one, even as you and I are one.’ Though one encounters pockets, even strongholds, of intensely fundamentalist mentality, as well as spiritual scuffles and even battles from time to time and in various places, the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity flows smoothly, quietly, reflectively, and, best of all, dependably, from age to age.

These characteristics have been called both the strength and the weakness of Orthodoxy. In reality, what the Holy Church is cannot be weighed in the scales of human judgment any more than what Christ is. She is the Bride, and He the Bridegroom.

For the first three evenings of Holy Week, we celebrate Christ the Bridegroom, as we have done for centuries, in the wedding pavilion of the Lamb which Holy Church has erected and into which she invites us. There we behold the holy prophet Joseph the all-comely who, by his blameless life and senseless betrayal and sale into slavery by his own brothers, foreshadows Jesus the Messiah. And the wise and foolish virgins too are there, and we are shown the choices we make to be momentous. They matter, and we matter, but the Son of God cannot do for us what only we can do for ourselves, that is, make sure we have plenty of oil for our lamps, so that they will continue to shine brightly to the end. Our faith is not magic, nor is it like a machine that can be set to run on automatic. Like the material universe in which we find ourselves, everything erodes and must be maintained, on purpose, or else not. This is our part in the synergic relationship each one of us shares with the Creator. Not just the first Adam, but even the Second, even us, He places in the Garden, to tend it. Though the Garden may have been overrun with weeds, if we are diligent, and if we follow the Gardener and do what we see Him doing, it is revealed to be Paradise.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Into that darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 26, 2013

Into the terrifying Light

It’s fortunate that the mere animals that we call humans evolved on this planet, and to the point that they can finally replace God, whom they never needed in the first place. Fortunate, indeed, for scientist Stephen Hawking, whose brilliant computer-like mind has been kept alive along with his dysfunctional body for 49 years beyond the age at which medical science (at the time) said he should cease living. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the benefit of that mind to unravel for us the mysteries of the universe, of space and time, and yes, even of God, who probably doesn’t exist, since there’s nothing the universe needs from Him. Not only human life, but the universe itself, and probably all possible universes, have come into being through random quantum fluctuations.

‘I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,’ says the great scientist through his speech synthesizer (he cannot speak without it). When asked how we should live he says, ‘We should seek the greatest value of our action.’

Yes, the greatest value of our action. But where have I heard this before? The brain as computer, heaven and afterlife a mere fairy story, fear of the dark, I’ve heard all of these ideas before. Yes, Dr Hawking, I am a Christian and along with you I also do not fear death, and I don’t believe in fairy stories, and yes, I also agree that the brain is (in relative terms) a kind of computer. But what can you possibly mean by ‘the greatest value’?

Everything has value relative to something else, just as you can’t say a body is in motion except relative to a fixed point. The ancient Greeks even knew this, and they had to have something solid and immovable about which the universe revolved and from which all motion could be sensed and measured. They made that the earth, for physical realities, and the human mind, for metaphysical. They weren’t correct who made the earth that fixed point in the world of nature, nor were they correct who made the fixed point the sun, except for the local universe, as we now know, there is no fixed point. All motion is relative.

So after many centuries of trial and error on the part of the human spirit, as noble and as high as we have evolved our thought and our behaviors, the fixed point of what is beyond nature, which we used to think (and some still do) was the human mind, that idea can now only be supported by mental acrobatics and sleight of hand worse than Ptolemy’s epicycles, that tried to support the path of the wanderers, the planets. They should travel in the perfect path, in circles, but they seem to retrogress in a way that only epicycles could explain—if the earth were indeed the fixed point to the physical universe.

Finding out later that the sun was the actual center and that the movement of the earth around it caused the illusion of retrogression in the planets still didn’t solve a host of other problems in our observation of the world. Like it or not, our science had to keep moving forward, leaving behind all the false securities of human thought that make the universe livable. That universe terrifies us now more than ever, but that hasn’t stopped us from gazing at it in wonder. The same is true of the metaphysical science, which had to give up the idea that the human mind was the center and fixed point of all supernatural motion. In plain language, philosophy has its limitations.

Just as the introduction of a force outside of the physical universe, a missing sefirah, is necessary to explain that world, so the invasion of a Being outside the metaphysical universe, was necessary to explain, and I should add, order that world. This is, from a Christian view, and even from the view of many other religions, exactly what has happened. But this fact cannot be allowed by Dr Hawking and many others who are just as stuck in their ‘scientific’ beliefs as primitive religionists are stuck in theirs. In fact, all through history, it seems to me, the two groups produce each other, regardless of the level of intellectual or scientific sophistication. What passes for science and what passes for religion seem to be always at odds, and it seems they always will be.

But when we emerge from the safety of our tombs,
into the terrifying Light,
what, Dr Hawking, will there be left to say about
‘heaven’ and ‘afterlife’?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Are you being served?

When I had a television set, I used to watch a very silly British sitcom by this title. It took place in a department store staffed by inept, argumentative, pompous, vainglorious boobs. Other than sharing its name with the topic of this post, it has almost nothing in common with it. I said ‘almost’ and, unfortunately, I mean it.

Last Sunday I was startled by something in the preacher's homily, something I'd heard and read hundreds of times in my life, but not like it was put that day by Fr Alban. We Christians think of ourselves as servants of God, and how we should serve Him. He is sovereign Lord, and we His creatures and subjects are here to serve Him.

Fr Alban paraphrased the answer of the Baltimore Catechism as to why we were created: to love, glorify and serve our Creator. Listening to his words, I thought of another answer from Judaic tradition, that we were created because ‘Face desired to look upon face.’ I'd always liked this idea from the moment I first read it.

Contrasting the Baltimore Catechism which, he said, had influence on Christian thinking far beyond the borders of Roman Catholicism, even to Orthodoxy, he offered a different answer to the question of why we were created, drawn not from any tradition, but from the Word of God Himself: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.’

This is the saying of Jesus I was thinking of when I wrote, I'd heard and read it hundreds of times in my life. We all know it, and we even know some of its invasions into the common culture. We know, for example, that the pope is called 'Servant of the servants of God,' and if we know our bible, we understand it comes from this saying.

We all know the servant mentality that a Christian is supposed to have. Some of us even have that mentality, though not always in combination with cheerfulness. Duty dies hard in hearts that make it their god, but love knows no limits, lives without liability, because He is God who says He ‘came not to be served, but to serve.’

Here is what startled me. To hear that God created us not because He wanted servants, but rather, so that He would have someone to serve! This, I notice, is at least akin to the Judaic wisdom, that ‘Face desired to look upon face,’ that the Divine loneliness—even though the One as undivided Triad is not alone—wanted ‘someone to love.’

But wait a minute! What about those sayings of Jesus about being servants that we find in His parables? And the apostles too. They were nothing if they weren't servants, right? Servants of God, and—yes, even more—servants of the people. Isn't it a saying time out of mind that we are ‘to love the people and serve them’ if we are truly Christ's disciples?

Well, yes, of course. Just because God created us so that He could come among us and serve us doesn't at all mean that we are not to serve Him and each other. On the contrary, service is the pattern of all things. Taken a little deeper, sacrifice is the pattern of all things. One dies that others may live. Nature itself is renewed this very way.

So it shouldn't surprise us, I shouldn't have been startled, to hear the preacher say, ‘God created us so that He might serve us.’ It's just that we are not used to seeing things this way, maybe we've never even thought of it like this before. I know I hadn't. But like every other revelation, once apprehended, it's obvious. How could I have missed it?

It can certainly put many things in a different light. Once we understand this, that we were created for God to serve us, yes, to serve even me, we have to believe something else about ourselves. Though we know how bad we can be sometimes, that we are sinners, or at least believe ourselves to be, and that ‘God hates sin,’ we see again the pattern.

The pattern behind all things. That pattern of love, even of sacrifice, before anything else was created. It reminds us of ‘the Blood of a Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.’ It tells us unspeakably why the Son of God would have purposed to become Man and live among us, why He also came to die for us, so that we too could enter.

Enter what? Enter into joy? Well, yes, but not before we enter the presence of His heavenly Father as He does on our behalf, offering not the blood of lambs and goats but His own Blood, so that seeing Him by faith, we too can enter the Holy Place, we too can come before the Mercy Seat pleading His Blood, and ours, as we die for each other…

…following Him. Yes, following Him as He creates us, living for Him so that He can serve us and we can serve each other. When I go to church and look around, now, I see the Bride of Christ for whose sake the Bridegroom slept in the tomb. I see the creatures that God the unearthly but holy Triad created out of nothing, so He might serve us.

So that we too might ask Him in our brothers and sisters,
‘Are you being served?’

What everything hinges on

Eloquent speakers and articulate writers produce compelling expressions of truth, some to entertain others for the sake of praise, others because they have given themselves over to Christ without reserve. He can use both kinds of people and He does.

Sergey Fudel says in his book Light in the Darkness that it is not being unfaithful or disloyal to Orthodoxy to acknowledge and accept that an ancient Russian ikon of the Theotokos with Christ is not one painted by Luke the Evangelist, even though the Church believes it is.

But he does admit that when one goes in search of such anomalies or factual untruths, especially on things that don’t really matter, that this is acting and being against the Church.

Why is this?
Aren’t we bound by the word of Jesus to root out any untruth wherever we find it?


Well, yes, if it stares us in the face, yes, if it destroys souls, yes, if it reduces the house of God into a marketplace, yes, if it shuts up the kingdom of God in men’s faces. But no, if it assumes the priority in our lives, to be followed at all costs. Nothing and no one is to be followed at all costs, nothing and no one except Jesus.

This is where speculation rears it ugly head, ‘What would Jesus have done?’ turning into the monster ‘What Jesus commands us to do.’ This is the forbidden and unlawful fire that burned Nadab and Abihu the sons of Aaron, that kindled the furnace of the Inquisition, that lit the torch of sectarian hate during the Wars of Religion.

It is impossible that some things that the Church believes can have in fact happened the way they are handed down to us, yet believing them does not kill us, in this life or the other. What does kill us, here and in the world to come, is hatred of our brother disguised as the pursuit of truth.

The angle of the Throne which is the preserve of Orthodoxy is to live and let live in Christ, seeking not oneself but the other, as the hymn describes of Jesus, ‘By words, and signs, and actions, thus… Still seeking not Himself, but us’ (Hymn, O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High).

We know when people worship the Church wrongly, because they act like the prostitute who overlaid her newborn child and would rather cut in half the living newborn of her sister harlot than let her keep what was hers, since she could not have all for herself. The wise Solomon, in agreement with the Spirit, revealed whose was the child, and in a similar manner, we know whose is Jesus Christ. ‘Is Christ divided?’ challenges the apostle Paul (1 Corinthian 1:13).

We also know when people worship the Bible wrongly, because they use it as a weapon of real war, not a weapon of peace, for which it was revealed. No, not human peace, not the false peace and false agreement of the wicked, but the ‘peace on earth and good will towards men’ that the angels of Christ’s man-coming prophesy.

We will never come to terms with the living God, if we do not come to terms with living men. Everything hinges on the Incarnation. Every thought, word, idea, and hope can find validation and fulfillment only in the man-coming of God in Christ. He became, no, He becomes, one of us.

‘What, then, are you going to do with this Jew?’ asked the priest martyr of the Nazi officer, pointing to the cross he was wearing.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Passion bearers

The victory of Christ was won as He hung, and died, on the Cross.
The work of Christ is His descent into Hades
and His Preaching to those in prison.
The wages of His work is
His Resurrection.

A passion bearer does not summon himself or herself.
He or she cannot see this path and choose it.
The call can only come from Christ.
The path is wholly unknown.

People look on.
They think about what they see and hear.
A passion bearer, if they meet one, draws out the thoughts
of their heart.

One who loves Christ will look on with wonder.
One who hates Christ looks on in scorn.

Some of those who love Christ are confirmed in their religion,
others are drawn to look at their life in a new way.

The haters and the indifferent, the world supplies with analysis,
‘masochism, fanaticism, madness’ on their tongue.

A passion bearer is happy where others can see only sorrow,
and persists in pursuing love at all costs,
as a rich man giving alms.

Easy and dutiful and expected, we move on quickly from His Passion,
we skip through Hades, eyes covered with blinders
to shield us from bright darkness,
and then we reappear,
Resurrected.

Joy
has come
to the whole world.
From whence is it come then?
We look on in wonder, full of Paschal joy,
the passion bearers laud, with them shout ‘Victory!’
while they continue, quietly, to harvest souls from the darkness.

Yes, the laborers will receive their wages.
Grapes do not yield wine, till they are crushed.

— Romanós

Monday, April 22, 2013

Prophecy

Everything that happens is prophecy. And prophecy is nothing other than that which really is. And a prophet is no more than one who can see things as they really are and transmit that vision to others.

Everything that happens is prophecy. When Christ entered Jerusalem riding that humble animal, yes, prophecy was fulfilled, that which was foreseen and forespoken of old, and prophecy was also made.

However the world looks to our blinded eyes that cannot see things as they really are, no matter, prophecy happens just the same. There is no past or future in it. God is the maker, yes, even of time.

The King of kings of kings, the Holy One, the Anointed, enters the world always and for ever humbly, riding the foal of an ass. We clamor and applaud, then we crucify the Resurrection and the Life.

Everything that happens is prophecy. It is written clearly wherever we look, but we do not see, the pattern of our fall and our rise written in our own soul and flesh just as it is in the world we inhabit.

To recognize and to read the prophecy that is the world, if even for a moment, is better than living in luxury, in blindness of that which really is. To know that which is really made is to know the Maker.

For He is in the world, and the world is in Him. His Bride is hidden as yet in His side, but the five wounds that pierce His human flesh are the doors of the bridal chamber, from which we emerge, and soon.

The will of God


                    And Yahweh repays me as I act justly,
                    as my purity is in His sight.

                    Faithful You are with the faithful,
                    blameless with the blameless,
                    pure with the one who is pure,
                    but crafty with the devious,
                    You save a people that is humble
                    and humiliate eyes that are haughty.



If a man really sets his heart upon the will of God, God will enlighten a little child to tell that man what is His will. But if a man does not truly desire the will of God, even if he goes in search of a prophet, God will put into the heart of the prophet a reply like the deception in his own heart.

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

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, April 19, 2013

Goodness

Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water… Now draw some out…’
Who or what does Jesus Christ represent for us? I mean, I know who He is, we all know who He is, or at least we all have an idea of who He is. Some of us think He is all God, others that He is all man, but sometimes it's hard for us to see and realize what the word Theánthropos, God-man, means, not doctrinally, but theologically, that is, what it means for us. Until we grasp that, I think we either remain religionists or humanists.

Christ came to create a new man in us that is divine. When we try to imagine what Christianity is, we all too often fall into thinking it is either just a religion or just a self-improvement regimen. Both attitudes fall short of—no, actually, they never even come close to—what Christianity is, and who Christ is. We hear the saying, 'God became man, so that man could become God,' but its significance eludes us.

The primal instinct of man, what was planted in us when God created us, is the desire for goodness. Why is this? As the bible tells us in the opening chapters of Genesis, as God created everything, He pronounced it good, each and every day. As creatures of God, we too are created good, and hence our deepest desire is for goodness. That's where we fit, that's our natural environment. Yes, we were made for paradise.

Yet, that is not where we find ourselves. Instead, as soon as we become aware, we find ourselves 'outside the gates' of that goodness that we desire and to which we aspire. It doesn't matter what our nation or our religion is, or even whether we are born into a traditional society or not. Unless we give up almost immediately—and that sometimes happens—most of us try our best to find the good and enter into it.

For the Christian, the revelation is that somehow God has entered into the human arena as one of us, and apart from everything else He may have done, He has become the source of an otherwise unattainable goodness, one that we can, and must, resort to if we hope to ever become good. The very idea that someone or something outside ourselves could be the only source of goodness for us is repugnant at first hearing.

We want to believe that 'we can do it' all on our own, even though all the evidence we can ever find proves the contrary. All our climbing up to goodness is a temporary ascent. The slope is steep and slippery to goodness or, looked at from the opposite direction, the slope of descent into sin and death (for here we must resort to 'traditional' wording) is steep and slippery, broad when sliding down,
narrow when ascending.

But we find we cannot ascend on our own, no matter how hard we try. Again, for the Christian (if he knows his bible), we have Jesus. He is not just the historical figure the world knows about but cannot see. He is the One standing in our midst wherever we find ourselves, or alongside us when we are alone, and we can and do see Him, always, if our eyes are wide open. What eyes? Yes, you're right.
Not those two.

The eye of the heart, which is single, through which we become full of light: those are the eyes by which we see Him. We know this because Jesus says so. But there are others for whom Jesus is not the Christ, that is, not the Messiah. There are Jews who do not accept Him, even though He is a Jew like them. Are they any different? No, they're just like us. They want goodness. They find they cannot buy it even by their devotion.

So we find ourselves all in the same predicament, no matter who we are, what we believe or don't believe about God and the universe. We all want goodness, but can't achieve it, but still try, those of us who haven't given up in despair. To return to my original question, now put a different way, who or what will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves? When we begin to understand the nature of the struggle, what will we do?

Not everyone who says to Jesus, 'Lord, Lord,' even knows what they are saying or who He is. Yet there He stands, there He walks, accessible as ever, to all who call upon Him by name or only in untaught trust, knowing somehow that the desire for goodness in us is no accident, no illusion, is not a psychological by-product of evolution, or an inherited herd mentality. And who or what Jesus Christ represents for us, He is that for all.

Lord, all that I long for is known to You,
my sighing is no secret from You…
(Psalm 38)

Unknown to them for who He is, the world has invited Him to their wedding banquet, and the wine they have been drinking, 'fruit of the vine and the work of human hands,' has run out, yet the feast must go on. He is the only one who changes water into wine, no work of human hands, which He does when we ask, though where the wine comes from, few know. But we know, because we follow His instructions, 'fill the jars with water, and then draw some out…'

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Not my will, but Yours

Whether you have a degree or not (I don't), whether you're ordained or not (I'm not),
as a follower of Jesus there isn't a moment when you're not available for ministry,
not a location where you're exempt from doing His will. It's all just a matter of choice.

Not only in a Christian context does the seed of the Word get planted in the souls around us by every action, every word, even every thought that issues from our being.

The call of Jesus is so fundamental, so basic, so universal, and so available (in the Word of God) that most people miss it.

The incense smoke screen between the sacred and profane is pierced by a mere puff of breath, of the Holy Breath,
το πνευμα το αγιον, to pnévma to ághion,
who lives in us.

It's good to say, ‘His will, not mine.’
In a slightly different form, that's another one of the prayers of the hesychast
—‘Not my will, but Yours, not my thoughts, but Yours, not my love, but Yours, not my life, but Yours.’

Over and over, we whisper it under our breath, we wake up hearing it flowing as the blood pulsing through our temples, we feel it reverberating with our very heartbeat. It is the background silence, ησυχία, hesychía, to our waking stream of thought.

Everything is consecrated now, all water is holy water, all paths walked in obedience to the call of Jesus become paths to paradise, though they pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

Yes, in obedience to the call of Jesus.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

His banner over us


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

דִּבְרֵי עֲוֹנֹת גָּבְרוּ מֶנִּי

Divréy avonót, gávru méni… ‘Matters of iniquities have overwhelmed me…’ I picked up my copy of Tehillim, the Hebrew book of Psalms, and just started reading, offering, at random this morning, not paying attention to the daily cycle. Looking at the literal translation, I was moved by the words’ simple straightforwardness, ‘matters of iniquities have overwhelmed me.’ Yes, the events of these past days feel overwhelming somehow. Whether the suffering world realises it or not, Christ Jesus is being crucified daily, in the flesh at the hands of the world, and spiritually in the mouths and minds of His followers. For though we abhor iniquities, especially the mindless, terrifying acts that carry away lives and destroy our peace, we often do not work healing and restoration, but carry the burden of false righteousness and judgment, calling it ‘justice,’ and ourselves remain unhealed and unrestored, because we refuse to follow Jesus.

There is no mercy for the merciless, not in this life, or in the world to come. That prospect itself should terrify us into obedience, yet it does not. We remain as we were, following Christ because we know He is going to feed us with the miraculous Bread that is Himself, and forgetting Him in the next moment, as we join in the hue and cry of those who shout ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ How is it that we do not recognise the Lord in His helpless disguise?

Brethren, let us work for the healing and the salvation of the whole world, and when we encounter the works of the evil one, let us shun them in ourselves as well as in others, and keep lifting ourselves and each other up before the Mercy Seat of the only Lover of mankind. As Jesus says, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ and ‘Come, and follow Me.’

Monday, April 15, 2013

Children

Weep, my people, weep, for your land,
Once a city set on a hill
that could not be hid,
Is now a byword for the nations,
who toss their heads and say,
“If Yahweh is their God,
Let Him help them!”


Land of riches, now despoiled,
Land of sons and daughters,
now defiled,
Land of promise, now defamed,
Land of free men, now reviled,
“If Yahweh is their God,
Let Him help them!”


To the bitter end of your revelry,
To the bitter end, take your pleasures,
No matter your children charred,
Passed through the fire of Molech,
Cry out to you,
“If Yahweh is your God…”


Now is the time of redemption
From the sickening tree.
Now the acceptable day
Of the Lord’s visitation.
He comes in the clouds
Despite the doubt of His people,
“If Yahweh is His God,
Let Him help Him.”


Living ikons of the Son of Man,
Weeping saltwater instead of myrrh,
Tears gushing more plentifully
Than miraculous, healing springs,
Crying out with one inaudible voice,
To lure pilgrimages to their tombs,
Waiting for the venerating kiss,
That dry bones may take on life,
“If Yahweh is your God,
Help us!”

— Romanós

Lord, hear my cry!

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

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

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

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

O heavenly God hidden in weakness and rejection!

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, hear my cry!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Even so, I stayed in Your presence…


It is impossible to read the Psalms and not come away with more than you have given. The Lord speaks to us through them to the very details of our lives, answering all our concerns, all our prayers even before we ask Him. He is a good and loving God.

Psalm 71, one of the Psalms appointed for the fourteenth day of the month, always stops me in my tracks, especially when I read the words,
“To many I have seemed an enigma…” How true, Lord, how true! This was true when I used to pray this Psalm thirty-five years ago, and it’s still true today, but so is the second half of that verse, “but You are my firm refuge.”

God is faithful. He maintains us in our first call, and in our first love. All we have to do is stay close to Him. Here I share with you, brethren, a psalm of a man in his age, and a psalm of the same man in his youth, the sinner but servant of God, Romanós.

Psalms for the 14th Day
71 72 73 74

Psalm 71
An old man's prayer

In You, Yahweh, I take shelter;
never let me be disgraced.
In Your righteousness rescue me, deliver me,
turn Your ear to me and save me!

Be a sheltering rock for me,
a walled fortress to save me!
For You are my rock, my fortress.
My God, rescue me from the hands of the wicked,
from the clutches of rogue and tyrant!

For You alone are my hope, Lord,
Yahweh, I have trusted You since my youth,
I have relied on You since I was born,
You have been my portion from my mother's womb,
and the constant theme of my praise.

To many I have seemed an enigma,
but You are my firm refuge.
My mouth is full of Your praises,
filled with Your splendour all day long.

Do not reject me, now I am old,
nor desert me, now my strength is failing,
for my enemies are uttering threats,
spies hatching their conspiracy:

‘Hound him down now that God has deserted him,
seize him, there is no one to rescue him!’
God, do not stand aside,
my God, come quickly and help me!

Shame and ruin on those
who attack me;
may insult and disgrace cover those
whose aim is to hurt me!

I promise that, ever hopeful,
I will praise You more and more,
my lips shall proclaim Your righteousness
and power to save, all day long.

I will come in the power of Yahweh
to commemorate Your righteousness, Yours alone.
God, You taught me when I was young,
and I am still proclaiming Your marvels.

Now that I am old and grey,
God, do not desert me;
let me live to tell the rising generation
about Your strength and power,
about Your heavenly righteousness, God.

You have done great things;
who, God, is comparable to You?
You have sent me misery and hardship,
but You will give me life again,
You will pull me up again from the depths of the earth,
prolong my old age, and once more comfort me.

I promise I will thank You on the lyre,
my ever-faithful God,
I will play the harp in Your honour,
Holy One of Israel.

My lips shall sing for joy as I play to You,
and this soul of mine which You have redeemed.
All day long, my tongue
shall be talking of Your righteousness.
Shame and disgrace on those
whose aim is to hurt me!

[Amín!]

Psalm 73
The triumph of justice

God is indeed good to Israel,
the Lord is good to pure hearts.

My feet were on the point of stumbling,
a little further and I should have slipped,
envying the arrogant as I did,
and watching the wicked get rich.

For them, no such thing as pain,
their bodies are healthy and strong,
they do not suffer as other men do,
no human afflictions for them!

So pride is their chain of honour,
violence the garment that covers them;
their spite oozes like fat,
their hearts drop with slyness.

Cynical advocates of evil,
lofty advocates of force,
they think their mouth is heaven
and their tongue can dictate on earth.

This is why my people turn to them
and lap up all they say,
asking, 'How will God find out?
Does the Most High know everything?
Look at them: these are the wicked,
well-off and still getting richer!'

After all, why should I keep my own heart pure,
and wash my hands in innocence,
if You plague me all day long
and discipline me every morning?

Had I said, 'That talk appeals to me',
I should have betrayed your children's race.
Instead, I tried to analyse the problem,
hard though I found it—

until the day I pierced the mystery
and saw the end in store for them:
they are on a slippery slope, You put them there,
You urge them on to ruin,

until suddenly they fall,
done for, terrified to death.
When You wake up, Lord, You shrug them off
like the phantoms of a waking dream.

When my heart had been growing sourer
with pains shooting through my loins,
I had simply failed to understand,
my stupid attitude to You was brutish.

Even so, I stayed in Your presence,
You held my right hand;
now guide me with advice
and in the end receive me into glory.

I look to no one else in heaven,
I delight in nothing else on earth.
My flesh and my heart are pining with love,
my heart's Rock, my own, God for ever!

So then: those who abandon You are doomed,
You destroy the adulterous deserter;
whereas my joy lies in being close to God.
I have taken shelter in the Lord,
continually to proclaim what You have done.

[Amín!]

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The hardship of history…

and the beauty of iconspresented as the homily at the Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood of Greater Pittsburgh Doxology Service for the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

The Wikipedia web site begins its description of Orthodoxy Sunday with these words:

Despite the teaching about icons defined at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, the Iconoclasts began to trouble the Church again. After the death of the last Iconoclast emperor, Theophilos, his young son Michael III, with his mother the regent Theodora, and Patriarch Methodios, summoned the Synod of Constantinople in 842 to bring peace to the Church. At the end of the first session, all made a triumphal procession from the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, restoring the icons to the church. This occurred on 19 February, 842 (which that year was the first Sunday of Lent). The Synod decreed that a perpetual feast on the anniversary of that day should be observed each year on the First Sunday of Great Lent, and named the day, "the Sunday of Orthodoxy."

From this paragraph we can recognize a familiar pattern.

First there is the initial anti-icon movement — the iconoclasm of the Isaurian Emperors. Then there is the Seventh Ecumenical Council. That, one would think, should have settled things.

But then soon after, the iconoclasts rise again, supported by the Emperor and the army. Icons are prohibited by law. Large, beautiful icons are publicly destroyed. Patriarchs, bishops and clergy who defend icons are sent into exile. Monastics are imprisoned, tortured and some are even executed. The leader of the monastic “pro-icon” movement is St. Theodore, abbott of the Studion Monastery in Constantinople — he is sent into exile after he cried out to the Emperor, Leo V, to stay out of matters of church doctrine, and to mind his own imperial business.

One thing leads to another, and thankfully, the icons are once again restored at a Church Council under the leadership of the Empress Theodora and the Patriarch Methodios.

It is a happy ending. Unfortunately, history never stops at happy endings and usually always goes on just to make sure that people don’t get too comfortable. Soon, after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 842, the good Patriarch Methodius dies and a rather difficult Ignatius takes his place. Ignatius proceeds to offend enough people around the Emperor that he is removed from office, and replaced with Photios the Great. The brilliant Photios is outmaneuvered by Ignatius and his party, who bring in the participation of Pope Nicholas of Rome, who, in turn, jumps at the opportunity to interfere in the affairs of Constantinople and the eastern Churches.

This sad state of affairs eventually produces the first major schism between Rome and the rest of the Church.

I mention this turn of events that occurred so soon after the Triumph of Orthodoxy, mainly to underscore this frustrating fact: there are no permanent “triumphs” in history or in this world.

History can be a bear, as any history student can tell you — especially one of my students at Christ the Saviour Seminary in Johnstown. But the really unbearable quality of church history has nothing to do with all the tedious details, the names, the dates and the footnotes.

The main difficulty of church history has to do with the inevitable disappointments of living in the world, in this fallen time and space, in this existence that is so profoundly riddled by sin and death. We learn quickly, as we grow up, that you can’t give away your heart to any political party or movement, politician or celebrity …

… and you can’t put too much faith in any historic victory, either. The end of World War II at the surrender on the USS Battleship Missouri was soon followed by the outbreak of the Korean War. Remember the nineties, when we all thought that the fall of the Iron Curtain would usher us into a long period of stability and prosperity? There were some scholars who even talked openly of “the end of history” as we know it.

Then came, of course, the many tragedies of 9/11 and the wars that followed it. Then came the financial collapse of old money and the rise of new, more distant powers.

We have learned the hard way that no political leader or president or king or congressman is ever going to fail to disappoint. Every movement and philosophy, every fad and fashion and style and even scientific theory gets superseded and made obsolete.

Of course we’ve been warned about this in Scripture. “Put not your faith in mortal princes,” the Psalmist tells us. Even our Lord said “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye not be troubled: for all these things must come to pass” (Matthew 24.6). The writer of Ecclesiastes says it most succinctly: “All — that is, everything in this world — is vanity.”

Now I say all this not to depress you. But it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that the while the things of this present age possess a certain glamour and attraction, they cannot be sought on their own. One cannot grasp the things of this world and try to derive joy and meaning from them, especially if they are torn out of their relationship with God.

By themselves, even the best of worldly things fall apart: but with God, they will remain and only grow in beauty. Against the tide of time and history — or rather, above the tide there is the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit.

And that truth explains the rugged persistence of the monastics — over twelve hundred years ago — who risked their lives under the icon-smashing Emperors. To these monastics and to almost all of the faithful, and to great theologians like St John of Damascus and St Theodore the Studite, icons were not merely old-fashioned primitive pieces of sentimental religiosity.

The iconoclasts, it must be remembered, were modernists who wanted to renovate the Christian religion and sweep away what they considered to be superstitious — even pagan — nonsense. The iconoclasts of today, who prefer a “minimalist religion,” say exactly the same thing.

But to the monastics and the faithful, and to St John and St Theodore, icons belonged to a different order of things. Icons belonged to an order that did not decay or disappoint, like the rest of history, time and space. It was an order of unfading beauty and peace.

To them, icons belonged to the Kingdom of God, not to the kingdom of men. Icons came from the Eschaton, the Last Day when all things will be transformed and glorified.

To them, icons powerfully testified to that profound, revolutionary truth that in Jesus Christ, human nature is brought into saving contact with the divine nature. To them, icons reveal the reality of theosis — that radical, eternal process of deification by which God calls all humanity to salvation.

To them, every single Orthodox icon preaches the powerful word that in the Apostolic proclamation of the Orthodox Gospel, Salvation is defined nothing more or less than theosis.

Salvation is not just escaping hell. It is not just a get-out-of-jail-free card in Cosmic Monopoly. Salvation is participating in the divine nature, as St Peter writes in his first epistle. Salvation is Theosis. It is nothing less than growing into the likeness of God. Forever.

It is this “eschatological message,” this “testimony of theosis,” that explains why our Orthodox icons look more than a little strange to modern eyes. An icon — particularly one that is written according to the traditional iconographic canons — does not look like a photograph. And even though all such icons are manifestly beautiful, there are some that simply do not “look pretty.” Some depict grievous acts like beheadings or stonings. Others depict the saints in extreme, haggard conditions — the icon of Holy Mother Mary of Egypt is one very obvious example.

But in every case, there is a certain, irreducible beauty that shines out of the saint in the icon. The light comes from within the saint — a proper icon does not have the usual photo-realistic or romantic shadows that you get with other styles of classic art. You get the impression that these holy persons simply “glow in the dark.”

All this is meant to be, of course. Every icon is painted in such a way that the light shines out of the soul through the body. The internal, essential light is really a light of Transfiguration — a light that was first manifest in the Holy Transfiguration of our Lord on Mt Tabor in the Gospels.

It is a light that shows forth the Beauty and Peace that is made possible by Jesus Christ alone — Who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, coming to us and living amongst us as the Second Adam, the Head of the Body of Christ which is the Church.

It is a light that shows forth a possibility — it is a universal predestination that is offered as a gift — that you and I can be renewed and brought into Christ-likeness and share in the divine nature. We, too — if we accept the gift and cooperate with Grace — we too can become icons of Christ that do indeed “glow in the dark.”

This is the only Gospel that matters. This is the Orthodox Gospel that does not fall apart and deteriorate. The is the Gospel of the Triumph of Orthodoxy! This is the Orthodoxy that truly does keep the world and the stars and the planets moving, in good measure, just as our Vesperal verses told us so last night.

Icons are empirical that history is not all there is. Icons are evidence that the disappointments of time and space will not overcome the beauty and peace of Jesus Christ. Icons are shining beacons from the Last Day, the Kingdom of God, shining into the here and now.

Every Orthodox icon broadcasts this message that salvation is theosis.

But some icons proclaim it louder, with a broadcast in high-wattage, stereophonic HD.

There are two icons today at my friend’s church at St. George’s in Taylor, Pennsylvania. They positively stream with miraculous oil, redolent with the unmatchable fragrance of unknown fields of roses. There is so much oil, every day, that Fr Mark has to collect it with swaths of cotton.

You don’t have to take my word for it — and neither do I (to be honest). I am naturally a skeptic. So I looked for hidden tubes, or for my friend to sneak in late at night and apply the oil. I really wanted a reasonable explanation, because the alternative is shocking.

There was no reasonable explanation to be had. The shocking alternative is simply — and scarily — this: this weeping icon is an obvious, undeniable Sign from the Future. It is a Messenger from the Last Day. It is proof that deification exists — not just as a possibility, but a reality.

Since October of 2011, when those icons began to weep, I have been thinking a lot about this weeping, and about icons. I have been looking for explanations.

But then it occurred to me that I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of me — and you — trying to comprehend this miracle that is really true of all icons, maybe it is better to consider a different possibility.

Maybe this miraculous Orthodox Gospel that is so beautifully presented in our icons … maybe this Gospel is comprehending us. If we call Icons “windows to heaven,” then should we be so surprised that the “looking” of icons might go both ways? Maybe we not only “look in” at the icon — maybe there is Someone “looking out” … at us?

Maybe we are meant to look at an icon as a symbol of what we are to become … that we ourselves are to glow in this present darkness.

You and I ought to be shining icons of Jesus Christ.

Maybe we are meant to look at these myrrh-streaming icons and recognize their challenge: you and I should be myrrh-streaming people, who everyday emit streams of the miraculous myron of mercy, of kindness, of the Orthodox Gospel, of healing generosity and constant intercession and Christ-like love.

Maybe, you and I ought to venerate these Orthodox icons, and became "venerable" ourselves … as images of Christ on a world with an unbearable history, in a time and space so riddled with sin and death.

You and I should ourselves broadcast a different message … a message of the Triumph of Orthodoxy … that with Christ, and Christ alone, there is beauty and peace.

My Comment

This excellent homily by Fr Jonathan Tobias focuses on just one aspect of Orthodox Christianity, and yet even from this singular focus, one can distinguish the outlines of Orthodoxy, which is the Christianity that I adhere to. And without meaning to offend or to exclude anyone, it is this faith and understanding of reality that I am pointing to when I say such things as ‘Orthodoxy is Christianity,’ and why I believe that the Church has never been and can never be divided, and why I welcome everyone home to it, because it is the common inheritance of all the saints, that is, all who confess Christ. For me there is no argument and nothing else to do but to invite, saying, ‘Come and see.’

P.S.: For those interested in ikons, a comment sent me by a reader privately led me to the webpage of the Prosopon School of Iconology. There looks to be much interesting material there. Just click on the linked name for a visit! 

True man

True man is he who doesn’t want to live long in this world. He wants to give his testimony and return as soon as possible, return home to Christ. He isn’t concerned about living a long life; he only wants to live on earth as long as his Lord wants him to live. Why? Because he is already living with Christ in His kingdom. He knows it with perfect certainty. He is redeemed, delivered from every desire and ambition that snares men and chains them to this world, and he is impatient to be free of this body of death, because he no longer lets it use him to sin. He is already living in heaven with Christ; all he wants is to be living there completely. If he must continue living in this world, he knows it’s only to do here what Christ wants him to do, to do what he sees Jesus doing in this world. He wants only to follow Jesus who, though living visibly in heaven, is alive invisibly on earth. And so, true man lives invisibly in heaven while he is living visibly on earth, following Jesus.

True man lives in the Word of God, and that Word is everything to him, and it makes him a child of the Kingdom, it makes him a disciple of Jesus. And Jesus and the Father come and live with him there, making him one of them by giving him the Spirit to live inside him. The Word of God is everything to him, it is his home, his food, his covering, his companion, his teacher, his protection, his inheritance. He is never without it, whether the Book is in his hand or not. The Word of God becomes his words, becomes his thoughts, becomes his actions. It is his strength, it guards his purity, it is his defense against all the lures and snares of the enemy. The Word of God proves His unalterable faithfulness to him and in him, and makes him faithful to God. The Word of God never leaves him, never leaves him alone, becomes a hedge around him, and makes him a hedge around the Kingdom in which he lives with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

True man is the implacable foe of the evil one, and doesn’t yield for a moment even an inch of territory, because the Word of God lives in him, and he lives in the Word. That is his world, and that world is the Kingdom. His citizenship is there while in the body he lives here. He is an unregistered alien in this world, which either shuns him as it goes along with its trifling affairs, pretending not to see him, or when it can’t help but see him, he is seen as a threat, he is seen as dangerous, and he is opposed with every injustice that can be brought against him in the name of the world’s justice. Because he obeys another Law, fulfills another commandment, that of His Lord, he falls under the condemnation of the laws of men and suffers with His Lord, who is put to death every day by the world. This too is an earthly evidence of his heavenly citizenship. He has nowhere to lay his head, no place in this world where he is comfortable, seeing that everywhere is under the dominion of the evil one, and with Jesus he is turned away at every inn, turned away because he is a God-bearer.

True man is too strong for the men who seek their home and their security on earth, and so he finds no friends among them. His strength is not from himself. He seems to wear his strength effortlessly, while others who claim to be strong or who try to be, make excuses for their weakness. But his strength is not from himself, it is from Christ who lives with him and who supplies him from His armory. His eye looks stern and unfriendly to men who have eyes only for the world, because his eye is single, and it looks always upon heaven, and from heaven where he already is living with Christ. His strength is from his Lord, and it shows in his walk and in his stance, in his speech and in his silence, in what he does and in what he does not do. All of this is a threat to other men who seek their strength only in things of this world, in things man-made, in what will not endure.

True man is in the world, but not of it. Why? Because he lives already in the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He lives there and he knows it. He has his proof of citizenship in the Word that never leaves him. He has his passport ready and can come and go through a door that to him is never shut between worlds, a door which, if he chooses to shut it, no one can open, and if he chooses to open, no one can close. He has been given this kind of authority because he can be trusted. Why can he be trusted? Because he has proven himself faithful to his charge, because he renews his faithfulness every day in the presence of his Father, by following the Son of God, by doing only what he sees Him doing. He has already been given the crown of life, because he is willing to lay down his life in this world, because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Brothers, this is our call in Jesus Christ. This is the guarantee of our salvation. This is the life that has no end. This is the treasure hidden in the field that a man finds and then sells all that he has to purchase the field. This is the true man that has been recreated in the image of the Holy Triad who said, “Let us make man in Our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters…”

Brothers, this is true man.

Friday, April 12, 2013

All you have to do


So you’ve sinned. You’re afraid, so you hide out. You don’t want your sin to be discovered. You don’t want anyone to know. Least of all Him, even though you don’t acknowledge Him, you don’t want to think of Him, you don’t want others to think that you think of Him.

You have this nagging voice inside you, telling you what you’ve done is wrong, but you turn away from it, and lose yourself in other sounds, noises really, anything that will voice-over the Voice, because you know, once again, that He’s found you out, that He knows all about you, even though you don’t want to know all about Him.

So you hide out, afraid of coming out of your room, afraid of being seen exiting the place of your sin, where you made unlawful deeds your companion. How do you know they’re unlawful? You just know, you just suspect they are. You’re not really sure, yet you are sure. You are cornered by the play between your faith suppressed and your doubt proclaimed.

You know the commandments in rough, and you know you’ve broken them in fine, probably all of them, in fact. But I’m telling you, though you should be afraid, what you should be afraid of is not what you think. Truth be told, we have all broken the commandments. Some of us are breaking them even now. It’s part of the human condition, but we all know, that’s no excuse.

Come out of hiding where we can see you, where He can see you.
Join the crowd. It’s certainly not lonely here. There’s so many of us, so many law-breakers, so many who have broken them, broken them all. Yet among us there is not even one who is lawless, not even one who is clothed in shame and guilt. Here, take a look.

The only One of us who has never sinned, who has never broken a commandment, not even the smallest, He is among us, He’s somewhere in this mighty throng. Actually, look a little more closely. He is not only among us, He’s all over us. Do you see anyone naked here? Do you see anyone weighed down by a burden too heavy to carry?

He has clothed us in Himself. Yes, the One who you’ve been tormented by, that Voice is His. I think you knew that, but you might’ve been hoping it was just an hallucination. I did too, once. Then I took the Voice at face value, finally. I found that behind the Voice there was a face, and when I saw that face I was surprised that it wasn’t angry.

Back to brass tacks. Yes, you’ve sinned, you’ve been sinning, and sinning all along hoping that no one would notice, especially hoping that He wouldn’t notice, trying to talk yourself into believing that He isn’t really there at all, that the Voice is an illusion. I’m here to tell you, Uh-uh! The Voice is no illusion, and Yep! Your sins are every bit as real as mine.

This game of hide and go seek has to end now, but only you can end it, and it can only be ended by going to seek. This is no time to put it off till tomorrow. Can you really keep on in this way, doing what you know is wrong, knowing there’s nothing you can do to change it? Well, you know there is something you can do, but that would take too much effort.

You know you’d rather pay the price in cash to get rid of this load of guilt, but that’s not an option. The price has to be paid in blood, and you’d be happy to pay it yourself, but you don’t want Anyone else paying it for you. You think you’d be happy to pay it yourself, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. It isn’t as though you could ever pay the price in blood, on your own.

But give it a chance. If you really want to pay the price in blood, to pay up like a man, then the first thing you’ve got to do is let that Other One pay the bill in full, yes, pay it in full with His blood. After you let Him do that, He’ll give you all the chances you could ever want to make good your debt. It won’t rob you of your manhood to let Him pay, it’ll give you a manhood you never could have had on your own.

Isn’t it about time you come out of your hiding place? Find out what the purpose of the Law really is? What the commandments are there for? How you can hear the unchanging Voice say a new word to you, after you have changed your mind? Remove the imaginary line between you and happiness. Acknowledge both your fears, that you sin and that He is real, and transform them into faith.

Remove that imaginary line. That’s all you have to do.