Monday, April 27, 2015

Finally become human

‘Human beings are creatures of habit.’ I have to put this thought in quotes because the idea is not mine. The whole of humanity is its author, whether verbally or out of experience. This fact of our nature works both to our welfare and our demise, just as everything else about us does. The appearance of civilization, as we call it, came about by the natural selection of habits. Good habits produce good civilizations; bad ones, the reverse, or no civilization at all. It all depends on where you draw the line.

Looking at civilizations and world cultures with this in mind usually makes us think that ours is better than most others, maybe even the best, or, if we are habitual malcontents, will make us dismiss ours as corrupt, bankrupt, or savage. Youth is inexperienced while still laying the foundations of habit, and so does not suffer from pessimism as much as Age does. Age sometimes dismisses optimism because it’s been roofing its life with the leftovers of bad habits yielded to in careless Youth.

This is the human condition.

Now, Christ has appeared, you know, the God-man that we Christians say we believe in. He interrupts our trains of thought and our chain gangs of habit, overturns our money-changer tables, and shoos us out of the confines of make-believe spirituality. We are dragged kicking and screaming as babies to the baptismal bucket, or as pensive, intentional adults to the tank, the former habitless, the latter besmirched with banal sins, and after that initial washing, find ourselves just as habit-formed as ever.

There is a difference.

Christ is not only the Savior of the world—of anyone who listens to His words and does what He commands—but knowing our nature, He has provided us with a new roster of, not laws, but habits, so that we may finally be ‘finished’ beings, not mud-clay spirit-breathed animals kept unfinished by our almost involuntary—and therefore, almost blameless—bad habits. The way He has provided us with this new roster of habits is by His establishment of the Church. Yes, even the institution, maybe, especially.

For the Church—I am here speaking in a special sense, meaning what is called ‘Orthodoxy’, yet without pitting it against other Christian associations—for the Church has very quickly, and from its beginnings in apostolic times, produced a universal and pervasive body of wisdom called ‘the Holy Tradition.’ This is composed of all of its liturgical life—prayer, worship, teaching, customs—a vast array of habit-forming mechanisms for us habit-formed people, so that we can become ‘finished’ humans, if we want to.

When modern people think of the Church, theirs is picture-thinking, much of it conditioned by experiences good or bad, expressed in prejudices for or against. They see it as an institution, whether positively or negatively. Even believers who regularly ‘go to church’ can fail to apprehend that when they enter the temple they are coming to Christ, the Only Teacher of mankind, whose real Presence is conveyed in the liturgical cycle, designed by Him to develop in us the habits that will make us human.

Yes, the Church is an institution. It is a social organism. It connects people. It unites them for mutual welfare and good endeavor. As an institution, it wears all the defects of humanity’s bad habits, though not all at once or all the time. There is still something about it—even most of its detractors admit this—that transcends its failures and keeps it going. What is this ‘something’? It is that divine and holy Liturgy, not just the Sunday service but all of its accumulated liturgical life, and that is ‘Christ in our midst.’

This is why it is unfortunate that people neglect the services of the Church, though at times they do so with good reason. People are not stupid. They know when they are being treated as infants. When those who offer the divine services are themselves only ‘performing’, they ‘prevent others from entering the Kingdom of God without going in themselves’ (Luke 11:52). They speed-speak the psalter. They keep to the Greek, which very few understand. They chant so no one can follow along and sing. Bad, bad habits.

Then, is it any wonder that people, being creatures of habit that we are, find ourselves drifting into ruts of earth-bound profanity instead of being raised by Christ who teaches, heals, upholds and saves us, and delivers us into the heaven-bound way of true humanity? The Church’s most precious mystery is the ‘whole Christ’ who lives in the praises of His people when we worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ which is He. Let us, then, beloved brethren, priests and people, allow ourselves to be formed by good habits, by Christ.

He is the Only Lover and Teacher of mankind,
and it is through listening to Him and doing what He commands
that we finally become human.

Monday, April 20, 2015

And your neighbor as yourself

In debates, if you say a few words about religion you will prevail. Let the person who has a different opinion give free rein to his thoughts and speak as much as he likes. Let him sense that he is addressing himself to a calm and uncontentious person. Influence him through your graciousness and prayer and then speak briefly. You achieve nothing if you speak heatedly and tell him, for example, ‘What you’re saying is untrue, a downright lie!’ What will you achieve? Be as sheep among wolves. What should you do? Show indifference outwardly, but be praying inwardly. Be prepared, know what you are talking about and speak boldly and to the point, but with saintliness, meekness and prayer. But in order to be able to do this, you must become saints.

Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p. 188

These words of our beloved elder certainly strike us as true, but let's not make the mistake of thinking they only apply to religious discussions with others of different viewpoints or beliefs. No, brethren. His advice is universally applicable to every exchange we have with others. We have personally known people who follow the way that the elder describes. We consider them to be saints and excuse ourselves for not being able to do likewise. We are too weak, too human, to be able to be so self-effacing. But when we see others acting this way, we know we have seen and experienced a glimpse of true Orthodoxy, that way of life which is gentle though firm, loving though unindulgent, forgiving though not abandoning the truth. We call this 'the Orthodox way,' and are proud that we have such people among us.

Yet, it isn't 'the Orthodox way' though it is in fact what makes Orthodoxy so attractive. Where else can you find an environment where judgment is minimal, mercy abundant, knowledge humble, wisdom silent and profound? Yes, this is 'Orthodoxy at its best' but we cannot claim it as exclusive to ourselves. And this behavior is not universally applicable or always applied. Where would the Christian faith be if the Fathers of the ecumenical councils had exercised such meekness with heretics? Read the transcripts of some of the councils and you will be shocked by the violence of their arguments and personal attacks, as they winnowed for truth upon the threshing-floor of doctrine. They had to do what was indicated by the moment, and God made use of their weaknesses as well as their strengths to safeguard us.

Back to the virtue of which the elder speaks, to be silent out of strength, powerful through prayer, untroubled by opposition because of irreversible certainty, and trusting of the Lord who giving us free choice yet protects, preserves and saves all who turn to Him. Yes, as Christ teaches, 'be as sheep among wolves,' or in another place, 'be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.' What all this is leading us to, ever so gently by the meek Lord Himself, is to make us understand that there really is no 'us and them,' that 'what the Lord has joined together, let no man tear asunder.' We think this phrase applies only to marriage, but then, what is marriage if not a special instance of the unity that underlies all our being? Marriage, and the life of the Church, are both examples of the life of the Holy Trinity, 'one in essence and undivided.'

Christ prays the Father—not just in the gospel according to John, but throughout all time and in every place, unceasingly—'that they all may be one, even as You and I are One.' What He is doing is not asking the Father to bestow upon us something that is alien to our nature—our true and original nature, that is—but to open our eyes to see the Divine Image which we in fact are, the unbroken, undivided, Image of God, that which He became a human being to reveal to us. He says, 'If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father,' but also to see Christ is to see Adam before the Fall. Everything that Jesus teaches us about ourselves leads us to only one conclusion: our neighbor is our brother, is our other self, and no one hates himself, no one considers himself his enemy, but he loves him and seeks his good. This is where the elder's words also take us.

The human race is a single organism, united in essence and undivided, as God sees us. How else can He love each of us as though we were His only creature? The universe's Divine Spouse loves His Bride and in the tunnel of time is perfecting her, preparing her for Himself, making her also Divine. Though the tunnel can pass through deep darkness, at its end is Light, and that Light can be reached by no other way than that which He has revealed to us—the Cross. Let's take up that Cross, brethren, because it's not heavy like His earthly cross was, nor are we mocked and despised on our way as He was, nor do we bear it, nor will we die on it, as He did, and does, for the sins of the world. No, my brethren. He has done the hard part, ours is the easy. 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.

And your neighbor as yourself.'

True or false

A pedantic rationalism, nominally subservient to the scriptures, is what we have turned the good news of Jesus Christ into, when we use the Message as a weapon to make the nations submit to us.

It is easier for us to see this perversion of religion when we look at anyone other than ourselves, whether in the historical record, or in the contemporary world: The coerced conversion of the late Roman Empire under Theodosius I and his successors; the Catholic crusades of the Middle Ages under Innocent III and his successors, first against internal heretics like the Albigenses in Provence, then against the Saracens in the Levant; the forced de-Romanisation of northwestern Europe under vigorous Protestant princes, and the subversion of Orthodoxy in the lands of the Polish Commonwealth by sword and fire missionaries; and today, the violent resurgence of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East and its eating away of Christian Europe in the Muslim diaspora.

We recognize religious bigotry and fanaticism when it comes from others, but ourselves, we are faultless. ‘We’re only promoting the gospel. It’s not our fault if we offend anyone. It’s not we that are offensive. It’s the gospel, which convicts sinners, and so unrepentant despite our preaching, they hate us. We’re the martyrs.’

Fortunately for us, the Lord has provided signs, prophetic in their dastardly rectitude, of fallen men hiding themselves under the rocks of self-righteousness. In America, the most famous is the family of ‘Pastor’ Fred Phelps, recently deceased in a state of excommunication from the ‘church’ he founded, Westboro Baptist Church.

It seems that all the paths of religious extremism lead to this kind of organization, at least, if followed flawlessly. It can be an embarrassment to other, less lethal, expressions of Calvinist fundamentalism, but it’s certainly worth noticing that certain forms of ‘Christianity’ have a tendency to morph into unrecognizable dysangelisms.

It is small comfort that most mainstream forms of contemporary Christianity reject the use of force in the promotion of their doctrinal biases, because the very fact of these biases is the disguised undermining of the Message they claim to present. The churches of today would be just as unrecognizable to Jesus Christ and His holy apostles as would the churches, as institutions, of the past seventeen centuries. Those who tell us that there was a great apostasy of the Church in ancient times that must now or never be righted are almost correct—almost, but in essence not, correct.

Nothing has happened other than what Christ Himself teaches us, that tares have been secretly planted in the wheat field of Holy Church. Not the field nor the wheat are any less what they are, in fact they are even more so, by contrast to the invasive and contaminating weeds, the tares of the parable.

In the same way, the Church of Jesus Christ—the real Church, not just some denomination by that name—has existed from the beginning, is now, and shall continue as it is until the Day of the Lord, and the great winnowing of the threshing floor. She—the Holy Church as Christ’s Bride is spoken of in feminine gender—has lived in the world since the day of Pentecost and is alive now, diversely visible yet one, and though visibly divided.

‘After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands’ (Revelation 7:9).

She is there in the company of Christ and the holy apostles. She is there in the company of the holy martyrs. She is there in the company of the holy fathers in and out of councils. She is there in the saints suffering in the cause of true righteousness, in the face of all oppressions, whether from inside or outside the walls of the Holy Church.

It is she whom holy John the Revelator addresses when he writes, ‘Through our union in Jesus I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure… for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus’ (Revelation 1:9).

Brethren, let us confess ourselves members of her, True Church of True Man, Holy Church of Holy God, for there is no other. And escaping the jaws and jagged fangs of the Beast that tears and consumes both the bodies and the souls of them it devours, let us firmly resist that empty, triumphant rationalism that has sullied the name of Christianity and diluted its power—that is, the might of its only weapon, the Holy Cross—and return in real victory with the Lord ‘who is, who was, who is to come’ who has trampled death by death, and to those in the tombs—yes, that is us!—given life.

Telling the truth in love

‘Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!’
To tell the truth in love—what does this really mean? It gets complicated because, from all outward appearances and most of human history, telling the truth in love can have some very adverse effects. We look back and shudder in horror, if we think long enough about it, but the burnings at the stake of those considered to be heretics was just a different expression of ‘telling the truth in love.’ After being tortured and made to confess, they were ‘forgiven’ but still had to endure death by fire as a sort of penance and purification, vaguely referenced to the apostle Paul’s teaching, ‘If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames’ (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). Strange that the Church thought it could administer salvation by fire as well as water.

Sorrowfully, we have not really made much progress. Most murders, as much as other ‘crimes against nature’—for that is what murder is—are committed ‘spiritually,’ not physically. I think we have all had this experience. Slander, for example, is a ‘spiritual’ form of murder—the modern name for this is ‘character assassination’—and its effects are almost always more painful, damaging, and long lasting, than a bullet to the head would be. When we are caught in the act of speaking our mind and telling somebody off who certainly deserves to be put in their place, we excuse ourselves, ‘I was only trying to help. There’s nothing wrong with telling the truth in love, is there?’

There was a time when Christians actually knew when what they might say would be abusive, and restrained themselves. They didn’t try to excuse themselves with, ‘Well, he deserved it!’ or ‘If I don’t tell them, who will?’ There’s a difference between telling a person the strange berries they just picked and are about to eat will make them very sick, and telling a man who is about to smoke another cigarette as he pulls one out of a package fairly covered with health warnings, that he shouldn’t smoke. The first is an instance of advising ignorance, the second an example of chastising informed choice. Both can be called ‘telling the truth in love,’ but the former really does this, while the latter merely heckles.

In a famous scene from The Wizard of Oz, a mean, old spinster brings an official writ to seize Dorothy’s little dog Toto because she claims it’s dangerous. Dorothy lashes out at her, ‘You go away or I… I'll bite you myself!’ before she is told to go to her room. Auntie Em, almost loses it too, ‘Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!’ and she too leaves the room in tears. Only the uncle stays on, and when Ms Gulch tries to justify her position, he just looks at her, sighs and says nothing. There’s a Christian man for you.

There’s a type of Christian who feels ‘the white man’s burden’ to go and tell the heathen (these being not people of color any more than he might be a white man, racially) how wrong they are about everything—their life style and beliefs, how sinful they are in their ‘natural’ state—and what to do ‘to get right with God.’ This may have worked in times and places where people really were backward and illiterate, but it doesn’t work here and now, nor is it appropriate. People can read. Whether they go to church or not, read the Bible or not, they’ve been exposed to ‘the Western heritage of faith and reason’ sufficiently to know when they’re doing immoral acts, or at least falling under Judaeo-Christian censure.

It must be a gift to know when to speak, and when to keep silent, because not many people have it. I know I don’t. But not having that gift is no excuse for not trying to speak well, that is, to know when a word well spoken will avert disaster, and when a word wrongly spoken might create one. This, of course, applies to acts as well as words. I have been hurt too many times to even count by those who, trying to correct me, have failed in their attempt, and driven the knife deeper. And I have done the same to others, more than I can count. This seems to be the human condition, and one of the chief defects of the natural man. I can only hope that I will be forgiven, but I know for sure I will not be unless I have forgiven others.

In the short time that lies before us, brethren, let us love, and forgive, one another, and in peace let us pray to the Lord, ‘Lord, have mercy!’

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Building on the rock

‘God who becomes one of us precisely to put religion to death...’ [Waiting is]

You know, I feel the idea, but can’t grasp it logically, put it into words. For myself, and more, for sharing/witnessing for others when the time comes. Can you describe the difference between the religion of Christianity and what Christ actually created and wanted us to be? Again, I feel it, but can't formulate my thoughts, put it into words.

It is perhaps too simple to be put into words.

Religion is an attitude of fear of God (not awe, but real fear) coupled with an anxiety to propitiate Him, to buy Him off, so that we can have time to ourselves, so that we can think our thoughts when we’re on our time. We hope He will be satisfied with the moments we give Him, but we’re never sure, and so we stress over it in various ways.

Another kind of religion begins as I have described, but eventually devolves into a pious fraud, when we find out (or think that we’ve found out) that God, if He really is there, couldn’t care less about us and what we do, but we continue going through the motions for a variety of reasons, some of them still related to a kind of anxiety, only this time, fear lest we be thought irreverent by others.

Both of these kinds of religion, as I have written elsewhere, ‘end at the feet of Christ.’

How Christ intends us to be, or rather, what He calls us into, is above all else a close, personal relationship with Himself, mediated through the events and thoughts with which He fills our lives.

Of course we don’t see Him physically, but we can read His acts and His words both in His little book, the Bible, and His big book, the world around us. When we understand this, and then begin to do and say the same things we see Him doing and hear Him saying, we are ‘building on the rock’ not on sand, lives that are infused with paradise even now, both in ourselves and in those around us.

Like the apostles, we no longer think we can earn heaven or salvation as did the righteous among the Jews. That was the basis of their religion.

Instead, learning to live in close friendship and discipleship with Jesus our Lord, Master, Savior and God, and following Him, we begin to get used to heaven, we start forming the kind of spiritual lungs to breathe the air of paradise, and the musculature to climb the mountains of God. Yes, we begin to get used to heaven by imitating it here, by living the life of heaven on earth.

This is so radically different from mere religion and so much better, that we forget all about religion even while we continue to practice it. What we do in church or about it may not look any different from what the religious do and look like, at least within the context of ‘church,’ but not only there, but everywhere we find ourselves, we radiate the gospel, the good news—

Christ risen from the dead,
Christ within us and in our midst,
among us and for us, over, under, around and through us,
Christ the tie that binds us to the Father
and in that binding soothing all our sores
and healing our every sickness.

Ours and, through our witness, everyone else’s, without exception, not limited to or divided from any human being, regardless of what they think or believe or even do. To do as Christ commands, to ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ this is no more religion than is Christ’s raising of Lazarus, or His giving sight to the man born blind, or His forgiveness of adulterers and thieves, or His dying tortured, rejected and alone on the Cross.

He tells us, ‘You will do even greater things than I have done, because I am going to the Father.’

These ‘greater things’ He gives us to do—for it is indeed He who gives us them, not we ourselves—cannot possibly be what we see in Christian ‘religion,’ and yet we find that precisely those who have, like Peter and the holy apostles, been given ‘the keys of the Kingdom,’ unlike them do not unlock lives, their own or those of others, but jewel themselves, or bait or threaten others. It’s obvious that they no longer even know what they hold in their hands. The good news is for them ‘a lesson memorised’ and no news at all.

Yes, religion dies at the feet of Christ.
But if you must be religious,
just follow Jesus and do what you see Him doing.
Then you will know for sure
that the veil of the Temple is ripped open,
because you will find yourself following Him
in and out of the Holy of Holies
as He mediates between
God and man.

Waiting is

The phrase ‘waiting is’ is about the only thing that has stayed with me all these years from my reading of the science fiction cult novel Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein. It was a favorite saying of Valentine Michael Smith, the main character in that book, a human who had been raised as an orphaned child on Mars by the inhabitants of that planet. When he is returned to earth, he causes a sensation because his mindset is totally Martian in every respect, as are all of his habits. He ends up becoming a messiah figure who starts a new religion, the Church of All Worlds. I dug up these details from the internet because, as I admit, the only thing that stuck in my mind was the phrase, ‘waiting is.’

Why did the phrase stick? Well, to be blunt, I have spent most of my life waiting for something or someone. Was my intrinsic attitude somehow an unconscious result of reading the novel, or just my heredity expressing itself, the last in a long line of men who have been very, very patient with everyone?

I have had a good apprenticeship at waiting most of my life, but only in these last years has the object of my waiting shifted. Before, I waited only on human beings and their needs; now I wait primarily for Christ. He is the only one worth waiting for, because He brings not only His gifts, He brings Himself.

Books of science fiction, especially from the 1960’s and ’70’s, tend to wander into fantasy about alternative religions, as they are mirrors of the real world in which they arise, where any religion is superior to the simple truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why is that? Because mankind is a religious animal, and we are by nature shocked and offended by a God who becomes one of us precisely to put religion to death.

And so, these novels tend to promote religions, many of which resemble those we already know on earth, especially Buddhism, which seems to be a favorite. But religion is always only man’s best shot at escaping the horrible mess we find ourselves in, because we can’t accept that to escape our predicament—sin—means death to us, death to the world as we know it. So we take our best shot at whatever it is we’re searching for.

Buddhism is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal inner peace, if not salvation, given that there is either no God, or He is far too big and busy to deal with us.

Hinduism is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal safety, now and possibly in future lives, by satisfying the need for worship of the myriad hypersomatic beings, devas, that invisibly infest the human world.

Islam is man’s best shot at achieving some level of moralistic order in society for the masses, and justification for the immoral excesses of a select few, at the cost of a total denial of human freedom, while promising an otherworldly reward for the surrendered, and threatening thisworldly punishment for the unsurrendered.

Judaism is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal salvation, and a sense of righteousness, given that the only God has chosen the people of a certain lineage, to which they belong, to bring everyone to a knowledge of Him, while remaining outside His promises.

Christianity is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal salvation, with the least possible commitment to righteous living or self-sacrifice, by formal adherence to or membership in religious associations, while trampling on the call of the one they call Lord.

In the wasteland that is this world, I have waited, and been fortunate to have met a few followers of Jesus who stand firmly on the Word of God, keep their lamps lit, remain vigilant, wait on the voice of Jesus at every moment and desire to do what He commands, and are willing to suffer for the sake of His name.

I didn’t look for them.
I waited, and He sent them.

And I too can only hope to be one of them, by continuing to open my door when He knocks and to welcome Him into my house, which I want to be His.

Help me, Lord, to seek not my own, but Your will alone, and to be willing to accept everything that happens to me at Your hands, for You alone are the lover of mankind, and Your Word is truth.

I bless You, Lord, at the assemblies.
Psalm 26:12

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Expect the resurrection of the dead…

Our integration into the Divine Nature is no accident. Neither is it our due. It is not something that will inevitably happen, but it is where our being will lead us if we do not resist it, if we do not resist God.

Yes, God made man for immortality. We are not speaking of some kind of purely spiritual existence, eternal but bodiless. No, man was made, body and soul, for immortality, for deathlessness.

The entire culture, even Christianity, is infected with this idea—that any trans-mortal existence must be purely spiritual, as if we are going to be changed into angels—and it instantly recoils.

The religious recoil subconsciously by fantasizing about it. The irreligious recoil knowingly by rejecting it. Still, it is a fact of human nature: our bodies are made for immortality, and hence, our souls.

But what can it mean, our integration into the Divine Nature? Aren’t we spirits already? Some do indeed teach and believe, ‘I am a spirit, I have a soul, I live in a body.’

Simplistic thinking comforts for a while, but not for long. Although by nature God made us immortal, body and soul, that does not make us spiritual. Only One is Spirit: that is God.

Though we lost our natural immortality through our transgressions, by resisting our human nature as created, God, in becoming a man, Jesus Christ, accomplished more for us than immortality.

He, being One of the Holy Triad and pure Spirit, integrated with the body and soul of a man that He created. God became man, that man might become God, except for our free will, must become God.

St Gregory Nazianzen says in his Funeral oration for St Basil, ‘Man has been commanded to become God.’ He is also the first Church father to use the term ‘théosis’ for that God-charged deification.

So man who, body and soul, was created for immortality in the first Adam but forfeited that life by separation from the Divine Nature, that is, by suicide, in the second Adam is recreated for divinity.

Christ, in defeating death by death, bringing life to those in the tombs, Himself rose from the dead, body and soul, as first-fruits of all who have ever died. Not as a Spirit only, but as a complete man.

Yes, the God-man, who, though standing before His Father who is in heaven interceding for sinners, walks with His disciples on earth, even shares food with them, proving the resurrection of the dead.

Though in this present life our souls are the life of our bodies, in the world to come, the Spirit is the life of both our souls and bodies, our human nature fully integrated with the Divine Nature.

Through Jesus Christ the human race has gained more than it lost. Human nature has been raised to the Divine Nature. Respect your body as much as your soul, and expect the resurrection of the dead.

Come, let us drink of that new river…

The commandments of Jesus, if obeyed, absolutely turn the world ‘as it is’ upside down. We don't have to understand why He gives us these commandments. We just have to fulfill them. They aren't many, either. In fact He Himself reduced them down to just two basics. ‘Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.’ These commandments are both the easiest and the hardest, just as the yoke of Jesus is both the easiest (as He tells us) and the hardest. Easiest, when we decide to follow them, and do. Hardest, when we inwardly reject them, but try to do them for whatever other reason; in other words, when we resist.

A specific commandment of Jesus? Pray for those who persecute you and willfully abuse you. In other words, pray for your enemies. Your enemies, mind you, not His. At least, there is no one that He makes His enemy, though people make Him their Enemy. We do too, when we resist Him by holding back from following His commandments. But pray for your enemies. A radical thought, from the perspective of the world. But if followed, that world is brought to its knees. Interesting. We bring ourselves to our knees for the world our enemy that persecutes and abuses us, and that brings the world to its knees.
How so?
Because it is vexed. 

Epikránthi! It was vexed! The word we shout at the end of the liturgy of the Resurrection, the night of Pascha, many times, as the sermon of John the Golden-Mouthed is read to us. We shout it at the service after the midnight hour, yet in the daylight, we often cannot see how we are to achieve this vexation of the world that afflicted Hades when Christ descended. Yet, it is only by following Him there in our world day by day, praying for our enemies just as He emptied Hell of His, even after they put Him to death. What we shout in the night, by following the commandments of Jesus, we can live in the day.
‘Come, let us drink of that new river…’

The crown of scripture

                    Turn it this way, turn it that way,
                    everything is in it,
                    keep your eye upon it
                       and from it do not stir.
                    Turn it this way, turn it that way,
                    grow old and aged over it,
                    for you have no better portion,
                       better portion than the Word.

(Folk song based on Pirke Avot, 5:24)

To ‘study’ the bible as one studies a specimen under the microscope, except perhaps for bible scholars (if there really is such a thing), is the wrong way to study it. It's equally wrong to pretend to give people ‘the big picture’ by not making them study it at all, but instead by entertaining them. Both these approaches to the written Word of God are ways to escape the main function of scripture, which is to bring us face to face with our sin, and with our Saviour.

We say we study the bible, but actually the bible is studying us. We may think we are rightly dividing the Word of God, but actually the Word of God is rightly dividing us. That is, if we let Him. (Jesus is the Word of God. The bible is His icon.) Rightly dividing us from our sin, from the world and all its pomp, and from the power of the evil one.

People think we're so blessed to live in an age when there are so many amazing resources available, yet it's precisely this mistaken attitude about technological resources that has changed Christianity from a living faith and close walk with the Lord to a kind of dinner theatre about such a faith and walk.

We have become detached from the Word of God like a doomed fetus becomes detached from the uterus and then dies, which the mother may not discover for days, but which can kill her as well if it is not discovered in time. That mother is the Church, that fetus is the believers who do not live in the Word but only ‘watch a movie’ about it and think they've ‘got it.’

To live in the Word of God is to make the holy and God-breathed scriptures, the bible, our daily bread, our constant companion, our very home.

This means never being without it, physically, when possible, even if it's only a slim New Testament and Psalms tucked into a pocket.

This means rising in the morning with the Word on our lips, praying and thanking the Lord in the words of psalms and prophecies, not just five times a day as Muslims do, but all through the day (and night).

This means turning not to vain and sometimes vile entertainments (making excuses for the profanity in them), but turning to the bible for refreshment, for relaxation, for recreation.

No, you can play sports, go on hikes, collect stamps, read novels, write poetry, play the guitar, have an electric train set, or even a speedboat… but what’s on your mind, really?

I'm no different from the rest. I often have to yank my attention back to where it belongs, visit the mansion that Christ my Lord and Saviour has prepared for me in His Father’s house. What? You thought He was talking about the heavenly mansion? Well, yes, of course, that one too. But the study of and meditation on the inspired words of the divine and holy scriptures, that is like a foyer leading into the heavenly mansion, and a foyer is part of the house, isn't it?

Paradox upon paradox, that the churches that claim most strongly to be centered on the bible have the most trouble cleaving to it, but find ever more numerous by-paths and supposed short-cuts to keep them off the One True Highway to Heaven—the Word of God.

Visit any Christian book store. The bible section, besides being splintered by the proliferation of ‘specialty’ bibles, is often dwarfed by sections devoted to contemporary Christian authors, gimmicks, and games. Why all these Christian authors and their books?

Isn’t the Word of God in the form of the bible enough for us? Isn’t the Holy Spirit here with us to help us understand it? But how can we hope to be disciples of the Lord, if we do not stay constantly at His side? And how do we do this? By ‘never letting the sacred volume out of our hand,’ as Jerome says.

Instead of expanding your facilities and upgrading your film stash and other technological enhancements, get back to the bible, teaching it, studying it, learning it by heart, worshipping with it, praying it, prophesying with it, evangelizing with it, healing with it, feeding on it and living in it.

There is no other divine scripture on earth, no other literature whose sum is greater than the total of its parts, no other book so alive that it doesn’t need to be enhanced with movies and computer games.

And we think that we can do better than the living God who provided this crown for us?

Declaration of independence

Here it is, barely spring of the year of our Lord twenty fifteen, and of these United States (until the fourth day of July) two hundred thirty-nine, and already the maelstrom of pre-presidential (no, I wasn’t stuttering) madness is churning the masses, and it promises to be the worst ever. So, you thought the Civil War was bad, tearing apart families, lovers, friends and neighbors, sometimes uniting personal enemies, in the promotion of this or that ‘great cause’—the union, the abolition of slavery, whatever. No, we are already in the churning inferno, and have been, for months without knowing it, being dizzied so constantly that we didn’t notice, chasing and being chased till we’re no better than pools of butter.

Lips blabbing, non-stop already, about this or that candidate, we like partisans of competing, ancient gods, uncaring whose hearts we trample in our hot pursuit, whose minds we insult with our triumphalist, bullying rhetoric, already infect the air we breathe with our meaningless jargon. This used to be a country—I remember well, I am now sixty-four—of the ‘secret ballot.’ It used to be considered nosey and rude to press a man to find out who he was voting for. Now, it’s expected that one should announce with pride, firmness, and even finality who one is voting for, otherwise one cannot be publickly enrolled in the camp of the Reds or the Blues, and qualified to sling mud, stool, or stones at ‘the enemy.’

Well, like Sir Thomas More who would not answer his pestering opponents regarding the legality of his sovereign, Henry the Eighth’s, infidelities and usurpations, only to be tried and convicted of high treason, and sent to the block, I would rather just shut up, not only my mouth, but everyone else’s if I could, and just let human nature take its course in a well-riveted democracy that delivers its deserved despot to those dumb enough to vote him (or her) into office. Yes, we used to have presidents in these United States, and I trust, we shall have presidents again, someday, but not before we repent and return to the sullen silence that prevails when everyone minds his own business, and secretly votes for the worthy.

The venerable Flag of our commonwealth, the ‘stars and the stripes,’ or ‘the red, white, and blue,’ even till now has survived after two or more generations of bashings and burnings by the untaught, yet the splitters at work dividing the spoil and conquering our people, having nearly killed the national conscience, shred its significance daily as they pit their creations, the ‘Red’ and the ‘Blue’ nations against each other. Well, then there’s the ‘White’ nation too, which they’re happy to let exist, just so long as none of these pseudo-nations suspects that none of them really exists at all, that America the Idea cannot be so divided and subjugated, and that the icon of the venerable Flag cannot be rent asunder either.

This day I detach myself from the forms and functions of this swirling rabble orbiting the black hole of consumptive politicking. I deafen my ears to dope dealers of demagoguery, unplug the tube and earpiece—no, I won’t let them pierce my earlobes anymore with their sham thunder—and studiously wait till it’s time to turn in my ‘privacy envelope’ to whatever machine will tally them all. Not yet do even I know who I will vote for, nor is my party affiliation which I inherited along with the rest of my personal world anyone else’s business except those who administer the primaries. Finally, if you know me, forgive me if I walk away when you tell me, ‘There might be a few good Republicans.’ I know you didn’t mean it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

If anyone has ears

“Already in the Western Council of 371 it is supported that councils without the consent of the Pope are invalid. In the East, St Basil the Great mentions the ‘arrogant papal brow’, while the records of the Ecumenical Councils inform us about the papal claims the papist representatives conveyed until the 8th Ecumenical Council (879/880) under Patriarch Photius. It is internationally confirmed by history that the Orthodox East never recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome in administrative jurisdiction and authority, neither in theory nor in practice, but only in ‘position of honor.’ This means that he was first among equals… Finally, the Orthodox East’s refusal to submit to the claims of the West concerning a primacy of authority over the whole Church became the reason the papists broke away from the Church in 1054.”
— Dimitrios Tselengidis

Reading such ‘stuff’ as the above, is it any wonder that Christians cannot see eye to eye, let alone get together, be together, and stay together, following the teaching of Jesus? Why aren’t we ashamed to say such things, why don’t we blush to hear them? Instead, it warms our hearts when we hear our Christian adversaries traduced in this way, yes, but the fires of hell will do more than warm our hearts. Christian adversaries? Well, we wouldn’t call them Christians if we didn’t have to. We’re only being ‘nice’ to recognize them at all, as if we did at least give them the shallowest shadow of a doubt that they just might be trying to believe in Christ, something which we’ve got under our belts, perfect to a ‘T’. No one can hold a candle to us. We’re ‘the light of the world’ that Christ mentions in the gospel.

Anyway, if we’re cantankerous and uncooperative, it’s not our fault. The holy fathers have paved our path long before we ever arrived on the scene. If Jesus wanted us to be any different, He would’ve had the holy fathers express themselves differently. I mean, if St Basil the Great points out the obvious and St Photius guards us against their prideful errors, can we do any better or be any worse than our holy fathers? Certainly not. To the Turk we’ve always said, ‘I was born a Christian, and I will die a Christian,’ and they’ve been gladder than hell to oblige us. So, why shouldn’t we keep up our hue and cry against our mortal enemies on the other side of the aisle? After all, we know what they want—to lord it over us. The leopard can’t change its spots. They’re more dangerous than ever, because they seem so friendly.

Yes, it’s Bright Week, something I recently learned from a Catholic priest I know, they don’t have. It really surprised me. Somehow I just assumed everyone knew that Pascha, Easter, is a liturgical day that outlasts the twenty-four hours from sunset to sunset, that it stretches out, leaps across the chasm of one week’s time to become a septuplet of itself. ‘Aw,’ I thought to myself while trying to not look condescending at Father Bill, ‘they don’t have bright week… It’s so sad.’ Pushing back the walls of denominational bias can be difficult, even when we think we’re liberated from it. Just like the Hebes who couldn’t find a way through the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh if God didn’t open it, we have to depend on His help to do the impossible—love our fellow Christians—or perish like proud charioteers when the sea of grace closes.

Back to the passage quoted above, it reminds me of a sad truth that occurred to me recently. The Church has always acted as though it must protect the holiness of God and especially of the sacraments from us. We have to prove ourselves worthy by public confession of our faith and submission to all the teachings of Holy Church. Only then are we allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper, only after we’ve been shriven and washed in the saving waters of holy baptism. The Church must guard us very stringently and keep outsiders—those who don’t believe as we do—away. The unclean must not be allowed within the sacred precincts. Never mind that Christ invites all to come to Him, to receive Him, without explicit stipulations, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body which is broken for you…’

Why this is so, it seemed to me one day as I watched and heard a priest announce sternly before allowing his deacon to come out with the Holy Gifts that ‘communion is only for the Orthodox’ and ‘only those Orthodox who have prepared themselves by…’ is that the Church operates as a government, as a state. It has laws that must be obeyed. It requires steadfast loyalty and obedience. It expects to be the most important thing in our lives. Although when Christ and the apostles founded the Church, they modeled it on the family, not on the state, the challenges it has had to face have hardened it, so that if it is still a family, it is a very tight one. Though a family can be a place of love and acceptance, when it is dysfunctional it can be the loneliest and harshest place on earth, and more clannish than the Ku Klux.

Sometimes a beautiful family, one that serves God and each other in loving friendship, can devolve, little by little, into something that one must flee from. The kids can’t wait to leave home. Daughters do what they can to escape, even becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Sons escape into gangs or plain debauchery. Somewhere in the devolution the parents get a divorce. In the end, a once beautiful family is everything it cannot be, yet by stretching the imagination and with reluctant patience, forces itself to occasionally get together, but it is an unjoyful reunion, every time a funeral, even when no one has died. It doesn’t have to be this way. Though a family is divided by divorce, the kids can still be friends, still love each other, and together wait for their divorced parents to make peace. Sometimes this actually happens.

Nothing broken by us can be fixed by us, not ourselves though we try, not others because we only break them more in trying. Only Christ can fix what is broken. Only He can unite what we have divided. Only Jesus can call us back who have run away through disobedience, because it is only to Him that we must run. Through all the centuries He has remained who and what He is, and by twos and threes, threes and fours, He has been healing and saving us, all without our help, except that we let Him. Meanwhile the Church has minded its own business, tended the sheep, kept the wolves away, made sure its kingdom was secure and running smoothly, allowing no disturbance, no inspiration or enthusiasm which it could not control. Hearing, but not listening. Praying, but not obeying. Giving, but not let living. Hence, here we are.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:9-17

Yes, ‘if anyone has ears to hear, let them hear’ (Mark 4:23).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Growing up

Historically, from early Christian times till now, we read the stories of Christians who are put to various tests of a blasphemous nature to break their resolve. Those that withstood them are usually killed and become martyrs. As a young Christian I wholly approved of and adulated this kind of ‘witness,’ especially because it is ancient, even going back to the apostles themselves (maybe).

Now, as an older (and rather over-tested) Christian, though never made to trample a cross or offer incense to Caesar—what would be the modern equivalent of the latter? Perhaps, treating the President as if he were God?—I hold to a different view, which is either more mature, or maybe just pragmatic.

I believe that the Divine Nature (God) is above blasphemy just as He is above envy. As for jealousy, yes, you can say, following the Bible itself, that God is a jealous God, but still, He is not an unreasonable One. He wants our full attention, our full obedience to His commandments, but He knows us, He knows He can’t get it, and so He accepts such love as we in our weakness can muster. He waits for us.

The Bible says, ‘precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints’ (Psalm 116:15), and so people have put two and two together, and decided that they will die (like the ancient Hebrews) rather than do anything to dishonor their God. Far be it from me to judge them, but for me there is a different imperative.

You see, God cannot be dishonored, and He knows our hearts. If my soul hangs in the balance between life and death depending on whether or not I will commit a blasphemous act, or even renounce verbally my faith, then to do anything that will cause my death is almost a kind of suicide.

Can the ‘death of His saints’ that the Bible speaks of refer to death in another sense, such as death to sin, death to self? I don't pretend that that was the original meaning of the text, but the text grows as we grow. The Bible then becomes not so much a book of literal laws and commandments, but a gauge of human progress.

Progress toward what, or whom? Towards God, of course, who lets the laws be our caretakers during our racial infancy, but who really wants the true law, that of indefectible love, written on our hearts. That concept is found in the same Bible too, and literally
(cf. Jeremiah 31:33).

I think that we as a race are at a critical moment. I think that the Church is at a critical moment.

The Church needs to understand that its mission is much larger than it once thought. Its mission is to incorporate the entire race into the Body of Christ, because that is where the race must go, where it has been evolving to, since it became a conscious, reasoning entity. To accomplish its mission, the Church must grow up in the sort of way I am alluding to, whereby it knows that there is no such thing as ‘blasphemy’ just as there are no such things as ‘gods’
(cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4).

The Church has been christianizing the universe. Now, the universe expects christification.

The human race needs to understand that religion must be left behind in its evolution, but that leaves no other destiny or objective than to become the Bride of Christ. Neither theists nor atheists will find much comfort in this idea, once they understand that the dichotomy between them loses all meaning when confronted with an ultimate reality neither recognized.

Far from losing ‘God’ in the abandonment of the static structures we know as ‘religion,’ we will find ourselves not merely believing, confessing, or worshiping, but actually being wed to the real God of whom all our religions had only images. Finally, we shall, as a race, be able to honestly follow the first of the Ten commandments, ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ which will unleash us to fulfill the other nine as we enter with Him the Bridal Chamber.

‘The time is near’ (Revelation 1:3), which has been repeated generation after generation in anticipation, at long last will be pronounced with finality. The critical moment—κρίσις (KREE-sees), ‘judgment’—of the race’s stepping up, or falling down, ‘to be, or not to be,’ has arrived, as Christ Himself proclaims, ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The only news worth telling

Good news. Good news. I know there’s good news in the universe, because I see it all around me every day. I don’t have to look far. I can just look outside my window. I can just go out of my front door. I live in a country that has never known war, at least not from the outside, and not on our soil for six generations. As a very young child, I knew very old people who were children during the Civil War. The edges of our land have been nibbled and nicked by enemies, but not the great and boundless middle.

Over ten years ago I stopped watching the television news. Actually, I stopped watching television altogether. The first I stopped watching because it was rewriting my imagination with daily horrors. The second I stopped watching because I realized that my life on earth was not bestowed for entertainments. I grieved for having wasted too many hours watching to dull my senses to the flow of time. I have tried to find entertainment in the things set before me to do, by others or by myself. Yet even there, I waste.

That’s human weakness, of course. Thank God for human weakness and for sleep. Thank God also for sickness, for it forces us to slow down, even to listen instead of just hear. Good news can even consist in that—making us pause, so that we can see the world around us, and even ourselves, as God made both, calling all that comes from His hand ‘good.’ What is news about this, is that this goodness was never just a ‘once and for all’ creation or event. What is, is good, even when God has finished it, no, especially.

For once the Creator hung, unknown to His creatures, stuck on a scaffold like a wild boar pierced and held in a trap, shamed and mocked by passers-by, and before the eyes of all and with bound hands recreated the very universe, redeeming it from sin without its knowing, and with the words, ‘It is finished,’ mysteriously with His last breath breathed into mortal clay the life eternal. That time, He left it to those He saved to declare it ‘good,’ that sixth-day labor after which He rested the seventh in a tomb.

Yet even resting, He worked, clearing the threshing-floor of Hades of its wheat and chaff, certainly worth revealing to the world as ‘news,’ something that has never happened before, nor shall it ever happen again, still not, however, a ‘once and for all’ event, because from beyond time it pours itself continually into time, He taking captives in all directions, from the past, the present, and the future, and presenting them to the Father. This is the good news that I see everywhere I look. This is the only news worth telling.

For the world, oblivious to all the good with which it is surrounded and filled, runs after evil—no, not just ‘bad’ but evil, the news it spreads in writing or ‘live’ reporting—so there can be no surprise that it ignores the only news worth telling, that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life. That news is the good news. That is the message of life to a world worshiping death. All good stories flow into it, and out of it. Yes, that is the only news worth telling.

Day without night

I saw that there was no temple in the City since the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb were themselves the Temple, and the City did not need the sun or the moon for light, since it was lit by the radiant glory of God and the Lamb was a lighted torch for it. The pagan nations will live by its light and the kings of the earth will bring it their treasures. The gates of it will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there…
Revelation 21:22-25 Jerusalem Bible

The whole of the message of Christ is contained and taught in two yearly feasts: Christmas, the nativity of Christ, at the time of the winter solstice, and Easter, Pascha, the resurrection of Christ, at the time of the spring equinox. This isn’t the Church taking over two pagan religious festivals and converting them into Christian ones. This is Nature itself pointing to the truths of faith and existence given a place within the New Creation, demonstrating that there is only Christ, who is in all, and in whom all ‘live and move and have their being’ (cf. Acts 17:28).

The world wants to localize these holidays, wants to contain them within calendar dates, wants to milk us for money as ants stroke and milk their aphids for nectar, giving us short respites between ‘holidays’, between milkings, so we can sufficiently recover. It doesn’t matter to the world whether the holidays are real or not. We tend to blame commercialism for spoiling the holidays, especially Christmas but to a lesser extent Easter, but it’s not their fault. ‘It’s not against human enemies that we struggle, but against fallen spiritual powers’ (cf. Ephesians 6:12).

So, they make Christmas end with a splash of presents and crumpled, glittering wrapping paper on the afternoon of December 25th, and they’d just as soon like to see Easter disappear under mountains of discarded candy boxes and deflowered Easter lilies: all very valuable and costly in the days leading up to the holiday, and suddenly transformed by studied consumption into garbage before sundown of the Lord’s Passover. Just as there is no mention of the birth of the God-Man during official Christmas, there is no mention of His resurrection during official Easter.

For the disciples of Jesus Christ whom He has ‘set free like birds from the fowler’s net’ (cf. Psalm 124), the great and holy Pascha does not disappear after the day of Resurrection, nor does the God-Man’s taking birth from the Theotokos retreat into mere myth and folklore after the day of Incarnation: These holidays are not days that inhabit one number on the world calendar. They are not days at all, as we experience them, but entrances into the Divine Nature, into the life eternal, the life of the Holy Triad, which begins in time but proves to contain even time itself.

In Christ’s birth, God becomes Man, not once, but forever, taking human nature up into the Divine Nature, divinizing the whole Tree that Man is, Himself one of us, by hanging on that Tree as its first fruit.

In Christ’s resurrection, Man becomes God, not once, but forever, reopening to us the gates of Paradise, a Serpent raised on a stake, inviting us to partake of the Fruit of the tree of life, renewing all creation.

In Christ’s birth, the two greatest commandments, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:27) become One commandment: to love your neighbor is to love God, thus brotherly love is theological.

In Christ’s resurrection, His entire life as Man becomes the pattern of our life, and only by following Him, by doing what we see Him doing, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill’ (Matthew 5:17), can we fulfill the One commandment, becoming by grace what He is by nature.

Tradition mandates twelve days to celebrate the birth of Christ, and after the day of His resurrection an entire week is gathered up into a single liturgical day, and a total of forty calendar days will hear the greeting ‘Christ is risen! He is truly risen!’ But after celebration, life must go on. We still must live our day to day lives. Tomorrow, I must return to the office and deal with what I find there, pretending to be ‘only human’ when I know by the testimony of His rising from the dead, that Christ is with me, even as He stands in the Presence of His Father, for He says ‘where I am, there will My servant be also’
(John 12:26).

In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus: His state was divine, yet He did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the conditions of a slave, and became as all men are; and being as all men are, He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised Him high and gave Him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11 Jerusalem Bible

This, beloved brethren, is the Day of Resurrection,
the Day without night,
the Life without death,
and the Love without end.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Because the King is asleep

Saturday is the Sabbath of the Lord's Rest, when His body sleeps in the tomb and His Spirit-filled soul descends to Hades (or She‘ol, in Hebrew) to destroy its power over mankind, and lead the captives held there to safety and salvation. It is the work that Christ does on the seventh day that is the most paradoxically powerful act of sleeping that ever was, as the Psalm declares, ‘He provides for His beloved as they sleep.’

Yes, and what a sleep! Both His, in the new tomb, and ours, when we sleep in Him, which is the only way we or anyone can truly awake.

Brethren, let us give glory to the Victor over death whose work is hidden from the world that He has saved, yet He saves them all the same.

Something strange is happening.
There is a great silence on earth today,
a great silence and stillness.
The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.

The earth trembled and is still
because God has fallen asleep in the flesh,
and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.
God has died in the flesh and she’ol trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parents,
as for a lost sheep.
Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve,
He who is both God and the son of Eve.

The Lord approached them bearing the cross,
the weapon that had won Him the victory.
At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created,
struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone,
‘My Lord be with you all.’
Christ answered him, ‘And with your spirit.’

He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying,
‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.
For I am your God,
who for your sake have become your son.
Out of love for you and for your descendants
I now by My own authority command—
all who are held in bondage to come forth,
all who are in darkness to be enlightened,
all who are sleeping to arise.

‘I order you, O sleeper, to awake.
I did not create you to be held a prisoner in she‘ol.
Arise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.
Arise, work of My hands.
Arise, O My likeness,
you who were created in My image.
Rise, let us leave this place,
for you are in Me and I am in you.
Together we form only one person
and we cannot be separated.

‘For your sake I, your God, became your son;
For your sake I, the Lord, took the form of a slave;
For your sake I, whose home is above the heavens,
descended to the earth and beneath the earth.
For your sake, for the sake of man,
I became like a man without help,
free among the dead.

‘For the sake of you, who left a garden,
I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden,
and I was crucified in a garden.

‘See on My face the spittle I received
in order to restore to you the life
I once breathed into you.
See there the marks of the blows I received
in order to refashion your warped nature
in My image.
See on My back the marks of the scourging I endured
to remove the burden of sin
that weighs upon your back.
See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree,
for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand
to a tree.

‘I slept on the cross
and a sword pierced My side for you
who slept in paradise
and brought forth Eve from your side.

‘My side has healed the pain in yours;
My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in she‘ol.
The sword that pierced Me
has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

‘Arise, let us leave this place.

‘The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise.
I will not restore you to that paradise,
but I will enthrone you in heaven.
I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life,
but see,
I who am life itself am now one with you.
I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded,
but now I make them worship you as God.

‘You hid yourselves, as if naked, from God:
but behold—
hidden within you is the naked God.

‘The throne formed by cherubim awaits you,
its bearers swift and eager.
The bridal chamber is adorned,
the banquet is ready,
the eternal dwelling places are prepared,
the treasure houses of all good things lie open.
The kingdom of heaven
has been prepared for you
from all eternity.’

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.

King of Glory

Anger can be replaced with love, and ‘warning against’ can be replaced with ‘inviting to,’ but what is most important, is to follow the Lord's instructions every day, as you follow Him in the world.

As for me, I am a servant who has been told, ‘Go to the highways and byways and find wedding guests to fill My banquet hall.’

Loving the stranger may not be as effective in fighting evil in the world in the short term, and you may even have to pay with your life, but in the long term, love wins.

Christ going down to Hades, to She’ol, is no ‘frog in a well’. He went down there and emptied it of its captives, bringing them to Paradise.

The more closely we follow Him, even in His descent into hell, the more miracles and resurrections we will see happening around us, by His power, and the more certain and faithful we will become, as His witnesses.

There is a saying, ‘not the world, my parish, but my parish, the world.’

What you know, what you have learned from your experiences in this world, is part of the armory which the Lord, the King of kings of kings (blessed be He!), has given to you, but the battle is still His.

Let Him direct you in what weapons to use, as you follow Him into battle. You witness by living as though the resurrection were a fact, and the victory already won. Why?

Because He did rise from the dead, and the victory was, and continues to be, won, but only from the throne of His cross, where He is seen to be ‘the King of Glory.’

This is hard for us to assimilate, and to accept, but Jesus said to Peter, ‘Don't you know that My Father could send myriads of angels to defend Me? Put away your sword, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.’

How will the world know who Christ is?

By seeing His disciples loving, not just each other—that is a given—but also those who are not yet one of them, even… their enemies.

The world and life wear down our sharp and cutting edges, and Christ lets the experiences of our lives polish us to a very bright sheen, but He rounds us, and makes us worthy stones to be built into His spiritual temple, His Body.

That is so we will be found worthy to be one of the building blocks of His heavenly City when it finally descends to earth, and the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of Christ and His saints.

Love to you, and peace, brothers and sisters in Christ, love and peace, in the midst of this world of war.

Christos anesti. Christ is risen.

Let's live today as if He really did rise, because He is with us right now, in this very room, to accept our faith, and by means of it, to transform us into creatures worthy of eternal life.

Trophy-bearers of the holy fire

Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 
I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
John 12:44-50 NIV

No matter how you cut it up, the fourth gospel is loaded with meaning, with truth, in each and every utterance of Christ which the evangelist records. We call him John the theologian because we can sense the presence of man’s struggle with God in every line, man wanting and not wanting to be what God has created him to be, and God firmly insisting that there’s no other option. Eternal life is open and free, but only to those who really want to live.

People call church teachings and philosophy ‘theology’ and they say that they go to school and ‘read theology’ eventually becoming ‘masters.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is some value in learning the signs this way, so that when real theology happens to us, we will recognize it for what it is, and not shrug it off as ‘just what happens.’ Theology is struggle, and Christ came to persuade us to take it on and to show us its purpose.

The same words of Jesus can ignite the fires of theology and of hell. ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already’ (Luke 12:49 JB). This is no mythological Prometheus who will steal fire from the heaven of the gods and then be eternally tortured for it, though even in the myth the fire-thieving Titan is said to have created man from clay and then sacrificed himself for their benefit, for the divine fire is the agent of transformation both in myth and in reality.

Curious that the makers of religion can slip through the inferno that Christ provides, and erect towers of their own wisdom to raise them above the flames. All the while, far below them, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, those fire-sifters, the true theologians tread the flames with the Son of God, who cools the fires of their flesh and blows upon the fire of their spirits, transforming them into images of Himself and, like Him, trophy-bearers of the holy fire.

‘The Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life,’ says Jesus, who not only tells us exactly what is in the Father’s mind, but shows us even what the Father looks like. And, far from using threats or force, far from exalting himself over us as our judge—though as the Son of God He has every right—He tells us that not He, but the words He has spoken, will judge us on the last day, making us write our own sentences.

In the gospel, not just according to John but in all four gospels, we have been told and shown everything we need to know about ourselves, where we come from, where we are going. We are even released from religious bondage and fear, not as the atheist imagines himself free by denying Reason and its Source, but by acknowledging Reason in a form we can recognize, a man just like us, who came not once but comes forever, to bestow upon His race the power of words.