Monday, May 2, 2016

The Resurrection of Christ and the Rise of Christianity

"The historical aspect of our Christian faith means that any historical evidence that can disprove the resurrection of Christ would immediately and definitively undermine that faith. But no such evidence exists. On the contrary, it points us toward the genuineness and authenticity of those very claims."

Icon depicting the apostles Simon Peter and John entering the empty tomb, and finding the linen cloths and the napkin. "Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed" (JN 20:3-9).

Orthodox Christians believe that the New Testament Church and the Christian faith itself appeared at a particular point in history because the crucified Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. The cause behind the emergence of the Church and the Christian Faith was not a crucified, dead and buried Jesus. Rather, that very crucified, dead and buried Jesus was revealed to be both Lord and Christ following His Resurrection “on the third day.” 

God vindicated the messianic claims of Jesus when He raised Jesus from the dead “according to the Scriptures.” Contemporary Orthodox Christians readily agree with the Apostle Paul’s insistence on the absolute centrality of the bodily resurrection of Christ as the foundation of Christian faith in Jesus: "If Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain and our preaching is in vain” (1 Cor. 15). Among all Christians this has been an overwhelming consensus since the initial witness of the apostles to the Risen Lord.

But since the emergence of critical biblical scholarship within the last two centuries or so, we find Christian scholars and those influenced by them questioning, reinterpreting or openly denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This process may be more accelerated today, or simply more prominent and public in its expression. A vivid – if not lurid - expression of this skeptical approach to the resurrection claims of the first Christians can be found in the work of the New Testament scholar Dom Dominic Crossan. In his reconstruction of events, the body of the crucified Jesus was discarded in a shallow grave, there to suffer the further humiliation of becoming the food of ravenous dogs. That is also the kind of counter-claim that will attract a good deal of publicity. 

This threatens to undermine a consistent and long-standing witness among all Christians that points to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ among the great “religious founders” within human history. That uniqueness was articulated by Prof. Veselin Kesich in the following manner in his book The First Day of the New Creation:

For the members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, the resurrection of Christ was above all an event in the life of their Master, and then also in their own lives. After meeting Christ following his resurrection, they could have said with St. Paul that necessity was laid upon them to preach the gospel of resurrection (1 Cor. 9:16). Christianity spread throughout the Greco-Roman world with the proclamation that Jesus who died on the cross was raised to a new life by God. The message of Christianity is without parallel in religious history in its content and in its demand. (p. 15)

The Risen Christ spoke to His disciples about “belief” in His Resurrection even among those who did not “see” Him as those very first disciples did. This was in response to the Apostle Thomas’ movement from unbelief to belief when Jesus appeared to Thomas and offered him to probe the wounds in His hands and side: “You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” (Jn. 20:29). 

Clearly, the presence of faith is essential in confessing that Jesus has been raised from the dead: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (ROM. 10:9). However, in perhaps challenging a misconceived understanding of faith, this does not mean that believing that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead is an irrational leap into the unbelievable and indefensible.

AUDIO PODCAST: Living in the Light of the Resurrection


In May 2008, Fr Steven gave a two-part talk on the Resurrection, at Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, to a retreat of the Midwest Antiochian Women's Association.

This warm and inspiring, richly developed presentation on the Resurrection of Christ was digitally recorded in excellent quality, and made available as a special podcast on Ancient Faith Radio. We are happy to make it available again here during the Paschal season.

There's a special message right at the start, where Fr. Steven speaks of how easy it is to "miss Bright Week", due to our exhaustion following the rigors of Holy Week. Reflecting on the Resurrection of Christ and how to Live in the Light of that reality is the point of Fr. Steven's talk, so we may hopefully live more fully in the New Life the Lord has given us.

You can play these talks in your browser, or save to your computer, smartphone or tablet. Share the joyful message of the reality and meaning of Christ's Bodily Resurrection with your family and friends!


Part 1: Theological and Historical Aspects of the Resurrection
Direct Link - Play in Popup, or Download - Transcript

Part 2: Living in the Light of the Resurrection
Direct Link - Play in Popup, or Download - Transcript

Monday, April 25, 2016

Holy Week: The Ultimate Perspective

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Icon of Christ the Bridegroom, sitting above the star at Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

At the beginning of Holy Week we contemplate “The End”—of the earthly ministry of Christ, of our own lives and the judgment that will lead to, and of the “end of the world.” In other words, there is something of an “apocalyptic edge” to the texts of the services, beginning with the Scriptures and extending into the hymnography. Another term would be “eschatological,” meaning the “last things” in relation to the fulfillment of God’s design for the world.

That may initially sound like a strange combination of themes. After all, our major concern and focus is upon our Lord voluntarily going up to Jerusalem in order to ascend the Cross in the flesh. But right before the Son of Man ascends the Cross, He solemnly declares, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” [John 12:31].  In judging Christ, “the world” judges itself. Sin and darkness seem to prevail when the Innocent Christ is led away to be crucified. The triumph of such darkness can freeze the heart and lead many to despair, the very fate of the disciples at this time. As the prophet Amos said, “The one who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day” [Amos 2:16; cf. Mark 14:51-52].  Where do we stand?

It is striking that in the hymns for the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Tuesday, for example, there are not many direct references to the Passion of Christ. There is much more of a combination of exhortation and warning to us—the contemporary disciples of Christ—concerning our relationship to Christ, to the world, and to our neighbor.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Turning towards the Ultimate Reality

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In just a few hours, Great Lent will be over for this Year of the Lord 2016.  We are on the eve of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.  We will celebrate both of these great Feast Days over the course of the next two days. 

Then, of course, Holy Week will begin with the Bridegroom Matins on Sunday evening.  Fr. Sergius Bulgakov once described Holy Week as a "mystic torrent" that carries us along toward the paschal mystery of the Lord's death and resurrection. 

Everything around us in our lives is "real" - sometimes "all too real" - but in my mind what occurs in the church during the Holy Week services is somehow "more real."  Or, at least as revealing the ultimate realities of life if Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God; and if His death is the death of God on our behalf and for our salvation.  Everyone must make their choices as to what extent they are willing or able to participate in this ultimate Reality.

At the same time, with a glance back at the last forty days, we may want to make an assessment of our "lenten efforts."  Did I "redeem the time;" or did it slip away despite my intentions and actions? 

As one way of making such an assessment, I am re-sending a text that I sent out on the first day or so of Great Lent.  St. Theodore really gets to the deeper meaning of Great Lent, far beyond my eating or viewing habits (yet not to be shrugged at, considering our level of dependence in this area).  So, here is what I wrote and shared about forty days ago (and let's hope that we don't have to wince too much in reading this again!):

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Great Canon and St Mary of Egypt

Dear Parish Faithful,

Icon of St Mary of Egypt, with scenes from her Life.

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is prescribed in its entirety (about 260 troparia!) to be chanted on the fifth Thursday of Great Lent.  We were able to chant a part of the Canon yesterday evening.  In his book Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes the following about the place of the Canon in our Lenten journey when we arrive to the fifth Thursday:

If at the beginning of Lent this Canon was like a door leading us into repentance, now at the end of Lent it sounds like a "summary" of repentance and its fulfillment.  If at the beginning we merely listened to it, now hopefully its words have become our words, our lamentation, our hope and repentance, and also an evaluation of our Lenten effort:  how much of all this has truly been ours?  how far have we come along the path of this repentance? 
For all that which concerns us is coming to its end.  From now on we are following the disciples, "as they were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them".  (Great Lent, p. 78)

And yesterday evening we also read the deeply moving and compunctionate Life of St. Mary of Egypt.  This reading of the great saint's Life  in the prayerful atmosphere of the darkened church adds a further dimension to the depths of our Lenten liturgical experience.  In the words of Panayiotis Nellas, in his book Deification in Christ - The Nature of the Human Person:

Furthermore, St. Mary of Egypt is likewise present.  The reading of her life does not have as its aim simply to move the faithful.  It plays in the service an organic part which is at once deeper and more real.  
The Orthodox faithful know very well that the feast day of a saint is not a simple honoring of a holy person or a recollection of his life for didactic reasons.  Rather, it is a real participation in his life, his struggles, his victory and his glory.  The reading of his life takes place in order to bring the saint amongst us in a true and real manner with his whole life and all his struggles... 
The reading of the life of the saints is a liturgical act.  It takes place within another form of time, liturgical time, and together with all the other ritual elements it creates another form of space, liturgical space... 
Thus the liturgical reading of the life of St. Mary makes the saint present in the assembly of the faithful in a sacramental manner, so that she can accompany them and struggle with them in the contest of repentance and prayer.

It seems to me that we had the largest gathering of faithful for this service that at least I can recall.  I hope something of what Fr. Alexander and Panayiotis Nellas wrote was experienced by all who were present.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

More from The Ladder - The Acquisition of the Virtues

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Continued from Part 1...

Yet St. John was not content with only analyzing the passions that torment us and lead us away from God.  He also wrote with great eloquence of the virtues that we are to "acquire" with and by the grace of God, so that as the passions are overcome, we recover and restore our human nature by becoming what we were meant to be: vessels of the virtues that come from God,  essentially a gift of the Holy Spirit present within us.

As we cited him earlier as saying, this is hard work; but it is worthy work that sets us apart as both rational and spiritual beings, created "according to the image and likeness of God."  Although St. John enumerates a lesser number of virtues in comparison to the number of the passions that he describes, the passages dealing with the virtues are often much longer.  Some of these virtues, to use a term that Archbishop Ware employs, are the "fundamental" virtues of:

  • obedience - "Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, an unprepared defense before God ... "  (STEP 4)
  • penitence - "Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. (The penitent stands guilty - but undisgraced.) It is the purification of conscience."   (STEP 5)
  • remembrance of death - "Fear of death is a property of nature due to disobedience, but terror of death is a sign of unrepented sins."  (STEP 6)
  • sorrow - "Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow of holy compunction and do not cease laboring for it until it lifts you high above the things of the world."  (STEP 7)

Ultimately, as one ascends the ladder, "higher virtues" may be experienced.  Since these higher virtues are listed in Steps beyond those describing the passions, it is implied that to experience these virtues is to have reached a certain level of "dispassion."

Dispassion, of course, has nothing to do with indifference or impassivity.  (Often apatheia is translated as "apathy" and this is completely misleading).  An earlier saint, St. Diachochus of Photice speaks of the "fire of dispassion." As St. John wrote:  "To have dispassion is to have the fullness of love, by which I mean the complete indwelling of God."

In other words a successful "warfare against the passions" has its own rewards as the grace of God begins to illuminate genuine repentance.  These "higher virtues" are:

  • Simplicity - "Simplicity is an enduring habit within a soul that has grown impervious to evil thoughts."  (STEP 24)
  • Humility - "The man with humility ... will be gentle, kind, inclined to compunction, sympathetic, calm in every situation, radiant, inoffensive, alert and active."  (STEP 25)
  • Discernment - "Discernment is ... understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things, and it is found among those who are pure in heart, in body and in speech."  (STEP 26)

It was St. John of the Ladder who created the term "joy-creating sorrow."  We experience "sorrow" when we acknowledge our sinfulness and estrangement from God; but this becomes a "joyful sorrow" through repentance and an awareness of the forgiving nature of God experienced as God's grace.  In a well-know passage, St. John offers a wonderful description of this experience:

God does not demand or desire that someone should mourn out of sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice with the laughter of the soul.  Take away sin and then the sorrowful tears that flow from bodily eyes will be superfluous. Why look for a bandage when you are not cut?  Adam did not weep before the fall, and there will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow and lamentation will have taken flight.  (STEP 7)

At the summit of the Ladder of divine ascent, we find what could be described as the "transition to the contemplative life," according to Archbishop Ware.  With words that must reveal a real experience, St. John will describe:

  • Stillness - "Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one's thoughts and is an unassailable mind."  (STEP 27)
  • Prayer - "Future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul ... an axe against despair, hope demonstrated."  (STEP 28)
  • Dispassion - "By dispassion I mean a heaven of the mind within the heart, which regards the artifice of demons as a contemptible joke."  (STEP 29)
  • Love - The person who wants to talk about love is undertaking to speak about God.  But it is risky to talk about God and could even be dangerous for the unwary. Angels know how to speak about love, but even they do so only in proportion to the light within them.  "God is love" (I JN. 4:16).  But someone eager to define this is blind striving to measure the sand in the ocean. Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible.  In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility. Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil.   (STEP 30)

A spiritual psychologist seemingly without peer, St. John leads up The Ladder of Divine Ascent through victory over the passions and the acquisition of the virtues.  On however a modest level, that is our goal during Great Lent.  It is a blessing, indeed, to have as a guide such a master of the Christian life who can inspire us to rise above our fallen nature. St. John closed his classic work of the spiritual life with the following exhortation:

Ascend... ascend eagerly. Let your hearts' resolve be to climb. Listen to the voice of the one who says, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of our God" (Isa. 2:3), Who makes our feet to be like the feet of a deer. "Who sets us on the high places, that we may be triumphant on His road" (Hab. 3:19).
Run, I beg you, run with him who said, "Let us hurry until we arrive at the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, at mature manhood, at the measure of the stature of Christ's fullness" (Eph. 4:13). Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise dominion, power. In Him is the cause, past present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

'With the Utmost Profit' - The Ladder of Divine Ascent for Us Today

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate the great monastic saint and writer, St. John Climacus (of the Ladder).  St. John (+ c. 650), abbot of one of the most ancient monasteries in the Christian world, at the foot of Jebul Musa, Moses' Mount, on the Sinai Peninsula, was an austere ascetic who wrote what may be the classic work of our spiritual tradition:  The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 

According to Arch. Kallistos Ware:  "With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus." 

Today, a few English translations have been available for some time now (e.g., here, here, here), so an English-speaking body of the faithful now has access to this spiritual classic. Here is a work, then, that has nurtured endless generations of Christian believer seeking to deepen their relationship with God in and through Christ. 

Commemorating St. John on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent reminds us that a major component of our lenten effort is focused on being ascetical to some degree; and that any ascetical effort must be placed within a larger context of warfare against the passions and the attainment of those key virtues that mark the life of a committed Christian.  St. John provides an example and a body of teaching both through his mode of life and again, through his enduring spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Something to keep in mind as our lenten efforts may just be starting to sag at this point in the season.

There is no doubt from the beginning of his work, that St. John is writing as a monastic for fellow monastics.  But that hardly limits St. John's scope of intended readers.  To again turn to Archbishop Ware, he writes:

"Yet does it therefore follow that The Ladder is of no interest to those in the 'world'?  Surely not.  It has in fact been read with the utmost profit by many thousands of married Christians, and whatever the author's original intention, there is nothing surprising in that ... Whether monastic or married, all the baptized are responding to the same Gospel call; the outward conditions of their response may vary, but the path is essentially one."  

There is a wonderful passage at the outset of The Ladder that clearly affirms the "universal" appeal of St. John's teaching:

God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old. He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception.  "For God is no respecter of persons." (ROM. 2:11)  (STEP 1)

And more specifically, with married persons in the world in mind, St. John writes:

Do whatever good you may.  Speak evil of not one. Rob no one.  Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate.  Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies.  Show compassion to the needy.  Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone.  Stay away from the bed of another ... If you do all of this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.  (STEP 1)

Therefore, his succinct definition of what it means to be a Christian embraces both those "in the world," and those who practice withdrawal "from the world:"

A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity.  (STEP 1)

Contrary to many "self-help" Christian writers today, who may prove to be less than insightful about the rebellion of our sinful minds and bodies, St. John is very sober and realistic - we could say, very "upfront" - about the intense challenges that a life based on the precepts of the Gospel will be for the honest seeker:

Violence (cf. MATT. 11:12) and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to heaven with the body, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness.  It is hard, truly hard.  (STEP 1)

Concerning the role of the body in the over-all Christian life, and the difficult question of the relationship between soul and body, and the inherent tensions in that relationship, if not outright struggle/warfare; St. John has a text of extraordinary insight concerning the "mystery" of the relationship between body and soul that has hardly been matched since he wrote:

By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine?  By what precedent can I judge him?  Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him.  How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him?  How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever?  How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me?  How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature?  How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side? ... If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues.  I embrace him.  And I turn away from him.  What is this mystery in me?  What is the principle of this mixture of body and soul?  (STEP 15)

The main section of The Ladder is made up of the Steps in which St. John lists and analyzes the most prominent and troubling of the "passions" so as to then offer guidance as to how to overcome them and replace them with a corresponding virtue.  One way of many of describing a major component of the spiritual life is to say that it is a "warfare against the passions."  Without success in this battle, we cannot hope to attain purity of heart. According to how Archbishop Ware helps to summarize the contents of The Ladder, the "passions" can be listed as those that are physical and material, such as:

  • gluttony - "Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach.  Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed, and crammed, it wails about hunger."  (STEP 14)
  • lust - "This demon is especially on the lookout for our weak moments and will viciously assail us when we are physically unable to pray against it." (STEP 15)
  • avarice - "Anger and gloom never leave the miserly." (STEP 16-17)

And those that are non-physical, such as:

  • anger - "Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed.  Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you." (STEP 8)
  • malice  - "Worms thrive in a rotten tree; malice thrives in the deceptively meek and silent." (STEP 9)
  • slander - "Slander is the offspring of hatred, a subtle and yet crass disease, a leech in hiding and escaping notice, wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love." (STEP 10)
  • talkativeness - "It is hard to keep water in without a dike.  But it is harder still to hold in one's tongue." (STEP 11)
  • falsehood - "Lying is the destruction of charity, and perjury the very denial of God." (STEP 12)
  • despondency - "Tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of mind, a neglect of religious exercises ... A laziness in the singing of psalms, a weakness in prayer." (STEP 13)
  • insensitivity - "Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag ... He looks people in the eye with passion and talks about chastity." (STEP 18-20)
  • fear - "Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity.  Fear is a loss of assurance." (STEP 21)
  • vainglory - "A vainglorious person is a believer - and an idolator. Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men." (STEP 22)
  • pride  - "Most of the proud never really discover their true selves. They think they have conquered their passions and they find out how poor they really are only after they die." (STEP 23)