Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Embracing the Tradition


Dear Parish Faithful,

The meditation below was written with the upcoming Dormition Fast (August 1-14)  in mind in addition to the incredible account of the Seven Maccabean martyrs.  It is that wonderfully-placed mid-summer reminder that we are called to be practicing Orthodox Christians.  The practicing Orthodox Christian combines orthodoxy ("right belief")  with orthopraxis ("right practice/action").

Or, as St. John Chrysostom said, "This is true piety: to combine right belief and right action."  Orthopraxis combines prayer and almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6).  All of this is to prepare us to honor the most holy Theotokos.


Embracing the Tradition


On August 1, we will commemorate the Seven Holy Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their teacher, all of whom were put to death in the year 168 BC.  As such, they were protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the later martyrs of the Christian era.  They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  

After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture.  By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism.  The Jews would then become like the “other nations,” and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished.  This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time (142 - 63 BC) before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law.  Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died.  He was simply asked to “pretend” to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so.  In reply, his dying words as recorded in the first book of Maccabees eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God: 

"Send me quickly to my grave.  If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate.  If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man’s punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty.
"So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws."

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers and their mother Salomone were arrested.  They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said:  “We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers”  (2 Maccabees 7:2).  

Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhuman means.  All of this was witnessed by their mother, who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day.  Acting “against nature,” she encouraged her children “in her native tongue” to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh: 

"You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames.  It is the Creator of the universe who moulds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self”  (2 Maccabees 7:22-23).  

We find in her last sentence, a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son.  He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to “abandon his ancestral customs.”  Salomone his mother was urged to “persuade her son,” which she did in the following manner: 

“My son, take pity on me.  I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age.  I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God’s mercy I may receive you back again along with them”  (2 Maccabees 7:27-29). 

In verse 28, we hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates “ex nihilo”—from nothing—in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after both witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:  

“My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God’s covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God.  I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers”  (2 Maccabees 7:36-37).  

We then simply read, in verse 39, that “after her sons, the mother died.”

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today.  We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple matyrdoms—and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God—but this is far-removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities.  In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as being overly zealous, if not fanatical.  The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens.  Be that as it may, I believe that we have something greater than mere passing importance that we can learn from this ancient story.

In several days—also on August 1—we will begin the Dormition Fast.  We are encouraged by the Church—our “Mother” we could say—to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual well-being.  

This is part of an Orthodox “way of life” that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church.  We also could say that such practices belong to the “laws of our fathers.”  By embracing such practices we continue in the Tradition that has been handed down to us, the Tradition that we have “received.”  To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition.  That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our “minority status” in the landscape of American religion.  

The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding society and its mores, which are often reduced to finding the meaning of life in “eating, drinking and making merry.”  There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith.  But there is a never-ending drone that “pollutes” the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of how pleasingly it is presented.  In other words, a dear price is paid for the comforts of conformity.

We are hardly being asked to be martyrs but we are being asked to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent.  If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very received Tradition we claim to follow and respect.  

Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members.  We are responsible for preparing the next generation.  Mothers—and fathers!—can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding.  This has nothing to do with mere “legalism,” but with a “way of life” that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past.  

And, as with the Seven Maccabee Children, it is ultimately a matter of choice.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Venerable Martyr and Grand Duchess Elizaveta


Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Martyr of the Communist Yoke


Last Saturday, July 18,  we commemorated the Venerable Martyr and Grand Duchess Elizaveta (Elizabeth) Feodorovna.  She was truly a remarkable woman who died as a martyr as the hands of the Bolsheviks on that date in 1918.  Her extraordinary life and her many accomplishments have been well-recorded through the years.  I focused on her within the homily at yesterday's Liturgy.  I have included here a brief synopsis of her life as found on the OCA webpage.

For those who would want to be more acquainted with her life, I have the following link to a book from her primary biographer, Lubov Millar: Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia

There is also a new-published children's version of her life with wonderful illustrations, found at the link below.  This life is from a excellent series of saint's lives from the hand of a Romanian Orthodox Christian and illustrator.  I read their version of the Life of St. Nektarios, and it was very well-done: Holy New Martyr Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia

Saturday, July 18, 2015

'A Human Being Fully Alive' ~ St Basil on our creation 'according to the image of God', Pt 2.


Dear Parish Faithful,


St. Basil was quite realistic about our current and very human condition, regardless of our original creation from the hands of God.  We outlined his teaching in a previous meditation from earlier this week.  If we do not carefully and vigilantly cultivate our relationship with God, and thus struggle to place the rational/spiritual aspect of our soul above our instinctive and emotional impulses and drives, we will find ourselves subject to the passions, described by St. Basil with a vivid and almost merciless realism in his discourse on the origin of humanity.

In other words, as human beings we have the capacity to "ascend" toward God (as we grow in the likeness of God); but we also have the capacity to "descend" to an animal level (to become utterly unlike God) due to a sin-inclined misuse of our free will/self determination.  St. Basil will employ animal imagery to drive this point home, because a good part of his discourse was directed toward demonstrating how we are superior to animals - "and let them rule wild beasts" - based upon our use of reason:

"And let them rule the wild beasts."  You rule every wild beast.  So, you say, what beasts do I have in myself?  Indeed you have thousands, and a great crowd of beasts in yourself.  And do not consider this statement to be an outrage.  Anger is a little beast when it barks in the heart.  Is it not wilder than every dog?  Is not the deceit lurking in a deceitful soul harder to tame than every lurking bear? Is not hypocrisy a beast? Is not one sharp in insults a scorpion?  Is not one who in hiding strikes out in revenge more dangerous than a viper?  Is the greedy person not a rapacious wolf?
What kind of beast is not in us?  Is not the one mad for women a raging horse? For Scripture says, "They have become horses mad for women, each neighing toward his neighbor's wife" (Jer. 5:8).  It does not say he spoke to the woman, but he neighed.  It transferred him to the nature of those without reason, because of the passion with which he associated himself.  Therefore there are many beasts in us.

Rule the thoughts in yourself, that you may become ruler of all beings. Thus the rule we have been given over the animals trains us to rule the things belonging to ourselves.  For it is misplaced to be governed at home and govern nations, to be ruled within by a prostitute and be mayor of the city by public consent.  It is necessary that household affairs be managed well and that good order within be arranged, and thus to receive authority over others.  Since the word of Scripture will be turned back at you by those you rule if your household affairs are disorderly and disorganized, namely "Physician, heal yourself," (Lk. 4:23), let us hear ourselves first.
Nobody is condemned for not catching a lion, but one who will not govern anger is ridiculous to everyone. So one who does not prevail over his own passion is led to condemnation, while one who cannot prevail over wild beasts does not appear to have done anything worthy of blame. 
—On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse I, p. 47-48

Things can get out-of-control very quickly when the passions rule us instead of being ruled! Yet St. Basil, as well as the majority of the Eastern Fathers, was an "optimist" in that he believed that we can train ourselves in virtue through the reading of the Holy Scriptures, remaining heedful to the commandments of Christ, and living as a genuine Christian the life offered to us from within the Church.  Thus, he could end his first discourse "On the Origin of Humanity:  On that which is according to the Image" with a positive exhortation that reveals his "anthropological optimism:"


May the Lord who has provided what is written, who has also enabled our small and weak tongue to converse thus with you, who through our weak reason has intimated a great treasure for you in the few outlines of truth, give to you through small things great things, through a few seeds the perfection of knowledge, may he grant to us complete reward of our free choice and that you be fulfilled in the fruit of your enjoyment of divine words, and thereby to him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.  Amen. 
—Discourse I, p. 48

When we discuss the creation of the human person and what it means to be truly human, we are discussing Orthodox Christian anthropology.  The Greek word for human being is, of course, anthropos, and that yields our English anthropology.  It is of the greatest importance that we understand and grasp the anthropology of the Church as we make our way in a secularized and even godless world today.  In addition to the "anthropological optimism" that I mentioned above, St. Basil also taught what we could call an "anthropological maximalism."  This stresses the ultimate dignity of each and every human person, "created according to the image and likeness of God."  The human person is seen to have "maximal meaning" as a potential child of God with an eternal destiny prepared for us by God.  This is because we are not simply a physical/biological being destined for oblivion.  

Since we exist because God created us, and since "In him [God] we live and move and have our being" (ACTS 17:28), we can further call St. Basil's teaching a "theocentric anthropology." We are "God-centered" because we come from God; our lives are centered in God.  This is the anthropology of the Church. All of this is inherent in that incomparable scriptural verse:  "Let us make the human being according to our image and likeness." (GEN. 1:26)

This teaching contrasts dramatically with the "anthropological minimalism" presented in today's post-modern world.  It is indeed "minimalist" to claim that we are solely the result of evolutionary processes that restrict human nature to the mere physical/biological level.  There is no real "destiny" implied in this minimalist view, except our inevitable "date with death" which will return us to the nothingness from which we accidentally emerged. Such a minimalist understanding of the human person leads to a moral and ethical relativism, in which we are defined by our desires and our "rights."  That is when "anything goes."   

St. Basil was perfectly aware that "nature alone ... is nothing and worthy of nothing." Now that is realistic.  It is only the presence of God as Creator that lifts us above such nothingness, His creative presence implied in the remainder of St. Basil's exegesis of GEN. 1:26:  "but if you look toward the honor with which he is honored, the human is great." ("On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 2:  On the human being", p. 49)

Our task as Orthodox Christians is to be worthy of the "greatness" that has been bestowed on us as a gift "from on high" when we were created "according to the image and likeness" of God.  Christ restored that gift to us and for us through His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension.  St. Irenaeus declared that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.  The saint meant "alive" by the Spirit of God. That kind of life may just be our most powerful witness to the Gospel.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'And let them rule...' ~ St Basil on our creation 'according to the image of God'


Dear Parish Faithful,

I am currently reading a collection of homilies by St. Basil the Great (+379), gathered together under the title On the Human Condition, and translated by Sister Nonna Verna Harrison, an Orthodox nun who is herself a noted Patristic scholar. 

Some of the homilies are prolonged and profound theological explorations of what it means to be created "according to the image and likeness of God;" as in the first one in the collection,  "On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse I:  On that which is according to the Image."  Others are concerned with a more specific topic, such as "Homily Against Anger," and "Homily on the Words, 'Be Attentive to Yourself''." 

The blurb on the back cover succinctly captures St. Basil's style, regardless of the particular theme he is addressing:  "St. Basil the Great addresses the questions posed by the human condition with characteristic clarity, balance, and sobriety."  I would add that St. Basil invariably grounds whatever theme he is addressing in a profound knowledge and use of the Holy Scriptures.  In fact, we could say that the Father taught nothing unless it was found in the Scriptures. The great Church Fathers really knew and understood the Bible!

Where the Church Fathers really excelled was in their exegesis (interpretation) of perhaps the most important verse in the Scriptures concerning the creation of the human being. And that verse, of course, is GEN. 1:26:  "Let us make the human being according to our image and likeness."  The Fathers found this verse to be endlessly fascinating and virtually impossible to fully capture in a definitive manner.  There are always new depths and new insights into human nature that this scriptural revelation allows us to unfold when approached with "clarity, balance, and sobriety."

The first homily in the collection as mentioned above is St. Basil's wonderful and wide-ranging exploration of this essential revelation of what it means to be human.  At the beginning of his interpretation of this verse, St. Basil makes it clear that the "us" of GEN. 1:26 refers to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity who is the one Godhead in three Persons.  And he will from the start of his interpretation dispel any "unseemly fantasies" that may have been current in his times, and which may today intrude upon our minds consciously or unconsciously:

In what sense are we according to the image of God?  Let us purify ourselves of an ill-informed heart, an uneducated conception about God.  If we came into being according to the image of God, they say, God is of the same shape as ourselves; there are eyes in God and ears, a head, hands, a behind on which to sit - for it says in Scripture that God sits [Ps. 46:9) - feet with which to walk.  So is God not like this? 
Put away from your heart unseemly fantasies.  Expel from your reason things not in accord with the greatness of God.  God is without structure and simple.  Do not regard a shape in regard to him.  Do not diminish the Great One in a Jewish way.  Do not enclose God in bodily concepts, nor circumscribe him according to your own mind.
He is incomprehensible in greatness. Consider what a great thing is, and add to the greatness more than you have conceived, and to the more add more, and be persuaded that your thought does not reach boundless things.  Do not conceive a shape; God is understood from his power, from the simplicity of his nature, not greatness in size.  He is everywhere and surpasses all; and he is intangible, invisible, who indeed escapes your grasp. He is not circumscribed by size, nor encompassed by a shape, nor measured by power, nor enclosed in time, nor bounded by limits. Nothing is with God as it is with us.  (On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse I, 5)

In seeking to understand this seminal verse claiming that we are created "according to the image and likeness" of God, St. Basil is searching for what he believes is the "ruling principle" in the human being.  And he teaches that this ruling principle is "the superiority of reason."  I do not have the Greek text before me, but I believe that the word behind this is nous, and it can also be translated as "mind" or "intellect."  This is the highest aspect of the soul, and here St. Basil, as well as many of the Church Fathers, is employing the tripartite structure of the soul as found in the teaching of Plato.  The other two aspects of the soul, according to Sister Nonna's translation, would include our instinctive and emotional impulses and drives.  We will return to these aspects below.  Grappling with our psychosomatic (soul and body) structure as a human being, St. Basil writes the following:

I recognize two human beings, one the sense-perceptible, and one hidden under the sense-perceptible, invisible, the inner human.  Therefore we have an inner human being, and we are somehow double, and it is truly said that we are that which is within.  For I am what concerns the inner human being, the outer things are not me but mine.  For I am not a hand, but I am the rational part of the soul. And the hand is a limb of the human being, an instrument of the soul, and the human being is principally the soul in itself.
"Let us make the human being according to our image,"  that is, let us give him the superiority of reason.  (Discourse, I, 7)

Although this may sound dangerously dualistic, as if the superiority of the soul somehow denigrates the body, this would be an unfair reading of St. Basil's scriptural exegesis.  For elsewhere, St. Basil will speak of the wonderful structure of the body.  As Sister Nonna explains St. Basil's respect for the body: "Its beauty and ingenious structure make it a masterpiece of divine craftsmanship."  He is concentrating on the unique quality of being a human being by stressing the superiority of reason; for both animals and man have bodily powers. In fact, animals - and St. Basil refers to the lion, the leopard and other "beasts" on land as well as "flying creatures" to point out their superiority in strength and at times greater instinctual resourcefulness to human beings - can seem to possess greater powers.  But, again, "reason" is what makes the human being the crowning achievement of God's creative act, as human creativity, compassion and love flow from that higher aspect of our nature and thus make us "superior" to all of the other creatures created by God.

St. Basil was certainly the proponent of what today would be called "gender equality."  Anticipating an objection to the use of the masculine term in Greek - o anthropos "the human being" - in GEN. 1:26, "And God made the human being according to his image," St. Basil writes the following:


But that nobody may ignorantly ascribe the name of human only to the man, it adds, "Male and female he created them" (GEN. 1:27).  The woman also possesses creation according to the image of God, as indeed does the man.  The natures are alike equal in honor, the virtues are equal, the struggles equal, the judgment alike.  Let her not say, "I am weak."  The weakness is in the flesh, in the soul is the power.  Since indeed that which is according to God's image is of equal honor, let the virtue be of equal honor, the showing forth of good works.... When has the nature of man been able to match the nature of woman in patiently passing through her own life?  When has man been able to imitate the vigor of women in fastings, the love of toil in prayers, the abundance in tears, the readiness for good works?

Always with an eye on his pastoral role and responsibility when interpreting the Scriptures, and thus bringing out the moral and ethical dimension of the sacred text, St. Basil will add exhortation to interpretation when surveying the high calling of the human being made according to the image of God.  He does this when examining the scriptural blessing from God:  "And let them rule."  (GEN. 1:26)  St. Basil writes:

"And let them rule."  Not, "Let us make the human being, and let them be angry and lustful and sorrowful," for the passions are not included in the image of God, but the reason is master of the passions. ... As soon as you are made, you are also made ruler.
First the power to rule was conferred on you.  O human, you are a ruling being. And why do you serve the passions as a slave?  Why do you throw away your own dignity and become a slave of sin? For what reason do you make yourself a prisoner of the devil? You were appointed ruler of creation, and you have renounced the nobility of your own nature.

The great St. Basil will take us to task, to use that expression, because though created according to the image of God, we suffer under bondage to the passions.  He will use all of his wonderful gifts of rhetoric and persuasion to convict us of that sorry truth before he will lift us back up to our rightful place in God's creation.

To be continued ...

Monday, July 13, 2015

Being Christ-like in our Relationships


Dear Parish Faithful,


"Let Us Attend"

If you were not at the Liturgy yesterday, and therefore missed the Epistle reading (and one can "miss" the reading even when physically present!), I would like to make the Epistle reading present here yet again, because it deserves to be listened to very carefully and attentively.  What the Apostle Paul is exhorting us to strive for is nothing less than being Christ-like in our relationships with other human beings: those who need our assistance, those that we are truly at odds with, and even those that persecute us! This would mark us out as true Christians, because we would be doing what Christ taught and did.  The passage is ROM. 12:6-14, yet I am going to continue through to verse 21,  because of the continuity of theme:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal, he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written:  "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head."  Do not be overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.

A great deal to think about as the work week begins!


Saturday, July 4, 2015

'Do you want to be healed?'




Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,


When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (JN 5:6)


In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John we find the account of the healing of the paralytic by the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and the profound discourse that follows. Archeologists have fairly recently discovered this pool, demonstrating the accuracy of Saint John’s description. 

The paralytic had taken his place among a human throng of chronic misery, described by the evangelist as “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed” [verse 3].  Being there for 38 years and not being able to experience what were believed to be the healing capacities of the waters of the pool, the paralytic seemed resigned to his destiny. 

Then Jesus appeared.  He saw the paralytic and He knew of his plight.  And then Jesus asked the paralytic a very pointed and even poignant question: “Do you want to be healed?” [verse 6]. 

Surprisingly, considering what must have been his own misery, the paralytic’s answer was less than direct and not exactly enthusiastic: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me” [verse 7]. 

Nevertheless, and even though the paralytic does not commit himself to an act of faith in the healing power of Jesus, he receives the following directive from Jesus: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  And then, in that somewhat laconic style of describing the healing power of Christ that characterizes the Gospel accounts, we read simply, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked” [verse 9.  The “sign” is that Christ can restore wholeness to those in need.

I believe that we need to concentrate on the question Jesus posed to the paralytic, “Do you want to be healed?”  (The King James version of the question is:  “Wilt thou be made whole?”)  For, if the various characters that Jesus encountered in the Gospels are also representatives or “types” of a particular human condition, dilemma, or state of being, then the question of Jesus remains alive in each generation and is thus posed to each of us today. 

If sin is a sickness, then we are “paralyzed” by that sin to one degree or another of intensity.  But do we really want to be healed of the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives? 

The answer seems obvious, even a “no-brainer,” but is that truly the case?  Or, are we more-or-less content with continuing as we are, satisfied that perhaps this is “as good as it gets” in terms of our relationship with God and our neighbors?  

Do we manage to politely deflect the probing question of Christ elsewhere, counter-posing a reasonable excuse as to what prevents us from exerting the necessary energy from our side?  Our teaching claims that we must also contribute to the synergistic process of divine grace and human freedom that works together harmoniously for our healing. 

Perhaps it is easier and more comfortable to stay as we are – after all, it’s really not that bad - a position reflected in the non-committal response of the paralytic.  For to be further healed of sin will mean that we will have to make some changes in our life, in our interior attitudes and in our relationships.  It certainly means that we will have to confess our faith in Christ with a greater intensity, urgency and commitment.  Are we up to that challenge?

Actually, we could more accurately say that we have already been healed.  That happened when we were baptized into Christ.  (There are baptismal allusions in the healing of the paralytic by the pool of water). 

Every human person is paralyzed by the consequences of sin, distorting the image of God in which we were initially created.  Baptism was meant to put to death the sin that is within us.  We were healed, in that baptism is the pledge to life everlasting, where death itself is swallowed up in the victory of Christ over death.  For we are baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

So, with a slight variation, the question of Christ could also imply: Do you rejoice in the fact that you have been healed, and does your way of life reflect the faith and joy that that great healing from sin and death has imparted to you?  Are you willing to continue in the struggle that is necessary to keep that healing “alive” within you? 

Direct and simple questions can get complicated, often by the paralyzing effect of sin in our lives.  We can then get confused as to how to respond to such essential questions.  Every time we walk into the church we are being asked by Christ, “Do you want to be healed?”  Responding with a resounding “yes!” would be a “sign” of the faith, hope and love that are within us by the grace of God.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Finding the time to pray


Dear Parish Faithful,

 I wrote recently of how we can deceive ourselves concerning the "normal" time of the Church Year which we have now entered.  Perhaps as good a time as any to remind  and "push" ourselves  if necessary toward the practice or regular prayer. The summer months do not excuse us from this essential need. The following meditation is written with that in mind.

______


Finding the time to pray

“And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up into the hills by Himself to pray” [Matthew 14:23].

According to the Gospel of Saint Matthew 14:22-23, Jesus walked upon the sea and subdued the wind that was threatening to capsize the boat of the disciples, after He had fed the multitude of five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread.  Therefore, these “mighty acts” of the Lord are linked together both chronologically and geographically according to the evangelist.  But what may link these events together on a much deeper level is the evangelist’s “note” that in between the feeding of the multitude and the walking upon the sea, Jesus first withdrew in order to pray “by Himself.”  In fact, it appears that Jesus spent a great deal of time in this instance alone and in prayer, for “when evening came, He was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves” [14:23-24].  Jesus is sustained and strengthened by prayer.  The Lord prayed (and fasted) in the desert before He began His earthly ministry.  He prayed during His ministry, as recorded here.  And He prayed with particular intensity in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prepared to complete and fulfill His earthly ministry by voluntarily ascending the Cross.  Prayer was essential to Christ.

Perhaps we need to understand this as a “great mystery,” for the Lord Who prayed we believe to be the eternal Son of God incarnate!  In His Person are united the divine and human natures “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.”  His sinless human nature is “deified” in the Incarnation.  And that same human nature was transformed “from glory to glory” during the unfolding of His life and totally “perfected” and eternally glorified—through suffering!—in the resurrection and ascension following the crucifixion.  Often, we understand the practice of prayer as our “communication” with God in order to discern God’s will for our lives.  (We also thank God in our prayer, intercede for others, or express our distress as lamentation before God in the form of prayer.)

However, communication must be seen as an inadequate term for describing Christ’s experience when praying to His heavenly Father. There are no indications that Christ did not know the will of God at all times.  On the contrary, His every word and deed were in direct fulfillment of the will of God:  “I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me” [John 6:38].  This is so because the Lord’s “natural” human will was in full union with the will of His heavenly Father.  Jesus did not waver, vacillate, or “guess” when fulfilling the will of God (as we do so painfully often).  In the theological language of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the human will of Christ always followed and never resisted or opposed His divine will; both wills—the human and divine—being united in His one Person of the Son of God incarnate.  Of course, Christ also thanked His heavenly Father in His prayer, interceded for others, and expressed His distress or lamention, as in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross.  Ultimately, though, we must speak of His prayer as communion with God.

In a letter I once received from Father John Breck, the following was written in relation to this subject of Jesus praying:  ” What occurred in Jesus’ times of intense, more focused prayer (we can imagine that He was constantly at prayer to some degree) can’t be discerned or described.  His prayer was unique.  Yet because our prayer in the Spirit is really ‘God praying to God,’ the same can be said with regard to Jesus’ prayer: the Second Person, if you will, prays to the First Person of the Holy Trinity, a mystery we can only share in and experience insofar as we invite and allow the Spirit to pray within us.  Prayer, accordingly, is essentially Trinitarian.”

Whatever is human, apart from sin, is assumed by the Word of God Who became man.  The Lord was not a “ghost,” as the frightened and amazed disciples first thought when they beheld Jesus coming to them across the water.  To be human is to be in union with God—that is our “natural” state.  And if prayer creates and sustains our relationship with God, then to be fully human is to pray.  Since Christ was fully human, He prayed.  “In the beginning,” it was perfectly natural for human beings made “in the image and likeness of God” to nourish their bodies with food and drink.  And it was natural for those human beings to nourish their souls through prayer.  As the Last Adam, Christ perfectly exemplifies this natural state of humanity.  The mysterious relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ is somehow revealed precisely here in the Lord’s practice of prayer as communion with God.

We must find the time to pray, regardless of the “cost,” because the only thing we cannot afford not to do is to pray.  Each person must “be alone” in prayer with some kind of regularity, as the Lord was alone in prayer.  We must make the time.  Jesus would withdraw from the affairs of the world, at least temporarily, in order to strengthen—perhaps even “energize”—His human nature through the communion of prayer.  Regardless of our ability or inability to fully explain Christ’s prayer life as it presents itself before us in the Gospels, we know one thing for certain: we need to pray in order to be fully human.