Tuesday, May 24, 2016

'Do you want to be healed?'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


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.  

Jesus then 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?  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?  

Or, finally, do we actually "enjoy" the particular sin/passion that has ensnared us, and thus - if only unconsciously - remain unwilling to part with that "enjoyment," spiritually crippling though it is? 

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-commital 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 and precisely 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.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Proclaiming the Risen Lord in our Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” (Mark 15:33)

“And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.” (Mark 16:2)

Saint Mark the Evangelist is rather precise when he narrates that the Lord was crucified at the third hour (15:25); that darkness fell over the land at the sixth hour (15:33); and that Christ died at the ninth hour (15:34).  According to the Jewish reckoning of time, that would mean that the Lord hung upon the Cross from about 9:00 a.m. (the “third hour”) until 3:00 p.m. (the “ninth hour”) on that first “Holy Friday.” For the last three hours, then, “there was darkness over the whole land.” 

This is not a weather report from the Evangelist.  Rather, this unexpected darkness was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos (read as the Old Testament reading at the Sixth Hour on Holy and Great Friday) that was a “sign” of great significance for the early Church as it began to reflect upon the “scandal” of the Cross:

“‘And on that day,’ says the Lord God, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.  I will turn your feasts into mourning and all of your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day’” (Amos 8:9-10).

The fulfillment of this prophecy revealed the cosmic dimension and significance of the Lord’s death on the Cross:  all of creation mourned the death of the Son of God.  Truly this was an awesome mystery! 

Yet, while at the time of the Crucifixion this very darkness may have intensified the solemnity of the Lord’s death, it also intensified the starkness of Christ dying on the Cross seemingly abandoned by all, including His heavenly Father:

“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘E’lo-i, E’lo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (15:34).

Again, the impression is that there was no one with Jesus in his hours of darkness upon the Cross.  Yet, at the very moment of His death and seeming abandonment, Saint Mark narrates that a Gentile centurion was the first to realize that this was not the case:

“And when the centurion, who stood facing Him, saw that He thus breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (15:39).

In addition, there was actually a silent presence of deeply sympathetic figures within some proximity of the Cross that Saint Mark accounts for:

“There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when He was in Galilee, followed Him, and ministered to Him; and also many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem” (15:40-41).

Their role was of further great importance, for their vigilance allowed them to know where the tomb of the Lord was located: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where He was laid” (15:47).  The presence of these faithful female disciples of the Lord—the women we now know and venerate as the Myrrhbearers—prepares us for the awesome revelation that will occur “very early on the first day of the week” (16:2).  The account of the discovery of the empty tomb; the angelic proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus to the women by the angel in the tomb; and the astonishment of the women is narrated in a rather succinct manner by Saint Mark in only eight verses (Mark 16:1-8).

When the myrrhbearing women arrived at the tomb carrying their spices in the hopes of anointing the dead body of Jesus, the darkness that will soon be lifted from their hearts was already being dispelled by another sign from the world of nature, for the women arrived “when the sun had risen” (16:2).  The cosmos had mourned the death of the Son of God; but it will now rejoice by “announcing” the Resurrection of the Sun of Righteousness.  

The movement from darkness to light is a powerful motif throughout the Gospels.  The darkness may represent sin or the final horror of death.  Jesus is the very presence of light, and that light is so strong that neither sin nor death can resist its strength.  This is not simply a literary “symbol,” but a living reality.  

Saint Mark then narrates that the women “were amazed” when, upon “entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” (16:5).  This “young man” was clearly an angel.  And it is this angelic being who will first announce the Resurrection of Christ with a definitive clarity that cannot be misunderstood:  

“Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He has risen, He is not here; see the place where they laid Him” (16:6).

The Jesus Who had been crucified is the Jesus Who was now raised from the dead.  The risen Jesus is neither a “ghost” nor a “spirit.”  The Crucified One is now the Risen Lord—Jesus the Christ and King of Israel. The Father had not abandoned His Son, but rather vindicated the One whose resurrection will now be announced to the disciples/apostles, and through them to the whole world.  As the biblical scholar, Francis Moloney has written:  

“The question asked of God by Jesus from the cross, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ (15:34) has been answered.  Jesus has not been forsaken.  Unconditionally obedient to the will of God (see 14:36), Jesus has accepted the cup of suffering.  On the cross He is Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God (see 15:32, 39).  God’s never-failing presence to His obedient Son leads to the definitive action of God:  He has been raised!  The apparent failure of Jesus has been reversed by the action of God, Who has raised Jesus from death” (The Death of the Messiah, p. 11).

Saint Mark and the other evangelists recorded the events of that first and glorious Easter morning. They are witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ. We accept their testimony and proclaim the same “Good News” to the world today through the Church.  And we invite others to share that life—including “harlots and tax-collectors.”  

Yet, like the myrrhbearing women, we need to experience the Resurrection on a deep and personal level. In and through faith, the “stone” that covers the entrance to our own hearts can be “rolled away” by the grace of God, and a new dawn can pierce the darkness of sin and death that leaves us as if living an entombed life hidden from the light.  This is the work of God.  

When the Resurrection of Christ is genuinely experienced in the very depths of our being, we may at first be silent because “trembling and astonishment” lay hold of us (Mark 16:8).  But when we recover our voice we may then joyfully share with others—through our faith and our lives—that CHRIST IS RISEN!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Christ the Conqueror of Hell: A Deep Discussion

Dear Parish Faithful,



We had quite an intense but all-too-short post-Liturgy discussion yesterday on a series of eschatological themes (from the Greek ta eschata or "the last things") - primarily judgment, heaven and hell and the whole issue of salvation (we call this soteriology, from the Gk. word for salvation, which is soteria).  

The discussion arose after I briefly spoke about a book that I am currently reading by Archbishop Ilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell - The Descent Into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective.  This is a fine study that reveals just how pervasive this theme is, beginning with the New Testament and permeating early Christian poetry, various apocryphal Gospels, the writings of the Church Fathers and our paschal liturgical texts.  It is a very fine study by an excellent contemporary scholar and theologian.

"Hades" is the Gk. word for the Hebrew "sheol" which refers to the realm of the dead, a shadowy, disincarnate and wholly bleak existence cut off from the grace of God.  This is the Old Testament abode of the dead. Christ entered that realm as its Conqueror - not as its Victim as found later in aberrant Protestant theology - releasing those who were bound there and incapable of saving themselves, raising them up with Himself, and thus "trampling down death by death."

As one of countless examples, from The Odes of Solomon, a 2nd c. collection of poetical theological texts, we read in the expressive Ode 42 of Christ preaching to the dead in Hades:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

'Post Pascha Swoon' or 'Revived by Joy'?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


I began this morning with a question on my mind:   Is there life after Pascha?  This, in, turn, led to a series of further related questions:  Is there meaningful ecclesial/church life following the paschal celebration of only little more than a few days ago?  Is it possible to retain any of the vibrancy and joy of commemorating, participating, and experiencing the Resurrection of Christ?  Can we continue to maintain our ecclesial lives beyond the level of perfunctory attendance once we have passed through Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha?

Humanly speaking, these may be unrealistic expectations for the following reasons:

  • Most everyone is still overcoming a certain level of exhaustion, that is not merely physical.  I think at times that Bright Week may have to be downgraded to Recovery Week!   
  • Clearly everyone is back to normal time and routines – work, school, etc. – that may have been temporarily interrupted during Holy Week and Pascha. “Life goes on,” according to a limp cliché, and we may still be catching up with some unfinished business.
  • The Paschal/Pentecostal Season does not have the  unique services that characterize Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha.  The one exception, the services of Bright Week, have not well-attended and are therefore no longer scheduled.

Does our surrounding culture influence us by treating Easter as a “one and done” affair?  Meaning, that when we wake up on Bright Monday, are we already “moving on?”

However, that does not mean that our parish(es) have to empty out and become tomb-like immediately after Pascha outside of Sunday’s Liturgy.  The inevitable “summer slowdown” need not begin before we have even completed Bright Week. The Resurrection of Christ is meant  to be enlivening, not deadening!

The “swoon theory” is a hopelessly absurd idea meant to explain away the Resurrection of Christ.  Yet, how many of the faithful experience a “post-paschal swoon” from which they need to awaken before the entire Season comes to a close.  If such is the case, then what does this say of the over-all impact of the Paschal Season?

Perhaps we need to probe just what each and every one of us means by the term “Pascha.”  It is the Greek form of the Hebrew word for Passover.  Pascha, therefore, is:

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."

The Myrrhbearing Women encounter the angel at the empty tomb: "Why do you seek the Living among the dead?" (MT 28:1-8, MK 16:1-8, LK 24:1-9, JN 20:1-2, 11-13).

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


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.