Monday, October 27, 2014

St John Chrysostom: 'On Wealth and Poverty'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christians of East and West will agree that one of the premier preachers in the entire history of the Church is St. John Chrysostomos - the "Golden-mouthed."  His "presence," of course, is most alive in the Orthodox Church as we celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on a weekly basis; find his icon adorning the apses and naves of many Orthodox churches; celebrate his various commemorations on the ecclesiastical calendar with some consistency (September 14, November 13, January 30); and read his homilies of a pronounced moral and ethical nature with great appreciation for his wonderful insights to this day.  Not all Orthodox Christians know St. John's life as well as they should - but all have heard of him and from him! 

Yet, if St. John were to be with us today, I rather doubt that he would be "popular" - at least not in the conventional sense of that word.  We would find his relentless preaching of the Gospel altogether too challenging, or even too demanding of us as Christians, both in our relationship with God and with each other.  In fact, we know that it was St. John's uncompromising  adherence to the precepts of the Gospel that led to his untimely and even tragic death in the year 407.

Before that great drama of ecclesiastical intrigue unfolded in the imperial city of Constantinople, St. John was a presbyter in the large cosmopolitan city of Antioch.  In the year 388 or 389, we know that he delivered a series of homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (LK. 16:19-31).  These magnificent homilies, combining an endless stream of insights into the parable together with an unmatched rhetorical skill, clearly demonstrate why St. John is, indeed, the "Golden-mouthed," and why he is considered to this day one of the Church's greatest biblical exegetes.

These homilies exist in English translation, published as part of the "Popular Patristic Series" by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.  This collection of homilies is appropriately entitled On Wealth and Poverty.  I bring all of this up on this particular Monday morning, because it was during yesterday's celebration of the Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom!) that the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was read.  (Since there is some divergence in the lectionary among various Orthodox churches, those following the Greek/Byzantine tradition had a different reading assigned for yesterday).  Be that as it may, I would like to offer just a few excerpts from these homilies to perhaps further impress the Lord's parable upon our minds and hearts, so that what we heard yesterday is not forgotten today in the rush of our hectic lives.

The parable deals with "otherworldly" and "worldly" reality - for death, judgment, paradise (the "bosom of Abraham"), hades, etc. are an integral part of a parable that also tells us about wealth and poverty.  There is, then, an "eschatological extension" to wealth and poverty according to the Lord.  It is in death, St. John tells us, that our true "face" is revealed:

Just as in the theatre, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are, so also now when death arrives and the theatre is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account.  (Homily II)

In the parable, we hear of a stark "reversal of fortune," as Lazarus is escorted to the "bosom of Abraham" by the angels; and the rich man (does his lack of a name signify his loss of true personhood through indulgence and gratification?) is delivered to Hades.  This reversal is revealed to the rich man in sober, simple, yet utterly shattering words:

Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  (LK. 16:25

Here is just one example from among many of St. John developing this particular theme:

... Therefore when you see anyone living I wickedness but suffering no misfortune in this life, do not call him lucky, but weep and mourn for him, because he will have to endure all the misfortunes in the next life, just like the rich man.  Again, when you see anyone cultivating virtue, but enduring a multitude of trials, call him lucky, envy him, because all his sins are being dissolved in this life, and a great reward for his endurance is being prepared in the next life, just as it happened for this man Lazarus.  (Homily III)

No one has surpassed St. John for drawing out the moral implications of what is revealed by the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels.  He does not hesitate in following the Gospel in turning upside down the "values" of this world.  Hence, his words concerning true wealth and poverty:

Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate.  Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.  We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired every one's money.  If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing.  (Homily II)

I recall that St. John once said that two of the most dangerous words in our vocabulary are "mine" and "thine."  These words divide more than they unite.  They can relieve us of our responsibility toward the neighbor that God points in our direction.  In a passage that would have fairly radical social implications if applied consistently, St. John redefines "theft" based upon his reading of the Scriptures:

I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that only theft of others' goods but also the failure to share one's goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation ... (Here St. John cites passages such as MAL. 3:8-10 and SIR. 4:1, and then continues) ...  To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.  This is why God has allowed you to have more:  not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need ... If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you ... For you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.  (Homily II)

I am not trying to spoil your next shopping mall excursion - or for those like me, the next trip to the bookstore - but it is essential to be aware of the great gulf that separated conspicuous consumption from biblical stewardship!

Perhaps St. John Chrysostom's closing words from his Second homily will prove to be a fitting conclusion for us today:

... If it is possible for you, remember everything I have said.  If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.  If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom be glory, honor and might, to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and every and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reflections on Autumn

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

     From my personal and, admittedly, "subjective" perspective, there is nothing quite like the Fall among the four seasons.  For me, this season's greatest attraction is found in the flaming red, orange, yellow and golden leaves that transform familiar trees into a series of neighborhood "burning bushes," each one seemingly brighter than the other.  When combined with a piercing blue sky on a sunlit day and a certain crispness in the air, I find myself more vividly aware of the surrounding world and thankful for God's creation.  On a somewhat more "philosophical note" - more apt to emerge, perhaps, on an overcast, windswept day - we may realize that this "colorful death" signals the fleeting nature of everything beautiful in this world, "for the form of this world is passing away."  (I COR. 7:31)  And yet this very beauty and the sense of yearning that accompanies it, is a sign of the beauty ineffable of the coming Kingdom of God.

     Growing up on a typical city block in Detroit, I distinctly recall a neighborhood "ritual" that marked this particular season:  the raking and burning of leaves that went on up and down the entire block once most of the leaves had spiraled and floated to the ground.  Everyone on the block raked the leaves down toward the street and into neatly-formed mounds of color that rested alongside the curb.  Then they were lit and the task of raking now became that of tending and overseeing the piles of burning leaves.  This usually occurred after dinner for most families but one could still see the shimmering waves of heat that protected one from the early evening chill and the ascending ashes rushing upward.  Please momentarily forgive my politically incorrect indifference to the environment, but I thoroughly enjoyed those small bonfires near the curb as the pungent smell of burning leaves filled the air.  This unmistakable smell would, as I recall, linger in the air for a couple of weeks or more as different neighbors got to the task at different times. ("Playing with matches" and the simple fascination with fire was, of course, an added attraction for a young and curious boy).

     The entire scene embodied the wholesomeness of a 50's first-grade reading primer, as "Mom" and "Dad," together with "Dick" and "Jane" (and perhaps "Spot," the frisky family dog) smilingly co-operated in this joint, familial enterprise.  The reading primer would reformulate this "celebration" of healthy work and a neatly-ordered environment into a staccato of minimally-complex sentences:  "See Dad rake;" "Dick and Jane are raking too;" "Here comes mom!"  ("Mom," of course, would invariably be wearing a pretty dress, and "Jane" a skirt, during this outdoor activity).  This all served to increase the budding student's vocabulary while reinforcing a picture of an idealized - if not idyllic - American way of life.  Since my parents were peasants from a Macedonian village, we never quite fit into that particular mode - especially when my mother would speak to me in Macedonian in front of my friends!   And yet I distinctly remember teaching my illiterate mother to read from those very "Dick and Jane" primers so that she could obtain her American citizenship papers, which she proudly accomplished in due time.   

     Before getting too nostalgic, however, I will remind you that all of this, for me at least, was taking place at the height of Cold War anxiety and another clear memory from my youth:  the air-raid drills in our schools that were meant to prepare us and protect us from a Soviet nuclear strike.  (Khrushchev's shoe-pounding exhibition at the United Nations, together with his ominous "We will bury you!" captured the whole mood of this period).  These carefully-executed air-raid drills were carried out with due solemnity and seriousness - lines straight and no talking allowed!  We would wind our way down into a fairly-elaborate - if not labyrinthine - series of basement levels that were seemingly constructed, and thus burdened, with the hopeless task of saving us from nuclear bombs!   We would then sit in neatly-formed rows monitored by our teachers, and apparently oblivious to the real dangers of the Cold War world, until the "all clear" signal was given allowing us to file back to our classrooms.  Thus did the specter of the mushroom cloud darken the sunny skies of "Dick" and "Jane's" age of innocence.

     I must acknowledge that my short nostalgic digression does not offer a great deal to meditate upon.  So as not to entirely frustrate that purpose - and because I began with some brief reflections on the created world - I would like to offer some of the wonderful praises of the beauty of the world around us from the remarkable Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things."  This hymn, which has become quite popular in many Orthodox parishes, was composed by an Orthodox priest when he was slowly perishing in a Soviet prison camp in 1940.  In unscientific, yet theological-poetic imagery, he reminds us of what we are often blind to:  God's glorious creation.  Would he also have "missed" all of this if his life was as free as ours are to be preoccupied with daily concerns and cares that leave no time or room to look around in wonder?

O Lord, how lovely it is to be Your guest.  Breeze full of scents; mountains reaching to the skies; waters like boundless mirrors, reflecting the sun's golden rays and the scudding clouds.  All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing the depth of tenderness.  Birds and beasts of the forest bear the imprint of Your love.  Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last forever.  In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old, rings out the cry:  Alleluia!  (Kontakion 2)

You have brought me into life as if into an enchanted paradise.  We have seen the sky like a chalice of deepest blue, where in the azure heights the birds are singing.  We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the melodious music of the streams.  We have tasted fruit of fine flavor and the sweet-scented honey.  We can live very well on Your earth.  It is a pleasure to be Your guest.  (Ikos 2)

I see Your heavens resplendent with stars.  How glorious You are, radiant with light!  Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars.  I am small, insignificant, but the Lord is at my side.  Your right arm guides me wherever I go.  (Ikos 5)
Fr. Steven

Friday, September 26, 2014

'So Real' - Moving Beyond Mere Belief

Dear Parish Faithful,

I recently came across this very intriguing text that I wanted to share with everyone:

"I knew you that you existed but did not believe it was so real."

To my mind, this anonymous text has a certain "modern" feel to it; as if somehow similar in meaning and intent to the title of C.S. Lewis's autobiographical work, in which he describes his slow conversion to Christianity with the title Surprised by Joy. It also brings to mind the 17th c. French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who wrote in his Pensees  - in which he records his "conversion experience" - that he has encountered "not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."

Yet, the actual source of this text is described as follows:  "Graffiti on the side wall of a church near the catacombs of St. Callistus and St. Sebastian on the outskirts of Rome." That would place it somewhere in the 2nd or 3rd century of the Christian era.  Be that as it may, I would only add: quite a piece of graffiti!  One brief sentence that has more content than some long and laborious theology books.  Whoever scratched these words on that catacomb wall had an experience of the overwhelming and "awesome" presence of God, wherein God is no longer simply a concept or even an object of belief; but an actual living presence that almost takes one's breath away. 

I believe that this is the image of God that Jesus presented in His teachings - a God that was "so real" that He could be called "Our Father."  With an experience like that of our anonymous wall scribbler, we can then understand the teaching of Christ about leaving everything aside to continue that relationship, to which nothing can really compare. A God that is "so real" is not the kind "you have to wind up on Sunday" - to quote an old progress rock band's lyrics.

If we can actually ever "lay aside all earthly care" just at the Liturgy, then perhaps such an experience of God is not beyond our grasp.  I believe that our common hope as Christians is to move beyond a belief that God exists into a living relationship with the living God "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."  (I TIM. 2:4)

Image: Procession in the Catacombs of St Callistus, Rome. (Wikipedia)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

'O Lord Save Thy People' — for Us Today

Dear Parish Faithful,

If there is a troparion (other than the Paschal troparion) that the Orthodox faithful are familiar with, it is the one appointed for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:

O Lord, save Thy people,
and bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victories to Orthodox Christians
over their adversaries;
and by virtue of Thy Cross,
preserve Thy habitation.

I am not sure that even scholars can tell us with precision when this troparion first emerged and then entered into our liturgical life.  But it certainly is "ancient" and clearly reveals its Byzantine origins by its very content.  "Byzantine" refers to that long historical epoch when the Orthodox Christian Faith was the "official" religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and when the Orthodox Church was the dominant religious and cultural force of the Christian oikoumene (the "civilized world" of the Eastern Roman Empire).  That long-lasting epoch can be dated from 330 - 1453.  These are the years of the "Byzantine legacy" of the Church (Fr. John Meyendorff's term). These are more specifically the years that Constantinople was consecrated as the capital of the Empire as established by the emperor Constantine the Great; and the year that the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, then to be re-named Istanbul.

The "Christian Empire" (a rather ambiguous concept) of the Byzantine world was surrounded by enemies that coveted the great city of Constantinople and the cultural and material wealth of the Empire.  These "enemies" posed a constant political and military threat to the well-being of the Empire.  Looking back over this long, and at times tumultuous history, we know of the Persians, the Avars, the Slavs and Bulgars (both eventually evangelized and converted to the Gospel), the Arabs, Pechenegs, and Turks, to mention the main protagonists of this ongoing historical drama.  The Eastern Romans - or Byzantines as they are now called by historians - were in an almost constant state of warfare or at least of vigilant preparation for war, as these various peoples and hostile empires impinged upon the borders of the Empire from many directions.  When the Byzantines went into battle their banners and shields bore the signs of their Christian faith - primarily the sign of the Cross.  This practice was established during the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great when he won a decisive battle after beholding a vision of the Cross and heard the command "In this, conquer." (We are not here analyzing the integrity or veracity of that vision). Following his victory, he established the Christian Faith as the Faith of the Empire (313 A.D.).

Returning to our troparion of "O, Lord, save Thy people .. " we now realize that this was something of the "national anthem" of the Empire.  Christians were praying for "victory" over precisely those "enemies" that threatened the Empire and its population - the "habitation" of the troparion.  When a city or village was under attack, the Christian inhabitants must have sung that troparion with real feeling and faith! In defense of the Byzantine Empire, most of those wars were defensive in nature, and not the result of expansionist polices. 

Thus, to use terms familiar to us, this troparion combined religion and politics.  In fact, we take a certain liberty in how we even translate this hymn today, for a more literal translation would yield the text:  "grant victories to the Orthodox emperors over the barbarians!"  That would hardly work in today's world. Yet, this translation is already a sign of re-interpreting the troparion, at least to some degree.  Since the political reality of the time of the troparion's origin is long past (and the Christian Empire of Byzantium collapsed), a certain process of allegorizing (finding a symbolic meaning for) this hymn has begun.  Our real "enemies" are sin and death.  These are the twin realities that haunt and trouble our minds and hearts unceasingly.  Yet these are the twin realities that Christ proved to be victorious over in His death and resurrection.  Christ has won that victory and we now pray to appropriate that paschal victory through a living faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of Death.  I believe that this is how we must now interpret this troparion in the context of our contemporary world and in then context of our ultimate concerns.

We have to be careful about what we sing and chant in the Church and why we do so.  The troparion "O, Lord, save Thy people ... " is so much part of Orthodox tradition that it is highly unlikely that it will be changed any further -and certainly not eliminated.  Therefore, I am convinced that we should not try and find a contemporary application that is political for this particular hymn. Let us concentrate on our real enemies - sin and death. 

But we also need to be aware of the contemporary reception of this troparion in a wider setting than our liturgical assemblies.  How does that text sound today to a guest  or "outsider" visiting our parishes on any given Sunday?  Will it perhaps sound a bit narrow-minded?  In Byzantium, everyone at the Liturgy was an Orthodox Christian.  That is not the reality today for us in North America.  We need to be able to communicate a deeper meaning to this popular troparion beyond its original and now outdated meaning.  Actually, this can prove to be an evangelical moment, for if called upon to offer an explanation, we can present the words of  this troparion as a prayerful plea to the Lord that we appropriate His victory over sin and death.  We will then find ourselves witnessing to the Gospel in all of its depth and power - and to the depth and power of the Orthodox Christian Faith.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Crosses We Bear: 'Breaking Through Our Self-Sufficiency'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Lifegiving Cross of the Lord.  At the Liturgy we venerated the "life-giving wood" of the Cross and hopefully we continue to do so at home in our domestic prayers, alone or with our family members. 

The Leavetaking of the Elevation will occur on the Sunday ahead of us - September 21. The Apostle Paul confesses:  "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel:  it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (ROM. 1:16).  At the very heart of the Gospel is the Cross of the Lord, and this is what St. Paul is not ashamed of.  Thus, whenever we commemorate the Cross, we are reminded of this and of the profound words we hear at every Liturgy after we commune with the Lord:  "for through the Cross, joy has come into the world."

To understand just how this bears upon our own lives, there is a powerful passage about the Cross in St. Innocent's book Indication of the Way Into the Kingdom of Heaven (available online, in PDF, and a new edition - in both print and ebook - by Holy Trinity Press) that I would like to share with everyone this morning. It is an excellent example of how the saints speak and write with a total honesty about our human weaknesses and propensity toward sin; while yet simultaneously expressing the incomparable consolation of God's mercy and grace.  They never discourage but encourage - though we may have to squirm a bit at first when we read their assessment of our present condition:

When the Lord is pleased to reveal to us the state of our souls, then we feel sharply that our hearts are corrupt and perverted, our souls are defiled and we are merely slaves of sin and passions which have mastered us and do not allow us to draw near to God.  We see that even our supposed good deeds are all mixed up with sin and are not the fruit of true love, but are the products of various passions and circumstance ... and then we most certainly suffer ... in proportion as the Lord reveals to us the condition of our souls, our interior sufferings increase ....
But in whatever situation you may be, and in whatever suffering of the soul ... do not despair and do not think that the Lord has abandoned you.  No!  God will always be with you and will invisibly strengthen you even when it seems to you that you are on the very brink of perdition.  God will never allow you to be tried and tempted more than He sees fit.  Do not despair and do not be afraid.  With full submission surrender totally to Him.  Have patience and pray.  God is our loving father.  Even if He permits a person to fall into sin it is only in order to make him realize his own impotence, weakness and nothingness ... to teach him never to trust in himself and to show that he can do nothing good without God.  It is to heal his soul that the Lord lays crosses on a person .... to make him like Jesus Christ ... to perfectly purify his heart in which He Himself wishes to dwell with His Son and His Holy Spirit.

The words of St. Innocent are timely in an age of "self-sufficiency," when we are convinced that we can handle all the situations of life with a bit of ingenuity, cleverness, and "expertise." God is sometimes forced to break through our self-sufficiency with the crosses that St. Innocent refers to above.  There are situations in life that we then realize that only by God's saving grace can we be strong enough to pass through a furnace of suffering or hardship strengthened and grateful for His enduring love for us.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Universal Exaltation of the Cross, and its Scandal for the World

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

As we behold the Wood of the Cross exalted on high, let us magnify God who in His goodness was crucified upon it in the flesh.  (Small Vespers of the Feast)

We are approaching the Feast Day of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross - to give the Feast its full title – this coming Sunday, September 14. This is the day that we liturgically commemorate and venerate the Cross that will be placed in the middle of the church toward the end of Great Vespers on Saturday evening.   The Feast will then have a full "octave" for its celebration – thus making it an eight-day Feast which serves to stress the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal  lives.  To further turn our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent - the Adoration of the Cross; and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1.  And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.

Prominent though that the Cross may be for Christians, it is the Apostle Paul who very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world's attitude toward the Cross in his well-known text:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  (I COR. 1:23-24)

This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  (I COR. 1:26)

The "scandal" for the unbelieving Jew would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified.  The "folly" for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and "become" human, let alone suffer death on a cross.  Yet God, in and through Christ, transformed what is shameful, weak, lowly and despised - a crucified man - into "our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (I COR. 1:30)  The entire passage of I COR. 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study. 

It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross.   This is clearly the case with Islam.  Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur'an:  even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation form the Gospel According to St. Luke! (Qur'an, 3:45-47)  However, the Crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts:

"yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them." (Qur'an 4:156-159)

The Muslims believe that someone else - a figure unidentified by the Qur'an - was crucified in the place of Christ, but not Jesus Himself.  The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote:  "The Qur'an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question." 

Clearly, the "scandal" of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God.  Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died, clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion.  If there is anything that is agreed upon today among New Testament scholars - believers and skeptics alike - it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30's of the Christian era.  This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur'an.

There is a close resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism from the Gk. word meaning "to appear."  In other words, it only "appeared" that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross.  St. Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception, early in the 2nd c.

Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died ... He was also truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up ...  (Epistle to the Trallians, 9)

St. Ignatius very poignantly asks: what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion?   Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not?

But if, as some godless men - that is, unbelievers - say, his suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight wild beasts?  Then I die in vain.  Then I lie about the Lord.  (To the Trallians, 10)

We do not "worship" the Cross.  We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation.  Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the "Lord of glory." (I COR. 2:8)   Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God.  He is the fulfillment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfillment of the Law.  (MATT. 5:17) There are no prophets to follow Him with any further additions to the Christian revelation.  We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the "Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God ... Who without change didst become man and was crucified."  The Cross remains "an unconquerable token of victory," and  "an invincible shield."  In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we,

kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer.  (Small Vespers)

Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote and practice mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions.  I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory.  However, this should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness - "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (ACTS 4:12) - but actually demonstrate our loyalty to Christ Who never compels but invites - with outstretched arms upon the Cross.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

'The God of Unstinting Giving'

Dear Parish Faithful,

As a second Gospel reading yesterday in preparation for next Sunday's Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we heard the passage JN. 3:13-17.  Embedded in that passage is "JN. 3:16," a verse that we (hopefully) all know as offering a perfect summary of the Gospel.  Below is a nice commentary on that marvelous verse that I recently came across and would like to share.

The key affirmation of God's love for the world is linked with a remarkable statement of excess: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (v. 16b). God's love is that of the Father giving his only Son.  What is most intimate and vital to God's character as Father - his Son - is given for the life of all.  
By this measure, divine love for the world is a self-giving of a most unconditional kind.  There is no reserve on the Father's part in making such a gift.  Nor is there any restriction in the number eligible to receive it - "the world," and "everyone who believes in him."  Nor is there any limitation in the goal of the giving: "eternal life."  Nor is such limited by the self-destructive capacities of human freedom:  it reaches out to evildoer that they "may not perish ... "  
The Father is made known to the world as the God of unstinting giving."

From Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, by Anthony Keller & Francis Moloney