Friday, January 10, 2020

St Gregory of Nyssa On Baptism: 'Make It Clear Who Your Father Is!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

While we remain in this festal season of Theophany, perhaps we can “meditate” on the meaning and purpose of our own baptism – regardless of when that occurred – through the challenging insights of one of the great Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395 commemorated on January 10). 
St. Gregory wrote the most comprehensive theological work of the fourth century, entitled The Great Catechism. Within this work, St. Gregory discusses baptism and how baptism is meant to be a an act of true regeneration in which our lives are changed to reflect and manifest this “new birth” from above. Yet, St. Gregory makes it perfectly clear that the sacramental life of the Church is not a kind of sanctified magic. The baptized person needs to co-operate with God by consciously struggling to lead a God-pleasing life that is only possible through the grace received in the baptismal font. When that conscious struggle is abandoned, the spiritual consequences are costly indeed. 

In the words of St. Gregory, extracted from The Great Catechism:

Baptism is a spiritual birth, but he who is born by spiritual birth must recognize by whom he is born and what kind of creature he must become. In physical birth, those who are born owe their life and existence to the impulse of their parents, but the spiritual birth is in control of the one who is being born. It is the only birth where we can choose and determine what kind of beings we are to become.

Now it is evident to everyone that we must receive the saving birth of baptism for the purpose of growth and renewal and changing in our nature …

If the essential faculties of our nature are not changed, what then is the change that the grace of baptism must bring about? It is clear that the sinful characteristics of our nature must be changed, and the evil in our life done away with. Undergoing the washing of baptism, we must become purified in our wills and wash away the iniquities of our souls. We must be changed for the better and become different.

If, however, the baptism has only washed the body, and the life after initiation is identical with that life before, then despite the boldness of my assertion, I will say without shrinking that the baptismal water is merely water, and the gift of the Spirit in nowhere in action. This is true not only when anger and hatred deforms and dishonors the image of God in us, but also when covetousness, passion, greed, evil thoughts, pride, envy, jealousy, injustice, lusts of the flesh and adultery continue to operate in us.

If this sort of sinful life characterizes a man’s life as much after baptism as before, then I cannot see that he has undergone any change in accordance with God’s nature, and he is really of the same corrupt nature as before. Such a man then, who does not change and yet prattles about birth and resurrection … is deceiving himself. He is not what he has not become!

Now the physically born child shares his parents’ nature. If you have been born of God and have become his child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal his relationship with God. ‘God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him.’ ‘The Lord is gracious to all … He loves His enemies.’ ‘He is merciful and forgives transgressions.’ These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.  

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of the Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don’t you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy.

If you would like to read more of this truly great Church Father, please avail yourself of this link.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Petitions for a blessed New Year

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"For I am sure that neither death; nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38-39)

To follow up on the recent meditation, 'Resolutions or Repentance', I would simply like to point out some key features of the petitions that we recently prayed for a blessed New Year. Specifically, I would like to comment on how we address God in these petitions, for it reveals how we understand, approach, pray to and praise the God we believe in. And here we keep in mind the words of St. Gregory the Theologian: "When I say God, I mean the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

I shared a few of these specially-created petitions in the last meditation, but what stood out for me this year as I chanted them in the service, are the various titles that we ascribe to God in the process. Basically, it proves to be a "variation on a theme." And the theme is: God is love (I Jn. 4:8). As I usually add when I remind us of this most basic of all truths, is that the expression — "God is love" — is not be confused in any way with a kind of religious sentimentalism. The Cross — "You were bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:20) — will always liberate us from any such sentimentalizing of the Gospel.

Be that as it may, in the Augmented Litany for A Prayer Service for the New Year, there are seven of these unique petitions that stand out. They are longer than usual and they cover our prayer for the avoidance of "calamities;" the appeasing of "enmity, discord and civil strife;" for forgiveness of our "innumerable transgressions;" the continued need of "the warmth of the sun;" for strengthening of "Thy Holy Church;" a plea to "root out and extinguish every blasphemous impiety;" and deliverance from "famine, destruction ... the invasion of enemies and civil war ... and every death bearing wound."

This is a list that emphasizes the fragility of our lives and the unpredictability of unforeseen events that threaten the peace of our lives. I would simply guess that these petitions originated in the (medieval) world of Byzantium, a world in which there was a more direct encounter with the realities of the natural world, the havoc of bad weather, lack of medical care and/or an invasion from hostile forces. In our minds, this is a realism that perhaps shades toward pessimism. Or at least for those of us in a world in which taking refuge in technology, medicine or the protection of the law, seems natural, and thus able to relieve of some of the basic problems facing human beings not that long ago; but which may have been quite remote in a large swath of the Christianized Eastern Roman Empire of the past.

I am not saying that these petitions are "dated" and therefore no longer relevant to our current situation. In a fallen world, human nature continues to be what it has always been, and "there is nothing new under the sun" as the Scriptures remind us. "Calamities" may take on a new form in our contemporary world, but we continue to feel uneasy in the face of the unpredictable: the next school/mall/church/synagogue shooting; a rampaging tornado or hurricane; the outbreak of a new disease; or a "cardiac episode." Our contemporary list does not seem a great deal less hazardous, when it gets right down to it. Thus, throughout human history, whether in the pre-modern, modern or post-modern worlds of our creation, "calamities" have always occurred and continue unabated.

To return to my original point, however, I am struck at how these lengthy petitions end in addressing God. In succession, we pray to God in the following manner, as: "O All-gracious Lord;" "O Tenderly-merciful Lord;" "O All-compassionate Lord;" "O Almighty Master;" "O All-powerful Lord;" and "O Tenderly-compassionate Lord." God's majesty and power are emphasized, but God's mercy compassion predominate. (Not that there is a real conflict between God's omnipotence and mercy). 

Thus, we are not in the hands of an angry God, but of those of a loving God. We should recall that for St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the "two hands of God" are the Son and the Holy Spirit. (That image of an "angry God" that Christians have embraced and promoted for centuries has been profoundly unfortunate, to put it mildly.) We humbly acknowledge in these same petitions that we are "unprofitable servants" (if you are ready to argue against that claim, I would like to hear what you have to say).

We further acknowledge that we are sinners in desperate need of grace and mercy (how refreshing to not feel compelled by a need for self-validation, or the maintenance of a particular white-washed image to others, to defensively claim whenever we do something wrong that I am really a "nice person!"). There is nothing abject about such acknowledgment, but a sobering realism that we, too, are subject to the passions and sinful distortions - or simply unavoidable circumstances - that are both "out there" and "within us." As St. Peter wrote to fellow Christians: "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Pet. 5:8). The Gospel tells us that God desires to save us from all of this - not to punish us.

The tension may arise when we think deeply on the seeming contradiction between the endless "calamities" that expose us to danger, and the assurance that we are the servants of a loving and graceful God who numbers the hairs on our head according to Christ. That is the tension I perceive within these petitions I keep referring to: a litany of "bad things" closing with the praise of a "tenderly-compassionate God."

Is there a disconnect in all of this that we piously avoid questioning? Why doesn't God solve all of these tensions on our behalf, if he indeed loves us? In our limited understanding, no one has been able to answer those questions when put in that form. As it is, I rather doubt that we will ever solve the haunting questions faced by Job, and cast today rather superficially as: "why do bad things happen to good people?" Yet, once our faith matures to the point where we abandon the image of God as cosmic magician - if not butler - who is supposed to guarantee us a long and prosperous life where nothing serious or life-threatening ever happens - yet, even so, we will still die!- then we can face "calamities" with a hopeful realism that we are always in the hands of a merciful and loving God who desires our salvation.

Jesus teaches us to trust God - not blindly but, again, hopefully with a mature faith. Or, in the incomparable words of the Apostle Paul: "Who shall separate us from the low of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through hum who loved us" (Rom. 8:35,37).  I, for one, am confident that the prayers of the Church in the form of these petitions for a blessed New Year have got it right.

Through faith, intuitively, by inner perception, we know that the God who has revealed Himself in Christ is the "All-compassionate Lord."

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Resolutions or Repentance?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to the civil calendar, we begin the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) 2020, on January 1. The year of 2020 is based upon the calculations of a medieval monk who, in attempting to ascertain the exact date of the birth of Christ, missed the year 0 by only a few years. According to contemporary scholars, Jesus was actually born between what we consider to be 6 – 4 B. C. These were the last years of Herod the Great, for according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus was born toward the very end of Herod’s long reign (37 – 4 B.C.). Christians therefore divide the linear stretch of historical time between the era before the Incarnation; and the era after the Incarnation and the advent of the Son of God into our space-time world. 

In other words, the years before the Incarnation are treated as something of a “countdown” to the time-altering event of the Incarnation; and the years since are counted forward as we move toward the end of history and the coming Kingdom of God. By entering the world, Christ has transformed the meaning and goal of historical time.

Recently, there has been a scholarly shift away from this openly Christian approach to history, as the more traditional designations of B.C. and A.D. have been replaced by the more neutral and “ecumenically sensitive” designations of B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), and C.E. (Common Era). Understanding and interpreting history from a decidedly Christian perspective, I would still argue in favor of the more traditional B.C. and A.D.

Although an issue of more than passing interest, that discussion may appear somewhat academic in comparison to the pressing issues of our daily lives as they continue to unfold now in 2020. We will  exchange our conventional greetings of “Happy New Year” probably more than once in the next few days. 

Under closer inspection, there remains something vague about that expression, and perhaps that is for the better. Do we wish for the other person – as well as for ourselves – that nothing will go (terribly) wrong in the unknown future of the new year? More positively, do we wish that all of our desires and wishes for our lives will be fulfilled in this new year? Or, are we wishing a successful year of the perpetual pursuit of “happiness” (whatever that means) for ourselves and for our friends? At that point we just may be reaching beyond the restrictive boundaries of reality. As Tevye the Dairyman once said: “The more man plans, the harder God laughs.” 

Perhaps the more realistic approach would be to give and receive our “Happy New Year” greetings as neighborly acknowledgement that we are “all in this together,” and that we need to mutually encourage and support one another.

We also approach the New Year as a time to commit ourselves to those annual “resolutions” that we realize will make our lives more wholesome, safe, sound, or even sane - if only we can sustain them. A resolution is to dig deep inside and find the resolve necessary to break through those (bad) habits or patterns of living that undermine either our effectiveness in daily life; jeopardize our relationships with our loved ones, our friends and our neighbors; or seriously threaten to make us less human than we can and should be. 

We know that we should eat less, swear less, lust less, get angry less, surf the computer less, play on our iPhones less, watch TV less and so on. We further know that we need more patience, more self-discipline, more graceful language, more attention to the needs of others, more “quality time” with our families and friends, more forgiving, more loving and so on. We know, therefore, that we need to change, and we intuitively realize how difficult this is. Bad habits are hard to break. Therefore, we need this annual opportunity of a new beginning and our New Year resolutions to give us a “fighting chance” to actually change. 
As a 'holiday' is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a 'holy day', so a 'resolution' is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of 'repentance'.

We may joke about how quickly we break our resolutions, but beneath the surface of that joking (which covers up our disappointments and rationalizations) we are acknowledging, once again, the struggle of moving beyond and replacing our vices with virtues. May God grant everyone the resolve to maintain these resolutions with care and consistency.

And yet I believe that we can profoundly deepen our experience of the above. For, as a “holiday” is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a “holy day,” so a resolution is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of personal repentance. To repent (Gk. metanoia) is to have a “change of mind,” together with a corresponding change in the manner of our living and a re-direction of our lives toward God. The New Year’s resolution of our secularized culture may be a persistent reminder — or the remainder of — a lost Christian worldview that realized the importance of repentance. “There is something rotten in Denmark,” and an entire industry of self-help and self-reliance therapies — totally divorced from a theistic context — is an open acknowledgement of that reality regardless of how distant it may now be from its religious expression. As members of the Body of Christ living within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, we can, in turn, incorporate our resolutions within the ongoing process of repentance, which is nothing less than our vocation as human beings: “God requires us to go on repenting until our last breath” (St. Isaias of Sketis). Or, as St. Isaac of Syria teaches: “This life has been given you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.”

Summarizing and synthesizing the Church’s traditional teaching about repentance, Archbishop Kallistos Ware has formulated a wonderfully open-ended expression of repentance that is both helpful and hopeful:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upward at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. In this sense, repentance is not just a single act, an initial step, but a continuing state, an attitude of heart and will that needs to be ceaselessly renewed up to the end of life.  (The Orthodox Way, p. 113-114)

Hard not to be inspired by such an expressive passage! In the Service of Prayer for the (Civil) New Year, we incorporate into the litanies of the service some of the following special petitions. Thus, in the language of the Church, these petitions served as an ecclesial form of the resolutions we make to break through some of our dehumanizing behavior; as well as a plea to God to strengthen our better inclinations:

That He will drive away from us all soul-corrupting passions and corrupting habits, and that He will plant in our hearts His divine fear, unto the fulfillment of His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will renew a right spirit within us, and strengthen us in the Orthodox Faith, and cause us to make haste in the performance of good deeds and the Fulfillment of all His statutes, let us pray to the Lord.

That He will bless the beginning and continuance of this year with the grace of His love for mankind, and will grant unto us peaceful times, favorable weather and a sinless life in health and abundance, let us pray to the Lord.

If you resolve to seek and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind … and your neighbor as yourself” (MATT. 22:37-38), then I believe that this new year may not be perpetually “happy,” but that it will truly blessed.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Incarnation: A word about the Word! - Towards Recovering a Genuine Christian Vocabulary

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt." 

— Saint Athanasius the Great

Within the Church we have a biblical/theological vocabulary that is very expressive of what we believe as Christians.  These words are drawn primarily from the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, and the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasius the Great, quoted above.  As responsible, believing and practicing Christians, we need to know this vocabulary at least in its most basic forms.

As we continually learn a new technology-driven vocabulary derived from computers to smart phones, so too we need to be alert to the traditional vocabulary of the Church as it has been sanctified over centuries of use.  And this vocabulary should be natural to us – not something foreign, exotic and “only for theologians.”  It does not take a great deal of effort to be theologically literate, and there is no excuse not to be.

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, a key term that must be part of the vocabulary of all Orthodox Christians is incarnation.  The Nativity of Christ is the Incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  Or, we simply speak of The Incarnation, immediately knowing what that word is referring to.  If we turn to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the term defined somewhat blandly, in that kind of clipped, compact and objective style found in most dictionaries:

  • in•car•na•tion \in-kär-`nā-shǝn\ n (14c)  1 a (1):  the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form (2) cap:  the union of the divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ.

In the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology, the Orthodox theologian, Father John McGuckin, begins his definition under a fairly long entry of this term as follows:

Incarnation  Incarnation is the concept of the eternal Word of God (the Logos) “becoming flesh” within history for the salvation of the human race.  Incarnation does not simply refer to the act itself (such as the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin, or the event of Christmas); it stands more generally for the whole nexus of events in the life, teachings, sufferings, and glorification of the Lord, considered as the earthly, embodied activity of the Word [p. 180].

Speaking of expanding our theological vocabulary, we need to further know that we translate the key Greek term Logos as Word, referring of course to the Word of God Who was “with God” and Who “was God,” according to Saint John’s Gospel “in the beginning.”  We also refer to the Word of God as the “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “Power” of God.  It is this Logos/Word of God Who becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.  

The key verse that is the classical expression of the Incarnation in the New Testament is found in the Gospel according to Saint John 1:14:  “And the Word (Logos) became flesh.”  Incarnation is derived from the Latin word “in the flesh.”  The Greek word for Incarnation would be sarkothenta, meaning “made flesh.” So the Incarnation of the Word of God is the “enfleshment”of the Word, and here “flesh” means the totality of our human nature.  The Word has assumed our human nature and united it to Himself in an indissoluble union that restores the fellowship of God and humankind.  

The sacramental life of the Church is based on the Incarnation, and the potential for created reality to become a vehicle for spiritual reality.  The ultimate manifestation of this is the Eucharist, and the bread and wine “becoming” the Body and Blood of Christ.

Christmas is the time of the year to recall all of this profound reality and recover a genuine Christian vocabulary that expresses our Faith about as well as what is humanly possible. 

This further means that theological words are not dry and abstract concepts when approached with not only respect, but with awe and wonder.  This makes our reading and studying of our theological Tradition exciting – as well as humbling. The words reveal life-transforming truths that if received with prayer and thanksgiving enhance and expand our minds and hearts, so that we might have the “mind of Christ.”

Friday, December 20, 2019

On the Orthodox Celebration of the Nativity of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

"O strange mixture! O paradoxical mingling! He who Is becomes, the Uncreated as created, and the Unlimited is limited by means of a rational soul which mediates between the divinity and the grossness of the flesh. He who is rich becomes poor, for He becomes poor through my flesh that I may become rich through His divinity."

St. Gregory the Theologian Oration 45

The Final Five Days 
The final five days of the Nativity Fast - December 20-24 - leading up to December 25 and the Nativity of Christ, are sometimes likened to a "holy week" before the Feast. The pattern is derived, of course, from Holy Week and Pascha.
If you have been observing the Nativity/Advent Fast with consistency, then I simply encourage you to stay with it for these final five days. No reason to falter now. If you have not consistently observed the fast, then make a point of doing so now as the Feast draws near. Practice your Faith. 
In the secular celebration of Christmas, people generally "party" up to and including Christmas. The unavoidable office Christmas party comes to mind. In this approach, besides opening gifts, nothing really different on Christmas Day. 
From within the Church, we fast before we feast. That is a basic principle of our liturgical life. In fact, the fast is somewhat intensified these last five days if you check your church calendar. "Breaking the fast" on December 25, finds us enjoying our festal meals as well as exchanging gifts. Holding on has its rewards. Different principles involved, leading to different practices. Overall, a meaningful discipline and challenge to embrace.

Difference in Celebration
Perhaps I should make a comment on how differently - at least relatively speaking - our Orthodox celebration of the Nativity is from the general type within our Christian culture (or what's left of it) - Roman Catholic or Protestant. Many new "converts" to Orthodoxy may be surprised, and perhaps more than a little disappointed to one degree or another, when making the transition from one form of Christmas worship to another. 
Simply put, for an Orthodox Christian there is no special "candlelight service" punctuated with the traditional repertoire of traditional Christmas carols known from childhood. (These carols are, of course, not only melodic but very rich in theological content). Admittedly, this can be a challenging transition, as it is very human to loyally adhere to long-standing traditions. 
Orthodox worship for the Nativity is a matter of "filling in" the traditional liturgical services with specifically festal material, in this case based on the rich hymnography prescribed for our celebration of the Incarnation. 
Leading up to December 25, we have a series of pre-festal Vespers services that prepare us for the coming of Christ in the flesh (we will serve two of them, the one from yesterday evening, and the other on Monday evening). The Royal Hours, with the identical structure to the Royal Hours used for Pascha, are prescribed for the Eve of Nativity, with different psalms, scriptural readings, and hymns related to the Nativity. The festal Matins sung/chanted on the evening of the Eve of the Feast, is structurally the usual Matins service, but greatly enhanced with the same type of festal hymnography. And the Liturgy on Christmas Day is the usual Liturgy but again with unique festal Antiphons, scriptural readings and prayers related to the Birth of Christ. 
On a pastoral level, I appreciate the changed experience of the Lord's Nativity those of you new to the Church have to make. At the same time, I hope there are also some new rich discoveries made as we profoundly bring to mind through worship the glory of the Word made flesh.

Do You Know the Scriptures?
Attached/appended below is an old "warhorse," that is, a test of your knowledge of the two Nativity narratives of Sts. Matthew and Luke respectively. There are twenty questions with a simple one letter answer as you will discover. 
Nativity Narrative Test (PDF) - Scroll down for in-line version.
My suggest is this: Take the text and see how well - or poorly - you do. Then read the relevant scriptural texts (Matt. 1-2; Lk. 2; Jn. 1:1-18), take the test again, and see how well you improve. (Or keep rereading until you get all twenty questions right!). 
We should all be able to distinguish one Gospel from another, as each evangelist has his own emphases when narrating the Nativity of Christ. This also makes for an animated dinner table (or after dinner) group discussion. No arguing allowed!
 + + +

Nativity Narrative Test
The following test questions should be answered by using the following key:

M – St. Matthew  
L – St. Luke 
ML – Sts. Matthew & Luke     
N – Neither Gospel

1.   This Gospel contains a sequence of revelatory dreams to St. Joseph _____
2.   This Gospel has an ox and an ass by the manger of the Christ Child _____
3.   This Gospel mentions the census that takes Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem _____
4.   This Gospel contains the genealogy of Christ that begins with the Patriarch Abraham _____
5.   This Gospel narrates the massacre of the Innocents _____
6.  This Gospel narrates the visit of three magi who bring gifts to the Christ Child _____
7.   This Gospel narrates the angelic visitation to shepherds watching their flocks _____
8.   This Gospel contains references to King Herod _____
9.   This Gospel narrates that Christ was born in the Hebrew month equivalent to Dec. _____
10.  This Gospel contains the prophecy of Isaiah that a “virgin” shall conceive _____
11.  This Gospel narrates the journey of the “Holy Family” to Egypt and back to Israel _____
12.  This Gospel narrates that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths _____
13.  This Gospel refers to Jesus as the Word of God _____
14.  This Gospel tells us that the name of Christ’s mother is Mary _____
15.  This Gospel narrates the circumcision of the eight-day old Jesus _____
16.  This Gospel narrates that Jesus was born in a cave/stable/house _____
17.  This Gospel informs us that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem _____
18.  This Gospel tells us that after His birth, Jesus returned to Nazareth _____
19.  This Gospel refers to the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus _____
20.  This Gospel mentions women in the genealogy of Christ _____

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Beyond Divisions: The Christian vision of Ultimate Destiny

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

'When Christ who is our Life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory...'

We heard an all-together extraordinary passage from St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians at the hierarchical Liturgy that we celebrated last Sunday with Bishop Paul. This particular reading is appointed for the Sunday of the Forefathers, the Second Sunday Before Nativity. 
As we draw closer to the feast, we remember the righteous ones of God who were instrumental - despite their many failings and sinfulness - in maintaining a remnant from which Christ will come forth. Be that as it may, in this passage the Apostle Paul "nails it" when it comes to pointing out the sinful ways of the "old man," hopefully put away in baptism, but which, alas, can plague us to this day. 
It will be most helpful to remember that the Apostle Paul is writing to primarily newly-baptized members of the local church in Colossae. The Colossians have "put on Christ" in Baptism. Yet, these new Christians are "hemmed in" by a pagan culture that is not as nearly committed to the moral and ethical precepts that flow from the new life in Christ. We need to appreciate that tension, especially as that is now our own reality today! 
Perhaps it is best to have this remarkable passage before us as we continue:

When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness which is idolatry.On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his practices, and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all." (COL. 3:4-11)

Before enumerating those sins that may continue to undermine our relationship with Him, the Apostle first inspires us with the eschatological vision of appearing with Christ in glory. And if that does not inspire us, I am hard-pressed to find anything else that will! At least within a Christian vision of ultimate destiny. 
St. Augustine encourages us to be patient about this desire: "What we desire now is not present; but let us not falter in desire; let long continuous desire be our daily exercise, because the one who made the promise doesn't cheat us." The Apostle Paul's "therefore" in the next verse, makes clear that he is drawing definite consequences for life from that very Christocentric vision. As if to say: The Christ you desire to be with expects a life worthy of that high calling; a life that is in reality Christ-like, so that we are in harmony with the One we have been united to in Baptism. For it is in the baptismal font that we have "put to death" a life that the Apostle Paul would have identified with the pagan culture of Colossae. 
We must admit, that it is quite a list of sins that the Apostle Paul presents to us in this passage - from the general "immorality" to the specific "foul take from your mouth." (This may cover today's "road rage" at all of those miserable drivers out there, to use one example of many when foul talk blurts out of our mouths as if on signal.) Our later spiritual tradition enumerated the many "passions" that afflict us, but really the saints were simply working off of what St. Paul already warned us about. No need to embellish or enlarge upon what the Apostle warned us about! St. Paul does not pass over the daily temptations that can mar our relationships : "do not lie to one another " he exhorts us. Are we able to fulfill this precept on a daily basis?

The "old man" signifies the fallen state of humanity, recalling, of course, the "first man" - Adam - and his inability to remain in fellowship with God. To sin is to resemble Adam, to disobey God and then rationalize that disobedience in a hopelessly conceived effort to escape the consequences.  To remain in unrepentant sin would be to invite the "wrath of God" in the end as an alternative eschatological reality. Yet, the Apostle Paul is confident that we can "put off the old man with his practices." We have the freedom to not only make that decision, but to act in accordance with it. We cannot put the blame on our human nature, for that nature - including the body - is good. St. John Chrysostom puts it like this:

Moral choice rather than human nature is the determining factor and rather constitutes the "human condition" than the natural determinants. For human nature itself does not cast one into hell, nor does it lead one into the kingdom, but this happens by human beings themselves. We neither love not hate anyone so far is he man, but so far as he is such or such a man. If then our real essence as human beings is the body, which in any case cannot be accountable, how can one say that the body is evil? But what does Paul say? "With his practices." He means freedom of choice, with its accompanying acts. (Homily on Colossians 8)

The "new man" is the last Adam - Christ our Savior. If we have put him on in Baptism, then it is that very "freedom of choice" that St. John mentions that can keep that reality alive in us. "For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily." (2:9) St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: "Thus Paul, advising those who were able to hear him to lay hold on perfection, indicates also the mode in which they may attain that object. He tells them that they must "put off the old man" and put on the man "which is renewed after the image of him that created him." Now may we all return to that divine grace in which God at the first created man, when he said, "Let us make man in our image and likeness"."

This passage concludes with St. Paul offering a vision that could only be termed "radical" in its social and interpersonal implications. The divisions that rack humanity and that lead to anger, wrath, malice, slander and war itself are healed in the waters of Baptism. 
For the Apostle Paul and his world, these divisions were between "Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man." These were divisions that remained impervious to unity and fellowship. Based on fear, prejudice, long-standing suspicion, and the rest, the Apostle relates the "good news" that such divisions are overcome in Christ, who "is all, and in all."  
This may be objectively true, but how do Christians manifest this unity? What is Christianity's "track record" in this regard? In our surrounding culture today, the divisions remain between black and white, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, globalist and nationalist - and the dreary list goes on. 
Perhaps the place to start is the human heart. If we, as Christians, can look beyond these divisions - or perhaps accept them as inevitable as different people take different positions - then there is no reason why mutual respect cannot characterize the attitude and approach of a person who desires the coming of Christ in glory and who, in the interval, "is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his creator."

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Image of Giving in St Nicholas

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

There are sixteen days of charity, prayer and fasting left before Christmas...  Redeem the time.
We recently commemorated St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker (December 6). There is a certain unresolved tension that accompanies his person and memory: On the one hand, there are few "hard facts" about his life (to the point where many doubt his actual historical existence); and on the other hand, he is clearly one of the most beloved and universally venerated of saints within the Church. It is said that even many Muslims venerate St. Nicholas! A good example of an objective account of the few facts behind the saint's life can be found in a short introductory biographical note concerning St. Nicholas in the book, The Time of the Spirit:

Little is known for certain about the life of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor). It is believed that he suffered imprisonment during the last major persecution of the Church under Diocletian in the early fourth century, and that he attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325. Christian tradition has come to regard him, in the words of an Orthodox hymn, as "an example of faith and an icon of gentleness." (Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

For those interested in the historical background of St. Nicholas, the following note found in The Synaxarion, Vol. II, edited by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonas Petras, may prove to be of real interest:

Since the medieval period, St. Nicholas of Myra has been confused with St. Nicholas of Sion, who founded a monastery not far from Myra at the end of the 5th century. The Vita of the latter has come down to us but the incidents in it have been entirely ascribed to St. Nicholas of Myra, with the result that St. Nicholas of Sion has been forgotten n the hagiographical accounts.... (See The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, edited and translated by I. N. P. Sevcenko (Brookline, MA, 1984).

So, even if we are dealing with a "composite figure" when we venerate St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, we nevertheless are given a glimpse into the "mind of the Church" when it comes to an image of a true pastor. A powerful and enduring image of a genuine Christian shepherd has remained within the memory of the Church, regardless of the now unrecoverable "facts" behind the actual history of 4th - 5th c. Asia Minor. It is this "unerring" intuition of the People of God that the faithful respond to up to the present day that remains as a solid foundation upholding all of the wonderful stories that endear us to St. Nicholas. The Church today desperately needs bishops of the type embodied by St. Nicholas. A shepherd who is a "rule of faith and an image of humility" would mean a great deal more to the Christian flock, than legal-minded adherence to canon law. St. Nicholas both protected and interceded for his flock, according to the great Russian Orthodox iconographer, Leonid Uspensky. And he further writes:

This 'life for others' is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men: his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast, uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit. (The Time of the Spirit, p. 69)

Well-known as St. Nicholas has been, he is perhaps less well-known in today's world. In fact, he may be slowly slipping away from Christian consciousness. Santa Claus, that rather unfortunate caricature of the saintly bishop, clearly has something to do with this. But perhaps the very virtues embodied by this saint are slowly fading from our consciousness. A few weeks back, I wrote a meditation that passed on the name our social and secular world has "earned" for itself through its rampant commercialization of Christmas - and that is Getmas. The author who coined this new term - I forget his name - claims it came to him based on a conversation he had had with a good friend about the "spirit of Christmas." The friend of our author said that Christmas was about "getting things." When the author countered by saying, "I thought Christmas was about giving," the friend quickly retorted: "Sure, people are supposed to give me things!" Out of this sad exchange came the unfortunate, but accurate, Getmas.

St. Nicholas was about the proper understanding of "giving." Perhaps the most enduring quality of his image is that of giving to children in need. Our children learn that those who already "have" more are those who will yet "get" more. And that is because they are taught this by their parents who yield to their childish demands. So we persist in widening the gap of imbalance between the "haves and "have-nots" without too many pangs of (Christian) conscience. St. Nicholas wanted to restore a sense of balance, and so he looked first to those who were in need, so that they could also taste some childlike happiness from receiving an unexpected gift. In a simple manner, this imitates the giving of God Who gave us Christ at a time when everyone - rich and poor alike - were impoverished through sin and death.

I sometimes fantasize that an ideal celebration of Christmas would find a relatively affluent family making sure that they spent more on those in need than on themselves. If Christianity is indeed the "imitation of the divine nature" as St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, then that need not necessarily be such an unrealistic idea. I do not believe that I have ever actually done that, so I convict myself through the very thought. Yet, I am convinced that our children would respond with an eager spirit of cooperation if properly prepared for some approximation of that ideal. Why should it be otherwise if, according to the Apostle Paul, Christ said that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

Once again, just a thought based upon the image of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker.