Saturday, May 24, 2014

More on the Samaritan Woman

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Last Sunday, I (actually!) had a discussion with someone about the Gospel reading during the Coffee Hour. Thus, we were speaking about the Samaritan Woman. This was with one of our younger female parishioners, and she let me know that she has always been deeply attracted to this dialogue between Jesus and the woman of Samaria. She made the initial point that in this dialogue we learn about how Jesus related to "women and minorities," which is important aspect of their encounter.

Jesus had no prejudices towards either "women or minorities!" He spoke openly with both women and the marginalized. However, what I found to be particularly insightful in our conversation was the further comment that in this dialogue we learn how Jesus will approach another person and "witness" to that person about the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman first about "living water" and "eternal life" and did not concentrate of sin and judgment. An excellent reminder to those who will "witness" to others precisely by first stressing sin and judgment, which is appealing to fear not love. Jesus could have judged the woman severely because of her many husbands. But although He forced her to recognize her "irregular" marital status, He did not condemn her or threaten her with judgment or condemnation. This was a good and important insight, and another excellent way to approach the dialogue between Christ and the Samaritan woman.

Jesus offers a "gift" - in this case the gift of "living water." Judgment is self-imposed on those who obstinately refuse this gift or any other manifestation of the goodness that clearly comes from Christ in His teaching and His very Person. When a person accepts that gift, he/she will eventually recognize his/her own sinfulness and understand that we are judged for our decisions and way of life. The gift is offered through love and appeals to a response of love - not fear of judgment.

Anyway, an excellent insight from one of our parishioners who is clearly "engaged" with this dialogue!

Friday, May 23, 2014

From Where Do We Draw Our Water?

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


In my humble opinion, the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (JN. 4:5-42) may just be the most profound and amazing dialogue ever recorded in human history. There are, of course, the incredible Platonic dialogues that present the attractive and irrepressible figure of the philosopher Socrates and his quest for moral and ethical truth.  But with Jesus, there is someone "greater than Socrates" present. We were blessed yet again this last Sunday - the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman - to hear this passage during the Liturgy. The incomparable quality of this dialogue is based upon both the content and the identity of the two protagonists of the dialogue.  This will be discussed more fully below.  For the moment, we need to realize that this great dialogue has a  carefully-conceived and executed literary structure. That literary structure adds to the inherent drama, refined characterization, theological depth and over-all quality of this unique and unforgettable scene in St. John’s Gospel.   This is an inspired text that can be read over and over endlessly and still inspire the reader as it yields endless insights into the revelation that comes in and through Jesus Christ – “ the Savior of the world” (v. 42).

Jesus sat down by the well because He was “wearied” from His journey.  This “weariness” reveals the true humanity of Jesus.  Having “become flesh,” He is subject to the “blameless passions,” those weaknesses of the flesh that are inherent to our human nature within the conditions of this “fallen world.”  That would include hunger, thirst, fear, suffering and death.  Jesus is not a divine figure roaming around the world “incognito” under the illusory veil of human flesh.  He does not merely “seem” to be human.  The Word actually became flesh, therefore freely accepting the human frailty that we all experience.  Refreshing himself at the well, Jesus was joined by a woman who was a Samaritan, for she came to the well in order to draw water and take it back to her village.  At this point, the dialogue commences between the two and, since they are at the well,  the dialogue will center around the theme of “water.”   As is typical in these dialogues recorded in St. John’s Gospel, a particular word or phrase will carry a double meaning - earthly and spiritual, we could say.  Jesus informs the woman that if she had asked for a gift from God, she would have received “living water.”  The woman, thinking in earthly or natural terms, would like to receive living water, for that would mean it would be fresh and flowing, coming from a fountain or stream and not from a well or cistern.  But Jesus, who has come to reveal heavenly things, will “elevate” the dialogue to the spiritual level.  By “living water,” he is drawing on Old Testament allusions that equate water with divine wisdom and revelation.   And “living water” is also a clear reference to the Holy Spirit.  This is made explicit a bit later in the Gospel:

“He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’.”  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believe in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  (JN. 7:38-39)

The Samaritan woman responds with a certain confusion.  She still cannot understand how Jesus can draw this “living water.”  (She is not even sure why Jesus would speak with her - a woman of Samaria - "For Jews had no dealings with Samaritans").  Disregarding her objections, Jesus will further elaborate and elevate His meaning, culminating in what could serve as a magnificent definition of baptism “of water and the Spirit:”

“Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  (JN. 4:13-14)

At this point the words of Jesus are beginning to penetrate the mind and heart of the Samaritan woman.  Something about Jesus and about what He is saying is attracting her to His enigmatic words.  (As the narrative progresses, she ultimately comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah – 4: 29, 39).  Her response captures her slow movement from the earthly level to the beginning of her elevation to the spiritual level, for her “request” vocalizes a “thirst” that is progressing beyond the merely natural level:

“The woman said to him, 'Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw'.”  (JN. 4:15)

As well as St. John the Evangelist captures the distinctiveness and uniqueness of her character, the Samaritan woman is also representative of humanity “thirsting” and seeking to satisfy that thirst.  On that level, she represents the endless human quest to go to the “well” – any well – from which to draw some “water” that will sustain our search and quench our thirst for that “something more” in life.  The choices are endless.  The wells are attractively presented.  In our restlessness and spiritual confusion, we go from well to well, drinking this or that water, but always ending up with an unquenchable thirst.  As much as our secularism and pop-culture frenzy has seemingly stifled that spiritual thirst that was more apparent in the past, the human spirit is still thirsting for the Holy Spirit of God.  That is why the choices and the frenzied pursuits of the world are multiplying to a dizzying  degree.  If we try hard enough, perhaps we can cover up that basic human need for the divine.  Perhaps we can make the thirst go away by drinking endlessly from a variety of wells.  Or, perhaps there is nothing “out there” to satisfy our thirst.  Perhaps the thirst is only an illusion …

Even though we are believing and practicing Orthodox Christians, do we periodically succumb to such a temptation?  Do we try and quench our own thirst at “wells” other than the well of the Gospel and the Eucharist?  Do we believe that  if we travel enough,  spend enough and accumulate enough, we can  fool ourselves into thinking that that will quench our thirst?   Why drink from the living water of the Gospels, when one can drink the stimulating water of a soap opera-type novel or splashy magazine?  Why drink from the cup of the Bridegroom of the Church when one can dream of luxuriating in the whirlpools of the latest “bachelorette” or “bachelor” series?  Why observe a fast of the Church when we can eat and drink to our heart’s content?  Why drink from the difficult teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, when we can easily drink  from the latest self-help book or the guidance of a financial guru?  Of course, we will continue to go to church and fulfill our “religious obligations,”  but the Church may only provide a “reservoir” of water kept for emergency situations.  The real “fun” begins after and outside of Church!  These are the types of temptations that we must always be vigilant toward.   Yet, this leaves us with the question:  Where do we draw our “water” from?

When the Samaritan woman eventually left the well to return to her village and tell her fellow villagers about Jesus, she left behind the water jar that she brought with her to the well.  This small detail  did not escape the vigilant eye of the evangelist.  She no longer thirsted for the water from the well; but was now intent upon the living water that came through the presence and teaching of Jesus.  So she left her water jar behind to signify this.  When we worship the Father, we receive the “living water” of  “Spirit and truth.”  This is an inexhaustible font of “water” that quenches our thirst for the meaning of life.  The Spirit guides in a life that is lived within the light of God’s design for the world.  It is the gift of God that we can ask Jesus for, and He will give it to us as He promised the woman of Samaria.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mid-Pentecost: 'To Glisten with Splendor'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


Today finds us at the exact midpoint of the sacred fifty-day period between the Feasts of Pascha and Pentecost.  So, this twenty-fifth day is called, simply, Midfeast or Mid-Pentecost.  Pentecost (from the Gk. pentecosti) is, of course, the name of the great Feast on the fiftieth day after Pascha, but the term is also used to cover the entire fifty-day period linking the two feasts, thus expressing their profound inner unity.  Our emphasis on the greatness of Pascha - the "Feast of Feasts" -  may at times come at the expense of Pentecost, but in an essential manner Pascha is dependent upon Pentecost for its ultimate fulfillment.  As Veselin Kesich has written:

Because of Pentecost the resurrection of Christ is a present reality, not just an event that belongs to the past.  "We do not say merely, 'Christ rose'," writes Kallistos Ware, "but 'Christ is risen' - he lives now, for me and in me.  This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit."  Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies himself in his saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experiences death on the cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Spirit.  
(The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173)

Be that as it  may, there is a wonderful hymn from the Vespers of the Midfeast that reveals this profound inner connection:

The middle of the fifty days has come,
beginning with the Savior’s resurrection,
and sealed by the Holy Pentecost.
The first and the last glisten with splendor.
We rejoice in the union of both feasts,
as we draw near to the Lord’s ascension:
the sign of our coming glorification.

(Vespers of the Midfeast)

Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” – what a wonderful expression!  Yet, this very expression which is indicative of the festal life of the Church, may also sound embarrassingly archaic to our ears today.  This is not exactly an everyday expression that comes readily to mind, even when we encounter something above the ordinary!  However, that could also be saying something about ourselves and not simply serve as a reproach to the Church’s less-than-contemporary vocabulary. Perhaps the drab conformity of our environment; the de-sacralized nature of the world around us, together with its prosaic concerns and uninspiring goals; and even the reduction of religion to morality and vague “values,” make us more than a little skeptical/cynical about anything whatsoever “glistening with splendor!”   How can Pascha and Pentecost “glisten with splendor” if Pascha is “already” (though, only twenty-five days ago!) a forgotten experience of the past; and if the upcoming feasts of Ascension and Pentcost fail to fill us with the least bit of expectation or anticipation?

The Lord is risen and we await the coming of the Comforter, the “Spirit of Truth.”  These are two awesome claims!  The Apostle Paul exhorts us:  “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (COL. 3:2).  This exhortation from the Apostle is a great challenge. For experience teaches us that "the things that are on earth" can be very compelling, immediate and deeply attractive.  While "the things that are above" can seem abstract and rather distant; or that they are reserved for the end of our life as we know it "on earth."

The Apostle Paul is exhorting us to a radical reorientation of our approach to life - what we may call our "vision of life" - and again, this is difficult, even for believing Christians!  Yet, I would like to believe that with our minds lifted up on high and our hearts turned inward where God is – deep within our hearts – not only will the feasts themselves “glisten with splendor,” but so will our souls.  Then, what the world believes to be unattainable, will be precisely the experience that makes us “not of the world.”  May the rest of your day and the days to come somehow, by the grace of God, “glisten with splendor!”

As it is written,
The abundant outpouring of divine gifts is drawing near.
The chosen day of the Spirit is halfway come.
The faithful promise to the disciples after
the death, burial and resurrection of Christ heralds the coming of the Comforter!

(Vespers of the Midfeast)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Living in the Light of the Resurrection (Audio Podcast)

Christ is Risen!
Indeed He is Risen!

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 rejoice to make it available again here during the Paschal season.

Living in the Light of the Resurrection
Fr Steven C. Kostoff

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

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

Becoming Witnesses of the Resurrection

Dear Parish Faithful,


"And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour." MK. 15:33)

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

St. Mark the Evangelist is rather precise when he narrates that the Lord was crucified at the third hour (MK 15:25); that darkness fell over the land at the sixth hour (15:33); and that Christ died at the ninth hour (MK 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 OT 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?"  (MK 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, St. 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!" (MK 15:39)

In addition, there was actually a silent presence of deeply sympathetic figures within some proximity of the Cross that St. 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 Salo'me, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.  (MK 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.  (MK 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."  (MK 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 St. Mark in only eight verses (MK. 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" (MK 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. St. 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."  (MK 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."  (MK 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?" (MK 15:34) has been answered.  Jesus has not been forsaken.  Unconditionally obedient to the will of God (see MK 14:36), Jesus has accepted the cup of suffering.  On the cross he is Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God (see MK 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).

St. 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. (MK. 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!

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Resurrection of Jesus: 'The Definitive Action of God'

Dear Parish Faithful,


On the upcoming Third Sunday of Pascha we will read the Burial and Resurrection Narrative from St. Mark's Gospel. (MK. 15:43-16:8). This will be the only Sunday on which we read from a Gospel other than St. John's before Pentecost.

Anticipating that powerful Gospel passage, I wanted to share a short but very insightful passage from the biblical scholar Franicis J. Moloney, and his book The Resurrection of the Messiah. (If the name Vassilios Papavasiliou clearly indicates a Greek Orthodox writer; than Francis J. Moloney clearly indicates an Irish Roman Catholic writer!).

In his chapter on MK. 16:1-8, Moloney writes the following:

The question asked of God by Jesus from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (MK. 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 women are told to look at the place where they have laid him.  The opponents of Jesus crucified him, and they placed his body in a tomb ("look at the place where they laid him").  It could appear that they have had their victory, but they were thwarted. He has been raised, and the existence of the Gospel indicates that there is a community of believers whose coming into being depends upon God's action.  Jesus' prophecy that the rejected stone would become the foundation stone of a new Temple of God has proved true (see 12:11-12; 14:58; 15:29)

Familiarity with the various Resurrection narratives found in all four Gospels (MK. 16; MATT. 28; LK. 24; JN. 20 & 21) should be high on any Orthodox Christian's priority list.