Friday, January 12, 2018

Rebuking the Tempter, and Following Jesus


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,



Sunday is the Leavetaking of Theophany, the great feast commemorating the Baptism of the Lord and the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Jordan River. It was His baptism at the hands of the Forerunner that inaugurated the public ministry of Christ – a public ministry that will begin with the words recorded in the Gospels and which continue to reverberate through the centuries to this day with a call and a challenge that is meant to shake all of humanity out of a false sense of complacency and comfort: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (MATT. 4:17). 

According to Christ there is something more than the joys and sorrows that inevitably accompany the natural cycle of life and death. Acknowledging this with thanksgiving, the very pinnacle of our communal worship of God in the Liturgy begins by “blessing” the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the opening doxology. Yet, before these powerful words are uttered in the Gospels; and before the Lord will begin His ministry of demonstrating the Kingdom of Heaven’s presence through His words and deeds culminating in the Cross and Resurrection; there is an event of tremendous significance that further prepares Christ for His messianic ministry: The Temptation/Testing in the Wilderness (MATT. 4:1-11; MK. 1:12-13; LK. 4:1-13). 

The nuances of the Greek word behind this event allows us to think in terms of “temptation” or “testing.” Perhaps we could say that Christ was tested when God allowed Him to be tempted by the devil. Either way – or with a combination of both terms – the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness will shape Him and His ministry to Israel and to the world by defining an image of the Messiah that He will reject and one that He will embrace.

It is highly significant that it is the Spirit who “led” Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (MATT. 4:1). Nothing in the life of Christ is accidental. In all things He is led by His heavenly Father acting through the Holy Spirit, including this “face-to-face” encounter with the evil one. 

The austere and unsettling figure of the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky’s famous Legend embedded in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, refers to the devil as “the dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being.” It is this dread spirit who will tempt Christ through the three questions that will test the fidelity of Christ to His unique messianic vocation as willed by His heavenly Father. 

Dostoevsky, through the tragic figure of the Grand Inquisitor, further reveals the power and non-human source of these powerful temptations, when the Inquisitor says in his monologue: 

“By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, one can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute. For in these three questions all of subsequent human history is as if brought together into a single whole and foretold; three images are revealed that will take in all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature over all the earth.” 

In other words, these three temptations were not “invented” or “made up” by the evangelists for dramatic effect. The very “perfection” of the temptations posed by the devil reveal their veracity.

And what are these three temptations? According to St. Matthew’s account, they begin with the following as Jesus is fasting and experiencing hunger in the wilderness: “And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’.” 

This was followed by the second temptation to test God’s fidelity to Him after the devil “took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, less you strike your foot against a stone’.”  

The final temptation was grandiose and sweeping in its scope: 

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’.” 

In Dostoevsky’s particular and profound interpretation of Christ’s encounter with the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to receive obedience through miracle, mystery and authority as represented in these three tantalizing temptations. By compelling human beings to believe in Him by overwhelming them with the miraculous; by exploiting a sense of mystery to attract human beings to follow him; and by appealing to the human need for security through external authority; Christ would have accepted and approved of a distorted understanding of human nature. 

In Dostoevsky’s understanding of Christ, as attainable as these “powers” may be for the Son of God, each one in its own way violates the gift of human freedom given to us by God and appealed to by Christ. It is for this very reason that Christ did not come down from the Cross as He was “tempted” to do by those who mocked Him. Even if freedom is a burden as well as a gift, it is the true vision of humanity created “in the image and likeness of God.” We, in turn, freely choose to follow Christ, the crucified “Lord of glory.”

Dostoevsky had his particular concerns when he resorted to the temptation in the wilderness to dramatize the dialectics of human freedom and coercion in an unforgettable manner in The Brothers Karamazov. Within the context of the Gospels, we can say that Christ had to overcome the temptation to be a particular kind of Messiah that was not in accord with the will of God. He was not declared to be His Father’s “beloved Son” at the Jordan River so as to be a militant Messiah who ruled through power. The words of God the Father at the Jordan were clear echoes from the Suffering Servant songs from the prophet Isaiah. And the Suffering Servant would heal us by His “stripes.” His very suffering would be redemptive. And therefore that suffering (on the Cross) was essential to the divine economy. 

To overcome such temptations as man, the Lord resorted to prayer and fasting in the wilderness – the spiritual weapons given to us all in the Church for precisely the same purpose in the “wilderness” of a fallen world: to strengthen the “inner man” against false and pretentious promises. We can accomplish this by relying on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (DEUT. 8:3). We further heed the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (DEUT. 6:16). And we also follow Christ who reminded us: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (DEUT. 6:13). 

Christ refuted the evil one’s false counsel by the power of the scriptural word. 

Another clear lesson for us in our relationship with the Holy Scriptures. As the “root” of a new humanity, Jesus re-enacts the history of Israel, but He “passes” the type of test that Israel “failed” to pass in its earlier forty-year wanderings in the wilderness. In fact, as the New and Last Adam He reverses the effects of Adam’s disobedience through His faithful obedience to the Father. 

It may sound startling to us today, but Jesus was “perfected” precisely through obedience!

Our human will was healed by the human will that the Son of God assumed and united to His divine will in the Incarnation. Before the Garden of Gethsemane, the perfect expression of that healing through obedience may just be the temptation/testing in the wilderness. 

As the final temptation was beaten back by Christ, He was able to say to the tempter: “Begone, Satan!” Our goal is to be able to rebuke the tempter with the same words when we are also tempted/tested – perhaps on a daily basis!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

'One Baptism for the remission of sins...'


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


'I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.'
(Nicene Creed)




The Feast of Theophany is more ancient that that of Christ's Nativity on December 25. In fact, it was precisely on 6 January that the Church first celebrated Christ's birth (and the adoration of the Magi) together with His baptism in the Jordan. These events - of the greatest significance not only in the life of Christ but in the economy" of our salvation - were united in one celebration known as Theophany, which means "manifestation of God." (The Feast is also referred to as Epiphany, which simply means "manifestation").

In His Nativity and in His Baptism, Christ is "manifested," or "revealed," to the world as the Light of the world in order to dispel the darkness of ignorance and spiritual blindness which are the direct result of sin. This Feast of Theophany is also referred to as the "Feast of Lights." It was in the 4th c. that we began to celebrate our Lord's Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on 25 December, while 6 January remained as the Feast of Theophany on which Christ's Baptism was commemorated. 

Why did the Feast of 6 January retain the title of Theophany/Epiphany instead of 25 December, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh? St. John Chrysostom writes: "...because it was not when He was born that He became manifest to all, but when He was baptized; for up to this day He was unknown to the majority."

But not only was the Lord Jesus revealed to the world as He began His public ministry with His Baptism in the Jordan at the hands of St. John the Baptist. The Holy Trinity was manifested, for the "voice of the Father" bore witness to His beloved Son, and the Spirit, "in the form of a dove," descended and rested upon the Son. The trinitarian nature of God was manifested when Christ came to the Jordan to be baptized.

Yet, if baptism is for the "remission of sins," then why is Christ baptized, for He is without sin (I PET. 2:22; HEB. 4:15)? The liturgical texts repeatedly ask and answer this question for us in the following manner: "Though as God He needs no cleansing, yet for the sake of fallen man He is cleansed in the Jordan;" "As a man He is cleansed that I may be made clean." Christ is representative of all humanity. He is baptized for our sake. It is we who are cleansed and regenerated when He descends into the waters of the Jordan.

For with Christ, and in Christ, our human nature - the human nature He assumed in all of its fullness in the Incarnation - descends into the cleansing and purifying waters of the Jordan (anticipating sacramental Baptism), so that the very same human nature may ascend out of the waters renewed, restored and recreated. As the New and Last Adam He "sums up" all of us in Himself - for this reason He became man. The Spirit descends and rests upon Christ, so that our humanity may be anointed in Him. St. Athanasios the Great writes: " ... when He is anointed ... we it is who in Him are anointed ... when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized." Every baptism is an "extension," a participation, in the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an "extension," a participation in the one, unique Mystical Supper. St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains this sacramental participation in Christ's Baptism as follows:

O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is! We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ was but in a figure, while our salvation is truth.
Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that we might by imitation participate in his sufferings, and so gain salvation in truth.

Actually, all of creation participates and is sanctified by the manifestation of God's Son in the flesh: "At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heavens enlightened."

We die to sin in Baptism and are raised to new life - for this reason the baptismal font is both tomb and womb as St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells us. Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of St. Gregory's writings about Baptism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change. St Gregory wrote at a time (4th c.) when he could presuppose adult baptism as the norm, but we can apply his teaching to our own consciousness of being Christians as we grow up in the Faith following "infant baptism":

When discussing baptism and spiritual birth, we have to consider what happens to our life following baptism. This is a point which many of those who approach the grace of baptism neglect; they delude themselves by being born in appearance only and not in reality. For through birth from above, our life is supposed to undergo a change. But if we continue in our present sinful state then there is really no change in us. Indeed, I do not see how a man who continues to be the same can be considered to have become different when there is no noticeable change in him.
Now the physically born child certainly 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 that 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!

St. Gregory challenges us to remain ever-vigilant to our own baptism when we "put on Christ" and when we committed ourselves to a "mode of existence" that reveals Christ to the world.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Resolutions or Repentance?


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,




According to the civil calendar, we begin the year of our Lord (Anno Domini) 2018, on January 1. The year of 2018 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 2018. 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. 

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 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.