Friday, September 25, 2015

Always Seeking the Lost Sheep

Dear Parish Faithful,

"If ninety-nine of us are good and saintly but one of our brothers or sisters is far from our solace and support, in sin and darkness, be sure that God is not among us ninety-nine, but he has gone to find our brother whom we have lost and forgotten."  —St. Nikolai Velimirovich (+1956)
St Silouan the Athonite (Sept 24)

These deeply Gospel-inspired words are clearly based on Christ's short parable, that of the Lost Sheep, found in LK. 15:3-7.  This is the first of three parables that the Lord directs against the Pharisees who objected to Christ sharing table fellowship with "tax collectors and sinners."  This parable is followed by that of the Lost Coin (15:8-10); and the incomparable Prodigal Son (15:11-32). 

These three parables all share one common theme:  God will seek out the lost at all costs.  From God's perspective:  No one is left behind.  From our human perspective, to live among the "righteous" and to avoid sinners is not only easy, but something to be sought after.  Yet, that is not how life is ordered - now or at anytime in the past. 

Although loved by God, that one brother or sister lost in sin and darkness may today be described as one of our (many?) enemies.  And these "enemies" come in various forms and represent various things that are unlikeable or even distasteful to us today:  A member of a political party that we do not trust or hardly ever agree with on any given issue; a proponent of an ideology that we are convinced is warped and dangerous; an adherent of a  religion with beliefs and practices that we cannot comprehend and which "on the inside" we fear and detest. 

The sin and darkness we find in the other person can be real or it can be imaginary, simply a result of our perspective, if not prejudice.  Then again, there are many human beings who are clearly lost in "sin and darkness."  Such human beings do things that are both horrible and harmful.  They must be avoided and they must be stopped from their evil activities. Such is life in a world in which  good and evil co-exist.

Yet, if St. Nikolai is properly interpreting Christ's parable, then we must understand that according to the Lord, such persons are still loved by God "who desires that all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I TIM. 2:4).  But they are still loved even if they do not come to this "knowledge of the truth," tragic as as that may prove to be. 

And further, if St. Nikolai is correct, then what he says is not sentimental, but an expression of the boundless love of God that knows no limits:  "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son so that those who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (JN. 3:16).  There is no sentimentality in the Cross, so when the Father "gave" his Son to the world that he loved, that meant that Christ had to embrace the Cross to fully reveal God's love for us.  "You were bought with a price" the Apostle Paul reminds us.

The words of St. Nikolai are closely related to a passage from the new book of Frederica Mathewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church.  In fact, I discovered the above passage from St. Nikolai in her book, immediately following what she wrote on the subject of God's love:

"The idea is to love the world, even though it hates you.  That is what Christ did, and what he can do in you. Progress in the spiritual life is literally growth in communion and union with Christ, and he has loved every human being in the whole history of the world."  

This teaching was beautifully confirmed by St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, a fairly-recently glorified/canonized saint of the Church who died in 1938.  Living a life of silence and prayer on Mt. Athos - the holy mountain - St. Silouan, in his teaching, said the following:

"The soul cannot know peace unless she prays for her enemies."

"The Lord taught me to love my enemies.  Without the grace of God we cannot love our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love, and then even devils arouse our pity because they have fallen from good, and lost humility in God."

"If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you; but when you can love your enemies - know that a great measure of the grace of God dwells in you, though I do not say perfect grace as yet, but sufficient for salvation.  Whereas if you revile your enemies, it means there is an evil spirit living in you and bringing evil thoughts into your heart, for, in the words of the Lord, "Out of your heart proceed evil thoughts" or good thoughts."

"If you cannot love, then at least do not revile or curse your enemies, and things will already be better, but if a man curse and abuse his enemies, it is plain that an evil spirit lives in him, and if he does not repent, when he dies he will go to the place where evil spirits dwell.  May the Lord preserve every soul from such adversity!"

"Thus our thought must be that all should be saved.  The soul sorrows for her enemies and prays for them because they have strayed from the truth and their faces are set towards hell. That is love for our enemies.  When Judas bethought him to betray the Lord, the Lord was stirred to pity and showed him what he was doing.  Thus must we, too, be gentle with those who err and stray, and we shall be saved by God's mercy."

From St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 376-378

 These are "hard sayings," indeed.  In fact, such teaching may seem unrealistic within the chaotic and dangerous world in which we live. Yet the Gospel is always leading us toward a "higher way," one experienced by the saints - flesh and blood human beings such as we are - and thus "possible" even though it may seem to be "impossible." 

Being a Christian is about striving toward that high calling of the Gospel. Keeping in mind that God will always seek the lost sheep may prove to lead us along that same path.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

'Wood is healed by Wood!' - The Good News revealed in the Elevation of the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross raises a myriad of themes - Biblical, historical, theological, etc. - for our meditation, to use that term.  One such theme is what we call a typological reading of the Scriptures.  This is a profound way of discovering the inner connection between persons, events, and places of the Old Testament - what we would call "types" - with their fulfillment as "antitypes" in the New Testament.  Thus, Adam is a type of which Christ - the last Adam - is the antitype:  "Adam who was the type of the one who was to come" (ROM. 5:14).

Through typology we learn that the Old Testament can now be read as anticipating the Person of Christ and the saving events recorded in the New Testament, without undermining the integrity of the historical path of ancient Israel as the People of God entrusted by God with a messianic destiny.  One such typological application is expressed in an intriguing and paradoxical manner through one of the hymns of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

...For it is fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One who knew not passion should be remitted all the suffering of him who was condemned because of wood.  
(Sticheron, Great Vespers)

A truly wonderful phrase:  "wood should be healed by wood!"  Yet, what is this "wood" that is being referred to?  How does wood "heal" wood?  The wood in both instances is clearly the wood of two trees - the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil as found in GEN. 2; and the wood of the Tree of the Cross.  In disobedience to the command of God, the man and woman of GEN. 2 - Adam and Eve - ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This was the one tree, the fruit of which, it was not safe for them to eat:

You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die.  (GEN. 2:17)

The freedom and self-determination of the first man and woman were tested by this divine commandment.  In a celebrated interpretation of this passage, St. Gregory the Theologian (+395) draws out the meaning of this command and its consequences:

[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on.  This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch.  This latter was the tree of knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us - let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction or imitate the serpent.  But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time.  The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk.  (Second Oration on Easter, 8)

This is also found in St. Athanasius the Great (+373)

Knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation God secured the grace given to them by a command and by the place where he put them.  For he brought them into his own garden and gave them a law so that, if they kept  the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise or incorruption in heaven.  But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death that was theirs by nature,  no longer to live in paradise but cast out of it from that time forth to die and abide in death and corruption.  (On The Incarnation, 3.4.)

The theme of the initial innocence of Adam and Eve, their lack of maturity and need for spiritual growth and maturation was very characteristic of the Eastern Church Fathers, being found as early as St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+c. 200).

Therefore, the "wood" of this tree proved to be death-dealing, not because God made it such "in the beginning," but because it was partaken of in a forbidden manner and not "at the proper time."

Nothing created by God is evil by nature; rather, all is "very good."  But misdirected free will can pervert the good into something that is evil.  The gift of the promise of deification is a God-sourced gift, not a self-sourced gift.

On the other hand, the Tree of the Cross is precisely the wood through which the first disobedience was undone by the One who died on it in obedience to the will of the Father.  The Tree of Life that was in the Garden was the actual "type" of the Tree of the Cross on Golgotha. The last Adam - Christ - healed us of the sin of the first Adam.  (As early as St. Justin the Martyr, it was taught that the Virgin Mary was the "new Eve" also because of her obedience to the Word of God).  The Cross is therefore

... the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass.  For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall.
(Sticheron, Great Vespers)

According to a pious tradition, the place of the skull is the place where Adam was buried when he died.  The blood that flowed from Christ "baptized" that skull as symbolic of the sons of Adam (and Eve) being given renewed and eternal life by the blood shed by Christ on the Cross - the Tree of Life.

The Tree of true life was planted in the place of the skull, and upon it hast Thou, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth. Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world... 
(Litiya, Great Vespers)

"Wood is healed by Wood!"  This is the good news revealed in the typological interpretation found in the liturgical hymns of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross together with the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers.  This is why we honor and venerate the Cross by literally bowing down before it in adoration.  The Cross was at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel, a instrument of shame in the ancient world.  But this did not deter the Apostle Paul from proclaiming that Gospel as the power of God:

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)

We also cannot be "ashamed" of the Tree of the Cross through which "joy has come into the world."

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship!

Dear Parish Faithful,

"The battle for our hearts are fought on the pages of our calendars."  (Bob Goff)

Perhaps the quotation above is something to ponder as we approach the powerful Feast Day of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Cross on September 14 (Great Vespers with the Procession and Veneration of the Cross on Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m.  Divine Liturgy Monday morning at 9:30 a.m.)

Before Thy Cross,
we bow down in worship!

"Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven…"
[Matthew 24:30].

Contemporary scholars debate the meaning of the word “sign” in the words of Christ found in the above passage that describes, in highly symbolic terms, His parousia or return in glory.  This sign, whatever it may be, will be impossible to miss or misinterpret.  It will overwhelm those who are present to observe it and stand in its shadow, so to speak.  Yet, for many of the Church Fathers – including Saint John Chrysostom - the word “sign” in this passage refers to the cross of the Savior.  Commenting on this passage as found in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Saint John writes, 

“The cross will be brighter than the sun.  The sun will be darkened and hide itself.  The sun will appear at times when it would not normally appear….  For having the cross as the greatest plea, the Son of man thus comes to that judgment seat, showing not only His wounds but also the reproach of His death” [The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 76.3].

The Church Fathers were in direct continuity with the New Testament in their emphasis on the cross in the divine economy.  There was no conceivable way to legitimately underemphasize or somehow “get around” the centrality of the cross. If Jesus was Lord, then His lordship had been fully revealed following His death on the cross.  As we read in Acts 2:36, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Saint Paul knew that the cross of the Lord was a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.”  It was no different in the centuries to follow, including the great Patristic Age when the Church Fathers offered their great commentaries on the Scriptures.  And it is no different today: there will always remain a deep sense of incomprehension before the mystery of the cross.  How can suffering and death be the path to glorification and life with God?

Saint Paul, however, did not flinch from what God had revealed, and he drew his own hard conclusion: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” [1 Corinthians 1:18].  Even more emphatically for the great apostle, the cross and Christ are so closely bound together, that both are considered to be “the wisdom of God” [1 Corinthians 20-25].  The Cross may be “foolish,” “low” and “despised” [1 Corinthians 1:27,28], but it is Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, “Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” [1 Corinthians 1:30].  In a beautiful image from Saint John Chrysostom, we hear him say that “I call Him King because I see Him crucified.”

The cross does not stand alone, but is always linked to the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reveals the inner meaning of the cross and its fulfillment.  Without the Resurrection of Christ, the cross would indeed remain an instrument of suffering and death, having the “last word” in a fallen and irredeemable world.  We express this liturgically, through the powerful hymn we sing on the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross: “Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify!”  

This organic and inextricable union of the cross and Resurrection is beautifully expressed in every celebration of the Liturgy, when immediately after the reception of the Eucharist we chant, 

“Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One.  We venerate Thy cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection, for Thou are our God, and we know no other than Thee; we call on Thy name.  Come all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy Resurrection!  For, behold, through the cross joy has come into all the world.  Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection, for by enduring the cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.”

Christians live under and by the sign of the cross.  Many Christians – certainly Orthodox Christians—even “make” this sign over their bodies when they “cross themselves.”  This can, of course, be nothing but an empty gesture, or a vestige of a cultural tradition that has long lost any power or significance in our lives.  The sign of the cross can even be manipulated in a manner dangerously approaching superstition—as if the cross were a sort of charm or talisman that protects one more-or-less magically.  

However, let us assume that we are no longer subject to such crass temptations.  Let us further assume that our intentions are to treat the sign of the cross with respect and reverence.  At this point there may be additional and more subtle temptations that we must contend with.  If we compartmentalize our lives in such a way that “religion” –  or even God – is consciously or unconsciously only a part of our lives, or apart from our daily lives, then we can find ourselves living under or by a different “sign” than that of the cross.

As we prepare to celebrate the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, let us once again recommit ourselves to taking up the cross of Christ and to embracing the joy and blessing that come from following Him.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Church New Year: Curing the Summertime Blues!

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me... to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” [Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19].

Tuesday, September 1, 2015, marks the beginning of the Church Year.  This is an overlooked commemoration, but I do believe that with more attention, it can be an important day/date in our ecclesial lives, for the simple reason that it is a "beginning," and beginnings present us with the possibility of starting fresh, if not actually starting over. 

It can be the occasion for a genuine "reorientation" -- an interesting word that literally means being "directed back towards the east" -- the "orient" -- the direction that the early Christians faced in prayer, symbolic of the light of Christ and, as such, is closely linked to repentance. 

If the summer was a time of being scattered here and there, both literally and figuratively, then the Church New Year is a time of being gathered together, soul and body, to redirect our lives toward Christ.  Curiously, it is the time of year for some of the faithful to "get used to" coming to church with regularity again -- as in "the 'vacation' from God and the Church is now over and it is time to get back to Church on a regular basis."  Obviously, there are more than out-of-town "vacation trips" at work here.  Thus, even though the song says, "there ain't no cure for the summertime blues," we can say with confidence that there indeed is -- in the Church!

Be that as it may, September 1 prepares us for the annual liturgical cycle of feast days -- or, rather, the rhythm of fasting and feasting that immerses us into the "counter-cultural" life of the Church that challenges the patterns, attitudes and emptiness of our surrounding secular culture. 

Instead of a hectic life based on competition and consumerism, we have before us the grace-filled life of the Church based on cooperation and communion.  The "world" offers us the Kingdom of Mammon; the Church offers us the Kingdom of God.  Our inability to make a firm choice between the two is rather amazing when one contemplates the two choices.  For, as another song says, you "can't get no satisfaction" from mammon.  The fate of mammon is to be consumed by "moth and rust" [Matthew 6:19].  The gifts of the Kingdom are imperishable. 

So as to make sure that I am not sounding naive or simplistic, I openly acknowledge the evident tension we feel between the Church and "world" (here using the word in its more negative sense of a life directed toward the self and consumed with the passions), for the obvious reason that we are seeking the Kingdom while immersed in the (fallen) world.  That often feels like being caught is a maze or labyrinth.  We lose our way at times.  We struggle with choices.  It is a veritable "bungle in the jungle," as yet another song says.  However, to sincerely embrace the vision of the Church directed toward Christ and His Kingdom, it gives us the opportunity of living out, to some degree hopefully, the familiar but meaningful phrase of "being in the world but not of the world."

Immersion in the life of the Church, to the extent that it is possible for us, is a sure way of clarifying our vision once and for all and of making an honest attempt to be Kingdom-oriented Christians.  As Father Lev Gillet has written,

In the liturgical year we are called to relive the whole life of Christ: from Christmas to Pascha, from Pascha to Pentecost, we are exhorted to unite ourselves to Christ in his birth and in his growth, to Christ suffering, to Christ dying, to Christ in triumph and to Christ inspiring His Church.  The liturgical year forms Christ in us, from His birth to full stature of the perfect man.

With a bit of planning and prioritizing, we can make that immersion a greater reality in our lives.  Instead of hanging up our church calendars as pious adornments or reminders of an archaic way of life, we can utilize them as a means of  directing us toward the life in Christ.  From feast days and daily commemorations to scriptural readings, our liturgical calendars are like maps, revealing the location of true treasure worth "digging for."  Without exhausting ourselves in the process, we do not have to lose the "battle of the calendars."  Life is made up of daily choices, and some of those choices can direct us toward the Church.  It is certainly a path worth making some sacrifice for.

I am not advocating an artificial split between our “religious life” and our “secular life.”  The point is not to choose one and ignore the other.  That would only be a form of compartmentalization that is quite foreign to the Gospel.

Our whole life has been saved and redeemed.  For the believing Christian there is only one life -- the life "in Christ" -- and that is the life we lead in obedience to the Lord and Master of our lives,  Jesus Christ.  Christianity is not a religion among religions, but a way of life that embraces Liturgy to work and everything else that sets us apart as human beings.  Choosing the Gospel as “the one thing needful” will establish a hierarchy of values, however, in which all reality has its place.  But I do believe that if we start with our ecclesial life in the Church, then that will all make more sense in the process.

“Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).