Monday, January 30, 2017

The Conversion of Zacchaeus and our desire for Encountering Christ

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Sunday of Zacchaeus signals the approach of Great Lent in four weeks. This year, the beginning of Great Lent will be Monday, February 27.  Thus, Pascha will be celebrated on April 16 this year.  My goal is to write a short meditation or two this week so that we can further reflect on this marvelous passage from St. Luke's Gospel (19:1-10). 

At the moment, I would simply like to address the issue of our familiarity with a given Gospel text, and how that (supposed) familiarity can lead to the tempting thought that we know a given passage thoroughly.

I am not concerned with how well we may know the words of a  given passage - perhaps we know them practically "by heart!" -  or even the over-all story-line.  I am referring to the deep inner meaning of a given passage.  We may not distinguish between the two, and thus be convinced that since we know the words and events of a given passage so thoroughly that there may not be much more to learn about it.   

I am convinced that this is a temptation. 

There is a saying, something like "familiarity breeds contempt." Obviously, no one will feel "contempt" for any passage of the Gospel regardless of how well it is known!  But, familiarity could breed indifference or neglect, leading to a certain lack of vigilance in approaching a given passage. Such an attitude can also make the passage somewhat stale or stagnant in our minds, even unintentionally.

I would first say that "subjectively" we hardly ever approach a given text - any text - from the exact same perspective. (We could, of course, say the same thing about looking at a work of art or listening to a piece of music). And I believe that this is even more significant of a factor when approaching the Gospels. That is because we are always changing and because we bring such a complex set of life-circumstances to any given text of the Gospel that we carefully read. 

As human persons we are ever-changing beings, and not simply static or unchanging. If life is going well for us, we read a text in a certain light; yet if life is not going so well, we will read that same text quite differently.  Those two factors could change the level of urgency with which we approach any given text of the Gospels.

This recognition of never approaching the same text from an identical perspective is made clear by our aging process. Surely, how we read a given passage at twenty years of age, will not be the same as the decades of our lives unfold.  I am quite certain that hearing the story of Zacchaeus while now over sixty years of age is quite different from I first became a priest when I was around thirty years old. In fact, it must surely change from year-to-year!

This process of maturity through the aging process will hopefully lead to an ever-expanding and ever-deepening appreciation for any given passage, and a sure realization that the Gospels are inexhaustible in their meaning.

It is good to study the Gospels from an "objective" point of view, though that can only go so far.  What I mean is that it is very important to understand the historical, social and religious background of the Gospels, what we today call "context."  Certainly, this makes the text so much more alive for us and it yields a good deal of helpful interpretation.

That Zacchaeus was a publican/tax-collector, and that he was most probably despised for that reason, is a very significant part of his story. It brings that much more "drama" to his eventual conversion; even a genuine poignancy.

The conflict between how Jesus was reading and interpreting the Law and how that differed from the reading/interpretation of the Pharisees, as an example, is also a very significant factor. This underlying difference also plays a role in the account of Zacchaeus and how the "crowd" saw him and how Jesus saw him.

Yet, for all of its importance, if we reduce the Gospels to this historical, social and religious context; or rely so heavily on that, then this very "objectivity" can obscure the deeper meaning of a given passage.

We must somehow always realize that the Gospels are speaking to each and every one of us directly.  If we do not, or cannot, see or feel that, then we cannot boast of knowing the Gospels well - or at all.  We cannot know a given passage unless or until we realize that it is saying something to us today. Or better, is challenging us today in our attitudes, in our self-centeredness; in our complacency or even defensive self-justification for our sins; of how we refuse to change.

Thus, the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus speaks to us today about our level of desire for God, for conversion; as well as reveal to us how compassionate and merciful Christ is and how the grace of God that He offers us is so potentially life-transforming. Thus, it is a living text that cannot be reduced to its meaning in the past.  

I would simply add that our veneration of the Gospels as the Word of God should always fill our minds and hearts with not only a deep respect for the Gospels; but with a deep and abiding love for the Lord - the eternal Word of God - who is revealed to us in any given text and a desire to know Him as deeply as possible. 

Approaching the Gospels with a prayerful mind and heart is also of great importance. We could use the Prayer before the Gospel from the Liturgy before reading, or offer inwardly a short form of that prayer.

We are encountering Christ - or being encountered by Christ - when we sit down and open up the Gospels, in the hope of being nourished with the "words of eternal Life" (JN. 6:68) 

Remaining in Faithful Continuity with the Apostolic Fathers

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yesterday, January 29, we commemorated St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest and most important of the Apostolic Fathers. I spoke briefly about this great saint during the post-Liturgy discussion. His great contribution to the life and early literature of the Church were his Seven Epistles that are read and studied to this day with great attention, as they reveal to us so much precious information about the life and beliefs of the early Church. I mentioned the three great themes of these Epistles:

  • The hierarchical structure of the Church and the three-fold ordained ministry of the episcopos (bishop), the presvyteros (presbyters/priests), and the diakonos (the deacon);
  • The struggle against the heresy of docetism, a false teaching that claimed that Jesus Christ only "seemed/appeared" to be human, though he was not actually human according to this heresy;
  • The inner meaning of martyrdom as an "imitation of the passion of my God."

I have appended a short document that I put together of key excerpts from the Seven Epistles that illustrates his teaching on each of these three themes. You may want to scroll down to look at that.
I have also attached a link to a wonderful collection of early Christian writings - the writing of the so-called Apostolic Fathers - that would make a great addition to anyone's Orthodox library. 

This inexpensive edition has as its editor, the brilliant contemporary Orthodox theologian, Fr. Andrew Louth. The Seven Epistles of St. Ignatius are included and I believe that these writings are "must reading" for anyone interested in the early Church and how we faithfully remain in continuity with the early Apostolic Fathers in terms of faith and practice.

Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, by Andrew Louth

Texts from The Epistles of

St. Ignatius of Antioch (†c. 110)

On the Hierarchy of the Church

See that you all follow the bishop – even as Jesus Christ followed the Father – and the presbytery as you would follow the apostles, and reverence the deacons as the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the church without the bishop. Only a Eucharist that is [administered] either by the bishop or by one the bishop entrusts should be deemed a proper Eucharist. Wherever the bishop appears let the multitude [of the people] be also, for wherever Jesus Christ is, there also is the catholic church. It is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast without the bishop; whatever a bishop approves is pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

— Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. viii.

On the Heresy of Docetism

Turn a deaf ear to any speaker who avoids mention of Jesus Christ who was of David’s line, born of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank; was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, truly crucified and died while those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth beheld it; who also was truly raised from the dead, the Father having raised him, who in like manner will raise us also who believe in him – his Father, I say, will raise us in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have not true life

— Epistle to the Trallians, ch. ix.

On His Impending Martyrdom

… My birth pangs are at hand. Bear with me, my brothers. Do not hinder me from living: do not wish for my death. Do not make the world a present of one who wishes to be God’s. Do not coax him with material things. Allow me to receive the pure light; when I arrive there I shall be a real man. Permit me to be an imitator of the Passion of my God …

— Epistle to the Romans, ch. vi.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Community of Love

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

The reading from The Epistle to the Colossians that we heard this year on the 30th Sunday After Pentecost (January 15) is quite remarkable for what it reveals about our Christian Faith.  

In the unique light of his Christocentric faith and piety, the Apostle Paul was reminding the Colossians - and us through them - of what the newly-baptized Christian has “put to death” when embracing the Gospel:  namely “what is earthly in you.”  And here, “earthly” means what is sinful and passion-ridden.  

If he had stopped there, he would only have taught us what to avoid, but not what to acquire.  The Christian faith would then be a series of prohibitions, rather than a new way of life to embrace.  This text from the epistle then fulfills and complements what was heard a week earlier in Colossians 3:4-11. 

Thus, we were able to follow the essential progression of St. Paul’s moral/ethical exhortation to the fullness of the “life in Christ.”  To bring this remarkable text fully to mind yet again, here is the passage:

Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. 
And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in  your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful. 
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 
(COL. 3:12-16, RSV)

St. Paul had so thoroughly put on the “mind of Christ,” that in a rather condensed passage, he faithfully and succinctly summarized the teaching of Christ as found in the Gospels – before the Gospels existed in their written form!  A few examples will make this clear, for here is what we will eventually find in the written Gospels at the heart of the Lord’s teaching, taught as exhortation to the earlier Christians in the Apostle Paul’s Epistles:

On “lowliness and meekness:”

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  (MATT. 11:28-29)

On “patience:”

“And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  (LK. 8:15)

On “forgiveness:”

“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, now often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?’  Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’.”  (MATT. 18:21-22)

On “love:”

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  (JN. 15:12)

St. Paul was faithfully “handing over” (literally, “traditioning”) the authentic teaching of Christ in pastorally directing these early Christian communities, such as the one in Colossae that received the Epistle from him that is now part of the Church’s canonical Scriptures.  This was a gift of the Holy Spirit, as  Christ promised:

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”  (JN. 14:26)

It follows that if these characteristics are meant to distinguish a Christian community, then their absence will painfully reveal the weaknesses and failures of that community.  Institutional and financial stability may preserve a community, but it will neither “save” it – nor its members! - in the deeper sense of that word.  The “deadness” of such a community will eventually become plain to see.  For the absence of the greatest Christian virtues - primarily that of love - is treated harshly in the Scriptures:

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”  (REV. 2:4-5)

But perhaps that is “jumping ahead” too quickly and pessimistically.  The Lord is patient with our slow progress in love, knowing that it takes time, patience and hard work.  The essential need for this binding love, is well-expressed by St. John Chrysostom:

Now what Paul wishes to say is that there is no benefit in those things, for all those things fall apart, unless they are done with love.  This is the love that binds them all together. Whatever good thing it is that you mention, if love be absent, it is nothing, it melts away. 
The analogy is like a ship;  though its rigging be large, yet if it lacks girding ropes, it is of no service.  Or it is similar to a house; if there are no beams, of what use is the house?  Think of a body.  Though its bones be large, if it lacks ligaments, the bones cannot support the body.  In the same way, whatever good our deeds possess will vanish completely if they lack love. 

And in the words of a lesser-known contemporary of St. John, a certain Severian of Galaba:

When love does not lead, there is no completion of what is lacking; but where love is present we abstain from doing evil to one another.  Indeed we put our minds in the service of doing good, when we love one another.

With such a spirit pervading a community, its members will “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness” to the Lord.  “The peace of Christ” will rule in the hearts of the faithful leading to a spirit of thankfulness.  Yet, there is not one drop of sentimentality in the words of the Apostle or the Fathers concerning love.  They realize that it is a gift coming after much labor and discipline – and dependent upon the grace of God.

Every Christian community/parish has the potential to grow into this love that is ultimately the one true witness to the world of the transformative power of the Gospel.  What St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Colossians is as challenging, inspiring and realizable today as then.  If not, then the grace of God does not actually exist, or it has abandoned us.  The process is long and arduous, but worthy of the Christian vocation.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Three Temptations of Christ

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On January 6, we celebrated the Great Feast of Theophany, on which we commemorated the Baptism of the Lord and the revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Jordan River.  It is this open manifestation of God that accords this feast the name “Theophany” and not the Nativity of Christ.  For, as Saint John Chrysostom says, 

"Why, then, is this day called Theophany?  Because Christ made Himself known to all – not then when He was born – but then when He was baptized.  Until this time He was not known to the people.”  

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 that 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” (Matthew 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 begins 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 (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 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 He was led to be tempted by the devil. Either way – or with a combination of both terms – the 40 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” (Matthew 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, on 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 Saint Matthew’s account (4:1-11), they begin with the following, as Jesus in 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 clearly echoed 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 all of us 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” (Deuteronomy 8:3).  We further heed the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  And we also follow Christ who reminded us, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” (Deuteronomy 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 reenacts the history of Israel, but He “passes” the type of test that Israel “failed” to pass in its earlier 40-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 too are tempted/tested – perhaps on a daily basis.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Baptism: 'When all is said and done…'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

“The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism.”
—Saint Ignatius Xanthopoulos and Saint Kallistos

Our recent celebration of the Great Feast of Theophany — the Baptism of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ — provides a fitting context in which to to reflect upon the great Mystery of Holy Baptism.  We can do this effectively by turning to some of the great saints and theologians of the Church, who consistently and brilliantly speak of the meaning of this Sacrament of Illumination.  

At times, what they have to say may seem to be “unrealistic”—as if their rhetorical skills in describing the effect of Baptism outstrip a realistic assessment of Baptism as experienced by the great majority of members of the Church. 

However, we should also keep in mind that the Fathers of the Church were “maximalists” when describing and delineating the full effect of the “life in Christ” as it presented itself before them as something to be lived and then shared with others through their example and their writing.  

The Fathers always presented us with the fullness of the Gospel so that we, in turn, would not be tempted to reduce that same Gospel to the level of an uninspiring moralism or conventional religious piety.

It is Saint Cyril of Alexandria (+444) who explains how the Lord’s Baptism establishes the “pattern” and sets an “example” for our own baptism.  And Saint Cyril links together baptism and “never-ceasing prayer": 

It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father, when He humbled Himself unto emptiness, and deigned to assume our likeness, should become for our sakes the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows, that He Who in everything is first, in this also set the example. 
In order, therefore, that we may learn both the power itself of holy baptism, and how much we gain by approaching so great a grace, he commences the work Himself; and having been baptized, prays that you, my beloved, may learn that never-ceasing prayer is a thing most fitting for those who have once been counted worthy of holy baptism.

It is Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) who explained the meaning of a Sacrament as a genuine participation in what we could call the reality of grace that lies hidden within—and is then conferred upon the participant—through the rite of the Sacrament.  Through “imitation” of the death and resurrection of Christ through the rite of Baptism, we sacramentally die and rise with Christ “in truth": 

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 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 suffering, and so gain salvation in truth.

A true Baptism must include the invocation of the Holy Trinity, as Christ taught His disciples [Matthew 28:16-20].  Father George Florovsky makes this point clearly: 

The Trinitarian invocation is required because outside the Trinitarian faith it is impossible to know Christ, to recognize in Jesus the Incarnate Lord, ‘One of the Holy Trinity'.  

A fine explanation of the meaning of the Trinitarian invocation and its effect upon the person being so baptized is found in a passage from Saint Nicholas Cabasilas (+14th c.):  

As the name of the Trinity is invoked, the candidate is immersed three times in the water and then three times rises up from the water once more; and immediately he enters into possession of all that he seeks.  He is born and created; he receives the good seal; he is granted all the happiness that he desires; darkness before, he now becomes light; non-existent before, he now receives existence.  God claims him for His own and adopts him as a child.  From prison and utter enslavement, he is led to a royal throne.

The water of baptism destroys one life and reveals another; it drowns the old man and raises up the new.  To be baptized is to be born according to Christ; it is to receive existence, to come into being out of nothing.  

And yet, a Sacrament is not some form of “holy magic,” as if conferring a kind of mechanically bestowed grace regardless of a person’s level of commitment to the life in Christ.  

The process of salvation—which we often refer to as theosis (deification)—is a synergistic process combining divine grace and human freedom. This also implies an ascetic struggle.  We must cooperate with God if we are to experience the transforming grace of Holy Baptism.  

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+395) said this well in his Great Catechism:  

...If the life after initiation (baptism) is of the same quality as the uninitiated life (before baptism), then, though it may be a bold thing to say, I will say it without flinching; in the case of such people the water is merely water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way shows itself in what takes place…. 
A child born to any one is entirely akin to his parent.  If then you have received God, and have become a child of God, display in the purpose of your life the God that is in you, display in yourself the Father that gave you birth.

A great saint of the more recent past—Seraphim of Sarov (+1833)—places Baptism in the context of one’s whole earthly existence.  This is part of God’s providential care for each of His “adopted” children.  If life is indeed a period of testing, then the grace of Baptism, which is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us in the Sacrament, gives us the strength to prevail in this “lifelong test of man on earth":  

And what in the world can be higher and more precious than the gift of the Holy Spirit sent down to us from on high in the Sacrament of Baptism?  This grace of Baptism is so great and indispensable, so vital for man, that it is not taken away even from a heretic until his death.  That is, it is not taken away from him until the end of the period of appointment on high by God’s providence as a lifelong test of man on earth—a test to see what a man can accomplish by means of the strength of grace given to him on high in the time allotted to him by God.

Within the life of the Church, all theology is ultimately best expressed through doxology—the living praise of the living God that brings joy and gladness to our spirits through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Doxology—the glorification of God—is a kind of prayerful/poeticized theology that allows us to approach the mystery of God in Christ with humility and praise. 

One of the many wonderful hymns of the Feast of Theophany summarizes its theological and spiritual content in a manner befitting the depth of its significance for us: 

The true Light has appeared, and grants enlightenment to all. Christ, Who is above all purity, is baptized with us; He sanctifies the water and it becomes a cleansing for our souls. The outward sign is earthly, the inward grace is higher than the heavens; Salvation comes through washing, and through water the Spirit: Descending into the water we ascend to God. Wonderful are Thy works, O Lord:  Glory to Thee!

And so, when all is said and done, in the end we approach God and sing “Glory to Thee!”

'One Baptism for the remission of sins'

Dear Parish Faithful,

“I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins” (Nicene Creed)

The Great Feast of Theophany is more ancient that that of Christ’s Nativity.  In fact, it was precisely on January 6 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 fourth century that we began to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity (and the adoration of the Magi) as a separate and unique event on December 25, while January 6 remained as the Feast of Theophany, on which Christ’s Baptism was commemorated.

Why did the Feast of January 6 retain the title “Theophany/Epiphany” instead of December 25, when the manifestation of the eternal Light was first revealed in His Nativity in the flesh?  Saint John Chrysostom writes that it is “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 Saint 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” - to paraphrase the troparion of the Feast - 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 [1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 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,” and “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. Saint 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 of” and a “participation in” the one, unique Baptism of Christ; just as every Eucharist is an “extension of” and a “participation in” the one, unique Mystical Supper.  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 Saint Cyril of Jerusalem tells us.  Our pre- and post-baptismal lives must manifest some real change, according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa.  

In fact, I would like to append a few paragraphs from some of Saint Gregory’s writings about Baptism in order to allow him to describe the meaning of that need for change.  Saint Gregory wrote in the fourth century—a time 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.”

Saint Gregory writes:

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!
From The Great Catechism

It is a serious matter, indeed, to "put on Christ" in the Sacrament of Baptism.  A baptized Christian represents Christ to the world of everyday living.  Therefore, not only great privileges are granted to baptized Christians, but also great responsibilities! 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Sanctifying Time

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Service of Prayer for the New Year, we offer the following prayerful petitions to God:

“That He will mercifully accept this present thanksgiving and supplication of us, His unworthy servants, on His most-heavenly Altar, and compassionately have mercy on us, 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.

“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.”

By the grace of God, may it be so!  

These petitions from the Great Litany of this service should at least move us to a deeper level of reflection (and prayer) than that offered in the rather vapid “Happy New Year!”  The New Year, with its unavoidable theme of time, prompted me to go back over an excellent essay by Archbishop Kallistos Ware, titled 'Time:  Prison or Path to Freedom?' (This essay can be found in Vol. 1 of Archbishop Ware’s Collected Works—The Inner Kingdom—published by SVS Press).  This is a rich essay indeed, in which Archbishop Kallistos asks questions and offers insights that are universal in their application.  

“Our experience of time… is deeply ambivalent,” he writes.  “How are we to regard time:  an enemy or friend, as our prison or our path to freedom?  Which aspect do we find predominant in its double-edged impact upon us:  anguish or healing, terror or hope, decay or growth, separation or relationship?” [p. 183].

In other words, is time simply “eating away” at the successive and finite number of moments that comprise our lives, sweeping us along toward death and oblivion, or is there purpose and a transcendent “destination” in this movement?  Anguish or hope do seem to be very honest responses to such polarized possibilities.  And as Archbishop Kallistos suggests, we should use the “time” to think hard on just which direction we are inclined toward with these two poles.

As a Christian and a bishop who combines theological brilliance with a fine pastoral sense, Archbishop Kallistos fills us with a sense of hope as He affirms our faith that Christ is the “Alpha and Omega” of time, as well as the mid-point.  In addition to this fundamental assertion, he has a wonderful section in this essay under the heading “Time as the Freedom to Love.”  I hope that this excerpt of two passages from this section, will convey something of his wonderful insights about the nature of time and our freedom to love.

“It is in the context of freedom and love that the meaning of time can best be appreciated.  Time is part of the “distancing” or ‘contraction’ on God’s side which makes it possible for us humans freely to love.  It is, as it were, the interspace which enables us to move towards God unconstrained and by our voluntary choice.  ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock,’ says Christ; ‘if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me’ [Revelation 3:20].... 
"Time is the interval between God’s appeal and our answer.  We humans need this interval of time so as freely to love God and one another; without the interval we cannot engage in the dialogue of love….  Time is thus an all-important dimension of our created personhood, the setting that makes it possible for us to choose love.  It is time that allows us to respond to God by our own free content, that enables our love to mature, that permits us to grow in love” [pp. 188-189].

In the fallen world that we occupy, time has become inextricably linked to mortality and death, but it still remains a gift, as do all aspects of God’s creative will, now redeemed by the advent of Christ.  Often, we hear—and may even use—the dreadful phrase “to kill time,” either out of boredom or in waiting for something “important” to happen.  Yet our Christian vocation is to “sanctify time” as our movement toward the Kingdom which has no end.  Every moment counts, because every moment is a gift from God.

Is there a meaningful and worthwhile New Year’s resolution to commit oneself to somewhere in all of this?