Sunday, April 23, 2017

Eight Days Later

Christ is Risen!

Such joy we have known! "We have seen the Lord!" (John 20:25). Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs bestowing life. Darkness and death and every sorrow have been extinguished by Christ our light and our life and our joy. Rising up from his tomb, Christ recreates us who were not created for death but for life.

We have come to today, the eighth day of Pascha – sometimes called Antipascha (not to be confused with antipasto) which means opposite of Pascha, that is, on the opposite side of Bright Week. Historically, those who were baptized on Pascha would wear their white baptismal robes for eight days, until today. For this reason, today was also once called White Sunday. So this day is connected to baptism.  

We have come here through Holy Week, Pascha, and Bright Week. Our liturgical remembrance and celebration of Christ's death and resurrection reminds us also of our own death and resurrection, already accomplished in our baptism. It is by baptism that we die with Christ so that we might rise with Christ. Christ himself is our true, brilliant, radiant, and pure baptismal garment. It is with him that we are clothed. Clothed with the risen Christ, we live again and live forever with him and in him.

Baptized into Christ, we know true freedom and forgiveness.  He returns us to our first natural innocence. On Pascha, the holy doors – the gates of paradise – are flung open and they remain open all of Bright Week. During this time, we see the Lord more clearly and more familiarly. There is no locked door between us. It is as if he walks with us again in the garden. It is as if the Lord Jesus has come and stands among us as he did among his disciples even though the doors were locked. "The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20) and we are filled with joy throughout Bright Week. Though, sadly, a child of my acquaintance said on Bright Wednesday, “All the excitement was on the first day, and the excitement is wearing off now.” Well, that’s one person’s experience.

Today, the holy doors – the gates of heaven – are closed again. What once closed the gates of paradise was sin. What opens them again is forgiveness. When Jesus stood among his disciples after his resurrection, "he breathed on them and said to them, 'receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). So Jesus Christ has given from his Father to his disciples – his Church – the life of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins that comes with that. So now, even though sins still shut the doors to paradise, forgiveness, especially through the holy mysteries of the Church, opens them again.

The holy mystery of baptism washes away our sins (Acts 22:16). We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:3-4) – into the life of Christ – and we are chrismated and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit – to live the life of the Spirit. The doors to heaven are wide open to the newly illuminated.  

When we sin again after baptism, there is for us the necessary second baptism of holy repentance and confession. Go often to confession; it is a way to begin to see God in your life. When we receive the holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as our newly illuminated soon will for the first time, it is “for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting.” Come often to holy communion; it is a way to begin to see God in your life.

There is also the mystery of holy anointing, which all who came and prepared for received on Holy Wednesday. It is for the healing of all the sicknesses of our souls and bodies and also for the forgiveness of sins. James asks us, “Is any among you sick?” The answer is, none of us is totally free of physical or spiritual illness in this life.  Therefore, “Let [us] call for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over [us], anointing [us] with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save [us], and the Lord will raise [us] up; and if [we have] committed sins, [we] will be forgiven" (James 5:14-15).

All of these holy mysteries forgive our sins and unite us again to God. They open the holy doors and offer us a glimpse of God.

Now again we will close and open the holy doors as we did before – occasionally offering fleeting glimpses of the paradise from which we were once shut out. These glimpses present us with what really matters — an image of God in his heavens, into which he beckons us. To see God is to be with God. Θεωρία leads to Θέωσις – the vision of God to union with God.

Thomas wanted to see God. When the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord," he said, "Unless I see..., I will not believe" (John 20:25).

Eight days later, he does see and does believe. And, seeing the Lord, says, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). Other men, seeing Jesus, failed to see God. But Thomas, seeing Jesus risen from the dead, sees God. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," says Jesus (John 20:29). What shall their blessing be? At least in part, I believe, it will be to see God. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

We do not limit grace.

Saturday was the feast day of St. Mary of Egypt and Sunday – the last Sunday of the Great fast – we remembered St. Mary of Egypt again.

Before her repentance, St. Mary of Egypt was, as Simon the Pharisee observed today about the woman of the city, "a sinner." Though she is often thought of as a prostitute, her sin was not so much prostitution as fornication. Saint Sophronios says that she would not charge her many sexual partners, but survived instead by begging and spinning flax. She was, like so many of us in this hypersexualized culture, consumed and driven "by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion" of lust.  

She went to Jerusalem among the pilgrims, but her reason for going was not pilgrimage. Rather, she went in a large group for the purpose of seducing many partners. Some might question how such a sinner could even think to enter the holy city and its holy places.
But remember the sinful woman of the city in Simon's house (Luke 7:36-38). She goes right up to Jesus himself and, weeping, wets his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair and kisses his feet and anoints them. Though she is a sinner, she touches Jesus. And Jesus, who is more than a prophet, knows that she has sinned, yet allows her to touch him.
On the other hand, when Mary of Egypt, who is also a sinner, tries to enter the house of Jesus – that is his Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Resurrection – she is prevented by an invisible spiritual force. 

Why? What's the difference between these two sinful women? Why does Jesus allow one to touch him and kiss while the other is prevented from even entering his house? There is only one difference between them – repentance. The woman of the city in the Pharisee's house is penitent. She is weeping. And she is loving. She does not cease to kiss Jesus's feet. So all her many sins are forgiven because she loves much (Luke 7:47).

Meanwhile, Mary of Egypt tries to enter the holy place of the Lord while yet impenitent. She goes to that holy tomb not seeking to anoint the body of the Lord, but rather while seeking more partners for her lust. The invisible blockade that she experiences is in fact a strong medicine. It's not meant, I don't think, simply to keep the holy separated from the unholy or the clean from the unclean, but it is meant, I think, to reveal to her her situation and to bring her to repentance.

And, gracefully, it has this effect. Seeing outside the church an icon of another Mary – that is, of the Theotokos – she does repent. She weeps and laments, like the woman of the city in the Pharisee's house. And she learns that true love for the Lord surpasses any self-satisfaction gained by indulging in the passion of lust. Trying again, in her new state of penitence, to enter the Church of the Resurrection, she finds no force keeping her out. And she does enter and there she kisses the Holy Cross, just as the woman of the city kissed the feet of Jesus. She who is forgiven much loves much.

Now what might her fellow pilgrims have thought of her at this moment? Seeing this woman who they knew to be among their number expressly for the seduction of their members, now entering the Holy Sepulchre weeping and kissing the Holy Cross, what might they have thought? When Simon saw the sinful woman enter his house and kiss the feet of Jesus, he thought, "If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." If Mary's fellow pilgrims were true followers of Christ, then they rejoiced at her repentance. But if they were like some of us, then they probably had thoughts rather similar to Simon’s. They may have thought "Who is this woman to kiss the Holy Cross? She has not embraced the cross by her dissolute living.” They may have judged her and thought her presence among them in this place at this time inappropriate.

I hope not. But if they did, the only true judge knew their thoughts. And if we have thoughts like this about those who come among us, he knows this as well, and we will hear about it. Let's keep our thoughts on our own sins rather than on the sins of those around us.
For things are often not what they seem. A person who seems to us to be a great sinner may, in fact, be awash in the holy grace of forgiveness through repentance.

This was the case with Mary of Egypt. She seemed to be still a great sinner, but in truth, her glorification by grace, by the life of God, had already begun. She went immediately after her eyes were opened to the holy mystery of repentance, was absolved of her sins, and received holy communion. This is the proper, ordinary, and churchly way to begin again the life in Christ after we have sinned. When we fall, we get up again. When we sin, we repent and enter again into communion with the Lord through the mysteries of the Church.

But then Mary did something less ordinary, less usual, and even less churchly by some standards. The next morning, she crossed the river Jordan and then lived the rest of her life – 47 years – in the desert as a hermit. I say this is a less churchly way of life because, for one thing, it is extremely peculiar for a person to be called directly into the anchoritic life – that is, to live alone as a hermit – without first having lived the coenobitic life for a long time in community. (Though, there are other examples of this – particularly in early monasticism – such as St. Antony the Great.) And then, even among anchorites, it is peculiar to live most of life deprived of the holy mysteries, especially the Eucharist. Yet, they say, that this is what Saint Mary of Egypt did. After that first holy repentance and communion, she went into the desert and never communed again, until the day that she died many years later.

A year before she died, St. Zosimos, a priest (whose feast day is Tuesday), came upon her in the desert. She was so rough from her many years of ascetic practice, that from a distance he did not at first know for sure whether she was human. She told him her life story and she asked him to bring her holy communion the following year on Holy Thursday, which he did, on the banks of the Jordan – the same place she had received communion the last time. When she came to receive communion from him, she walked on the water of the Jordan to meet him.

Abbas Zosimas and Mary of Egypt. 17 c. 

Here is a woman who defies all of our churchly expectations. Living apart from church services, even apart from frequent reception of holy communion, and yet living a life somehow filled with grace and faith. I do not recommend that we all imitate Mary of Egypt in her way of life. St. John Climacus (who we remembered on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast), warns us, after all, that the avoidance of church services is a sure sign of the deadening of the soul. But I think we can hold up Mary as demonstration that God can and does act as he will. He is not confined by us or by our expectations. We do not limit his grace.

It is good to remember John Climacus' observation when we are tempted to avoid church services. But I think Mary of Egypt is marvelous for us to consider when we are tempted to judge others for the way it seems to us they are living or not living the Christian life. We do not necessarily see their life in Christ or where God is leading them. We do not know what prayers they pray in their closets nor do we see their ascetic practice. Sometimes there is one whom the Lord loves in his own way and for his own reasons, blessed be the name of the Lord.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Wisdom! Be attentive! We must pay close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it (Heb 2:1). We will not escape the just retribution of the Lord if we neglect the great salvation he declares to us (Heb 2:3).

Our salvation in our incarnate Lord and God Jesus Christ is preached to us. The Lord declares our salvation and those who hear him, attest to that salvation (Heb 2:3). This proclamation of salvation is necessary for our salvation. Because, as St. John Chrysostom says, "I do not believe in the salvation of anyone who does not try to save others."

We know our salvation because it has been shared with us. Those who knew Jesus, and witnessed his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection proclaim it to the world. And those who believe proclaim it to the next generation and so on and on until the present. This is tradition – that which is handed down to us from Jesus Christ through his apostles and their successors in unbroken continuity to us here today. This is the gospel to which God bears witness by signs and wonders and various miracles (Heb 2:4) such as the healing of the paralytic in today's gospel (Mark 2:10-12).

Sixth-century mosaic

A purpose of all of these healings and miracles is to point to our new life in Christ – the everlasting life in Christ – that is, the resurrected and glorified life through death that awaits all of us who believe and live faithfully.

If we really hear and really believe the gospel, then we don't stop with hearing. We can't. Because it is the gospel that we must go and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). We are to evangelize.

My, how we Catholics often loathe the thought sharing the gospel with our neighbors. Of admitting to people how in love we are with Jesus Christ. But if we don't share, they won't know.

We tend to cling to an old model of church growth through fertility – of passive proselytism by propagation if you will. We don't mind sharing our faith with our children, but we're terrified of sharing it with a neighbor who might disagree with us about it. I think our accommodation of our surrounding culture has become too deeply ingrained at this point.

We must learn again how to evangelize. How to preach the gospel to the world – to every creature – to the whole cosmos (Mark 16:15). It doesn't involve casting our pearls before swine (Matt 7:6), but it also doesn't involve hiding a light under a bushel basket (Matt 5:15). There is mystagogy only for the initiated, there is catechesis for the uninitiated, and there is evangelism for everybody. To all, we preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 1:23).

The Philokalia or the writings of St. Gregory Palamas in defense of hesychasm probably don’t make a good opening salvo in our proclamation of the gospel to the world. These are pearls before the world’s swine. These are treasures that aid in living the life in Christ after we have answered his call and entered into his holy mysteries.  

But our light shining before all – which comes from living this mystery – is our love for one another, for God, and for all. This is a word for all: Christ, and him crucified – that our God so loves us that he comes among us in every way but sin.

Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). If we never hear this word we never have an opportunity to believe it. So we must preach the gospel at all times, and use words constantly – not with wise-sounding words, but with the word of the cross (1 Cor 1:17-18). 

The words of the gospel are good. They need to be heard. And so they need to be preached – with words – but also with the example of life lived in Christ. The gospel is worth talking about, and it’s even more worth living. Without this, we can actually do a disservice to the gospel we preach. Our hypocrisy can be a bad witness.

I used to be a bumper sticker guy. As an artist and a designer, I still have a significant interest in bumper stickers as a means of social communication. So, I used to want to put bumper stickers on my car that express my Christian faith, and my own perspective on Christian faith. So I designed one that said, “Is the pope Orthodox?” – playing on the expression “Is the pope Catholic?” And I designed another one that said “Liturgy is Life,” playing off those old “Basketball is life” or “Football is life” stickers that I used to see. Anyway, I've always hesitated to actually put Christian bumper stickers on my car because I'm such a bad driver. I mean, I'm all over the road, and I have a lead foot, and I crash into things a lot. I probably shouldn't have a license. I feared, you understand, being a bad witness. It's one thing to share with people how much I love liturgical worship, it's another thing to share it with them while I'm cutting them off in traffic, which is a selfish and unchristian thing to do. Lord, have mercy. 

Let us share the gospel with words and with our way of life – and even with how we drive. Evangelism is all-encompassing and cannot be reduced to any technique.

But what is the gospel really – the εὐαγγέλιον – the good news?

Jesus gives a foretaste of the good news today in his healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:10-12). And he has been healing many people. As soon as Jesus begins his ministry, he immediately begins driving out unclean spirits (Mark 1:22-26, 34), lifting up those who lay fevered (Mark 1:29-31), cleansing lepers (Mark 1:40-42), and healing many with various diseases (Mark 1:34).

“What is the point of all of this?” some have objected. All these people that Jesus heals will only get sick again anyway and someday die. There is a seeming inescapable finality and inevitability about death. Well, these healings are signs pointing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the gospel is that the coming healing is not temporary, but everlasting.

Imagine for a moment that you know a doctor who has a diet plan that is the cure for cancer. I'm talking about a cure. Cancer killed both my parents. And it’s killing people right now in its many and varied forms. So it is our enemy and we rightly seek to destroy it. Well, what if you knew a doctor who has the cure? Would you say, I need to tell everybody about this doctor, but only use words when necessary? No, I hope you would tell everyone by every means available to you. I hope you wouldn't hesitate and worry, what people might think of you if you fail to keep this cancer-curing diet yourself at times. If the diet cures cancer, tell me about the diet, whether you keep it or not. If the diet cures cancer, tell me about the diet using spoken and written words and images and videos and Facebook and social media and everything available to you and yes keep the diet yourself, but even when you fail in some of this, don't neglect the rest.

Well, the gospel is like this. I really do know a guy who has the cure for cancer. In fact, though my parents are already dead from cancer, he can still cure them. Not only can he, but he has cured them. He has risen them from the dead in the eschaton which is present, as well as future. And I can only see it with eyes of faith, but I can see it. I've been given eyes to see. I'm going to tell you about him. And I'm going to use words, which are at all times necessary.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feed the Goats

At other times, Jesus says he does not come to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17; 12:47). The word is κρίνω, to separate, or to judge. He did not come to judge us. But here today he comes in his glory with all his angels and sitting on his glorious throne before all the nations and he separates us into two groups (Matt 25:31-33). It seems he's making a judgment – a κρίσις, a separation – and that this is his coming "day of judgment" (Mat 12:36).

In the parable, he is separating sheep from goats as would a shepherd (25:32). And much is often made of the difference in character between a sheep and a goat. I have to admit I have pretty limited experience with farm animals, but I have encountered both sheep and goats. I once held a lamb, and I found it to be the most receptive, docile, and pleasant creature I've ever touched. And then once in a petting zoo, I encountered a goat. I became particularly well acquainted with its horns as it butted me, trying – successfully – to get me to drop the feed I was carrying and run. So my own experiences prejudice me against the goat and in favor of the sheep. And I'm therefore tempted to go along with the usual narrative that we ought to be more like sheep and less like goats.

But I want to challenge this narrative just a bit. I'm not sure that the Lord really has anything against goats. God made them too, you know. And a goat can't help being a goat any more than a lamb can help being a lamb. They are as God made them, and God did not make us for damnation. He made us for himself, out of love.

So, pushing the metaphor too far, you might end up with something rather like Calvin's heretical doctrine of double predestination, wherein God creates some for salvation and others for damnation – wherein the theological virtue of hope is rendered really rather pointless.

So I think we should see this separation of animals rather as a simple image of judgment than as a commentary on the character and destiny of goats. And this is important because it affects how we regard one another. We might be tempted to regard our enemies as hopeless, irreformable goats, but this is not a Christian attitude toward anyone. Certainly, it’s not our job to judge the goats. And our attitude toward others, our regard for others, and our relationship with others is really the heart of this parable.  

The light of Christ illumines every relationship. When all the nations gather before the glorious throne of our King and our God and his light shines upon us, the reality of all our deeds toward others will be brought into his light. It isn't that Jesus is condemning anyone, but rather that some condemn themselves by living without love of others.

Fr. Thomas Hopko says that “it’s important to see that the judgment is simply the presence of Christ.” This is like a judgment with no judge. If we love Christ in the least of his brethren, to be in his presence is our salvation. To be in the presence of Christ is also judgment.

God is love. If we come into the presence of love himself unlovingly, our own hearts stand in judgment against us. In his presence, what we do in secret, which our Father sees in secret, is brought into his light and our own actions judge us (cf. Matt 6:3-6).  Christ does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to welcome the stranger, even if the stranger is a foreigner or of a different race or follows a false religion, even if we’re a bit afraid of him. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to visit the sick, even if they’re irascible, and the imprisoned, even if their crimes are heinous. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, even if they seem like goats to us (Matt 25:42-43).

This is what the judgment comes down to: How do we treat each other? Do we love each other? I've been teaching our first graders about this greatest commandment. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself - as yourself. This is remarkable. The command is not to love your neighbor as you love yourself, as it is sometimes rendered. Rather, it is to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31: Luke 10:27).

It's true that we should love ourselves, but it's all wrong and unhealthy to imagine that this means that we should have a preferential love for ourselves over and against our neighbors. In fact, this doesn’t make any sense and the very opposite is the case. It is in our neighbors – our enemies and our friends – that we find our very selves. You won't find yourself in the mirror. It's just cold glass - an illusion. We find ourselves in our spouses, in our brethren, in our friends, and even in our enemies.

Love your neighbor as being your very own self. If you are hungry, what do you do? You go get something to eat. If your neighbor is hungry, what should you do? Go and get him something to eat. This is how we can find ourselves and come to know ourselves – in other people. The other kind of self-love is a sin condemned by the fathers because we, like God, are essentially relational. That is, totally cut off from others, we have no selves. Our selves exist in relationship – even in relationship to the least of Christ’s brethren.

Who are the least of Christ's brethren? This is an important question because Jesus says that it is on how we treat these that we are judged. I think that the least of Christ's brethren are whoever we love the least. Who is your worst enemy? Who do you dislike most? It is based on how you treat that person or group of people that you are judged. The love we have for the Lord and his Christ is equal to the love that we have for the person or persons we love the least.

We’re not to worry about whether or not a person is a goat or a sheep – and therefore worthy of our love – before we decide to love them. Judgment is not our job, thank Christ. The presence of Christ is the judgment. And Christ chooses to identify himself with the least of his brethren. What we do to those we love the least we actually do to Christ.

He also gives us a new commandment to love each other as he has loved us. We are to love as Christ loves. We are to be as Christ to others. This puts Christ on both sides of the equation – both in the self and in the other. So, as Christ, we are to love the least of his brethren – as Christ. Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11). Glory to Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Do what they say, not what they do.

One Sunday morning, two men came to our parish church to pray and attend liturgy.

One was a pious and learned Byzantine Catholic gentleman. He had studied and knew our faith well. He rigorously observed the traditional fasts as described in the Typikon – even fasting twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year.  He always knew the tone of the week and often made well-informed comments on Facebook. He prayed the Divine Praises daily with his family. And, more than this, he really was an upright man. That is, he did not drink too much nor did he eat too much. He did not look at pornography, or look at others lustfully. He gave a full 10% of his income to the parish before taxes. He was honest with his employer and faithful to his wife.

The other man was a drug dealer from the neighborhood.

What if Jesus's parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) began this way? I retell it this way to help us hear what Jesus is really saying.

In this day and age, when we hear the word "Pharisee," we think immediately of hypocrisy. Its second definition in the dictionary is, “a self-righteous person; a hypocrite.” When we hear the word "Pharisee," the admonition of Jesus – “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" – is always ringing in our ears. To call someone a Pharisee is to insult them.  

But this is not how those listening to Jesus would have heard that word. By "Pharisee," was meant someone who belonged to a group of Jews who rigorously observed the law, the Torah, and the tradition, who revered the scripture, and believed the prophets, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and that the greatest law was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In short, they were pious and upright men, rather like the pious and upright Byzantine Catholic I've just described. And seemingly rather like Jesus himself.

I once attended a talk by a local rabbi in Pittsburgh and a man asked him during the Q&A section at the end what he thought of Jesus. And he said that Jesus was a Pharisee. This is shocking to our Christian ears, but that is very much how the original audience of this parable might have understood things.

When we hear that a publican and a Pharisee go up to the temple to pray, we already know who the bad guy is – the Pharisee! Jesus’ hearers, on the other hand, would have been shocked by the notion that the publican would be justified and that the Pharisee would not – that the Lord would receive the repentance of the tax collector, but shun the self-glorification of the pious and observant man.

But maybe if we hear that a drug dealer and a pious and learned Byzantine Catholic attend church together, we'll tend to suspect the drug dealer of being the bad guy. But if that drug dealer comes here to pray with a repentant heart, he will be justified. And if that pious Byzantine Catholic comes here pridefully and exalts himself rather than God, he will not be justified. And that’s what this parable is supposed to do. It's to turn our assumptions on their head – especially our assumptions about ourselves.

Jesus isn't saying that it's all alright to defraud people of their income, or that it's alright to sell illegal drugs or any other sin. "Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" (Rom 6:15).

The Pharisee was not an extortioner. He was not unjust. He was not an adulterer. He fasted twice a week and paid his full tithe to the temple. Jesus elsewhere praises these things by his words and his actions.

Just last week, when the tax collector Zacchaeus repents before Jesus of defrauding people of their income, Jesus responds, saying "Today salvation has come to this house." Jesus is no friend of extortion or fraud. It is repentance from these things that brings salvation. And to repent means to turn away from evil – not just to say we’re sorry, but to go and sin no more.

Regarding adultery, Jesus teaches us that "who looks at a woman with lust - or covetousness – has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). He condemns this adultery, even as he does not condemn the adulterous woman.
Jesus himself fasts and prays.

So no, Jesus is not telling us that it's all right to sin, nor is he telling us not to tithe and fast and pray. Far from it.

The Pharisee’s avoidance of certain sins and his prayer and fasting and tithing are good things. We should imitate the Pharisee in these things, but never in his self-exaltation. Jesus teaches us elsewhere that “the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice…. They do all their deeds to be seen by men…. [Remember,] whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:2-12). This is an important warning for us as we prepare to enter the Great Fast. Do not make a show of your fasting.

With this parable, Jesus is teaching us, as St. John Chrysostom would later put it, that " “Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall he saved.”

We pray repeatedly in our liturgies that we may spend the rest of our lives in peace and repentance. Repentance is a way of life, not just a moment, and we must embrace it if we are to go away from the temple justified.

Today, we begin the Triodion. We begin preparing for the great fast. And this first week of preparation, we are forbidden to fast. Some say that this is so we will not be able to boast of our weekly fasting like the Pharisee. We must pray, but we must not pray like the Pharisee, pridefully comparing ourselves to others. Soon, we will often pray the prayer of St. Ephrem: "O Lord and King, let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers and sisters." Like the publican, let us see and confess our own sins and not the sins of our neighbors, our families and friends, or our enemies.

"Oh faithful, let us not pray as the Pharisee, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God with the publican and let us say: Lord have mercy on me a sinner."[i]

[i] First Sticheron of Vespers for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Three Theophanies - or - How to have an Epiphany

We have come to the time after the two great feasts of light in the midst of the darkness of winter. Each year, when the nights are long but beginning to shorten, when much of the land lies hidden under snow, two great lights shine in the darkness, and much that was hidden is revealed. I'm speaking of Christmas – the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ – and Theophany – the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Really, both of these feasts are theophanies – because, what is a theophany? A theophany is a manifestation of God. It is God revealing himself to us – making himself known to us. “The Lord is God, and he has enlightened us” (Psalm 117/118:27). Theophany is a light shining in the darkness, a revelation of what was hidden.

Until the nativity of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God was hidden. God had already taken on our human nature in the womb of his mother. God first becomes a zygote, then an embryo, then a fetus. But as such he is hidden in the womb of his mother Mary. Only she and Joseph, and John and Elizabeth, know who Jesus is in the womb. Yes, Mary did know that her “baby boy is the Lord of all creation” and “would one day rule the nations.”[1] The archangel Gabriel had revealed it to her and Joseph. And John was a prophet even before he was born and so he recognized the Lord.

But all this was like a secret hidden in Mary’s womb. God was already incarnate from the moment of his conception, but he was hidden in the warm darkness of her womb until his nativity. And so, his nativity is a theophany of the incarnate God. Christ is born! God made man is revealed to all! Mary and Joseph see him for the first time with their eyes of flesh, though with their eyes of faith they already knew who it was who was dwelling within her and in our world. Angels announce the birth to local shepherds, who come to the cave and see God in the flesh in the manger. A star reveals to distant Persian astrologers that our new King and Lord is born. The whole world experiences this theophany. God is manifested to the world. Even animals see God in their manger. All creation experiences this theophany – this light shining in the darkness.

“God is light and in him, there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).

Years pass. The adolescence and youth of Jesus pass. We know almost nothing about these years. They are sometimes called his hidden years. He who first hid in the womb of his mother, then hides in Egypt from the wrath of Herod, and then hides in the obscurity of Nazareth. But that which was hidden will be revealed at Theophany – that is, at the time of his baptism.

Jesus comes again to John. He first approached John while they were both unborn and John, being a prophet of God most high, recognized Jesus even then. By leaping in his mother's womb, he proclaims to his mother that the unborn Jesus Christ is Lord (Luke 1:41-43). Now again seeing Jesus coming to him when they are both men, he proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Now, this proclamation is heard by all. Whereas before, only his mother Elizabeth could feel and understand his hidden prophetic leap. Now, theophany! The Lamb of God is revealed to all. But still more and greater things are revealed this day.

God is always Trinity. Before Abraham ever was, Jesus is. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The word of God who is God is before all ages. And God is always Trinity.

In the beginning, God created. The ru'ach of God moved over the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light (Gen 1:1-3). There already is the father, the creator, and the ru'ach, the breath, the wind, the spirit of God, and the speech, the word, the son of God.
And God said let us make man in our image and after our likeness (Gen 1:26). God is always a plurality of persons, always Trinity and one God, always three and one.

But this truth of God was hidden. It was not known to the Jews. It was not known even to Moses. The author of Genesis, who wrote these words in which we see the Trinity, did not know that God was Trinity. He did not understand his own words in that way. He did not understand them as we understand them. Because we have experienced the theophany of the Trinity. Our eyes have been opened to see the Holy Spirit and the Word of God who is God where before they were not recognized.

And it is in the River Jordan when John baptizes Jesus that worship of the Trinity is revealed. The Father's voice bears witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, calling him his beloved Son, and again the Spirit moves over the face of the waters. The Spirit in the form of a dove descends upon him over the River Jordan.[2] The Trinity is revealed to the world by this second theophany, this second feast of light shining in the darkness.

Now, today, after these two feasts of light, Christ begins to preach for the first time, and his preaching fulfils Isaiah's prophecy, that "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light" and that "for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned" (Matt 4:16).  His preaching enlightens us, gives light to our eyes enabling us to see the kingdom of heaven among us in the midst of this present seeming darkness. His preaching is like a third theophany. If we will receive it, it manifests God to us, enables us to experience theophany – the epiphany that God is with us.

Here is what Jesus preaches: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17).  
This preaching is a light shining in the darkness.

Maybe we tend to prefer the second part of this proclamation: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But the preaching of Jesus teaches us that the key to that kingdom is repentance. We sit in darkness and the shadow of death as long as we wallow in our sins. Only when we repent do we see the great light. The real reality –underneath our experience of darkness – is that this – here and now – is the Heavenly Kingdom. This is the kingdom now. We’re already experiencing it, to the extent that we repent. God is with us – not only will be, but is. He has been with us all along and through it all, but unless we repent, his presence is hidden to us. Our eyes are darkened. Repentance opens our eyes. It is the key to our own theophany – God's theophany to us personally, his self-manifestation, his self-revelation to us. Without repentance, our eyes are too blind to see the truth of Christ's presence in everything and everyone. Therefore, let us repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

[1] Mark Lowry, Mary, Did You Know? (1991).
[2] cf. Troparion for Theophany

Sunday, December 25, 2016

“Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”

Christ is born! Christos Raždajetsja! “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”[1] This is what he accomplishes today in that cave. He is restoring our likeness to God from which we have fallen.

If you have a new garment of pure white linen cloth and if you wear this garment too often or for all sorts of rough tasks and dirty jobs, it soon becomes stained. Beautiful, pure, white cloth becomes yellowed, stained, and imperfect. A contemporary American in this situation is likely simply to dispose of the garment and buy a new one. We are, in fact, in the commercial season of buying new things. Our culture and our economy is set up this way. It’s been called a throw-away culture and a consumer culture. But this is not the case with traditional cultures. A traditional textile worker would not give up on a garment even if it was stained beyond the power of any bleach, but might then take the stained white garment and dye it vibrant colors – blues and purples, reds and yellows and greens. A plain white garment becomes a coat of many colors. And the end result is a garment more beautiful even than the new unstained garment.

You know, a beautiful Chinese tea bowl breaks as easily as cheap second hand crockery. What to do then? We break a lot of bowls at my house. Probably, we break one every week. I like to tell the children, as I sweep up and throw away yet another broken bowl, that ceramic can last for a thousand years if properly cared for. This is true. But when the bowl is broken, sweeping it up and throwing it away isn't the only option. There is a custom among traditional Japanese craftsmen to take the broken pieces and fuse them back together. Now, some of us may do this with superglue, which can work well enough for a while – though the result is always compromised and inferior to a new and unbroken bowl. The cracks gradually worsen and the piece must eventually be thrown away anyway. The traditional Japanese craftsman, however, does not use superglue, but lacquer mixed with gold – a material more beautiful, precious, and strong then the ceramic the bowl was first made with. This is called kintsugi – golden joinery. And the cracks are made more visible, not less. They're emphasized by this technique, not hidden – but they're changed into things of beauty. And the bowl that was broken and then made whole is better and more beautiful than the bowl that was never broken. 

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.”[2]

I can tell you as a painter that, almost mysteriously, these reworked paintings often have a greater depth and beauty, at least to my eyes, than a pristine first image. I do love the masterful strokes of the sumi-e painter, who, with just a few rapid movements with an ink brush creates a fresh and startling image. But then the next few stages of a painting often render it overworked or muddy.  It is only after this stage, when all is ruined, when the painter returns again to his easel, that he can restore the image and even go beyond restoration. If he is a great painter, the scars of the overwork and the stains are almost transfigured. They’re not obliterated, but made into things of beauty. They add a texture and depth I’ve found no other way to accomplish. And the painting at the end is even better and more beautiful than it was when it was fresh and new.

St. Athanasius gives us this image of the repainted portrait, in his work On the Incarnation. He explains, “Even so was it with the all-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind after himself, and seek out his lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’ This also explains his saying to the Jews: ‘Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ He was not referring to a man's natural birth from his mother, as they thought, but to the rebirth and recreation of the soul in the image of God.”

It is in and through the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate today, that our rebirth in the image of God is enabled. “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”

His ways of raising us up are marvelous. Wondrous are his works. He does not simply restore us to our starting point like some video game character that gets an extra life. As our almighty God, he could do that. He can do anything. If Jesus breaks a Chinese tea bowl, he can restore it to unbrokenness. But I think he prefers kintsugi. The power of Christ is greater than the power of Tide bleach. He can restore to whiteness a garment with any stain. But I think he prefers the craft of the dyer and the coat of many colors.

When he rises from the dead, remember, he still bears on his body the marks of his crucifixion. And these marks increase and do not diminish the beauty of his glorified body. By them, we are healed.

And when today he becomes for our salvation a baby, he does not become the same first-created Adam, unaffected by sin and suffering and death, but rather a new Adam. He takes on all the fragility and neediness of a baby. He makes himself utterly vulnerable and dependent upon his mother. As of today, the uncreated God nurses at his mother's breast. And if he does not, he feels the pain of hunger. He feels all the pains of life and will ultimately suffer even death.

Many of us sometimes long to go back to the way things were when we were younger, healthier, happier. We succumb to the bitter-sweetness of nostalgia, perhaps especially at this time of year.

In a similar way, maybe we wish we could go back to Eden. Maybe we get mad at Adam and Eve for spoiling things for us, as if we wouldn’t have spoiled them for ourselves, given the chance. Maybe we feel cheated of the simple life of the garden, where we could walk with the Lord in the cool of the day. But God does not send us back to Eden. He comes to us in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem has opened Eden for us.”[3] He raises up the likeness that had fallen, not by erasing the consequences of our sin – our fragility and mortality – but by entering into them himself. He raises up by coming down. By emptying himself and taking the form of a slave. By becoming a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger where animals come to feed. Our Lord becomes our brother and Mary’s son. And our human nature is recreated in him.

Like the kintsugi – broken ceramic joined together with gold – he joins our broken humanity together with his divinity. He adds something better to us than was there in the first place. He doesn’t just patch us back together again as if with superglue, but makes us a new creation, even better than we were in the first place. He doesn’t just take us back to the way things were, but takes us to a new heaven and a new earth, more glorious even than that first created.  And that heaven is a cave; the cherubic throne a virgin. And the manger has become the place where Christ, the incomprehensible God, lies down.[4]

Jesus Christ is born. He leaves his hiding place in Mary’s womb and enters the cave.  At this moment, for the first time in history, human eyes behold the human face of God. And even animal eyes first see the human face of God.  The eyes of all creation are opened for the first time since they were shut in Eden.

A version of this article now appears on Catholic Exchange

[1] Troparion of the Prefestive Days of the Nativity
[2] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
[3] Ikos of the Nativity
[4] Irmos of Ode 9 of the Canon of the Nativity

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