The Monastery of the Temptation, above Jericho

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fill the Earth and Subdue it!

Pardon my delay in writing. I fell from my discipline. But here is a good picture to remind us what Lent is all about.

In the last few days, we are reading from the First Book of Moses, called Genesis. Today, we finish chapter 8 and move into chapter 9, with the following command:

Καὶ ηὐλόγησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν Νωε καὶ τοὺς υἱοὺς αὐτου̂ καὶ εἰ̂πεν αὐτοι̂ς Αὐξάνεσθε καὶ πληθύνεσθε καὶ πληρώσατε τὴν γη̂ν καὶ κατακυριεύσατε αὐτη̂ς

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (RSV) and the LXX, Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) adds, "and subdue it".

So often, "subdue it" takes on some grand character. We are the bosses of the world. We must dominate it, put it into submission, rule it. All of these, of course, are reasonable interpretations of katakurieo, the verb from which the second to last word comes in the Greek quotation above.

I'd like us to consider the term, however, in a slightly different way. Rather than taking the sort of Western, imperial translation, let's break it into its component parts: kata and kurieo.

Each of the Gospels in the New Testament have a beautiful title in Greek: "According to *Evangelist*":  According to John, According to Matthew, According to Luke, According to Mark.

In Greek: Kata John. Kata Luke. Kata Matthew, etc.

So, we might take "katkurievsate", from "kata-kurieo" to be "According to the Lord". In verb form: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and **according-to-the Lord it**.

This surely adds a new dimension to the command. It is no longer "rule", "subdue". After all, the Lord himself doesn't "rule" or "subdue" us according to medieval feudal/lord standards. He loves us and rules us and guides us ultimately by laying down our life for us.

And so, without getting overly "green" about this command in Genesis 9:1, let's recall that our vocation is to "rule", "govern" the whole Kosmos entrusted to us by God, which he so loved, by overseeing it by his love and grace.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Come to your senses!

The Matins and Vespers texts for the third week of Great Lent include a return to the Pig-pen, a living flashback to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We are not reminding ourselves that we read this parable a few weeks ago; rather, we are reminding ourselves that we are still the Son (all of us, men and women) who have wished our father dead (for that is how we receive inheritance), taken our share of the wealth of our Father’s estate, squandered it in loose and riotous living, attached ourselves by work to a most vile boss in a most vile line of work, and longed to eat from the slop with which we must feed the pigs.

Have we come to our senses yet?

Have we turned back towards home?

This is repentance: to change our heart and our mind (metanoia, the Greek word for repentance—and for prostration, by the way), and our direction (which comes from the Greek epistrepho—to turn around—as we hear in Ezekiel, quoted in our Precommunion prayers, “for God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness, and live!”

So, repentance can be summed up in this sentence: “This is crazy! I have to get out of here!”

And both facets are important, both related to the Prodical—to come to ourselves (“This is crazy!”) and to return to the father, to go home (“I have to get out of here!”)

May the Lord spurn us on to recognize the craziness of the sinful life in the pigpen, and grant us a speedy and vivid memory of home, that we might come to ourselves and flee back to the Father.

When I was honored with sonship, I foolishly misunderstood my gracious father.
I deprived myself of glory, the riches of grace. I squandered myself in evil;
Deprived of divine food, I joined an evil stranger.
By him I was sent to his soul-corrupting pen. There I lived blindly, tending the senseless beasts,
Thriving on pleasures that never satisfy.
But returning now, I will cry to the compassionate and bountiful father:
I have sinned before heaven and before you! Have mercy on me.

--Matins Aposticha, Wednesday of the Third Week of Great Lent

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

He will give his angels charge over you

Buried in Tuesday's readings from the Psalms, one hears a verse in Psalm 91 that sounds familiar—but from where? “For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone”.

It is the second temptation of Jesus Christ by the Devil, according to St Matthew:

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 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, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”

It is good for us to remember that our Lenten season, in part, is a living recollection of Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness, which immediately followed his Baptism. Great Lent is for us the 40 day journey after the Theophany. Jesus’ sojourn in that wilderness was completely voluntary, ours is mixed. We are expelled into the desert, since we are expelled from the Garden of Paradise—as we remember on the Sunday of Forgiveness. In that sense, our sojourn is involuntary—at least since we would *rather not have sinned and been released to the world*. On the other hand, our sojourn is voluntary, in the sense that we must offer ourselves to this desert dwelling, and gird ourselves up for spiritual battle. We can choose to enter the Lenten battle, or we can ignore it. To enter the Arena is an arduous and dangerous feat, though the final battle is already won by Christ. It is tiring, and perhaps even momentarily debilitating—but there is already Resurrection at the end of the 40 day tunnel. Contrariwise, to avoid the Arena, or to put a toe in the water (but not the whole self) may seem easy and routine, but it represents the stagnation of sin and death.

The devil is a wily one. He even quotes Scripture word for word—though, as Jesus shows, we must be careful about its use and interpretation. *Of course* God will give his angels charge over us, and they will bear us up, lest we crash on the rocks. But most important, as Jesus retorts, it is better not to test God.

And this is the great challenge in life: to walk on the fine line between fully trusting in God—jumping into situations and actions and efforts because they are good and right and true, but taking great care that we have not jumped so far in—one might say, too early, also—that we are tempting God by our zealous faith.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ascending the Mountain: Week Three

There is something very beautifully balanced about reading from Isaiah chapters 8 and 9 today, as we begin to look towards the summit of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross. Having labored in prayer and fasting, and hopefully in concrete acts of mercy and compassion now for two full weeks, we stand as if just a distance from the summit of the mountain. We have not yet arrived, but we can see the peak. Having stood upon that mountain many times, we can hear the echoes—echoes of the particular liturgical celebration (the Sunday of the Cross) and echoes of another mountaintop experience, the Holy Transfiguration of our Lord.

The litugical echoes are solemn and steady. The path to them is narrow—filled with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The path from them is even narrower—it is the very Christian life itself: If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me—and as the Holy Apostle Luke adds, “daily”. The ascetical struggle to the mountaintop of lent is given to us precisely to hear this message, and to send us forth from there, “resolutely facing Jerusalem”, walking with our Lord to his own crucifixion, for the life of the world—a crucifixion which doesn’t free us from having our own; rather, by it our Lord shows us how to endure it, and with whom.

The other mountaintop experience of which we might hear echoes on this Sunday’s commemoration is that of the Transfiguration. Peter and James and John, those closest to Christ, were invited to ascend the mountain with Christ in order to behold his glory, and in so doing, they were blessed to hear the words of the unseen Father: “This is my beloved son, listen to him!” This mountaintop experience, as wonderful as it was, was not a place to stay and dwell, despite Peter’s efforts to build tents for a longer sojourn. Rather, they, like we—or we, like they—must descend the mountain, and face the Cross of Christ for its own sake, and take up our own. This would be the content of “listen to Him.” Keep the commandments. Or, as the Mother of God said at the Wedding in Cana to her Son and our Lord, “whatever he tells you, do it.”

So, with these echoes in our minds, ringing through the caverns of our Lenten mountain ascent, we read from Isaiah 8 and 9:

The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.


For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

What a beautiful time to be reminded of the Nativity of Christ, as well as his Holy Theophany—“upon them a light shone”. It is a beautiful phrase actually, in Greek—“phos lampsei eph imas”. It almost says, “the light like a lamp shone on them” or “the lightbulb went off.” We now no longer walk in darkness, for Christ, the light has come.

So, walking in the thin air of the third week of the Great Fast, as evening falls near the peak of the mountain, let us recall that Christ the true light has shown forth into the world. We have beheld him. We hear him—do we listen? We know of the darkness of his coming crucifixion, but let’s not forget the blinding light of the radiant empty tomb.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Virgin of the Sign

If yesterday’s reading from Genesis was heavy, with “he died. He died. He died,” today’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, while rooted in the wars and disasters against God’s people Israel, is one of hope. And not only hope, but it is of the three “big ones” in the early chapters of Isaiah, the first, in fact. The other two specifically in the first chapters of Isaiah are Isaiah 9:2ff (from which we get “God is with us! Understand all ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us!) and 11:1ff “there shall come a shoot from the stump of Jesse…”

Today’s reading is the famous “ask the Lord a sign, as high as heaven…” (Isaiah 7:14).

And what is the sign? “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and call his name Immanuel” (which means, “God with us”). While the Hebrew text (and therefore many English translations most of which are taken from the Hebrew) reads, “young woman” from the Hebrew “Almah”, the Greek OT, called the Septuagint, and translated by the Jews in the 3rd Century BC (and certainly completed by the 1st Century BC), reads “Virgin”—in Greek “parthenos” (after which the pagan Greek Parthenon—temple of the virgins—was named). Parthenos means very specifically, “woman who has never known a man”. This, the Evangelist Matthew quotes in his Nativity account. This one of the messianic prophesies of Jesus Christ.

This flows into our churches iconographically, too. Though not yet at Holy Ascension, most every Orthodox Church painted according to tradition, features a larger-than-life image of the Virgin Theotokos with a medallion of Christ in her womb. Whereas the ignorant and sometimes belligerent non-Orthodox Christians will point and say, “See, they worship Mary…She is the prominent one,” they miss the Biblical reality of this incredible fresco. It is named the “Virgin of the Sign” and is taken exactly from Isaiah 7:14.

So, remembering our mortality, let us not despair, remembering that God has not only made a promise—that a virgin would conceive and bear a son Immanuel, but that she indeed *has* borne the Son, who calls us to himself for life everlasting, which is inaugurated already even today.

And he died

Thursday’s reading from the First Book of Moses called Genesis, in Chapter 5, is remarkable in many ways. It recounts for us a number of Generations from Adam, by naming many sons, noting the birth of daughters, and listing some remarkable life-spans.

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. 3 When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. 4 The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. 5 Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died.

6 When Seth had lived a hundred and five years, he became the father of Enosh. 7 Seth lived after the birth of Enosh eight hundred and seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 8 Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died.

9 When Enosh had lived ninety years, he became the father of Kenan. 10 Enosh lived after the birth of Kenan eight hundred and fifteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 11 Thus all the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years; and he died.

12 When Kenan had lived seventy years, he became the father of Ma-halalel. 13 Kenan lived after the birth of Ma-halalel eight hundred and forty years, and had other sons and daughters. 14 Thus all the days of Kenan were nine hundred and ten years; and he died.

15 When Ma-halalel had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Jared. 16 Ma-halalel lived after the birth of Jared eight hundred and thirty years, and had other sons and daughters. 17 Thus all the days of Ma-halalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years; and he died.

18 When Jared had lived a hundred and sixty-two years he became the father of Enoch. 19 Jared lived after the birth of Enoch eight hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 20 Thus all the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years; and he died.

21 When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. 22 Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 23 Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. 24 Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.
One is tempted to ask the question, “Did they really live 905, 910, 365 and even 969 years (as in the case of Methuselah, mentioned in the next few verses)?” This is certainly intriguing, and many have made comments about it. Several points are clear: they lived for quite a time, and according to the next chapter, their (our!) lifespan was limited to 120 years. Another helpful reminder, however, is that in the ancient world, they did not have the accurate calendar understanding that we have today.

Nevertheless, three truths remain:

1. At first they lived a L O N G time.
2. With the wickedness of the world, man’s days were lessened, biblically to 120 years.
3. They died.

This, especially during the Lenten season, is perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Genesis 5. Read it again and hear, “And he died. And he died. And he died. And he died.”

Our mortality is present here in spades. This is quite important for us, since on average we live expecting, basically, that we will live forever, or at least til a ripe old age, outliving all about whom we care (spouse, children, etc.), since “we are strong” and “could better handle living without them, than they could without us.” Meanwhile, we miss both the gift of true life *today* as well as the reality that *death could come this afternoon*.

Great Lent reminds us, through this reading, that we are mortal—can you hear the funeral hymn in your mind, “Thou Only art immortal, who hast created and fashioned man. For out of the earth were we mortals made. And unto the same earth shall we return again, as Thou didst command when Thou madest me saying unto me: For dust thou art unto dust shalt thou return; whither we mortals all shall go, making our funeral dirge the song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

The “take home” from this reading is not simply to ponder our mortality, but to change our life accordingly. First, to love God with all our heart, and conform our life to that of Jesus Christ, in light of his death and resurrection, so that our guaranteed death will not be permanent. But secondly, it is to translate that into every day *life*, living today in the light of our own mortality, but in the comfort of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, owe a debt to no one except to love, forgive all by the resurrection, call brothers even those who hate us, and don’t let the sun go down on your anger.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Woe to you!

The Reading for the second Wednesday in Great Lent, from the Prophecy of Isaiah includes the following woes (Isaiah 5:8ff)

8 Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. 9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. 10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”

11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening till wine inflames them! 12 They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. 13 Therefore my people go into exile for want of knowledge; their honored men are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst. 14 Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down, her throng and he who exults in her. 15 Man is bowed down, and men are brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are humbled. 16 But the LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness. 17 Then shall the lambs graze as in their pasture, fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins.

18 Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, 19 who say: “Let him make haste, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!”

20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!

22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!

24 Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

These “woes” speak directly as a judgment against Israel, the household of God. We, the Church, the New Israel, would do well not to point fingers, saying, “Yeah! That’s right! Woe to those who are always developing their own land or expanding their own financial borders!” “Yeah! Woe to those drunkards, those party-ers!” “Yeah! Woes to those are slick with the tongue!”

The words of judgment are against *us*, not against others. How have I joined house to house if not actually? How have I built bigger barns, if not actually? Well, if not in the least by not sharing what I do have with the needy and by not supplying the poor with food, or by simply omitting any consideration of “the least of these” in my life.

How have I been a drunkard or reveler, if not actually? How about addiction to caffeine? Overindulgence in food? Replacing Saturday evening Vespers and preparations for the Sunday Liturgy with cookouts, feasts, and parties?

How have I called evil good, and good evil, if not actually? How about by making excuses for “little things” that “everyone does”—pirating music or movies? How about by neglect or omission in not bearing witness to the truth when someone else is exchanging bitter for sweet or sweet for bitter?

The Lenten season demands that we “see our own sins and not judge our brother”. With that in mind, let’s read the *woes* of Isaiah 5 as written directly to each of us, and confess according, changing our words and thoughts and actions by God’s grace without further ado.