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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Burned-down Vineyard

The Burned-down Vineyard

At the “Holy God” before the Epistle reading during the Hierarchical Liturgy (when the Bishop serves), he—the bishop—comes out of the altar with the cross and his candle-stick and says, “Lord, Lord, look down upon this vineyard which thy right hand has planted, and establish it!” It is quite a moving sequence, followed immediately by the singing of “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!” as the hierarch blesses the congregation in three phases—the center, then the left, then the right sides, as he faces them.

This particular quotation that he offers—“Look down…” is from the Psalms, Psalm 80, in fact, and appointed to be read today in the Kathismata (Psalm readings) for Tuesdays during the Great Fast. The RSV renders the verse thusly:

Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock which thy right hand planted.
The verse is the near culmination of a longer Psalm, one in which the Psalmist is lamenting the sad state of Israel summarized beautifully by the verses following the ones the Bishop sings: Here is the context, beginning with the words of the hierarch:

Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock which thy right hand planted. They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance!
Far from being a sweet blessing such as, “Lord look at this little vineyard—how beautiful—establish it, nurture it, bless it!” it is rather a serious call for mercy. Now it should be more evident why the hierarch sings this at Holy God.

In view of the last few readings from Isaiah, in which we saw how we are like a vineyard that has gone wild, producers of either wild or no fruit at all, we can also beg God during this 2nd Tuesday in Great Lent, to have mercy on us—for we have not only produced wild fruit, if any at all, but our wreckless sins burn the very vineyard of the Lord, and our axes, which would be better used to cut down the planks of our own sins (which fill our eyes more than the speck in our brother’s), are used to wreak havoc on the Lord’s vineyard, his church, by our careless swinging of the axe at others, to the destruction of even the most tender shoot.

Lord have mercy, indeed!

Here is the whole Psalm:

Psalm 80

1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
thou who leadest Joseph like a flock!
Thou who art enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth 2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh!
Stir up thy might,
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let thy face shine, that we may be saved!
4 O LORD God of hosts,
how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?
5 Thou hast fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 Thou dost make us the scorn of our neighbors;
and our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let thy face shine, that we may be saved!
8 Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt;
thou didst drive out the nations and plant it.
9 Thou didst clear the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then hast thou broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts!
Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock which thy right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance!
17 But let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand,
the son of man whom thou hast made strong for thyself!
18 Then we will never turn back from thee;
give us life, and we will call on thy name!
19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts!
let thy face shine, that we may be saved!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Vineyard Yielding Wild Grapes

This morning's reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah has a direct connection to a parable Jesus himself told.  Here are the two:

Isaiah 5:
 Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!
And from Matthew 21

“Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him.”
The theme from the early chapters of Isaiah continues to be the impending Judgement on the Dread Day of the Lord.  The foreshadowing of this judgment in Isaiah is parable-ized in the Gospel of Matthew, and the truth is revealed.  The next verse in the Matthew passage quoted above is this:  "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them."  Essentially, they have judged themselves as the wild ones, having produced no fruit, and will fulfill the parable by their call for the Son of the Vineyard Owner to be crucified.

The outstretched arms of Christ on the cross are an invitation.  By the Crucifixion, the walls of the Vineyard, the locus of God's Chosen People (the Israelites), have been destroyed, and the Vineyard, fulfilled in the Church, is open to all who will call on the Name of the Lord, all who will follow His will and walk in His ways.

At the Lord's own word, it is no longer--if it ever was--a matter of family heritage:  "I was born into this, and therefore am saved."  John the Baptist, calling for good fruit himself in anticipation of Christ, cried out,
"Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
During this season, we must remind ourselves again and again:  I am not saved simply because I am baptized or simply because I am an Orthodox Christian.  God can make Orthodox Christians out of the mulch and mushrooms in the garden, if he likes.  Rather, we must humble ourselves and call on the Name of the Lord--doing everything by His Grace and Guidance, to produce fruit:

To Love God with heart and soul and strength and mind:  praying, studying, worshipping, giving.
To Love our Neighbor as ourself:  caring, sharing, encouraging, carrying burdens.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.
To Love our Enemies:  returning good for evil, turning the other cheek, and walking the extra mile.

This, indeed would be fruit worthy of the Master's table.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Blame Game

The Reading from the First Book of Moses called Genesis today is essentially Chapter 3, that marking of sin entering the world through the guile of the crafty serpent.

So, so often in our lives, sin does not jump in like a bomb dropped from the sky--unexpected, and immeasurably large.  Rather, sin creeps and oozes in.  The devil only requires one slight degree of change in our direction in order to divert us far from the Kingdom, especially if the road to the Kingdom is long.  Think for a moment about standing and facing a destination--perhaps standing on one side of the road and looking at a fire-hydrant to which you will walk.  If you walk a straight line, you'll hit it directly.  One small turn to the left or the right puts us off-trajectory, and we will miss the fire-hydrant.  In biblical words, we "miss the mark", the word for which in the Greek New Testament is "sin".  If the goal is the Kingdom (in this example, the fire-hydrant), to "come close" isn't sufficient.  "Almost to heaven" is still outside it.

So, we see that the devil didn't come in and start speaking to Eve with huge claims and bold directional changes from what God had said.  He simply asked a question, one intended to raise doubts.  "Did God *really* say....?"  And that was enough directional change for Eve to question, to wonder, to doubt, and finally, to turn from the Path.

Not long later, naked, ashamed, and knowing sin by personal experience, both Adam and Eve give us the first example of a game played ever since: the blame game.  Here is the dialogue (RSV)

{God} said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”

God ask Adam.  He blames Eve.  He asks Eve; she blames the serpent.

Anyone but me.
Anything but personal responsibility.
Any word but the truth.

The Lenten Season is given to us to confront such finger-pointing in our lives, and to accept on the one hand, the reality of our sins and sinfulness and to take responsibility for this mark-missing, and on the other hand, by and through confession, to receive God's great mercy and forgiveness, to make, as it was said by Abba Arsenius, a Desert Father, "Let me now make a beginning of good". And of another Father who was said to have "made a new beginning every day."

One of the hymns sung at Compline every night this week is a prayer we offer (at least in our parish practice) before confession:

Have mercy on us, O God, have mercy upon us, for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to thee, our Master, this supplication, have mercy on us.
"Laying aside all excuse"...

No "it was the woman you gave me."
No "it was the serpent."
No excuse.

In our personal confessions to God, and in our sacramental confessions offered in the presence of the Priest, let's lay aside the blame game, accepting only blame ourselves for our own sins--and if we would go so far, even the sins of our neighbors and enemies,

offering to our Master this supplication:  Have mercy on us!

And, in His mercy, He will.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More Idolatry

Idolatry was a big problem in Israel.  When Moses went up the mountain--during which time he received the Tablets of Stone--the Israelites, thinking that he had taken too long or might not return, made a huge collection of gold of the earrings and bracelets of the people, and melted them into what is often called the "Golden Calf" (see Exodus 32).  They called it their god, they worshipped it and made sacrifices to it.

They had turned away from their Deliverer and Fashioner and God for some dumb, lifeless, impotent idol.  And it wouldn't be the last time, either.

In today's reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah, there is more recollection of and exhortation against such a horrible idea, (Isaiah 2:17ff):

And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the pride of men shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. And the idols shall utterly pass away. And men shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. In that day men will cast forth their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats, to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth.

On that Terrible Day of the Lord, Judgment Day, "men will cast forth their idols of silver and their idols of gold which they made for themselves to worship...".  On that day, our naked souls shall be confronted by the mighty omnipotence and holiness of God, and we idolaters (we don't so much actually fashion ourselves little gods to worship, but by the double whammy of neglecting to live as Christians and by giving our heart to some one or some thing besides the One, True God, we effectively have) will scatter like palmetto bugs (fancy southern way of saying 'big roaches') when the light comes on in the morning.

For us, it will not so much be a scattering of terror as if the Terminix man has arrived and we recognize him--as if God were coming to exterminate us, rather, the brightness of the light of God, the power of his presence, and the might of his holiness will cause us to drop to our knees and realize in that instant that "The Lord: he is God and has revealed himself to us!"  We will want to scatter and cover up every idol and idolatrous action in our lives and "run to the caverns" as Isaiah says.  By then, though, it may be too late to turn back.  Shoulda-coulda-woulda is out of place and time on That Day.

Which is why we celebrate Great Lent: to see and remember the idolatry of others, and to recognize our own, so that we can "Turn and Live" as the Prophet Ezekiel says (Ezekiel 18:32).

Don't wait until tomorrow!

My soul, my soul, arise!  Why are you sleeping?  The end is at hand!  Destruction hangs over you!  Come again to your senses! That you may be spared by Christ our God, who is everywhere filling all things.
--Kontakion Tone 6, Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Idols in our Lives

Today's Psalms and Reading from Isaiah overlapped with the theme of idolatry.

Psalm 135:15ff:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not,
they have eyes, but they see not, 
they have ears, but they hear not,
   nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Like them be those who make them!
   —yea, every one who trusts in them!

And Isaiah 2:5ff
   O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. For thou hast rejected thy people, the house of Jacob, because they are full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with foreigners.
Their land is filled with silver and gold,
   and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
   and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
   they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.
So man is humbled, and men are brought low— forgive them not! Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty. The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the pride of men shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

A wise mother once told her children, who were speaking about how they *loved* this or that toy, or this or that shirt, or this or that possession, "Do not love anything that cannot love you back."

Well, the Day of the Lord is coming when all will be laid bare.  To what idols do we bow down?  Work?  Money? Leisure? The Future? Our car(s)? My house?  My job?  The boat?  My neighbor's possessions?  My fasting?  That which I have made with my own hands?

Tying these readings together, we can hear still the echo of Sunday's Gospel lesson, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth...but rather treasures in heaven...for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

What is your treasure? And therefore, where is your heart?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Outward signs of inward realities

The Preparatory Weeks for the Great Fast were bookended on the one side by the Publican and the Pharisee and on the other by the call to hidden fasting.

On the first week, we read:

(Luke 18:9ff)
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This past Sunday, we heard:

(Matthew 6:7ff, although in Church we only read from "For if you forgive men...")
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The first hymn of the Apostikha for Matins today ties these two readings together beautifully:


We must fast.  It is presumed of Christians, by our Lord himself.  And he himself teaches that our fasting ought to be in private.  We don't sound bells, we don't draw attention to it.  We don't ask for separate menus (we accept with gratitude what is served to us wherever and whenever we go...).  Fasting isn't about food, rather it is about the curbing of our will, submitting it supremely to the will of God.

But we do fast, and we fast from food, in addition to entertainment, idle talk, and the tradition even teaches: from marital relations.

The hymn for this morning not only highlights Jesus' teaching about prayer and fasting, but puts some additional substance to it for us who are slow to understand.

Don't simply not announce your fast, and don't simply avoid vain repetitions.
Don't simply wash your external countenance and comb your hair.

That is, don't simply be concerned with guarding the inward with some outward cover (washing and anointing)--that is, a Pharisee who washes *both the inside and outside of the cup*.  Rather, let the washing be with waters of purity--a changed and holy life.  Let the anointing of our heads be faith in action:  good deeds demonstrating the reality of what we believe.

And let our prayers begin with the words our Savior Himself taught us, beginning with true repentance.

O Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us and teach us to forgive!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Echoes of Death and Resurrection on Clean Monday

One of the main characteristics, particularly of Matins and Vespers during the church year, is the reading of the Psalms--the Psalter.  Unfortunately, this practice is mostly omitted from our parish practices, very often under the guise of "it takes too long".

Well, it is true, the reading of the Psalms takes time, and especially if we follow the appointed Kathismata (the enumeration of which Psalms to read, and when, in the Orthodox services, named "Kathismata" because all those except the one reading them in the church are welcome "to sit"--really!).

Normally, the Psalter--the Book of Psalms, the hymn-book of the Church--is read once each week, divided morning and evening into these groupings called Kathismata (singular=kathisma).  During the Great Fast, this reading is intensified, and the Psalter is appointed to be read twice per week.  Surely this says something about the importance of the Psalms in our lives, and we would do well to take or make the time to read them.

But what I want to share with you today is not so much a lecture on the Psalms or a finger-pointing about our neglectful liturgical practices.  Instead, I wish to point out the first Psalm appointed to be read in the Kathismata for the first day of Great Lent.

Now, to begin, I should mentiont that this is no surprise.  It is the same Psalm appointed to begin the readings of the Psalms on every Monday of the whole year--it is not chosen simply for today, Clean Monday.  Here is Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas,and established it upon the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.  Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.  Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!  Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!

In the first verse, we hear the last words of our funeral--the one's offered by the priest as he tosses a large shovel-full of dirt onto the coffin in the ground--fffummmmp.  The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world and all those who dwell therein.

The saints encourage us at every move to remember our death.  How appropriate for the first words of the Psalm on the first day of our exile from Paradise.

But death and resurrection, the Cross and the Empty Tomb are never separated for us, "Before thy cross, we bow down in worship, O Master!, and thy holy resurrection we glorify!"

The final verses of the Psalm are also last words.  They are the last words said in darkness at the Paschal Vigil.  Having left the darkened church with the light of Christ disbursed by candles, and having processed around the church singing "Thy resurrection O Christ our Savior, the Angels in heaven sing...", we finally read the Resurrection Gospel at the entrance to the church, the massive doors closed.  Having proclaimed that Christ is Risen!, the priest pounds on the doors, "Who is the King of Glory?  The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory!"  And having this exchange three times, the doors are thrown open, the brightness and lightness of the Paschal feast flows out of and into the church, and the morning service begins...

So, on this first day of Great Lent, let us have before us our own tomb, the reality of our own death, but despairing not, let us remember Him who is the King of Glory!

Homily for Forgiveness Vespers

St John Chrysostom's Catechetical Homily, proclaimed in during the Paschal Vigil at Matins, is one of the most profound moments of the Resurrectional Celebration.  In many ways, it paves the way for the rich celebration of the Paschal Divine Liturgy, leaving no one without cause for receiving the triumphal news, "Christ is Risen!" with joy.  It marks the passing of weeks of ascetical labors, the goal of which will have been to arrive at the glorious three-day Pascha, and to live our lives in that context.

Already at the beginning of Great Lent, during the Rite of Forgiveness at Vespers on the eve of the first day, we sing the bright and joyful Paschal Canon, which will resound through the church for Pascha and Bright Week.  We don't commence our fasting wondering what will happen at the end of the 40 days.  Rather, we begin the Fast with forgiveness knowing the Crucified and Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.  While it is a mystery still, in the most profound sense *why* God has done this, it is certainly no mystery *that* He so loved the world so as to give His Only-begotten Son for the forgiveness of sins, for the life of the world.

In view of this marvel, of which we are entirely unworthy, I wanted to help us bookend the Paschal Mystery by offering a homily inspired by St John Chrysostom's Catechetical oration--one which would clearly echo now, in our minds and hearts and souls, that which we know to be true of the Risen Lord, but one which calls us, on this side of Great Lent, to repentance, conversion, humility, return--the themes of all the preparatory weeks, and indeed the subject and object of the whole fast.

Through the prayers of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, may the Lord God grant us every grace and strength to complete the course of the Great Fast, in order to live every moment in the blinding, healing light of the Resurrection!

If anyone be devout and love God,
Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter into the school of repentance.

We who have wallowed long in sin,
Let us now begin our return.
If anyone has strayed from the first hour,
Let him today repent with zeal.
If anyone has sinned from the third hour,
Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.
If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;
Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefore.
If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.
And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour, Let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.
For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.

He restores him who repents at the first hour,
As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.
And He shows mercy upon the last,
And cares for the first;
And to the one He gives,
And upon the other He bestows gifts.
And He both accepts the confession,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;
Offer your repentance,
Both the last, and likewise the first.
You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.
You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!
Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and those who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.
The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated thereby.

Enter all of you into the Great Fast;
Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!
Let no one despair in his sinfulness,
For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
Weep all of you for your iniquities,
And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.
Let no one put confidence in the flesh,
For the Devil has deceived us all thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.

By turning from God, we are made captives.
We have called good evil and evil good, and put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.
We are embittered, but it is we who have mocked God.
We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.
We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.
We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.

We partook of a fruit, and met the deceiver.
We were entrusted with paradise, but we chose Hell.
Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!
O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time, let us repent!
This is the day of salvation, let us crucify the passions!
The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!
The end draws nigh, let us come again to our senses!
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, what first-fruit shall we offer?
Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!
For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!

So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Click here to hear St John Chrysostom's homily and this sermon read by Fr Thomas Hopko on Ancient Faith Radio.