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.