Monday, September 16, 2019

You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve

Temptation of Christ, 1527, Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, Meteora, Greece (detail)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down.  For it is written:
'He shall give His angels charge over you,'
and,
'In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.' "
Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.' "

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.' "    Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

- Matthew 4:1-11

On Saturday we read that Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.   My study bible tells us that to be tempted is to be tested in fundamental areas of faith.  In Mark's Gospel, the Greek text literally reads that the Spirit "throws" Jesus into the wilderness.  Here in Matthew, He is similarly "led up" by the Spirit into the wilderness after his Baptism, here to be tested by a struggle with the devil.   My study bible says that we who are baptized in Christ need not be defeated by temptations because we also are aided by the Holy Spirit, just as was Christ.  The wilderness, it says, is a battleground, an image of the world, at once both the dwelling place of demons and a source of divine tranquility and victory. 

And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.   Jesus' temptations take place during these forty days.  My study bible says that in so doing, He reverses Israel's falling to temptation in the wilderness.  The Israelites were tested forty years in the wilderness, and proved disobedient and disloyal.   God humbled them by first allowing them to go hungry, and then by feeding them with manna to help them learn to be dependent upon God (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).  Jesus is tested for forty days, and yet does not sin.  My study bible also notes that His answers to Satan are from Deuteronomy (as in the story of Israel), and all all for loyalty to God.  Jesus fasted in order to overcome temptation, which gives us an example of our own power and limitations in the face of temptation.  It's not his physical hunger that controls Him.  On the contrary, He controls His flesh, my study bible says.  The Lord's fast of forty days is the foundation of the traditional forty-day Lenten fast before Holy Week, and additionally a traditional fast before Christmas.

Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  The devil's first temptation challenges Jesus' relationship to the Father.  If You are the Son of God questions the Father's declaration at Christ's Baptism (see Saturday's reading, above; in particular verse 3:17).  The goal is to get Christ to act independently, detaching Himself from the will of the Father.  In His divine nature, my study bible says, Christ shares one will with the Father and the Holy Spirit; He can do nothing of Himself (John 5:30), apart from the Father.  But as a human being, Christ possesses free will, and at all times He must choose to remain obedient to the divine will of the Father.

But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "    Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.  In His rejection of this first temptation, my study bible says, Christ rejects an earthly kingdom, and He shows us not to pursue earthly comfort in the "food which perishes" (John 6:27) over obedience to God.  It explains that Adam disregarded the divine word in order to pursue the passions of the body (Genesis 3), but the New Adam -- Christ -- conquers temptation through the divine word, which in turn gives human nature the power to conquer Satan.

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down.  For it is written:  'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.' "  The holy city is Jerusalem.  In His first temptation, Christ defeated the devil through the power of Scripture.  Here Satan tries to use Scripture in order to trap Jesus, putting God's power of protection to the test.  The quotation is from Psalm 91:11-12.

Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.' "  Jesus once again refutes the devil's temptations with Scripture, this time quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.  My study bible adds here that trials and temptations come on their own.  We should not intentionally expose ourselves to danger in order to test or to prove God's protection.  To do so is to tempt the LORD.

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.' "    Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.  My study bible states that God's Kingdom is not one of earthly power and possessions.  In this test by the devil, Jesus is asked to choose worldly power over the Kingdom of God.  In John's Gospel we read that the devil is the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31), and St. Paul calls him "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4), as the whole world is in his power (1 John 5:19).  Jesus rejects this temptation of the road to earthly glory, which would lead Him away from the suffering and death He knows is within His mission for the redemption and salvation of the world.  Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:13.  Many Greek texts indicate that  Christ says, "Get behind Me, Satan!" as He will in reply to Peter's suggestion that He avoid the Cross (16:23).   We note how the angels came and ministered to Him after His temptations.

How do temptations come into our lives?  It seems to be important to distinguish that the primary aim of these temptations is to peel Christ away from His absolute trust in the Father, and in the Father's mission for Him.  That is, the devil attempts to divide Christ from the Father, and from the Father's will.  This would make sense when we take into account that His death on the Cross is actually for the purpose of defeating death, and for freeing human beings from slavery to sin (and to the devil).  In other words, ultimately the temptations seek to defeat true judgment.  They seek to defeat the fullness of righteousness (or "right-relatedness") that comes with a defeat of that which ails the world.  Christ's mission, after all, is to heal through communion.  He is to redeem and save the world through the healing that takes place via union with God.  It's the devil's interest to prevent this any way possible, and thus hold sway and power in the world.  Therefore, all of the quotations from Scripture that Christ uses will be emphasizing loyalty to God in the face of temptation.   It helps us to understand what temptation is when it is framed in this sense.  So often our temptations seem to come in the form of whether or not we please a social consensus on how we "should" be behaving, how we should choose, but it's not the social consensus that Christ's quotations refuting the devil reflect.  That urgent demand that we be in sync with the values of the world around us is a false arbiter of behavior in the sense that we are asked to place our loyalties at once both deeper and higher, to that which calls us to true personal identity as well as right-relatedness to the world.  If we look at historical images of today's reading such as the one above, we see the devil depicted as a dark and small being, not well-defined in features, shadowy.  This image gives us a sense that the devil isn't quite a full being; outside the true relation to God, we see one who is without life and internal light, and hence merely parasitical in nature.  Our true loyalty is to God, and in our orientation to God we put everything under this deep mission of Christ's to heal all things, including us.  Christ's perspective offers us a prayerful way to live our lives, an orientation that is all about the wholeness and fullness of a life lived within a loyalty to God who is love.  For two thousand years, monastic communities have been formed seeking a way to live that life, to face the temptations such as those which Christ did, and to seek to live in conformity not with the world, but with the understanding of fully loving God, and neighbor as oneself.   Ultimately it is in Christ that all things are reconciled, and thus when we reject temptation, what we really seek is a fullness of dependence upon Christ.  Whatever our insecurities are, whatever we feel our deepest needs are, our internal demand for inclusion and belonging -- and even our very sense of survival:  all these things come under the umbrella of healing through an increasing dependency on Christ for the answers to such problems and questions.    Temptations will always come in the form of whatever it is that will stand in for our love of God and that dependency on God's love to show us the right way, to be and do as we are called.  Shortcuts will always appeal to the medicine of depth of healing in God's love.  A broken world that so frequently shatters our sense of love offers us so many of them!  Let us seek to choose as Christ does, and remember that the ministry of angels -- and of the Holy Spirit -- is always with us in the midst of the our own wilderness.







Saturday, September 14, 2019

Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness


Theophany or Baptism of Christ, Byzantine Museum, Athens, Greece (photo of the author)

 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

- Matthew 3:13-17

Yesterday we read that in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:  "The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  'Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight.' "  Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  Jesus does not need purification.  As He makes the purification of humanity His own, my study bible notes, Christ will wash away humanity's sin, grant regeneration, and reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity (as we read in the following verses).  Therefore Christ's baptism is necessary for the fulfillment of God's righteous plan of salvation.  My study bible quotes Gregory of Nyssa:  "Jesus enters the filthy, sinful waters of the world and when He comes out, brings up and purifies the entire world with Him." 

When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.   My study bible says that the Spirit of God hovered over the water at the first creation (Genesis 1:2).  Now, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove to anoint the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of God, at the beginning of the new creation.  It's important to understand this act does not "make" Christ the Son of God on this day; it is instead to be understood as a revelation of His divine identity.  The Holy Spirit has always rested upon Him.  In the Eastern Church, the feast day of this event is called Epiphany (meaning a manifestation or revelation) or Theophany (a manifestation of God).  This event is celebrated on January 6th, both commemorating this event and also pointing to the age to come.

And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."  My study bible says that this quotation is from Psalm 2:7:  "You are My Son, / Today I have begotten You."   This completes the fullness of the revelation of the Holy Trinity:  the Father speaks, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Incarnate Son is baptized.

It's an intriguing proposition to think about a manifestation of the Holy Trinity in this world and to human understanding.  Oh, we can't get a truly "full" manifestation; that would be impossible.  We cannot know God fully the way that God knows God.  But nevertheless, using the elements of this world, including human understanding and awareness, a manifestation of the three Persons of the Trinity is happening at Jesus' baptism.  This is quite a remarkable thing to consider.  It happens, not nominally through an act of Jesus, but rather through the baptism by John, done, in Christ's words, "to fulfill all righteousness."  What does this tell us about our God, and also about the true interdimensionality, if you will, of all of creation.  First of all, the very event of Christ's birth is one in which God manifests as human being in the world -- fully human and fully God.  But this event reveals something more, the Holy Trinity itself.  It teaches us, among other things, that where one Person of the Trinity is, there the others are also.  It teaches us about the communion that is present to us.  Indeed, it is Jesus Himself who will teach us that the kingdom of God is within us and among us (Luke 17:20-21).  Once again, it is also an affirmation that the energies of God -- that is, the actions or work of God -- are present to us in the world, and that they may manifest to us through even the created things of this world.  In other words, it is through human perception that we understand this event.  We as human beings cannot travel at will into the fullness of the presence of God as ontological being; that is, with the perception of God as pure Being in God's fullness.  Only God can do that.  But God can reach to God's creation and make the divine known to us in some way.  We are not separate from Creator.  This is the very definition and purpose of the Incarnation, and it is here present in the Theophany or Epiphany of God the Trinity -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The very purpose of the Incarnation is to destroy the separation between human beings and God.  Here, not only is Jesus revealed as the Christ and Son of God, but the relation of Father, Son, and Spirit is given to human beings to understand.  If we, as human beings, and creations of God, are limited in our capacity to perceive and to understand the infinitude of God, well so we are also created to be nevertheless in communion with God.  And it is love that links us all, just as the Father's voice declares that "this is My beloved Son."   Let us consider the power of love to destroy every barrier, even as Christ through the Cross will destroy the barrier of death.  For God so loved the world that God works even through all of creation:  the water and all that is in it, even every living thing sustained with it, in order to come closer to us, to be revealed to us, and to heal us within this communion of love.   Moreover, study bible tells us that today's event in our Gospel reading is a rebirth or renewal of the entire creation.  Therefore, we are reminded of what Genesis teaches us about that creation in the first place, that "God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).  That God works within all of creation through which God is revealed to us is an affirmation of that "very good" pronouncement of God, and a revelation to us as creatures.  We are not separate; in fact, we are called into deepening communion as that which is "very good" with our good God of love.  To fulfill all righteousness implies the fullness of communion, the proper  relatedness between all.  All of creation participates in this baptism, as we see in the icon:  there are angels present who watch and minister, we see the fish in the water, and down below is even a personified image representing the waters of the world that feed into this Jordan.  This is for every living thing; for the life of the "world" which is cosmos in the Greek.  Let us live that kind of life and remind ourselves often that indeed it is good. 




Friday, September 13, 2019

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire


St. John the Baptist, by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), ca. 1600, Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA.

 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.' "
Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

- Matthew 3:1-12

  Yesterday we read that when the Magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him."  When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son."  Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:  "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."  Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."  Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  'Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight.' "  My study bible tells us that the wilderness of Judea is the barren region which descends from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  The preparation for Christ's ministry starts with this call of John the Baptist to repent.  My study bible says that repentance, which accompanies faith, is a total about-face.  In Greek, the word literally means "change of mind," or, my study bible says, to turn around.  But this change isn't simply about having a new opinion; it indicates a deeper kind of change of mind in which we are truly changed as persons.  My study bible explains that repentance is a radical change of one's spirit, mind, thought, and heart -- a complete reorientation of the whole of one's life.  It is the necessary first step in the way of the LORD.  It is also to be accompanied by the confession of sins and the act of baptism, and followed by a life filled with fruits worthy of this change.  John is quoting from Isaiah 40:3, indicating that the fulfillment of the prophecy is at hand.

Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.  My study bible explains that John's ascetic life confroms to the Jewish sects such as the Essenes, who lived in the wilderness and whose entire purpose was to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God.  John's clothing is typical of a prophet, most particularly the description of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).  The monastic movement of the early Church was modeled on John's ascetic manner of life.

Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.  My study bible remarks that the confession of sins is essential to baptism under both the Old Covenant and the New.   But John's baptism differs from Christian baptism in an important respect.  John's is a sign of repentance and the forgiveness of sins alone.  It did not confer the power of regeneration nor adoption as a child of God, as does Christian baptism, as John indicates in verse 11, as He says of the One who is coming, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"  According to my study bible, Sadducees were members of the high-priestly and landowning class who controlled the temple and the internal political affairs of the Jews.  They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and they had no messianic hope beyond this life.  The Pharisees were a lay religious movement.  They centered upon the study of the law and the strict observance of its regulations.  Contrary to the Sadducees, they believed in the resurrection of the dead and also held a messianic hope.  But they taught that righteousness was based on the strength of one's works according to the Law -- and moreover that the Messiah would be simply a glorious man.  John's title for them, brood of vipers, will later be used by Jesus (12:34, 23:33).  My study bible tells us that this title indicates their deception and malice, and also their being under the influence of Satan.

"Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' "  My study bible notes that repentance, confession, and baptism lead to fruits worthy of repentance.  That is, a way of life consistent with the Kingdom of God (see Galatians 5:22-25).  If a fruitful life doesn't follow, it says, sacramental acts and spiritual discipline are useless.   Therefore in many icons of the Baptism of Christ, an ax is pictured chopping at a fruitless tree (verse 10).

"For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones."   This phrase is a play on words:  from these stones (Hebrew 'ebanim) God can raise up children (Hebrew banim).  My study bible says that God will not admit fruitless children into God's house, but adopts other children from the Gentiles.

"And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  John's emphasis is on the fruitlessness of those for whom repentance is meaningless.  Fire here refers to divine judgment (see Isaiah 33:11, 66:24; Ezekiel 38:22, 39:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."   Christ will baptize in the fire of the Holy Spirit, which is the power and grace of God divinely poured out on all believers at baptism.  We should not be confused by thinking that this fire of the energies of God is different from the fire which consumes that which is not compatible with it.  In the words of my study bible, it is the same Power and the same Spirit which both enlivens the faithful and destroys the faithless.  In the culture of the time of John, my study bible explains, a slave would carry king's sandals; thus John is declaring himself to be even lower than a slave of Jesus.  But his inability to carry Christ's sandal also has a second meaning, for carrying another's sandal once meant taking someone else's responsibility (Ruth 4:7).  Here it shows that John could not have carried the responsibility that Christ carries, and also that the Law could not redeem the world as Christ has come to do.

"His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."   Winnowing the threshed grain from the chaff (that is, separating what is good for human beings from what is indigestible) is a metaphor for divine judgment, which separates good from evil.

John the Baptist gives us repeatedly metaphors using fire.  Fire is symbolic of the energies of God, both in God's mercy and action of love, but also in the effects of that action on that which is not compatible with love, not good for creation and which cannot live in the kingdom of God.  Fire is an image of divine energy:  the actions of God.  In this sense, the fire at once is cleansing and purifying, destructive to that which cannot stand in that fire, and sanctifying of that with which it is compatible.  We think back to the image of the burning bush appearing to Moses in the wilderness:  it was aflame and yet it did not burn (see Exodus 3:1-6).   This burning bush is also used as an image for the Virgin Mary, who was enveloped in the Holy Spirit, revealing her true fitness for the role she accepted, her own purity of heart.  What are the things that cannot stand in that fire?  Lives that are lived outside of the love of God and what is good, a refusal for change and growth, a steadfast selfishness that disavows all need for spiritual fruitfulness come to mind.  Furthermore, the divine judgment is just that:  only God can make that judgment, because only God thoroughly knows the heart of each person.  And yet, we are called -- all of us -- to stand in that holy fire that doesn't burn that with which it is compatible, that which is truly born of the love of God.  Indeed, that fire itself is love, as we know that God is love (1 John 4:8).  So what are the actions of love?  Surely mercy is a part of love.  But Christ illustrates the very point of "compatibility" with these energies of God when He teaches, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (5:7).  John the Baptist comes preaching a message of repentance, a true turn-around, an about-face, in preparation for this baptism of the Messiah, which will be with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Let us consider the thorough change in perspective and outlook that is asked from us in repentance.  What does it mean to truly change, and toward what shall we make those changes?  The fire of the Holy Spirit is a clue to God's actions in us, seeking to burn away what is not compatible with God who is love.  Can we receive it?  Can we live it?  Are we ready for the work of God in us, or do we refuse the way of the Lord?






Thursday, September 12, 2019

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene"


Flight into Egypt - Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him."  When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son."

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more."
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."  Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.  And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."

- Matthew 2:13-23

 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him."  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:  'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.' "  Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."  When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.  And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.  And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him."   My study bible says that Egypt is where Israel once took refuge; as Joseph of the Old Testament once saved God's people by bringing them to Egypt (see Genesis 37, 39-47).  In this story of the infant Christ, his stepfather Joseph finds safety for the Savior in Egypt.  My study adds that it is likely the gifts of the magi (see yesterday's reading, above) paid for their journey.

When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, "Out of Egypt I called My Son."  Out of Egypt I called my Son is a reference first to Israel being brought out of captivity (Hosea 11:1).  My study bible adds that in the Old Testament, "son" can refer to the entire nation of Israel.  In this case, Jesus fulfills this calling as the true Son of God by coming out of Egypt.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.  My study bible tells us that the cruelty of Herod was prefigured by Pharoah.  Pharoah, as does Herod, attempted to destroy the power of Israel by commanding the death of all the newborn Jewish boys (Exodus 1:16, 22).

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:  "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."  The quotation is from Jeremiah, who recorded the people of Jerusalem being led away to exile (Jeremiah 31:15).  On their way into captivity, they passed Ramah near Bethlehem, where Jacob's wife Rachel was buried.  In his prophecy, my study bible says, Jeremiah saw Rachel, even from the grave, moved with compassion for the fate that had befallen her descendants.  Here Rachel is once again weeping for her children, which shows that the saints in heaven have both awareness and compassion for those still in the world.  It is also noted that these slaughtered children are regarded as saints and martyrs in the Church, and they are known as the Holy Innocents.  As Rachel was told that her children would return from exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 38:16-17), so also Jesus will return from His exile in Egypt.

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child's life are dead."  Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.  Historical records indicate that Herod the Great died in 4 BC.  The date of Christ's birth, upon which the current  AD (Anno Domini, Latin for "year of the Lord") calendar is based is off by four years.

 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee.   My study bible notes that Augustus Casar banished Archelaus for his cruelty in AD 6.  Joseph was warned in a dream of this cruelty, and thus the family detoured to Nazareth (see the following verse).  Nazareth was in Galilee, a region to the north of Judea, across Samaria, and was governed by another son of Herod the Great, named Herod Antipas, who will yet reign during Jesus' adulthood and the time of His ministry (Luke 3:1). 

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, "He shall be called a Nazarene."   My study bible says that this prophecy cannot be exactly identified.  It has variously been taken as a reference to the rod (Hebrew neser) in Isaiah 11:1, and to the Nazarite (Hebrew Nazir) of Judges 13:5.  My study bible adds that Matthew may have been alluding to passages in which the Messiah was despised, since Nazareth did not have a good reputation (John 1:46).

Joseph brings Jesus and Mary to Nazareth, thus having avoided the dangers that await this Child.  As my study bible says, Nazareth did not have a "good reputation," citing Nathanael's question in John's Gospel, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Galilee itself was not considered of great importance to the Jewish tradition, being a place of mixed Jewish and Gentile population, and to the north of Samaria, away from Judea.  Even the Pharisees mistakenly assert that "no prophet has arisen out of Galilee" (see John 7:45-52), when in fact Jonah the prophet was from Gath-Hepher, which was a small distance from Nazareth.  But Nazareth itself was perhaps even less "stellar" than Galilee as a whole.   Any way we look at it, this childhood home of Jesus is a humble and out-of-the-way place.  When Jesus will encounter criticisms of His ministry, much of it will center upon the fact that He is from Nazareth, as it is unknown to the leadership that He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David.  But this humble beginning teaches us something very important and relevant to our faith.  St. Paul will write in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12 of the experience of visions and revelations.  He remarks that he knows a man in Christ who was "caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words," most likely referring to himself.  But then he adds that "yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities."  All of this is prelude to write, "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure."  This thorn in the flesh, about what exactly it was we can only speculate, he prayed to have taken away from him.  But he was told by God, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."  (See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10).  All of this is to emphasize by St. Paul the great importance of humility in our relationship with God.  Christ's upbringing in Nazareth is wise in this respect.  Joseph himself is a man to whom great things have been revealed repeatedly in dreams (see the several instances in today's reading), as was the case of the earlier Joseph of the Old Testament.  By making their home in Nazareth, the Christ child is freed from the unwanted attention of the authorities in the "greater" cities and central capitols of Israel.  And Jesus' humble upbringing itself is also a key to our faith, as in Christianity tradition holds that humility is the greatest of virtues.  This humble place of Nazareth allows Jesus to flourish and grow, to become the Man He will be when He begins His ministry.  Thus we should all take it to heart that humility is first of all a foundational ground in which virtue may grow, and through which -- as in the case of St. Paul -- God's grace can take root and work through us.  John's Gospel speaks of those members of the ruling council who had faith in Jesus, but for whom the praise of men was more important than the praise of God (John 12:42-43).  In Mark's Gospel, when Jesus is questioned in the temple about paying taxes to the Romans, He is approached with the words, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth" (see this reading).  Nazareth, the humble town, was a place in which Christ could grow to be such a Man, who would accept the humble circumstances through which He would conduct His ministry, and the suffering and humiliation He would endure as Savior.  Nazareth, the humble and out-of-the-way town also stands in for the times in which we may need to withdraw from the attentions of the world at times, for our own spiritual, mental, and physical health.  To take a break from the competitions of the world allows us to nurture something good that may grow within us, to care for our souls, and to pay attention to God.  There are times, as with Jesus' life, in which we need withdrawal to protect what is being nurtured away from the dangers of the power of the world and its ruthless competition.  This is the great paradox of our faith:  the very fact that God condescended to become fully man -- even this Man of Nazareth -- is the teaching that is perhaps the greatest key to our faith.  That it is through our own humility, our acceptance and understanding of what it means to have the capacity to "bear a little shame" in life (in the oft-repeated phrase of the blogger Fr. Stephen Freeman), which enables us to live a life of grace and communion with God, a truly prayerful life.  Let us consider Nazareth, when we are confused by the judgment of the world and its conflict with the judgments of God -- and how God's love can be at work in us and through us.  The spirit of the humble, even of seeming failure, may be just that opportunity for what is truly valuable beyond all else. 




Wednesday, September 11, 2019

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy


Adoration of the Magi, 1260, T'oros Roslin, MS 251 of Hromkla; Jerusalem, Armenian Patriarchate

 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him."  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.' "
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."  When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.  And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.  And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

- Matthew 2:1-12

Yesterday we read that, after Christ's crucifixion, when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.  Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.  And they said among themselves, "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?"  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away -- for it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him.  But go, tell His disciples -- and Peter -- that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you."  So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed.  And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept.  And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.  After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country.  And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either.  Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.  And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will follow those who believe:  In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."  So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.  Amen.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? . . . "  Herod is Herod the Great, also known as Herod the Builder, among whose projects was the refurbished and expanded Second Temple, so splendid it was known as one of the wonders of the world.  Herod was also known as a particularly ruthless ruler even in a time when all rulers were known for their violence, even murdering some of his own children in his pursuit of power.  He is the father of Herod Antipas, who will rule Galilee at the time of Jesus' ministry.  The wise men, also known as magi, come from the East (most likely Persia, my study bible says).  They were the scholars of their time.  My study bible notes that in the Old Testament, Balaam (Numbers 23, 24) was one of their predecessors.  He was a Gentile who anticipated the Messiah.  These foreigners, it notes, are prefiguring the Church, in which membership is constructed upon faith, and not ethnic lineage.  Note their respect for the leadership of the foreign country to which they go; they go to Jerusalem where they address Herod the king.

"For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him."   My study bible says that the star proclaims the extraordinary birth of Christ.  For the ancient pagans, a star signified a god, a deified king (Numbers 24:17).  That Christ is born under this star is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 109:3 Septuagint/DRA (110:3).  It shows all of creation participating in the Incarnation.  See also Psalms 19:1, 148:3.

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  So they said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:  'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.' "  My study bible points out that Herod had to summon the Jewish leaders because he knew so little about the Jewish Messiah, and he is afraid to lose his throne to this newborn King.  The chief priests, we understand, were the political and religious leaders of the Jews.  The scribes were high cabinet officers.  Their expertise in Scripture means that they knew well where the Messiah was to be born, but, as my study bible says, in spite of all the signs being in place, they had no idea that He had come (see 16:3).  The text quotation is from Micah 5:2.

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."  When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.  And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.  And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.  The text tells us that the magi went into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother.   My study bible explains that Luke tells us the Jewish shepherds worshiped the Savior in the cave (or manger) on the day that He was born (Luke 2:8-20).   But the Gentile magi came to worship Him some time later.  By this time, Joseph and Mary have found a house in which to live.  This indicates that Christ first came to the Jews, and then afterward was worshiped by the Gentiles.  The Magi's gifts have a significance revealed in an Orthodox hymn sung at Compline of the Nativity:  "Gold is for the King of ages.  Frankincense is for the God of all.  Myrrh is offered to the Immortal One, who shall be three days dead."   We note also the divine warning in a dream.  In the stories that surround Christ in Matthew's Gospel, particularly of His infancy and childhood, dreams figure repeatedly in which divine messages are given (see 1:20, 2:13, 19, 22; see also 27:19).

In the story of the Ascension (see yesterday's reading, above) we're given to understand that Christ's human nature ascends into heaven.  That is, even His body and blood are glorified with Him in His ascent, where in His fullness He will be worshiped by the angels.  It is significant for our own participation in the communion of Christ, as it teaches us all about the Incarnation, that it is meant to save us -- and that means God's grace works fully within us and among us.  At Jesus' Ascension, He tells the disciples His final command, called the Great Commission.  In the Greek of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus literally says, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15).  In fact, the word for "world" is cosmos/κόσμος, indicating all of created universe.   There is no place, and no thing, no creature left out.  What this, in fact, tells us is the very purpose of the Incarnation, that it is for the salvation and life of "the world" (John 6:33, 51).    In today's reading, the wise men from the East follow a star to find Jesus.  As my study bible says, the star does indeed indicate to us that all of creation participates in this central point in the history of the cosmos.  The Creator is born as creature, so that we all -- and indeed, all of creation -- may become more like Him, restored to the proper order of things in communion with Creator.  As we read, the grace of God is already working through all things:  even through the wisdom and "old testament" so to speak, of the pagan world of the East, in the dreams of these Gentiles forewarned of the danger from the murderous Herod.  And, as we can also see, this Child's life which He brings for the whole of the world is immediately in danger from the worldly power, as will be His story in its fullness.  Let us ponder how God may work through all things, through us, through all aspects of our lives and being, through all of creation -- as our Creator is born as human being in order to heal all the cosmos.







Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature


"The Ascension of our Lord," by John La Farge (1835-1910), completed 1888. The Church of the Ascension in the City of New York

 Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.  Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.  And they said among themselves, "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?"  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away -- for it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him.  But go, tell His disciples -- and Peter -- that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you."  So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed.  And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept.  And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.  After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country.  And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either.

Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.  And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will follow those who believe:  In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."

So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.  Amen.

- Mark 16:1-8 (9-20)

Yesterday we read that at the crucifixion and death of Jesus were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.  Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.  So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.  Then he brought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen.  And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.  And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed where He was laid.

 Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.  Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.  My study bible comments that because Christ died so close in time to the Sabbath, the burial customs of the Jews couldn't be completed.  So these faithful women went as early as they could to complete the burial rites for Jesus.

And they said among themselves, "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?"  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away -- for it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him."  The stone had been rolled away not for the Lord to exit the tomb, as in His resurrected body He does not need such accommodation (John 20:19).  Instead, my study bible says, the open tomb was to allow these witnesses -- and us -- to look in and see that the tomb was empty.

"But go, tell His disciples -- and Peter -- that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you."  My study bible calls the specific mention of Peter is a revelation of a special care for the one who had denied Christ.   Theophylact comments that Peter would have said of himself, "I denied the Lord, and therefore am no longer His disciple."  But the angel's command is a promise that Peter is forgiven.

So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed.  And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  My study bible comments that this doesn't mean the women never said anything; rather, it means they kept silent until Jesus appeared to them (as revealed in following verses).

Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons.  She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept.  And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.  After that, He appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country.  And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either.  The remainder of Mark's Gospel, beginning with these verses, is not included in two early manuscripts.  But nearly all other manuscripts ever discovered contain them.  They are canonized Scripture, my study bible tells us, having been considered by the Church to be inspired, authoritative, and genuine.   That Jesus appeared in another form shows that our Lord's resurrected body transcends not simply physical space and time, but also appearance.  My study bible comments that He was sometimes recognizable to His disciples, and at other times He was not (see, for instance, Luke 24:13-35).  

Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.  And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."  This is called the Great Commission.  It is Christ's final command given on earth.  My study bible says it is to be lived out in the Church until He returns again.  To make disciples is not done in the strength of human beings, but only in the power of God.  It says that the power of Resurrection isn't only for Jesus Himself, but it is rather given to all the faithful for Christian life and mission.  This is simply and profoundly what it means to be "saved."

And these signs will follow those who believe:  In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."   New tongues is a reference to the capacity to speak in languages one has not learned in order to edify others in worship (1 Corinthians 14) and also to preach the gospel (Acts 2:1-11).  To take up serpents is a figurative image of spiritual battle against demons (Luke 10:19).  My study bible sums it up in saying that Christ is promising, therefore, to deliver believers from the powers of sin.  Moreover, this would include certain physical protection, it notes.  St. Paul was bitten by a serpent and suffered no harm (Acts 28:3-6), and according to tradition, Barsabas Justus (Acts 1:23) was forced by nonbelievers to drink poison and survived.  But nevertheless, a note reads, while God's grace can protect believers from both physical and spiritual harm, to test God by deliberately committing harmful acts against oneself is a grave sin (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7).

So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.  Amen.  Christ's Ascension is celebrated forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3).  My study bible says that this event fulfills the type given when Elijah ascended in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11).  This marks the completion of Christ's glorification and lordship over creation.  At the Incarnation,  Christ's divine nature was brought to human nature.  Here in the Ascension, Christ now brings human nature to the divine Kingdom.  My study bible tells us that He reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit in His glorified body, revealing His glorified human nature -- even human flesh -- to be worshiped by the entire angelic realm.  In some icons and other depictions of the Ascension such as the one above, Christ's white robes of burial are tinted red to indicate the shedding of His blood for the redemption of the world and the ascent of His life-giving blood into heaven (Isaiah 63:1-3; see also Psalm 23:7-10). 

In all things, as we are repeatedly reminded, Christianity upholds the essential foundation of the Incarnation in all of its ramifications and possible aspects.  Christ was both fully human and fully divine, this is the full impact of Incarnation.  But that translates into many sorts of powerful meanings for each of us with faith in Christ.  The Ascension is a shattering moment of cosmic history, because what it means is not only that our Lord descended into the world to live life fully as a human being, but that His glorified human nature has ascended into heaven, even to be worshiped by angels.  And in being "lifted up" He therefore lifts us up with Him where He is (John 12:32).  Many people wish to separate the human from the divine, but the Incarnation teaches us differently.  The very Eucharist given to us by Christ also teaches us differently.  We're given to understand that, in fact, our true natural state is union with God.  That is, we were made to be in this communion, this synergy of divine energies (what we know as God's mercy at work in the world) and human life.  Our lives are meant to be touched by the divine.  We are to live our lives in a prayerful manner, seeking to turn all things to God and find God's way for ourselves in each step.  It is, in fact, what it means to be truly humble, seeking to give our will to Christ's, just as Christ prayed in the garden for His Father's will over His own human impulse, "Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will" (see Mark 14:32-42).  When Jesus teaches that "with God all things are possible" (Mark 9:23, 10:27), this is not simply a testimony to God's power alone, but also to God's power and grace which may also work in us and with us.  The Ascension confirms, indeed, that this synergy is what we are made for.  In one of the most famous statements foundational to Christian theology, attributed to St. Athanasius (and repeated by many), we are taught that "He was made human so that he might make us gods" (De incarnatione 54,3, cf. Contra Arianos 1.39).  In other words, when Christ tells us, for example, that it is possible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven because with God all things are possible, it is a testimony to God's power and grace at work in us to transform us more closely into the image in which we are created, the likeness with God (Genesis 1:26-27).  In the Ascension, and with this image of Christ's red-tinted white robes, we are to understand the fullness of communion, and even the fullness of possibility contained in our faith and in the mission of Christ.  He ascends as fully Lord, and yet in this picture of the ultimate triumph over death, He may carry with Him each one of us.  Indeed, His very mission was to save, and not to condemn (John 3:17).  And this is the real meaning of salvation; that our lives -- even as we live in the world -- may be lived also as part of the Kingdom, an eternal prospect.  We are meant to live as followers of Christ not simply in word or concept, but through a spiritual divine-human synergy, even as He will send His Holy Spirit for all.  If that seems too strange to ponder, consider the entire meaning of Christ's mission into the world.  It was not to separate us further from heaven, but to unite us in communion -- even our very hearts.  Where does His life-giving blood take you, in the here and now?  Where does His Resurrection and Ascension take you past the sin and sadness of the world and into a changed life, His road of faith?  Let us remember He lived, ministered, died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven simply for the life of the world.  In all ways, He gives us life, even as He meant to abide in us and we in Him.  We are free to accept or deny His gift of abundant life to us; but how sad and profound the loss should we refuse.  Let us keep in mind, also, that Jesus tells us literally in the Greek to "preach to all the creation."  Indeed, this completion of His mission is for the life of the whole world.








Monday, September 9, 2019

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus


 There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem. 

Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.  So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.  Then he brought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen.  And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.  And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed where He was laid.

- Mark 15:40-47

On Saturday we read that when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.  And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?" which is translated, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?"  Some of those who stood by, when they heard that, said, "Look, He is calling for Elijah!"  Then someone ran and filled a sponge full of sour wine, put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink, saying, "Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to take Him down."  And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last.  Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, "Truly this Man was the Son of God!"

 There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.    My study bible comments that the faithfulness of these women shows that in Christ, divine order is being restored to the fallen world.  In the Old Testament, Eve was created in order to complete Adam (Genesis 2:18), but rather led him to sin (Genesis 3:6).  But now it is the women disciples who remain faithful, while the men flee and hide.  It's the women who bring the message of the Resurrection to the men (16:9-11; Luke 24:9-11), and thereby restore that which had been broken through sin.

Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.  So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.  Then he brought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen.  And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.  We note the courage of Joseph of Arimathea. who went to Pilate the governor, and asked for the body of Jesus.   My study bible comments that if the apostles had buried Christ, doubters could claim that His body was simply hidden away.  But Joseph, being a prominent council member, refutes any possibility that Christ's body was deceptively hidden by the apostles.    Let us note that Joseph is a not only a prominent council member and righteous man waiting for the kingdom of God, but that this tomb is hewn out of the rock.  Luke's Gospel tells us also that it was a tomb in which no one had lain before (Luke 23:53).  This all points to the highly costly sacrifice on the part of Joseph; it is a tomb fit for the Christ, and an open gesture of faith for One executed among the worst of criminals.  
 
Mark's Gospel gives us an important teaching:  that those who are faithful to Christ come from all walks of life, all categories, classes, groups, and peoples.  There are no bars to faith, or to those, like Joseph of Arimathea, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God.   Here is a man who is not simply a council member, part of the ruling members of the temple, and among the religious leaders, but he is also a very wealthy man as well.  Righteousness does not depend upon circumstances.  It is not limited to one type of person or another.  It is a question of the heart.  Neither can we take from the Gospels a firm stand against this people or that, for among the members of the ruling council which condemned Jesus are also those who disagreed, like Joseph of Arimathea and also Nicodemus (see John 7:45-52).  What we take, then, from the Gospels is a sense in which Jesus reaches to all, that there are no real barriers to this faith save those which we allow to stop us.  Indeed, Jesus Himself said to His disciples, "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  When asked by disciples, "Who then can be saved?" He replied, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible." In yesterday's reading, above, we read that even the centurion, apparently supervising the scene, came to faith in Christ through witnessing Christ's death.  St. Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  It is very easy for us to generalize about who can be saved, but there are no real generalizations in our faith.  The author Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn has written, "Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts" (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956).  Throughout His ministry, Christ's emphasis has been continually on the heart and its condition.  He has noted the heart as the center of all things that come out of a person, good or evil (Matthew 12:35, 15:19-20).  He has consistently taught His disciples they must be prepared to discard things the heart harbors that cause bad behavior between oneself and others, and in particular, hardship or abuse or exploitation of the "little ones," the less powerful (Matthew 19:6-9) In this wealthy and prominent member of the council, Joseph of Arimathea, we are given an example that teaches us that the pitfalls to a truly righteous life prove no obstacle to a heart that dwells where it needs to, and for a person who makes the difficult choices for faith every time.  Let us remember and follow His example.  His behavior is heroic and courageous, but this, too, begins in with the heart.  In the example of the women, we have those who have ministered to the ministry, so to speak.  Our text tells us that these women followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.   They are the faithful, who may not be in positions of nominal leadership as the men who are named apostles and later will be bishops of the Church, but they are nevertheless as influential and essential to the Church.  These are the ones who did not fail and did not flee, and without them we would not have the story of the Resurrection.  These are stories of courage and endurance, the qualities Christ asks of us.  Let us clearly understand the power of faith that may work through all and in all, and reverence that truth the Gospels give to us.