Saturday, January 25, 2020

Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!



St. Photini speaks with Christ at Jacob's well.  Manuel Panselinos, c. 1300; fresco.  Protaton Church, Karyes settlement, Mt. Athos, Greece

And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, "What do You seek?" or, "Why are You talking with her?"  The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the man, "Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?"  Then they went out of the city and came to Him.

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, "Rabbi, eat."  But He said to them, "I have food to eat of which you do not know."  Therefore the disciples said to one another, "Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?"  Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.  Do you not say, 'There are still four months and then comes the harvest'?  Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!  And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.  For in this the saying is true:  'One sows and another reaps.'  I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors."

And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, "He told me all that I ever did."  So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of His own word.  Then they said to the woman, "Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world."

- John 4:27-42

In yesterday's reading, we read that Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, "Go, call your husband, and come here."  The woman answered and said, "I have no husband."  Jesus said to her, "You have well said, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship."  Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.  You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.  God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."  The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ).  "When He comes, He will tell us all things."  Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."

 And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, "What do You seek?" or, "Why are You talking with her?"    The disciples marveled not only that Jesus spoke with a Samaritan, but also that He spoke with an unaccompanied woman, something which was potentially scandalous.  My study bible refers us to further instances John's Gospel gives us of Christ's dealings with women:  7:53-8:11; 11:20-33; 20:11-18 (see also Luke 8:1-3).

The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the man, "Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?"  Then they went out of the city and came to Him.  This Samaritan woman becomes an early evangelist, as she testifies to the advent of Christ, and also brings others to Him (see the last verses of today's reading).  According to an early tradition, my study bible tells us, after the Resurrection she was baptized with the name Photini, which in Greek means "the enlightened one."  Along with her two sons and five daughters, she went to Carthage to spread the Gospel.  Eventually she was martyred with her family under the emperor Nero by being thrown into a well.

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, "Rabbi, eat."  But He said to them, "I have food to eat of which you do not know."  Therefore the disciples said to one another, "Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?"  Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work."  Here is another incident in which Jesus uses a metaphor, and misunderstandings serve for gradual illumination of His expressions and teachings.  My study bible says that He fulfills His role as Messiah by doing the will of the Father.  Therefore this is His food.  It also teaches us that we are to perform the will of God in our lives without being distracted by earthly cares (6:27; see also Matthew 4:4, 6:25-33).

"Do you not say, 'There are still four months and then comes the harvest'?  Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!"  My study bible cites the commentary of St. John Chrysostom, who says that Jesus' command to look was given because the Samaritan townspeople were approaching, ready and eager to believe in Him.  Christ compares these foreigners (relative to the Jews) to fields ready for harvest.  This command, my study bible adds, is also to all believers to look to those around us and to share the gospel with anyone who wants to hear it, regardless of race or ethnicity.

"And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.  For in this the saying is true:  'One sows and another reaps.'  I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors."  Again, according to the commentary of St. John Chrysostom, those who sow and those who reap are, respectively, the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles.  The prophets, my study bible says, sowed in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, but they did not see Christ's coming and thus did not reap.  The apostles did not do the preparation, but they will draw thousands to Christ in their own lifetimes.

And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, "He told me all that I ever did."  So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of His own word.  Then they said to the woman, "Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world."  My study bible comments that the fact that these foreigners are among the first to recognize Jesus as the Savior of the world is evidence that the gospel is for all people in every nation.

The story of Christ's ministry is all the more interesting because of its seemingly meandering unfolding.  It's almost as if the ways in which it expands, and the surprising ways in which people open up to the Gospel, are all unexpected.  Certainly for the disciples, this opening up to the Samaritans must have been a complete surprise, even possibly a kind of a shock.  When they are set out on their first apostolic mission, Jesus tells them neither to go to the Gentiles nor the Samaritans, but "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6).  But here, because they are passing through Samaria on their way to Galilee, Jesus has taken the strange and unusual opportunity to speak alone with this Samaritan woman alone at Jacob's well, and she has brought an entire town to faith through listening to His word.  The Gospel opens up in strange ways and at strange intervals, always surprising.  When we forget about this surprising nature of faith, and the surprising nature of the work of God in the world, we lose our sense of mystery and that dimension of understanding that is so necessary to knowing what we are about.  While we might have great evil in the world, and experience hurt and hardship and the sadness of pain in the world, there are also moments of great beauty and insight, times when the truth will surprise us.  Suddenly there are things that bloom and unfold like flowers the blossom unexpectedly.  New developments shatter the assumptions of the past, and open up and broaden the word of God to shed new light on its facets and greater aspects than those to which we were already accustomed.   This is the surprising way of the new covenant that unfolds as Jesus' ministry in the world, and it might also be the surprising way in which faith also works in our own lives and through the journey of our own way of following Him.  Our faith can't be bottled into easy formulas, because the mystical reality of God is always present and at work.  Jesus says to Nicodemus of the Holy Spirit:  "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (3:8).  Let us note Christ's words:  "So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  Our own baptism is a type of "sign" that opens up new worlds of creativity, insight, wisdom, and the work of God in us.  This is the way of the Holy Spirit, and these Samaritan believers are a part of that harvest of God's work in the world to which Jesus introduces His disciples in today's reading.  How are the fields ripe for harvest in your life?  Is there a surprising way to go forward that opens up for you?  While some doors close, Christ always finds a new and surprising way to go forward.  So is God's work in our own lives.  Let us bear in mind that, like the disciples, we are laborers for that harvest, and there is always work before us.  We need simply open our eyes, as does St. Photini.



Friday, January 24, 2020

God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth


Christ Pantocrator, dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (cropped), mosaic.  Old City of Jerusalem.  Copyright Andrew Shiva (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here."  The woman answered and said, "I have no husband."  Jesus said to her, "You have well said, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship."  Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.  You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.  God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."  The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ).  "When He comes, He will tell us all things."  Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."

- John 4:16-26

Yesterday we read that when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee.  But He needed to go through Samaria.  So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.  Now Jacob's well was there.  Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well.  It was about the sixth hour.   A woman of Samaria came to draw water.  Jesus said to her, "Give Me a drink."  For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.  Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?"  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.  Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.  Where then do You get that living water?  Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?"  Jesus answered and said to her, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw."

 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here."  The woman answered and said, "I have no husband."  Jesus said to her, "You have well said, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet."  As Jesus knows already that she was living with a man without being married, and also He knew about her string of husbands, this woman perceives that Jesus is a prophet.  My study bible explains that the Samaritans did not accept any prophets after Moses.  The only prophet they expected was the Messiah who was foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).  Jesus' insight into the hearts of people, which is revealed many times in the Gospels, is an underscoring of His divine nature.

The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship."  Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.  You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.  God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."   My study bible explains that if Jesus was the expected Prophet (as foretold by Moses; see above), then He could settle the historical argument between the Samaritans and the Jews regarding where worship was to take place.  Jesus does not answer this very "earthly" question; instead His message is elevated to the manner in which people ought to worship, and toward the new covenant.  Moreover, my study bible says, He turns attention to the One whom we worship:  God.  The Father is worshiped in spirit -- that is, in the Holy Spirit -- and in truth -- which is in Christ Himself (14:6) and according to Christ's revelation.  God is Spirit:  This means, in contrast to the assumption behind the question this woman poses, that God cannot be confined to a particular location.  My study bible says that those who receive the Holy Spirit and believe in Jesus Christ can worship God the Father with purity of heart.  Salvation is of the Jews:   Here Christ affirms that true revelation comes from Judaism.  My study bible quotes St. Athanasius:  "The commonwealth of Israel was the school of the knowledge of God for all the nations."  Moreover, Jesus testifies here that the Messiah, prophesied among the Jews, has risen from among the Jews.  While the gift of salvation in Christ is to all nations, my study bible says, it has come from within Judaism.  The hour (or "time") to which Jesus will repeatedly refer in John's Gospel, is that of the death and Resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, thus inaugurating the worship of the new covenant. 

The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ).  "When He comes, He will tell us all things."  Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."  Jesus' statement, translated as "I who speak to you am He," is literally "I AM (ego eimi/εγω ειμι in the Greek), who speak to you."  I AM is the divine Name of God as given to Moses (Exodus 3:14).  My study bible says that the use of the Name indicates a theophany, or revelation of God.  The use of this Name by a mere human being was considered to be blasphemy and therefore punishable by death (see 8:58; Mark 14:62).  But as Jesus is divine, His use of the Name is a revelation of His unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit; in fact, He is God Incarnate.

This Name, I AM, or I AM WHO I AM (see Exodus 3:14) is also the Name from which is derived the word YHWH (also called the Tetragrammaton, from the four Hebrew consonants given in the Scripture) or Yahweh, which was later Latinized to Jehovah.   It was also substituted with "the Lord" in the Old Testament (Septuagint).  However we look at, think about, or pronounce the Name, it is such a sacred name to utter that it is unthinkable that Christ would use it in any way but with the most hallowed reverence possible.   To use it as a mere mortal, as my study bible pointed out, was unthinkable.  And yet, in another astonishing fact of this story, Jesus does use this name for Himself, and He uses it before a Samaritan woman.  That He is even speaking to this woman in the first place is astonishing and remarkable.  He is a Jewish man alone with a woman, and it is already unlikely that He would be speaking to any woman who was not a relative or one He knew well.   For the second remarkable fact here, she is Samaritan, and as the text tells us in yesterday's reading (above), "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."  And so, putting all of this together, we have the nearly-impossible-to-believe happening at this well:  Christ speaks to a Samaritan woman, and He reveals Himself as God to her.  How is this even possible?  We may well wonder even 2,000 years later.  But all of this juxtaposed together makes for something even more startling in addition.  Jesus begins by admonishing the woman that He knows about her string of husbands.  She can't hide anything from Him.  He knows her whole history.  All of these aspects of this story, taken together, indicate for us something powerful about the words Jesus teaches here:  that there is no place where God "isn't."  In the most intimate depths of this woman's heart and history, God is there and sees and knows all.  In this strange conversation between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (the place where Jacob realized, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it" and "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" - Genesis 28:16-17 ), God is present.  It is a kind of affirmation within the already-affirmative emphasis of Jesus' words, that God is indeed everywhere present (as in the words of a prayer to the Holy Spirit), and that "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.  God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."    Jesus uses the holy Name, I AM, and indeed the meaning of that name is that God is everywhere present:  within us and without us, everywhere we go, and present within whatever is happening in our lives, and whatever has happened and will happen.  He is there and accessible in spirit and in truth -- through faith.  What we have, then, is a depth of illustration both through the words of Christ and the events of this story, which teaches us that there is no dimension of life in which God is not omnipresent.  In the Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit, which begins every worship service, the phrase reads that He is "everywhere present and filling all things."  And so it is.  Christ's I AM tells us so much more than we are capable of imagining.  As John's Gospel repeatedly reiterates, the only thing that cuts us off from God's presence is our refusal of the gift Christ bears into the world through the Incarnation.  In Orthodox icons of Christ, we can see the Greek words Ω ΟΝ in the "halo" or nimbus around His head.  This is taken from the Name, and is frequently translated as "He Who Is" or "the One Who Is."  But it is more literally translated as "The Be."   The icon above is from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and is an example of Christ Pantocrator, or "Almighty."    The I AM or Ω ΟΝ reminds us that God is not simply "up there" but rather truly everywhere present, the God Who Is, the One always available through our faith and prayer, and for all things, who can reach anyone, anytime, any place.  There are no limits to that presence.  Our God revealed Himself even to this woman at the well on a hot desert day at noon in Samaria, home of the enemies of the Jews.  Let us never forget we are all called by the One who sees in secret and knows us better than we know ourselves.



Thursday, January 23, 2020

Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?


The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century.  St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

 Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee.  But He needed to go through Samaria.  So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.  Now Jacob's well was there.  Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well.  It was about the sixth hour.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water.  Jesus said to her, "Give Me a drink."  For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.  Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?"  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.  Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.  Where then do You get that living water?  Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?"  Jesus answered and said to her, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw." 

- John 4:1-15
Yesterday we read that Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.  And they came and were baptized.  For John had not yet been thrown into prison.  Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification.  And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified -- behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!"  John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.  You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.'  He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice.  Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.  He must increase, but I must decrease.  He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth.  He who comes from heaven is above all.   And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony.  He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true.  For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.  The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.  He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."

 Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee.  But He needed to go through Samaria.  So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.  Now Jacob's well was there.  Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well.  It was about the sixth hour.   Jesus is traveling northward toward Galilee, to get away from the scrutinizing eyes of the Pharisees who zealously guard their religious authority.  Samaria is the region north of Jerusalem, between Judea and Galilee.  My study bible points out that the Old Testament does not mention Jacob's well, but we do know that Jacob lived in the area (Genesis 33:19).  Wells were significant, my study bible says, both because of their rarity and also their value in desert life.  Therefore, wells were to symbolize life itself (Psalms 36:9-10, 46:4; Isaiah 55:1).  This well is maintained as a shrine to this day, and pilgrims can drink from it.  That Jesus is wearied from His journey shows us His full humanity.  This is desert country, and the period is at least late spring or perhaps early summer, after the Passover and Christ's time spent afterward in Judea; the sixth hour is noon. 

A woman of Samaria came to draw water.  Jesus said to her, "Give Me a drink."  For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.  Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, "How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?"  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.   In the tradition of the Church, this woman is known as St. Photini (more about her in the next readings).  My study bible explains that the Samaritans were a mixed race of both Jews and Gentiles, and traditional enemies of the Jews.  Although they worshiped the God of Israel and were also awaiting the Messiah, they accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch or Torah) as their Scriptures.  They had built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, which the Jews destroyed in 128 BC.  (In tomorrow's reading, we will see her reference this dispute over the location of the temple.)  We may find Jesus' command strange, "Give Me a drink."  But in the customs of the time, what is unusual about it is simply that He, a Jewish man alone with this Samaritan woman, would speak to her at all.  His request for water is meant deliberately to draw her out.

Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.  Where then do You get that living water?  Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?"  Jesus answered and said to her, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life."  The woman said to Him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw."  My study bible explains that living water in the ordinary sense of the term means fresh, flowing water.  That is, water from a stream or spring rather than a pond or a cistern.  Jesus uses this term to indicate the grace of the Holy Spirit which leads to eternal life (7:37-39).  My study bible says that this gift not only remains in a person, but it is so abundant that it overflows to others.  The woman misunderstands Him, and she asks, "Are You greater than our father Jacob?"  But this is a spiritual reflection that teaches us something about Christ, that Jacob, in His light, is a "type" of Christ, as Jacob received the vision of the divine ladder (Genesis 28:12), which is fulfilled in Christ -- in His Incarnation, He is the living ladder between heaven and earth.  Moreover, as Jacob gave this well for earthly life, my study bible says, now Christ gives the well of the Holy Spirit for eternal life.  We notice that through His words, Christ has drawn in this woman to great curiosity about the water He speaks about.  In the following readings, He will continue to explain His message.

Jacob's ladder was the vision given to Jacob in a dream, of a ladder between heaven and earth, upon which angels ascended and descended (see Genesis 28:10-22).  It is the story of the promised land, the holy place where God dwells.  In today's story, God has come to this well, not only blessing the place and the people who are looked down upon and cast away by the Jews, but more importantly, illuminating and enlightening the people, and casting away false belief.  The name of this woman, St. Photini, means "illumined" or "enlightened one."  We will read more about her tomorrow.  But what is important is that, through this visitation of Christ, Jacob's vision of the ladder is fulfilled, as well as his words that, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!" (Genesis 28:16-17).  The Lord is indeed in this place, and where He is there is the gate of heaven, which He will open to the people through this woman listening to Him at the well, as He teaches about the "living water" which He will give.  In that sense, Jesus is both the well and the ladder -- for it is He who has the gift of the living water to give to others.  The notion of the ladder as an image of spiritual journey toward God was an important one to the early Fathers of the Church, and later was developed into an understanding of monastic asceticism, particularly in the book of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by St. John Climacus.  Jesus Himself refers to Jacob's ladder earlier in John's Gospel, when He tells Nathanael, "Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (John 1:51).  So everything in this story in today's reading can be approached with this understanding in mind, that Jesus comes as fulfillment of the promises and visions of the Old Testament, that He is the ladder dreamed of by Jacob, and that God is present here at this well, and promising an abundance of living water as gift for those who ask.  In tomorrow's reading, we will find that, like the "ladder" of monastic ascent in asceticism, there are truths required of us in receiving this water and this blessing, a kind of humility in which we are willing to go forward, to find instruction, an honesty about ourselves and where we need to go.  All of this remains for us to see, and even to experience for ourselves in our own journey with Christ.  For today, let us picture this scene in the hot desert climate, at noon, of the weary traveler (Jesus) who promises a gift of water that will become in those who receive it "a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life."  God remains with us and this water remains a gift for us.  He still reaches out to offer it to those who will receive the gift, and make the journey to the life He offers.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease

St. John the Baptist (with scenes from his life).  17th century, Crete

 After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.  And they came and were baptized.  For John had not yet been thrown into prison.

Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification.  And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified -- behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!"  John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.  You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.'  He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice.  Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.  He must increase, but I must decrease."

"He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth.  He who comes from heaven is above all.   And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony.  He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true.  For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.  The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.  He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."

- John 3:22-36

Yesterday we read that Jesus taught Nicodemus:  "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.  He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."

 After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.  And they came and were baptized.  For John had not yet been thrown into prison.  My study bible points here that it is not Jesus Himself who baptized, but rather His disciples.  (See 4:2.)

Then there arose a dispute between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purification.  And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified -- behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!"  John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.  You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.'  He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice.  Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.  He must increase, but I must decrease."  Again, we note that it is not Jesus who is baptizing (per 4:2), but rather His disciples.  My study bible tells us that John the Baptist is called the friend (or "best man"), while Christ Himself is the true bridegroom.   The bride is the Church, or the people of God (therefore we can see the connection to Baptism, "birth again" from above).  John confesses his role here in the coming of the Messiah -- that he is witnessing the wedding of Christ and His people, and therefore rejoices in that celebration.  "He must increase, but I must decrease" is a statement of humility that remains a model for all believers, and is especially held in great significance by monastics.  My study bible says that he renounces an earthly glory and reputation for the sake of Christ.  As he allows Christ to increase in him, John himself finds true glory.  Moreover, my study bible says, this statement by John indicates the end of the old covenant, and is therefore highly significant.  As the law vanishes, it is the grace of Christ that abounds.  In the liturgical calendar, the Church recognizes and marks these significant events, as John's birth is celebrated at a time when the sun begins to decrease in the sky, and Christ's birth is celebrated when the sun begins to increase.

"He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth.  He who comes from heaven is above all.   And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony.  He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true.  For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.  The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.  He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."  My study bible says here that John echoes the teaching of Christ Himself (see verse 18).  My study bible also points out the absence of the word "alone" in this statement of faith.  It quotes St. John Chrysostom:  "We do not from this assert that faith alone is sufficient for salvation; the directions for living that are given in many places in the Gospels show this."  See also James 2:14-24.

What does it means to point out that the word "alone" is not present in John the Baptist's statement of faith?  This is not a contradiction of the essence and importance of faith, but neither is it to say that our faith merely consists of good deeds and actions.  Rather it is pointing to a holistic quality to faith and the state of our being.  Being and doing are essentially inseparable from one another.  We are to live our faith.  Faith is not a merely intellectual problem, in which we decide something, or that we are going to ascribe to a particular belief system.  Rather, as the whole of the Gospels suggest, and particularly as this passage with its emphasis both on baptism and including John's statement, "He must increase, but I must decrease" tells us, to be "born again from above" is not a matter merely of learning new things or holding a particular idea as true.  Rather, it is a question also of the work of the Spirit, the soul's adoption of qualities and patterns which change who we are, how we look at things, and how we walk and move and have our being in the world.  Identity and faith are inseparable from choices and meaning in all aspects of our lives.  Baptism is a way to understand death and rebirth, but of a spiritual nature which in turn works throughout the whole of who we are.  Even continuing into very late in life, we may find the baptism we receive in childhood illuminating meanings and choices that change who we are, and continue to reveal new paths we need to travel, and choices we must make.  Our faith is something that doesn't just exist in one dimension of the self, but rather permeates the whole (like the leaven that changes the substance of the whole of the dough in Matthew 13:33).  John the Baptist's statement, "He must increase, but I must decrease" is akin to St. Paul's statement, "I die daily" (1 Corinthians 15:31).  The mystical impact of baptism is to effectively create adoption through the work of the Spirit in us, so that we come closer to our true identity, found in communion with Christ, with Creator.  And this, in fact, as St. Paul expresses, is the true nature of salvation.  It is an ongoing process, in which we accept this work of God within us, in our lives, and workings its way through "the whole lump" of ourselves.  It is one we bear with patience, humility, courage, and all the gifts that the Spirit can bestow -- even surprisingly to ourselves -- in our souls and character, bearing out in our choices.  Let us consider that we are on a road, Christ's "way."  The road awaits, teaches us patience, and calls us ahead.  John the Baptist surrenders completely to this work of God, completes his role, and enters into salvation history as the bridge between the old and the new.  John knows who he himself is, and he also knows who Christ is.  Let us endeavor to be like him, and to find the joy that he expresses here.  The icon above gives us a word-picture, the person of St. John the Baptist.  On the sides of the icon are scenes from his life.  His head on a platter, the story of his martyrdom, is in the lower left corner.  He wears wings, to denote that his identity as messenger for the Greek word for angel simply means "messenger."   He bears a scroll with his words, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2) -- which Christ Himself would repeat.  His right hand gestures in blessing.  He is called the Forerunner, the one who proclaimed the coming of the Lord to the world, and even to those in hades, as all await the Bridegroom. 






Tuesday, January 21, 2020

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life


Annunciation, by Lorenzo Veneziano, 1357.  Lion Polyptcyh (detail), Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy

 "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.  He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."

- John 3:16-21

Yesterday we read that when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.  But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.  There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."  Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"  Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?  Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

 "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."   Looking back again at yesterday's reading (above), we recall that Jesus stated, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."   Here is the reason why He must be "lifted up."  Jesus declares God's great love not just for Israel, but for the world.  My study bible claims that this single verse expresses the whole of the message of John's Gospel, and even of salvation history.

"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.  He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."  Christ came in order to save and not to condemn.  But human beings also have a role; we have free will.  Therefore we are capable of rejecting what Christ brings into the world, the gift that He offers.  It is that rejection that renders us excluded and outside the therapeutic and salvific effects of the gift.

"And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."  Once again, as in its Prologue, John's Gospel returns to themes of darkness and light, which will also be strongly emphasized in some of Jesus' most beautiful teachings.  As Jesus phrases it, salvation and its acceptance also rests with the heart, and our impulse for truth.  A relationship to God, and our depth of communion with God, rests within this impulse and the freedom with which we open ourselves to that light, even for correction and change.  Let us note that it is only God who truly knows all these depths of the heart, and who can judge them.  Additionally, evil is contrasted with truth.  It is a reminder that those who remain outside the Kingdom include "whoever loves and practices a lie" (Revelation 22:15).

In Christ's explanation of salvation and also the failure to find it, our own role as human beings also counts for something.  We have the power to accept or reject the gift Christ brings to us all.  Phrased in terms of darkness and light, we have the free will to "take in" this light and allow it to operate in ourselves, to bring to light all that is in the heart -- or to resist and reject it.  It reminds us of the role that human beings play in the story of the Incarnation, and especially, as we are in John's Gospel and have recently read the story of the first sign at the wedding at Cana, the role of Mary, the Mother of God.  Luke gives us her assent and interaction with the Archangel Gabriel, at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).  Mary first questions what she is told, asking, "How can this be?"  But later, she gives a clear assent to the work of the Holy Spirit that will take place and the plan of God for her life:  "Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word."  We may feel, of course, that God can do anything -- which is quite true.  But God's grace also asks for our cooperation.  These words of Mary are not included in the Gospel for nothing; they have great significance for her own role in salvation history, and for the importance granted to human beings by a gracious and loving God.  We have recently been given the first sign in John's Gospel, that of turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana, and this, too, began with words from Mary -- a plea, a prayer, a simple statement to her Son.  These things, and Mary's role in salvation history, serve to enforce the importance of Christ's teaching to Nicodemus regarding the roles that human beings play themselves in salvation.   We don't determine the gift and its action.  But we do have the capacity to reject or accept.  We can be with Mary, stating, "Let it be to me according to your word."  Or we can refuse, in the clear words of Christ here in today's reading.  We may exclude ourselves, and thus guarantee that our hearts are not opened to the work of God the Holy Spirit, illuminating and enlightening what we need to do and guiding our lives according to Christ's commands to find our way into this kingdom.  Jesus contrasts those who love truth with those who do not, a theme which will also run through the Revelation and its images of Judgment.  Let us remember that in Matthew's Gospel, when Christ speaks of Judgment, He speaks of the actions of compassion, a righteousness that looks at the depth of the heart and the truth found there.  His light comes into the world to make us more like Him, to give us discernment, but all of this depends upon a love of and commitment to truth -- the truth of God and our spiritual calling.  Mary, the Mother of God, has throughout the history of the Church, and from its earliest years, been seen as a model for the saints, and one of whom we may ask prayers and intercession, just the same as if one would ask a fellow faithful parishioner for their prayers and intercession at a time of special need.  Let us consider the role she plays for us, the human character she no doubt contributed to the Incarnation of her Son, and her "yes" to God's word and God's grace, God's calling for her.  Among the names attributed to her in the Church, many frequently express her character of compassion.  Among so many other titles, she is called, "Joy of All Who Sorrow," "Lady of Perpetual Help," "The One Who Comes Quickly to Help,"  "The One who is Quick to Hear," and so many more.  St. Chrysostom called her "Mary Help of Christians," and in Luke's Gospel, the Archangel Gabriel greets her as one who is already "full of grace."   In the historical view of the Church, she is the human being who serves as the prime example of that to which the rest of us aspire, the greatest of the saints, whose assent was fully to the grace of God and God's gift of salvation.








Monday, January 20, 2020

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit


Baptism of Christ/Theophany, Byzantine Museum, Athens, Greece

 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.  But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."  Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"  Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?  Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."

- John 2:23-3:15

On Saturday, we read that the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business.  When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables.  And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away!  Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!"  Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up."  So the Jews answered and said to Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?"  But He was speaking of the temple of His body.  Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.

 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.  But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.  As we noted on Saturday, there are three Passover feasts reported in John's Gospel, between the Lord's Baptism and Passion (see also 6:5, 11:55).  By this we know that Christ's earthly ministry lasted three years.  Let us also make note that while there are seven signs reported in John's Gospel, they are given to us for their significance, to teach us something about Him and His ministry, but they are not inclusive of all signs He did.  John also makes note here of Christ as the knower of hearts, and of His discernment.  He is careful not to commit Himself to those whose faith is based solely on signs.  Contrast this with Christ's words about Nathanael in 1:47.

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."   Apparently in Jerusalem, the Pharisees have taken note of Jesus.  Nicodemus, one of their members, believed that Jesus was from God, but my study bible says that his faith at this point was still weak, as he was afraid of his peers and therefore came to Jesus by night.  After this conversation, Nicodemus' faith would grow to the point of defending Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin (7:50-51), and eventually making the bold public expression of faith in preparing and entombing Christ's body (19:39-42).  According to some early sources, my study bible notes, Nicodemus was baptized by Peter and consequently removed from the Sanhedrin and forced to flee Jerusalem.  It is worth noting that through John's Gospel, we are aware that even some among the leadership would become open followers of Christ.  Nicodemus himself is a PhariseeJohn 12:42 tells us that there were many among the rulers who believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees were afraid of being cast out of the synagogue.

Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  In the Greek, the word again has the literal meaning of "from above."  It clearly refers to the heavenly birth from God through faith in Christ (1:12-13).  My study bible says that this heavenly birth is baptism and our adoption by God as our Father (Galatians 4:4-7).  The new birth is the beginning of our spiritual life, and its goal is the entrance into the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"  Frequent misunderstandings happen in John's Gospel, illuminating the allegories with which Jesus speaks in order to express transcendent spiritual realities, in this case the rebirth -- being born again "from above" -- of baptism.  (For other examples of misunderstandings which lead to deeper explanation by Christ, see 2:19-21; 4:10-14, 30-34; 6:27; 7:37-39; 11:11-15).  My study bible says that Jesus uses these opportunities to elevate an idea from a superficial or earthly meaning to a heavenly and eternal meaning.

Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  The birth of water and the Spirit is a reference to Christian baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit given at chrismation.  That which is born of the Spirit is given by grace, through faith, and in the Holy Spirit -- and forms a holistic part of the nature of human beings, one which we ignore to our own detriment.  The analogy to the wind is a play on words:  the Greek word pneuma/πνευμα means both wind and Spirit.  My study bible says that the working of the Holy Spirit in the new birth is as mysterious as the source and destination of the blowing wind.  Similarly, the Spirit moves where He wills and cannot be contained by human ideas or agendas.

Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?  Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.  If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven."  My study bible cites the commentary of St. John Chrysostom here, in which it is noted that earthly things refer to grace and baptism given to man.  These are "earthly" in the sense that they occur on earth and are given to creations (not that they are "unspiritual").  The heavenly things, it says, involve the ungraspable mysteries of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, and they pertain to the Son's eternal existence before all time, and to God's divine plan of salvation for the world.  My study bible says that a person must first grasp the ways in which God works among humankind before one can even start to understand anything pertaining to God exclusively.

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life."   Moses lifted up an image of a serpent in order to cure the Israelites from deadly bites of poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9); Christ references this miracle-working image as a prefiguration of His being lifted up on the Cross.  In some sense, it is a "type" of the Cross.  My study bible comments that as believers behold the crucified Christ in faith, the power of sin and death is overthrown in them.  It notes that just as the image of a serpent was the weapon that destroyed the power of the serpents, so the instrument of Christ's death becomes the weapon that overthrows death itself.

Here John brings us to the powerful paradox of the Cross.  How does God's power work to use the things of this world -- even gruesome human death on a cross -- in order to turn back that power against itself and to destroy it?  Just as Moses was told to fashion an image of a fiery serpent on a pole, and to have those bitten look at the image, and they lived, so we look to the Cross when we are faced with death in any form.  The abolition of death is something that cannot be fathomed in human or worldly terms, but can only be understood through the spiritual counterpart that accompanies it:  that of sin and evil.  In other words, if God is life, then that which is "against God" is death, "not life."  In John's Prologue, we read about the Son or Logos, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men" (1:4).  This light is contrasted with darkness, and the darkness also corresponds to death in some form.  When we refuse the light God would show us, to help illuminate our own lives and choices, we are in some particular sense choosing death, a kind of death of potentials and possibilities within us that grace offers as a gift.  Pain is also a component of that darkness or death; even the word for evil or "the evil one" has the meaning of pain.  But Christ's power works in a particular way regarding all of these elements of death:  He comes into the world to experience all that we do, and transforms the reality of this darkness and death.  We are no longer bound to it, but liberated through Christ to transcend, to be reborn into a greater abundance of life.  So it is through our journey with Christ even as we experience small "deaths" - whether that be of false dreams or hopes, disappointing outcomes, false beliefs.  The light is on the other side, through the experience, and with Christ.  He leads the way through any form of death to a greater gift of life -- just as He did on the Cross.   In this we must also see baptism -- for baptism is a form of death and rebirth.  We are submerged into water as a form of death, and reborn through the Spirit as we emerge.  At baptism we also renounce evil and its forms -- thus, as in the Paschal Hymn of the Orthodox, death is trampled by death.  That is, through the Incarnation and Christ's own experience of it, even death becomes an instrument of transformation into the life of God.  This paradoxical and complex reality is mirrored in the lifting up of the serpent by Moses as directed by God,  to destroy the effects of the serpents who bit the Israelites.  We note the realities of Christ which extend backward and forward in time:  the act of Moses which reflects the Crucifixion, and the discussion of baptism by Jesus with Nicodemus, which touches upon things to come at the Cross.  If all of this is dizzying, peculiar, and next to impossible to follow, consider that it is in the experience of our faith that we really come to know it, the living of the faith that gives us true wisdom and insight, and simply trust in Christ and in that journey of faith.  For today, consider the power of water as sacrament in the Incarnation of Christ, how His human experience sanctifies the waters for all the world, and our repeated reliving and commemoration renews this promise over and over again for us all. 






Saturday, January 18, 2020

Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up"

Creation of the heavenly lights - Mosaic, 1180s.  Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily


 
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business.  When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables.  And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away!  Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!"  Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up."  So the Jews answered and said to Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?"  But He was speaking of the temple of His body.  Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.

- John 2:13-22

In our reading from yesterday, we read of the events of the sixth day (and the seventh) given of Christ's ministry:  the wedding at Cana, and the first sign of seven John includes in His Gospel.   There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding.  And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine."  Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me?  My hour has not yet come."  His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it."  Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece.  Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water."  And they filled them up to the brim.  And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast."  And they took it.  When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom.  And he said to him, "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior.  You have kept the good wine until now!"  This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.  After this He went down to Capernaum, He, His mother, His brothers, and His disciples; and they did not stay there many days.

  Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business.  When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables.  And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away!  Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!"  Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up."  In the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this event occurs at the end of Jesus' ministry.  But John places it right at the beginning, just after His first sign performed at the wedding in Cana, of turning the water to wine (see yesterday's reading, above).  Some Church Fathers teach that Christ performed this act twice.  We make note that this is the first Passover festival given in John's Gospel.  Altogether, He will attend three, and it is from this that we deduce Christ's ministry lasted three years.  The disciples remember the verse from Psalm 69:9.  Those who sell animals in the temple are selling them to pilgrims who must purchase them for sacrifice.  The money changers exchanged Roman coins for Jewish temple coins, as coins with the image of Caesar were considered to be defiling.  Those who sold doves did so to the poor, who could afford only the smallest sacrifice.

So the Jews answered and said to Him, "What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  Then the Jews said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?"  But He was speaking of the temple of His body.  Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.  My study bible comments that since Jesus is not a Levitical priest, His authority to cleanse the temple is challenged.  In John's Gospel, the term Jews most often refers specifically to the leaders; in this case, my study bible says, it refers to the chief priests and the elders (see Matthew 21:23).  Christ is careful not to reveal Himself to scoffers, and so He answers in a hidden way.  The ultimate sign given will be His death and Resurrection.

The psalm verse that the disciples remember is taken from Psalm 69, verse 9.  If we read it in context (verses 8 and 9 in full), it reads:  "I have become a stranger to my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s children;  because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me."  In the full sense of the psalm verses, we will read later on in John's Gospel of the antagonism from Jesus' brothers (that is, those who are most likely stepbrothers -- sons by a previous marriage of Joseph, or cousins).  And the zeal with which Jesus approaches the temple as a house of prayer results in the reproaches from those who fail to honor the Father by making it a house of merchandise.  Therefore, if we follow Christ, we should also understand that our faith is not a faith of "merchandise."  It is not a sense of material commodities to be bought and sold, and belonging to this person or that one.  We do not purchase our faith with nominal good deeds, and even our most hallowed and cherished of rituals do not retain their meaning for us without a prayerful understanding of what our life with God is all about.  Nobody "owns" the wisdom and holiness of the long tradition and history of God's covenant and promise, begun in the Old and fulfilled in the New.  We do not earn it, it is given to us as a gift of grace.  We can't purchase it; it's not for sale.  It must be cherished for what it is, it must be beloved to be truly valued properly.  John's Gospel immediately sets up for us two ways of seeing, which are in complete contrast.  This was introduced in the Prologue, which spoke of the Light that came into the world, and the darkness that can neither overcome it nor understand it.  This is what we see played out in today's reading.  Jesus has a way of seeing and being in the world, He is the Light that illumines for us the truth about God and God's love and communion with us.  We are either going to "get it" or fail to see it; either it is going to reach us somehow in our perceptions, or we dash it by the wayside, seeing everything as commodity, as merchandise.  And it is in fact in the way we see that things take on meaning and value.  Is a beautiful house the thing that gives our life worthiness?  Or is a tattered and old photo, filled with the meaning and presence of someone we love, something we cherish for that memory?  The smallest gift with love present remains a memory of something cherished, and the most expensive thing we can buy becomes worthless without meaning and with an empty and always-hungry heart.  Without the presence of that Light which illumines such depth of meanings and relatedness, life doesn't give us anything but merchandise.  And this is the root of the sacramental life that the entire Bible teaches us.  God gives us an abundance of life and all the good things God creates for us.  We have been reading John's first chapter and the first sign given, a full seven days of Jesus' ministry (up through yesterday's reading), paralleling the creation story in Genesis.  All of it tells us about the gifts of good things God gives us, the crowning of God's creation.  And our job as those who return that love is simply to return all the gifts to God so that they may be endowed with God's value, God's love, God's way for us to live and to grow in communion.  Without that, they are merchandise for which we toil.  With God, all of it become Eucharist, securing a deeper communion.  Let us consider Jesus' zeal, and His way that tells us that all of life and all of this world of creation and cosmos is more than just merchandise.  Help is always here to give us that light, and to lead the way out of what seems only meaningless.  Our own zeal may even at times bring reproach from those who cannot see the point, but we enter into a struggle into which we are invited, with Him.  The image above is a mosaic of the creation of the lights of the heavens, the stars and the planets.  Let us remember that He is the Light we need to find meaning in all of this creation, made for us.  None of it is merely "merchandise," it is filled with meaning, and a gift to us, for life.  Let us not be like spoiled children, but keep in mind that there is so much to learn about how we are to dwell in it, with His light.