Saturday, February 27, 2021

I who speak to you am He

 
 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 this 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 who 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 4:1–26 
 
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.   Here Jesus has attended the first Passover Feast given in John's Gospel (there will be two more as the Gospel covers stories of subsequent periods in Jesus' earthly ministry), and His disciples were baptizing in Judea.  But now we are given notice that the Pharisees are keeping a wary eye on Jesus.  John the Baptist was a very renown figure in his own time, and highly regarded as a holy man by the people.   At this point, however, Jesus is eclipsing John in terms of numbers of people who are following Him.  So He is going back to Galilee, away from the center of power of the Pharisees in Jerusalem.  Samaria is the region to the north of Jerusalem, and is between Judea and Galilee (see this map).

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.  My study bible comments here that the Old Testament doe snot mention Jacob's well, although Jacob did dwell in this area (Genesis 33:19).  It says that wells were significant because of their rarity and their value in desert life.  Therefore, wells came to be a symbol of life itself (Psalms 36:9-10, 46:4; Isaiah 55:1).  This well continues to be maintained as a shrine to this day, and pilgrims can drink from it.  That Jesus is wearied from His journey reveals to us His complete humanity.  The sixth hour is noon.   In the tradition of the Church, this woman came to be known as St. Photini (the "Illumined One").

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.  My study bible explains that the Samaritans were a mixed race people and traditional enemies of the Jews.  Although they worshiped the God of Israel, and were also awaiting the Messiah as did the Jews, 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 was destroyed by the Jews in 128 BC.

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 this 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."   Living water, used as a phrase in the ordinary sense, means fresh and flowing water.  That is, from a stream or spring rather than from a pond or cistern.   Christ uses this terms, my study bible says, to mean the grace of the Holy Spirit that leads to eternal life (John 7:37-39).   This gift, it says, not only remains in a person, but it is also so abundant that it overflows to others.  The woman misunderstands what Christ is saying, and she asks Him, "Are You greater than our father Jacob?"   In the Scriptures, Jacob is a "type" of Christ.  Jacob received the vision of the divine ladder (Genesis 28:12), which Christ fulfills.  (See also this reading and commentary for more on the divine ladder.)   Moreover, just as Jacob gave this well for earthly life, now Christ gives to the world the well of the Holy Spirit for eternal 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 who 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 understood that she was living with a man without being married, and also knew of her long list of husbands, this woman perceives that Christ is a prophet.  As the Samaritans accepted no prophets after Moses, the one prophet they expected was the Messiah, who was foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-18.  My study bible points out that Christ's insight into people's hearts, which is reported many times in the Gospels, underscores His divine nature.

"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."   My study bible says that if Jesus was truly the expected Prophet, then He could settle this historical argument between Jews and Samaritans about where worship was to take place.  But Jesus refuses to answer the question on this very "earthly" basis, and instead elevates the discussion to the manner in which people ought to worship.  More importantly, Christ turns the attention to the One whom we worship:  to God.   As my study bible frames Jesus' teaching here, the Father is worshiped in spirit -- that is, in the Holy Spirit -- and in truth -- that is in Christ Himself (John 14:6), and according to Christ's revelation.  When Jesus reveals that God is Spirit, it is an affirmation that God cannot be confined to a particular location.  Those who receive the Holy Spirit and believe in Christ, my study bible tells us, can worship God the Father with purity of heart.  Salvation is of the Jews is an affirmation that true revelation of God comes from Judaism.  It quotes St. Athanasius the Great:  "The commonwealth of Israel was the school of the knowledge of God for all the nations."  Even more importantly, here Jesus testifies that the Messiah, who had been prophesied among Jews, had now risen from among the Jews.  While the gift of salvation in Christ is to all nations, my study bible explains, it has come from within Judaism, as the Gospels testify.  The hour that Christ says is coming refers to the death and Resurrection of Christ, and to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which inaugurates the worship of this new covenant, in spirit and in truth.

Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."  This phrase is literally translated from the Greek as "I AM [in Greek, ego eimi/εγώ εἰμι], who speak to you."  A theme which will be returned to in this Gospel, "I AM" is the divine Name of God, as given to Moses in Exodus 3:14.  Jesus' use of this Name indicates a theophany, or revelation of God.  The use of this Name by a mere human being was considered to be blasphemy, and was punishable by death (see John 8:58, Mark 14:62).  But, as Jesus is Himself divine, the use of the Name here reveals His unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  We are to understand that Christ is God Incarnate.

If Jesus is God, as witnessed by His utterance of the Divine Name of God, the I AM, then what are we to make of the Scriptures themselves, which tell us about Him?  Is not all of Scripture a revelation of God?  Jesus reveals Himself to this woman of Samaria, as she's called in John's Gospel, and at the same time, we're given echoes of revelation that extend all around us as we read, for the Scriptures also are inspired and given by God in order to reveal God to us.  The same is true of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  He is born in the flesh in order to reveal God to us, to manifest to us.  As John says in his Prologue to this Gospel:  "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).  To behold His glory, in the flesh, as one of His disciples, is to be one to whom God was revealed in God's manifestation of divinity in this world.  John also speaks here of theophany; that is, a revelation of God.  In the Greek, theos is God, and -phany comes from the word phainein, which is literally from the term "bring to light," and means to show, reveal, or manifest.  So Jesus, as the Word Incarnate, chooses to "show Himself" even in His divinity to this woman who seems like the last of all possible candidates for such a revelation.   Surely it is a sign that the Gospel, another revelation of God (and of the Word), will go out to all the world.  But it truly redefines for us -- and especially redefined for Christ's contemporaries and those of every century to follow -- to whom that revelation belongs, and for whom it occurs.  For she is the least of these personified, in some sense.  She is a woman, she is a despised foreigner, she is a person with whom no Jew (and particularly no Jewish male) would normally ever be having a conversation with, and especially when unaccompanied by others.  Not only is she a woman, and a Samaritan, but she's also one who's had a string of husbands and is living with a man to whom she's not married at all.  All of this is potentially scandalous for His time and place.  And so importantly, Jesus knows all of this about her.  So why her?  Why is He talking to her and revealing to her not only His own divinity, but even the Holy Spirit which will be given (the "living water"), and also the manner in which God must be worshiped under the new covenant He brings ("in spirit and in truth")?  Why her?  She is precisely an example of the "least of these" whom Christ has come to serve.  Jesus breaks just about every social taboo of His time and milieu to speak with her.  She is an infinite blank variable of a type that we can continue to "fill in" through any stereotypical example we can find in our own world, our own time, our own place, our own lives.  She is the least likely person with whom we might be in contact, whomever that might be.  All we have to do is to fill in the category of the last person with any "currency" in a group; she's basically that person.  This great theophany or revelation of God, within the entire Book that is a revelation of God, reveals to us something so significant about God that we might miss it although it is here in plain sight, as revelations of truths about God so often might be missed if the examples in the Gospel are anything to go by.   It reveals to us that God knows no boundaries when it comes to God's creatures, that whatever limits we might put on God and God's word and God's love and the eligibility of our fellow beings for that love and that word will always be off.  It tells us that when we see a person who is some sort of scandal to us, that God just might appear out of nowhere seeking to reach right into that person and claim that one for God, just as this one will become known as St. Photini in the Church.  The reason for her name, "the Illumined One" will become more clear in tomorrow's reading.  In that grand landscape that is the reality of the heart, with so much hidden in it, God might just reach in to find exactly the stuff that is capable of returning God's love, and so returning one who was lost back to God.  And that is something we can never ever lose sight of.  Because if we are truly Christ's disciples, we also must understand how much effort is put in simply in order to reach us.  If that is not a humbling thought, consider how likely it is that Christ would reach to you or to me wherever we are, in the quiet of the moments we give up on our own way, or come to terms with our own limitations.  For that is a love that never, ever stops and knows no limits in its efforts to reach me and to reach you.






Friday, February 26, 2021

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

 
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 
 
In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued His teaching to 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.  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 4:2 explains that Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples.  

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."  John the Baptist calls himself the friend (or "best man"), while Christ Himself is the bridegroom.  The bride, my study bible explains, is the Church, the people of God.  Here John is confessing that his role in the coming o the Messiah is to be witness to the wedding of Christ and His people, therefore he rejoices in that celebration.  John's joy is fulfilled ("this joy of mine" is specific to him) because his true role and identity are fulfilled.

"He must increase, but I must decrease."   My study bible expresses the view universal to the Church regarding John the Baptist:  John exemplifies a humility that serves as model for all believers.   It says that he renounces all earthly glory and reputation for the sake of Christ.  As John allows Christ to increase in him, he himself finds his own true glory.  Moreover, this statement also expresses the end of the old covenant.  As the law vanishes, my study bible says, the grace of Jesus Christ abounds.  John's declaration is revealed in the liturgical calendar of the Church.  His birth is celebrated at a time when the sun begins to decrease in the sky (June 24th), while Christ's 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 comments that John echoes the teaching of Christ Himself given earlier in this chapter (see John 3:18 in yesterday's reading above;  also yesterday's reading and commentary).  It also notes the absence of the word "alone" in this statement of faith.  St. John Chrysostom writes:  "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.

John's humility is a remarkable thing to behold, but it also speaks very loudly to us of our own place in the cosmos, in all of creation, and in relationship to God.  Let us observe that John is in fact acknowledging his true role in the entire picture of salvation, even in creation.  He knows himself to be the friend of the bridegroom.  Therefore his own joy (to reiterate, he says, "this joy of mine") is fulfilled, because he knows who he is and is fulfilling his true role.  This role, the friend of the bridegroom, is what we would call John's "true self."  A world permeated with social media, in which we are used now to presenting ourselves in a certain way for others to see and behold, seems to do anything but give us a sense of humility, in which our true role is hidden behind the desires cultivated by popular pressure.  This is especially true if that role or image is one that seems secondary, or "less than" anything but whatever the top might be.  We are given images to behold every day in which we might measure ourselves by the achievements of others.  Billionaires hold top places in terms not simply of material success, but increasingly as those who are becoming the arbiters of morality and truth, if we but look closely.  As social media titans begin to implement their own forms of censorship, for whatever the motivation, there are yet other great "men of business" (to use an old expression) who offer us solutions for every ailment facing the world:  energy supplies, environmental crises, hunger, health, public policy, and so on.  None of them are experts in ethics or social policies, or medicine, or environmental science, for that matter.  But to have a platform is to proffer the image to the world that we would prefer people to behold about us.  Compare this to the humility of John the Baptist, who earnestly tells us that his true joy is in fulfilling the role that God has prepared for him, whatever that is in service to God's purpose and plans.  We are each encouraged through various types of social pressure to be like the titans, that success and wealth make us "somebody."  It's not good enough if our houses don't compare to what we see or imagine that others with more wealth have.  This has become such a standard yardstick by which to measure ourselves that our various social engineers twist themselves into pretzels to explain why poverty still exists, or any sense of inequality -- be that talent, or skill, or even hard work.  But the truth is simply the way John the Baptist displays it for us.  We were not created to be all the same.  In fact, the truth is far, far away from this vision of sameness.  God has created each one of us as unique persons, and each one of us has a true "joy of mine" to fulfill in the salvation plan of God.  Each one of us has our own way in which we bear our cross, and serve the purposes of salvation in a communion with our Creator.  While what we might see in carefully crafted social profiles might look like there are others with supposedly "perfect lives," or special people who deserve a special sympathy because of a unique tragedy in their lives, the truth is that we all have disappointments, flaws, failures, and places where we are "less than" someone or something else that someone has that we wish we had (whether that is a talent, a personality trait, or a possession of some other kind).   And the deepest truth is that to bear our own crosses, with the humility that asks of us, is the true sense of success as far as the Gospels are concerned.  This is the real strength and the real faith it takes a lifetime to hone, and real courage to face up to.   This is the achievement praised in the gospel message.  For to bear our own cross, and to find our own joy as the person whom God asks us to be, is to truly find ourselves.  It is to find who we really are.  And to rest in and claim that joy as our own takes a kind of courage that can face up to a world that demands the impossible and makes us miserable in the process, leading us off the sane and very real path that Christ asks us to enter as we seek to follow Him.  Because it is Christ who knows our burdens, our strengths, and the things of which we are capable, there is so much more that we serve when we seek to follow Him than the popular flattering images in magazines and television stories.  But it is in the statement of John the Baptist that we really come to full maturity and greatness, as Christ has said:  "But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:11-12).  To cultivate this kind of humility is to come to terms with the greatest truth we can face, that it is the place to which God calls us where we find ourselves, and to let go of impressing or following the world's images for us is to become truly free in Christ.   Of course, this is not to say that the place God has in mind for us to serve God won't be as one of those titans of industry or images in magazines of popular stars.  With God, all things are possible, and there is no such thing as a "cookie-cutter" saint.  We're given two great saints of tremendous courage and humility in John's Gospel -- Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea -- who were very socially prominent and wealthy men of their time and place.  But let us seek first the Kingdom, and then God will add to us what God will add.  To be ashamed of humility is to turn our back on the Gospels and Christ's central message.  And, lest we forget, it is to turn our backs on the humble whom Christ loved.  Let us find our true selves, our honest joy, in the place Christ has for us.  John the Baptist was an exceptionally revered figure in his time, and yet he goes one better in greatness through his exemplary humility.   John's disciples echo the voices of the Pharisees to come, who will woefully complain of Jesus' popularity:  "You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!" (John 12:19).  But it is John's response that is the proper one, to which we must look ourselves to find our true joy.





Thursday, February 25, 2021

For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved

 

 "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."  My study bible comments that to show the reason the Son must be crucified ("lifted up" in verse 14, in yesterday's reading, above), Jesus declares God's great love not only for Israel, but for the world.   This single verse expresses the whole of the message of John's Gospel, and even of all 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.  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."   While Christ came to save and not to condemn, my study bible says, human beings have free will.  Therefore human beings may reject this gift.  Thereby, condemnation comes through a person's own rejection.

What is condemnation, and how are we to understand it?  At the center of this understanding of condemnation is the love of God.  That is, the love of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  One might argue that it all depends on what the individual finds good or true or beautiful.  But at the level of the pure being of God, we are no longer talking about theoretical arguments about goodness or truth or beauty.  We are talking about absolutes, the pure reality of these things in their true existence.  And where and how do human beings practice free will?  Is everything simply all about a calculated rational choice?  I personally do not believe that faith works on a purely intellectual or rational level, and it seems to me that this is not the only place where God touches us, and where our true communion with God dwells within ourselves.  In yesterday's reading (above), we are first given the final verses in the second chapter of John, as follows:  "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."  What this tells us is about a depth of "knowing" (in "He knew what was in man"), which we might not understand if we do not have experience with the depths of our own hearts.  In the long road of monastic discipline, or over a lifetime of deep prayer practice, we will uncover many, many things about ourselves that are even mysterious and unknown to us.  There are buried depths of experiences of pain or trauma, for example, that we may never be consciously aware of.  Our own emotional responses to things will sometimes surprise us.  If there are such things within ourselves of which we aren't even cognizant, we can simply imagine what it is that Christ knows about us as the "Heart-knower" -- the One who knows the hearts of all.  Let us understand that in Scriptural language, the heart is the true center of a person, encompassing all that we are.  Therefore, when John's Gospel speaks of condemnation of those who hate the light or who hate truth, of those who cannot come to Christ as the One who is Truth (John 14:6), we are talking about a place of choice so deep within the heart of a human being that only Christ is capable of judging it.  Moreover, we need to see that the point about these verses is really not the judgment of Christ per se, but it is rather about what it is in human beings that effectively excludes them from the light of Christ and the kingdom of God.  Even at a very conscious level, we can make choices to be honest with ourselves or not.  We can make choices to "come to the light" and seek a relationship to Christ which is going to give us the truth about ourselves, rather than our own self-righteous (that is, self-centered) judgment or justifications.  We can seek a better way than we know, but which takes love and trust in God.  Ultimately, these verses ask us to open our hearts and minds to Christ, to a depth in the heart that seeks only truth, and not something that is going to justify our own limited perspective.  It is an attitude not simply of humility, but one of willingness to change, which is the whole foundation to the understanding of repentance, which simply means we are willing to change our minds.  (The literal meaning of the Greek word for repentance is "change of mind.")  If all of this seems too far beyond a simple or easy understanding, consider only what it takes to assume that we don't know everything, and that we are capable of being stretched beyond what we already think we know and understand.  Consider what a difference even one simple fact can make in one's outlook when it wasn't understood before, and how it changes perspective on a whole story, and unlocks an entire truth that simply could not be seen with limited information.  This is where we stand without opening up our hears to grace, to the power of Christ's truth to teach us who we are and reach beyond what we already think we know.  This is what it means to come to the light and find our limitations and errors, so that we might be healed and thus saved.  Christ is the door that opens up to this Kingdom where we might become more like Him, and less like an arrogant world that wants to shut the door on anything but self-centeredness.  Let us choose truth and the light; we have nothing to lose but the darkness of half-truths and falsehood.




 
 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit

 

 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 
 
Yesterday 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 to 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.  This was the first of three Passover feasts reported by John's Gospel, between the Lord's Baptism and Passion.  See also John 6:4, 11:55.  This is how we understand Jesus' ministry on earth to have lasted three years.  John gives us yet another divine characteristic of Jesus here, that "He knew what was in man."  Elsewhere the disciples pray to the Lord as the One who knows the heart (see Acts 1:24, 15:8).  There is a special single word in Greek used in these two example from Acts of the Apostles, that literally means "heart-knower," kardiognostes/καρδιογνώστης.
 
 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."   My study bible points out that Nicodemus believed that Jesus was from God.  But his faith is still weak at this point, as he is afraid of his peers and thus came to Jesus by night.   After this conversation, Nicodemus's faith would grow to the point of defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51), and eventually making the very bold public expression of faith of preparing and entombing Christ's body (John 19:39-42).  Traditionally in the Church Nicodemus is a saint and celebrated together with the Myrrhbearing Women and Joseph of Arimathea, all of whom were involved in the preparation and laying to rest of Christ's body in a special tomb, a brave public act after the Crucifixion.  According to some early sources, my study bible tells us, Nicodemus was baptized by Peter and consequently was removed from the Sanhedrin and forced to flee Jerusalem.

Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  To be born again has a specific nuance in the Greek.  Here, the word for "again" can also be translated "from above."   According to my study bible, it clearly refers to the heavenly birth from God through faith in Christ (John 1:12-13).  This heavenly birth, it says, is baptism (to which Jesus refers in today's reading in verse 5, "unless one is born of water and the Spirit") and our adoption by God as our Father (Galatians 4:4-7).  The new birth is simply the beginning of our spiritual life; 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?"   This is a misunderstanding on the part of Nicodemus, and it tells us something important about the language that Jesus uses.  We're supposed to understand His figurative language as just that; it is language that opens up understand when we open up our own capacities to perceive what He's saying.  My study bible points out that misunderstandings occur frequently in John's Gospel (see John 2:19-21; 4:10-14, 30-34; 6:27; 7:37-39; 11:11-15).  It says that Christ uses these opportunities to elevate an idea from a superficial or earthly meaning to a heavenly and eternal meaning.  It is a deep clue to the powerful use of language by Jesus in John's Gospel, and the enduring images that help us to understand and deepen our faith.

Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."  This is a direct reference to Christian baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit given at chrismation ("born of water and the Spirit").

"That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."   Adoption as a child of God via Christian baptism is not a matter of ethnic descent as in the Old Testament, nor by natural birth, nor simply by choice on our part (see John 1:13).  To become a child of God, my study bible says, is a spiritual birth by grace, through faith, and in the Holy Spirit.  This is accomplished and manifest through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

"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?" Here is a play on words in the Greek, as the word for wind and the word for Spirit are the same (pneuma/πνευμα).   This word is also related to "breath."  My study bible comments that the working of the Holy Spirit in the new birth is as mysterious as the source and destination of the blowing wind.  Just the same, the Spirit moves where the Spirit wills (that is, God the Holy Spirit, Third Person of the Holy Trinity), 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?"   St. John Chrysostom comments here that earthly things is a reference to grace and baptism which are given to human beings.  These are earthly, not in the sense of being "unspiritual" but rather in the sense that they occur on earth and are given to creatures.  The heavenly things are the ungraspable mysteries of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father.   They relate to God's 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 human beings before one can even begin to understand things that pertain to God as divine Person.

"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."  Moses lifted up an image of a serpent in order to cure the Israelites from deadly bites of poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9).  This was a miracle-working image (mirroring the image of the snakes) which prefigured Christ being lifted up on the Cross, who thereby conquered death.   As believers behold the crucified Christ in faith, the power of sin and death is overthrown in them, my study bible says.  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. 

If we think we see a strange mirroring at times in the Gospels, we need to look beyond the mirror to understand the divine reality that is at work in the Incarnation.  The power in this mirror is divine power.  That is, Christ was God Incarnate in the image of a human being, for the precise purpose that to enter into our earthly lives was to heal through that divine power.   Christ is a "mirror image" of us, but with an essential twist that changes the entire story of our lives.  He enters into our life as one of us to heal, to transcend, to transform, and to take us with Him on that journey.  It is the same with the image of the snake which was given to Moses by God, so that Israel could be saved from the poisonous bites of the serpents.  It is a "mirror image," but with a twist.  It came about through the divine help and instruction of God, so that it would intervene in the earthly affairs of the people, and heal and transform through their faith.  It's important that Christ stresses the act of "lifting up" because that is another mirror image, so to speak, given to us in the text.  The people had to look up to focus on the image of the serpent which Moses was taught to make, and we must also look up to behold Christ on the Cross, so that His ignominious and torturous death would transform and defeat death by Christ's divine presence dwelling as one of us and experiencing this earthly life right down and through the worst of it.  But there's another mirror image at work in the words "born again," as those words mean, in the Greek, to be born "from above."  So Holy Baptism is a form of being lifted up for our birth, looking up to heaven in order to be reborn, a mingling of the divine and earthly at work.  The key in the mirror image is precisely that it includes the divine in deep and full participation in our earthly life that transforms and heals, gives us cause to "look up" and be lifted up with Christ in virtually everything we might experience in our lives.  To be reborn in Spirit, and to experience the historical sacraments of the Church, is to experience the elements of earthly life in which the divine also comes to participate  -- to dwell in and thereby to transform and uplift us with it.  When Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about "earthly things" He speaks of an earthly life offered to us, in which the divine comes to participate with us and for us.  When we think of the spiritual -- in the context of Christian faith -- it must be with a sense of unification, of enlivening the body and the earthly, and not a separation.  Christ came into the world to unify us to Him, and everything in our faith is about deepening that communion and healing the split between Creator and creature.  Let us remember that in the Christian life, a mirror exists to heal and transform via participation of the divine which transfigures everything in which it may come to rest; in Christ's image He gives in today's reading, it's like the wind blowing where it wishes.   We join to that vivifying breath of Spirit through our faith and sacraments, as we invite the divine into our lives through prayer. 




Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said to this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said


 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 to this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.
 
- John 2:13–22 
 
In yesterday's reading, we were given the sixth and seventh days of Jesus' ministry:   On the sixth day given in John's Gospel, there was a wedding in Cana of Galiliee, 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 (on the seventh day in John's Gospel) 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."   What is remarkable about this passage is that in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke this episode appears at the end of Christ's ministry, at the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Christ's earthly life.  But John places it squarely at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.  There are some patristic writers who teach that Christ, in fact, performed this act twice.   Also, this is the first of three Passover festivals that Jesus attends according to John's Gospel.  To explain this event, we need to understand that those who sold oxen and sheep and doves were trading in live animals which were to be used for sacrifices.  The money changers doing business were trading Roman coins for Jewish coins.  Roman coins, bearing the image of Caesar, we considered to be defiling in the temple.   My study bible adds that the cleansing of the temple also points to the necessity that the Church be kept free from earthly pursuits.  As each person is considered to be a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19), it's also a sign that our hearts and minds must be cleansed of earthly matters.  The disciples remembered Psalm 69:9:  "Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me."  

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 to this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.  In this section of today's reading, we should understand that the term Jews, as used in John's Gospel, frequently is meant to refer specifically to the religious leaders.  In this case it refers to the chief priests and the elders (see Matthew 21:23).  Since Jesus is not a Levitical priest, His authority to cleanse the temple is being challenged by the religious leaders.  My study bible comments that as Christ is careful not to reveal Himself to scoffers, He answers in a hidden way.  The ultimate sign given to the people will be His death and Resurrection. 

Let us first take note in today's reading of the several references to Scripture that we find.  There is first of all the quotation taken from Psalm 69:9:  "Zeal for your house has eaten me up."   This gives us an important flavor or hint about how Scripture works.  There is no time limit on it, and neither is it specifically limited to one set of experiences or another.  In other words, there are timeless truths to be found in it.  Moreover, so much of Scripture is prophetic that is not necessarily immediately understood as such.  When we read the psalms, we can frequently find ourselves in the psalm.  That is, so often in a normal course of systematic reading of the book of Psalms, we will find that the psalms are speaking for us.  It is as if the author of the Psalms has been through experiences that somehow prefigure our own, and in that moment we find the psalm expressing better than we can what we are going through, and framing it within our moment of faith, be it a crisis or an exaltation of joy in our love for God.  We cannot take Scripture outside of this role, for to do so is to miss the greatest substance of the text, and what distinguishes Scripture from all other types of literature.  There are modern voices that seem to clamour to do this (to limit each piece of literature to the specific time in which it was produced) but that is indeed a grave mistake, and outside of the tradition of the use of Scripture for thousands of years.  I would bet on tradition every time.  It is the Gospels themselves that teach us to understand and use Scripture in this way, given that so frequently Jesus Himself refers to the Old Testament Scripture and Himself as fulfillment of that Scripture.  Here in this particular reference, it is His disciples who later recognize in Scripture what was happening with their Lord in the temple.  And so may we come to recognize ourselves in what we read, and especially in the book of Psalms.  Next we find that Jesus has given a strange and mysterious saying to the religious leadership when questioned as to His authority to cleanse the temple.  He says, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  Jesus' own word requires of us -- as it did of the disciples then -- a mysterious kind of understanding within the image He gives.  Only later do they understand the fulfillment of this saying in Christ's Resurrection, and that He is referring to the temple of His body.  John adds:  Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said to this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.   It's a little bit mysterious as to which "Scripture" John is referring, but it is clearly put together with "the word which Jesus had said."  No doubt there are several passages in Scripture which are seen as pointing to Christ's Resurrection.  St. Paul affirms the same thought when he writes that Jesus "was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures"  (1 Corinthians 15:4).  We say the same when we recite the Nicene Creed, and that "the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures."  When we are moved by Scripture, when we are moved by the words of Jesus in His teachings, in His parables, and in His discourses such as the final word to the disciples at the Last Supper which John gives us in this Gospel (John 14 - 16), we might hear words that move and comfort us in any time of need and inspiration.   In the Armenian Apostolic Church tradition, all of Scripture is called "the Breath of God."  In this title we recognize that all of it is the Word, the work of the Holy Spirit, just as in this Scripture in today's reading both "the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said" are fittingly juxtaposed together.    All of it is a timeless gift.  We should accept just as it has been given to us, and continue to find its meanings as has always been done.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Whatever He says to you, do it

 
Icon of Mary titled "Unfading Rose" (Ρόδον τό Ἀμάραντον).  Christ is the Unfading Rose to whom Mary gave birth.  The Akathist hymn to Mary declares, "Rejoice, O thou who alone hast blossomed forth the unfading Rose"

 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galiliee, 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.
 
- John 2:1–12 
 
On Saturday, we were given the fourth day of Jesus' ministry:   Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, "Follow Me."   Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote -- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."  And Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Philip said to him, "Come and see."  Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"  Nathanael said to Him, "How do You know me?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  Nathanael answered and said to Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  Nathanael answered and said to Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe?  You will see greater things than these."  And He said to him, "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."
 
  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galiliee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding.   My study bible explains that the setting of the wedding in Cana is significant.  In the Old Testament, marriage feasts symbolized the union of God with God's Bride, Israel.  Jesus begins His ministry at Galilee, which had a large Gentile population.  My study bible says that this was a sign of the spread of the gospel to al the world.  That the wedding takes place on the third day gives a resurrectional flavor; it shows that the marriage of God and God's Church will be fulfilled in the Resurrection of Christ.  There are also other parallels between this marriage account and the story of the Resurrection in John 20:1-18:  both involve a woman named Mary who makes an appeal, and in both passages the disciples are invited to witness the event.  Moreover, the John's Resurrection account (John 20:11-18) has a strong similarity to Song of Solomon 3:1-5, again giving us a unity between marriage and Christ's Resurrection.   Let us note also that on Saturday, we were given the fourth day of Jesus' ministry, but here this wedding takes place on the sixth day.  On the third day is an expression which is inclusive of the current day in its calculation:  therefore this is actually two days after the "fourth day."  This wedding in Cana parallels the creation of man and woman on the sixth day in Genesis 1:26-31.  By Christ's presence at this wedding, He declares marriage to be holy and honorable (Hebrews 13:4).  In the Orthodox tradition, this passage is read at weddings, and images from it are incorporated into many prayers in the wedding service

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."  My study bible says that this is an example of Mary's gift of intercession.  Even now, it says, Mary continually speaks to her Son on our behalf and is our preeminent intercessor before Christ's Throne.  An Orthodox prayer states, "The intercessions of a mother have great effect to win the favor of the Master."  This is confirmed as Jesus grants her request here.   It also should be noted that wine is symbolic of life, therefore there are two levels of meaning to Mary's statement, when she informs Jesus, "They have no wine."    First, a marriage isn't complete without Christ's presence, and second, the old covenant was unable to bestow life even on the most faithful people.  Regarding Jesus' use of the term Woman for His mother, my study bible says that "Woman" is a sacred title in Scripture in contrast to some modern uses.  In Scripture it conveys deep respect and distinction (see John 4:21, 8:10, 19:26, 20:13; compare to Genesis 2:23).  Jesus' question to Mary, What does your concern have to do with Me? is important to ponder.  In Greek it reads more literally, "What is that to Me and to you?"   My study bible says that it is not a refusal of Mary's intercession but rather a declaration by Jesus that the time has not yet come for Him to be revealed -- as via an extraordinary sign.  Let us note Mary's confident reply to the servants.
 
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.    My study bible comments that waterpots were made of stone because, in accordance with rabbinical teaching, stone would not contract ritual impurity.  That there are six (that is, one less than the perfect seven) is an indication that the Law, illustrated by water being reserved for Jewish purification, was incomplete, imperfect, and unable to bestow life.  This water is changed into wine, which symbolizes the old covenant being fulfilled in the new, which is capable of bestowing life.  The overabundant gallons of wine is an illustration of the overflowing grace granted by Christ to all.  That Jesus chooses to fulfill Mary's request teaches us several things.  First, Christ is Lord over hours and seasons, and is not subject to them.  Second, the wedding party needed to be aware of their lack of wine first so they might learn that it is Christ who fulfills all needs.  Third, we need to have perseverance in our petitions before God (Matthew 15:21-28).  Finally, that the intercessions of the righteous have great power (James 5:16).  

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!"   According to patristic commentary, the transformation of water that was made wine is a prefiguration of the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  

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.  The wedding in Cana of Galilee is the setting for the first of seven signs which are performed by Jesus in the Gospel of John.  John's Gospel uses the term "signs" to show that these miraculous actions point beyond themselves to the truth that the Kingdom of God has come among us in the Person of Jesus.  As John writes, they manifested His glory.  The seven signs are (1) changing water into wine (John 2:1-11, in today's reading), (2) curing the nobleman's sons (John 4:46-54), (3) healing the paralytic (John 5:1-15), (4) feeding the five thousand (John 6:1-14), (5) walking on water (John 6:15-21), (6) opening the eyes of a blind man (John 9:1-41), and (7) raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44).   Here in these verses we are given the seventh day of this first week of Christ's ministry, in which Jesus rests at Capernaum with His mother, His brothers, and His disciples.  It is a parallel to God resting on the seventh day in Genesis 2:1-3.

We can consider the ways in which this miracle or sign in John's Gospel is highly significant, but one of them that we can't leave out is simply the presence of Mary, the Mother of God, and the role she plays in bringing about this first sign of turning water into wine.  It seems to tell us a number of things about her and about the role she plays in the work of salvation, in the life of Jesus Christ.  She is not just His mother, not just a woman who gave birth, as if all God needed was some random woman to place God's Son into the world as a human being, both fully divine and fully human.   No, Mary plays an important role, and she played that role in the life of the author of this Gospel, John the Evangelist, as he testifies in chapter 19 of this Gospel.  John writes, "Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!”  Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home"  (John 19:25-27).    As it was common for writers not to give their own names, many patristic commentators throughout the centuries have held that this disciple whom Jesus loved is John, the purported author of the Gospel, and this is the tradition of the Church.  So important is this commission of the care of Mary that the very next verse tells us, "After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, 'I thirst!' " (John 19:28).  This final and last task of Christ's human life, the care of His mother, is significant enough to be reported to us by John, and notable in its declaration that Mary had but one Child, Jesus (otherwise this assignment to John's care would have been unthinkable).   This is all significant information in terms of what we can assume to be John's closeness and familiarity with Mary, and thereby also her place in this story.  As the mother of Christ, she is the one who kept the secrets prophesied about him.  Twice in Luke's Gospel, we are told that Mary was witness to the marvelous things revealed about her child, and that she "kept all these things in her heart" (see verses 19 and 51 in Luke chapter 2).  There is no other human being who knew Jesus as did His mother in this sense, and from this we must conclude that she is a special human being indeed, and chosen by God to be His mother for important reasons.  Her character was such that she stood by Him all through His life (despite the difficulties His ministry no doubt presented; see Mark 3:21, 31-32).  Her faith on display here in today's reading is a part of that confidence in Him and His mission and identity in the world.  As such, Mary stands out among all the saints and Christ's followers as one who displays an unshakeable faith for us all to behold and emulate and understand.  Moreover, since it is this first revelation of His glory that she sparks through her plea -- which we might read as a prayer -- then Mary also provides the model for us all in terms of prayer and intercession.  It is Mary who intercedes through prayer on behalf of this wedding party, when she knowingly tells Jesus, "They have no wine."  So she shows herself not only as a model of prayer for each of us, for we all have the power to act as intercessors on others' behalf through prayer, but she also reveals her power to intercede on our behalf.  Mary is part of what St. Paul calls the "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1-3).  That is, those who live to God (Luke 20:37-38), who dwell in a place of the eternal present, and upon whom we also may call for prayer in the same way that you or I may pray for one another or call upon any other believer in Christ to pray for and with us.  This is the great role Mary has played in the Church for centuries, as intercessor and fellow pray-er with each one and all who call upon her.  It is why there are so many varied icons of Mary in the Orthodox tradition, and this testifies not just to a theoretical understanding of the role of saints, but to centuries of countless stories of experience for individual believers and their own acts and intercessions with Mary in prayer.  Atop all of these considerations, there is one more story to understand about this interaction between Mary and her Son.  In the Greek, when Jesus says, "What does your concern have to do with Me?" it is a precise quotation from an Old Testament story in the Septuagint Version.  In fact, when the Gospels quote from the Old Testament, as a rule of thumb it is from the Septuagint Version.  In this case, it is from the story of Zarabeth and Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-18.  Zarabeth's son has passed after she helped Elijah.  In the New King James Version in English, she asks, "What have I to do with you, O man of God? Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?"  But in the Greek Septuagint, her words are literally the same as Jesus' when He asks this question to Mary, which we could loosely translate as "What is that to me and to you?"  In effect, Jesus is quoting this passage back to His mother, reminding her that once He is revealed -- that is, once this process of signs revealing His glory begins -- there will be no turning back.  It is the prophesied sword that would pierce her own soul He is reminding her and warning her about -- the she is the mother who will lose her Son.  See Simeon's prophecy to Mary in Luke 2:34-35.  There is a tremendous depth and sympathy of mother and Son revealed here if we but look at it with proper eyes tuned to understanding the Scripture as it is laid out for us.  Mary, in this light, is a very special woman indeed.  To the Church, she has always remained the greatest saint.  As fully human, Mary is the one who kept her faith intact throughout the trial and difficulties of her Son's life and ministry.  Here she initiates the first sign given by John, and we might add the possibility that it is her loving Son who makes certain that she is ready for what is to come.  She is, effectively, a model not just for our prayer but also for a depth of communion with Christ.  We can but aspire to build and grow in such a life for ourselves, and through prayer as she models.  Let us turn to her when our own prayer lives need help, for she is at once kind, gentle, and strong.  She is also known -- as is her Son -- as the one who turns no one away.  We are left to ponder how much of her human nature was given to her Son, how much of His tremendous compassion, mercy, and forbearance also existed in His mother, in addition to His divine nature.  It would become a central question of the early Church to understand that His mind and soul were human, just as was His flesh.  And so, we also have Mary to look to in the shaping of these components of Christ's human nature.  Let us seek her out, for she plays a role far beyond that of being a human chosen for her capacity to be a mother.  In the Eastern Church, she is titled the Mother of God or "God-Bearer" for a reason far beyond the physical act of bearing a Child.  None of us should forget that bearing a child, or being a mother in any capacity, is a sacred role, and so much depends on how this role is filled.  We diminish women and the body when we make it anything less.  Mary as faithful still directs us all to the word of Christ as she tells the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it."


 
 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

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

 

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century.  St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

 The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, "Follow Me."   Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote -- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."  And Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Philip said to him, "Come and see."  Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"  Nathanael said to Him, "How do You know me?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  Nathanael answered and said to Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  Nathanael answered and said to Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe?  You will see greater things than these."  And He said to him, "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 1:43–51 
 
In yesterday's reading, we were given the third day of Jesus' ministry in John's Gospel:  John the Baptist stood with two of his disciples.  And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, "Behold the Lamb of God!"  The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.  Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, "What do you seek?"  They said to Him, "Rabbi" (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), "where are You staying?"  He said to them, "Come and see."  They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour).  One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.  He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated, the Christ).  And he brought him to Jesus.  Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, "You are Simon the son of Jonah.  You shall be called Cephas" (which is translated, A Stone).
 
 The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, "Follow Me."   Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote -- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."  And Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Philip said to him, "Come and see."  Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"  Jesus has already taken on three disciples:  one, unnamed, and considered by many to be John the Evangelist, author of this Gospel; and also Andrew and his brother Peter.  All were first disciples of John the Baptist, who introduced them to Jesus as the Lamb of God (see yesterday's reading, above).   The text tells us that Andrew and Peter were from Bethsaida, in Galilee.  Jesus was also raised in Galilee, in the town of Nazareth, although born in Bethlehem in Judea.  We aren't told how exactly, but Jesus found Philip first and called him to discipleship, saying, "Follow Me."  Then Philip found Nathanael, who is also known to us as Bartholomew.  Nathanael's question most likely comes as the town of Nazareth was not known in prophecy as one which would produce any great prophet or holy man, and certainly not the Messiah.  My study bible says that no deceit means both having a pure heart and being straightforward with others.  

Nathanael said to Him, "How do You know me?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  Nathanael answered and said to Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."  Nathanael answered and said to Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe?  You will see greater things than these."  My study bible comments that what exactly occurred under the fig tree isn't stated here.  According to St. John Chrysostom, this was the meeting place of Philip and Nathanael (see earlier verses in today's reading, above) -- and Jesus was praising Nathanael for being diligent and careful in his search for the Messiah.  It says that Christ's foreknowledge and His ability to see into Nathanael's heart stir Nathanael into his confession of faith that Jesus is the Son of God and King of Israel.  On this fourth day given in John's Gospel, Jesus calls Philip and Nathanael, my study bible explains, who see Christ as the true Light, the One who was revealed in the Old Testament, a lesser light.  This parallels the establishment of the lesser and greater lights which governed the night and day respectively on the fourth day in Genesis 1:14-19.

And He said to him, "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."   Here Jesus uses the title Son of Man for Himself.  My study bible says that this is a title of the Messiah, but one that had a level of mystery in its meaning.  It indicates a person of heavenly origin who would usher in the Kingdom of God (Daniel 7:13-14).  Jesus' words give us an image of an Old Testament prophecy, in which Jacob dreamed of a ladder which connected earth and heaven, upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending (Genesis 28:12-15).  Jesus effectively declares Himself to be this "ladder," who unites earth to heaven, and is therefore the Son of Man.

A famous saint of the Orthodox Church is called St. John Climacus (579-649).  "Climacus" essentially means "of the Ladder," and what he is known for is a system of ascetics in which one is given to understand that this Ladder which is Christ is also a model of ascent, in which a human being may become more "like Christ" in developing virtues and conquering selfish passions.  One Sunday in Lent is dedicated to his memory in the Orthodox Church.  His most famous work on ascetical life, read by monastics as well as lay people, is called The Ladder of Divine Ascent.   It is significant that Jesus refers to Himself as this Ladder in today's reading, in that the developments within the Church that would follow in later centuries broaden out and reveal more of what it means that Christ Himself is our Ladder.  Essentially, it is one way in which we might understand the continual unfolding of Jesus as fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets as our guidepost for a lifetime of faith in which we do not remain stagnant, but proceed to be healed and shaped in the light and life of Christ.  And so, we begin today with Christ prophecy for Nathanael, that if he were already impressed with what he'd seen, he would presently "see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."  Just as in keeping with St. John Climacus' understanding of Christ as the Ladder of ascent for each one of us believers, as human beings who seek to live the life in Christ that He offers, so the title Son of Man conveys the idea of the Incarnation that encapsulates the very purpose of Christ as Messiah, sometimes called the "God-Man."  St. Athanasius (c. 296 – 2 May 373), among others, has taught that whatever was not assumed by Christ would not have been healed.  Therefore, Christ became Son of Man, fully human and fully divine, so that all that we are as human beings might also be healed through His full participation in humanity.  Our participation in His life through the mystical power of grace and faith in turn heal us.   This is how we are to understand that Christ is the Ladder for us.  Nathanael proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel because he perceives that Jesus has peered into his soul, just as we read in yesterday's reading that Jesus declared Simon to be Peter or Cephas, A Stone, the foundation of the Church.  Nathanael is declared to have no deceit, quite possibly in direct relation to Nathanael's question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Nathanael, through possibly plain-speaking and an unwillingness to flatter, coupled with a direct honesty, has revealed about himself that he seeks to cheat no one.  In American popular culture, there is an old saying:  "You can't cheat an honest man."  It implies that there has be at least a little deceit at work in someone who falls for a sales pitch that is too good to be true, a person who thinks they can get something for nothing.  Well, Nathanael shows himself to be this kind of honest man; he's not going to follow just anyone who tells him about a great find.  He's got to "come and see" for himself.  It is when Nathanael realizes that Christ already fully knows him that he declares Christ to be Son of God and King of Israel.  But Jesus will take him much further in that understanding, offering him the great revelation that He is Son of Man, and Ladder, coming into the world so that we all might be healed through His life.  We all would do well to take on the attitude of Nathanael with respect to his lack of all deceit, for it is an honest heart, without pretense or guile, that has met the conditions for faith in Christ, and to be led along on this Ladder, who will be able to see heaven open, and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.  That is something to contemplate in a world beset by image and popular media, in which we so often fail to truly peer at ourselves.  We need Christ as our mirror, guidepost, and ladder to do that, so that we might be healed without deceit of others, or our own, getting in the way.