Lent is coming! In preparation for it, the Orthodox Church gradually enters into the season (we don’t dive directly into the deep end!). We prepare with three Sundays whose themes ready our hearts and minds for Lent. The Church’s first pre-Lenten Sunday examines Jesus’ parable about the Publican (or tax collector) and the Pharisee. The gospel text comes from St. Luke 18: 9 – 14:
Now he spoke this parable towards those who consider themselves to be righteous and despise others. “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or like this tax collector. I fast two times a week, and I tithe from all that I acquire.’ But the tax collector stood afar. He did not wish to lift his eyes up to heaven, but he beat his chest saying, ‘Have mercy on me a sinner!’ I say to you, this man went down to his home having been justified rather than the other one, because every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted!”
January 6 marks the Feast of Theophany for the Orthodox Church. Theophany commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist. The Third Antiphon of the feast proclaims the day’s theology:
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, and called Thee his beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.
The following day focuses on the holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. Such a day is called a Synaxis — the Church gathers together to commemorate the the feast’s “supporting actor(s). In his gospel, St. Mark writes of St. John’s purpose and ministry:
Behold, I will send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way: a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John was baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark: 1 – 4).
Within the salvific model of Christus Victor there is the wonderful aspect of recapitulation. I have written several postings about Recapitulation and refer to it frequently. We have a New Testament declaration of this subject. It is found in St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:
Having declared to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he intended for him [Christ], for the purpose of the fulness of time: to gather together all things in Christ, those things in the heavens, and those things on earth (Eph 1: 9 – 10).
St. Paul is declaring that all that was lost and scattered into the exile of sin, death, darkness, and alienation by Adam’s disobedience and capitulation has been gathered together into relationship, light, life, and holiness in Christ. All that is of creation — all that is imaginable — from the smallest subatomic particle to the most bizarre, remote and distant extraterrestrial thing is gathered together, and contained within, the God-man, Jesus Christ: this is Recapitulation. St. Paul writes again of Recapitulation in his epistle to the Colossians:
He is before all things, and in him [Christ] all things stand in proper order…Because in him [Christ] all the fulness [pan to pleroma] was pleased to dwell. And through him to reconcile all things to him, making peace through the blood of his cross, whether those things upon the earth, or those things in the heavens (Col 1: 17, 19 – 20).
November 5, 2017 marks the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. This Sunday I have the blessing and joy to serve Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Spokane, Washington. This wonderful parish is pastored by Fr. Andrew Welzig, who was away to California to attend a wedding. The epistle reading comes from Galatians 6: 11 – 18. I emphasize two verses,
May it not be for me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through which the world was crucified to me and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor is uncircumsion, but only a new creation (Gal 6: 14 – 15).
St. Paul is dead to the world system, and the world system is dead to him. He knows of a new reality, a new existence, and he knows of a new creation. He knows of a new life of which is has life — life in Christ, and Christ alive in him. We read from Galatians 2: 20, “I was co-crucified with Christ: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” St. Paul’s natural life is no more. He is a new man, a new creature, who now is alive to Christ who imparts his life to him, and exists within him.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” is my favorite song by Simon and Garfunkel. It was one of their final songs as a duo being recorded in late 1969. Its origin comes from Art Garfunkel’s departure from New York to Mexico to film “Catch 22” (“Tom, get your plane ride on time / I know your part’ll go fine / Fly down to Mexico…”). It is a great acoustic guitar song, with wonderful melody and lush vocals. The song’s bridge in its final presentation is fantastic fun to play, but it’s the lyrics of the bridge that win my attention:
“Half of the time we’re gone / But we don’t know where / And we don’t know where.”
The Tower of London. It has quite a name. It is quite a place. From it you see the London Bridge and the Thames and a great deal of modern, bustling London. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tourist destination. However, its name for most denotes imprisonment, pain, and death. That was not its initial purpose. It was built to show the wealth and power of William the Conquerer. In actuality, few met their deaths within its walls, but it did serve as a prison and a very dark place for many. Among those imprisoned and tortured in the Tower was St. Henry Walpole.
Within the salvific model of Christus Victor there is the wonderful concept, or better, aspect of recapitulation. Since this posting is part three of a primer of Christus Victor, let me move immediately to the New Testament, specifically St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:
Having declared to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he intended for him [Christ], for the purpose of the fulness of time: to gather together all things [anakephalaiosasthai ta panta] in Christ, those things in the heavens, and those things on earth (Eph 1: 9 – 10).
A REVERSAL OF MISFORTUNES (STEP BY STEP)
STEP ONE: We must have a different spiritual being who approaches the woman — one who is holy and truthful. The following New Testament passages come from St. Luke’s Gospel:
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee by the name of Nazareth towards a virgin having been betrothed to a man by the name of Joseph from the House of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary. And upon approaching her he said, “Greetings, one-having-been-graced, the Lord is with you (Luke 1: 26 – 28).
Gabriel, unlike the serpent of old, does not deceive. He clearly declares his message:
And the angel said to her, “Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, for you shall conceive, and the Son born of you will name Jesus. He shall be great and be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord God shall give to him the throne of his father David. And he shall rule over the House of David forever and his Kingdom shall not end (Luke 1: 30 – 33).
Cur Deus Homo? , or, “why did God become man?” This is the historic question asked by Anselm of Canterbury. In answering this question, he set forth the typical western, and has arguably become the dominant Protestant, view of salvation. By extension, his answer puts forward the typical (again dominant Protestant) view of salvation — substitutionary atonement. Here, God the Son became human to satisfy the Father’s just demand for satisfaction for humanity’s rebellion against his will. God the Father pours out his wrath against humanity on his Son — Jesus dies a horrid death and the Father is satisfied. From this humanity’s sin debt is paid by Christ, and we are in a legal right standing with God the Father — we have peace with God. To the Eastern Church, this is foreign, and somewhat repulsive. As a historic, and ancient, alternative the Eastern Church puts forth the model of salvation known as Christus Victor. A primer is set forth in the following postings.
The Sixth Sunday of Pascha gives to the Church the account of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind. In this Sunday’s gospel reading (John 9: 1 – 38), Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind. The disciples ask Jesus who sinned that he was born blind. Was it the parents or the man? Jesus answers, “Neither this one nor his parents sinned.” Our Lord gives the ultimate answer: “[He was born blind] in order that the works of God might be manifested in him” (John 9: 3). This is an astounding answer, and it should speak volumes to us as we move through the difficulties of our lives.
We have asked this question, “Why me? Why did this happen to me?” We have heard others ask the question as well. The common, unthinking — usually unspoken — answer is “I don’t know.” But, it reveals more of the person when an addendum is added to the question: “Why didn’t this happen to someone else?” To this question the answer is, “To whom would you have this happen? To whom would you wish your misfortune?” No one wants difficulties, hardships, misfortunes, or suffering. But, though unwanted, they come our way and mess up our happy lives. Thus, when the question is asked, “Why me?”, let our answer be, “In order that the work of God might be manifested in me!” When we give this answer, we answer in faith. Further, we bring to life St. Paul’s teaching: “Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5: 16 – 18). With this answer and purpose in mind, I wish to offer this understanding of this day’s gospel.
Prior to today’s theme, we have read of the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection: the apostle St. Thomas, and then the myrrh bearing women. These two Sundays’ themes declare to us the fact of the resurrection. Today’s theme is quite different: we are asked to confront the weaknesses and sins which remain in our lives in light of our Lord’s resurrection. This day, we return to a lenten-like consciousness to bring our lives in line with Christ’s light and life.
The gospel reading comes from John 5: 1 – 15. We have a description of the Sheep Pool in Jerusalem, and we are informed the pool was surrounded by the ill, the blind, the paralyzed, and the crippled. They all waited for the pool’s water to be “disturbed” by an angel: the first one in upon the disturbance was cured. Among those near the pool was a paralytic who “was ill for 38 years.” Jesus approaches the man (whose name is not given) and asks him: “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5: 6). This man then explains his dilemma: “I have no man that could cast me into the pool when the water is disturbed. While I am going another descends into the pool before me” (John 5: 7). Jesus then acts to heal him apart from the pool’s water. “Jesus says to him, ‘arise, take up you mat and walk.’ And immediately the man became healed and took up his mat and walked” (John 5: 8 – 9).
The Agape Vespers, which close the first day of the Feast of Feasts, put forward the Gospel reading of John 20: 19 – 25. In this passage, Jesus appears to the disciples in his glorified body. He commissions them as his apostles, exhales the Holy Spirit to them, and then is gone. Thomas was absent. Upon his return the others declare to him their experience, and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. But, Thomas doubts: “Unless I cast my finger into the nail wholes in his hands, and cast my hand into his side [wound from the roman’s spear], I shall not believe” (John 20: 25). His doubts will last only another week:
And after eight days his disciples were inside and Thomas was with them. While the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace to you.” Then he says to Thomas, “Place your finger here and behold my hands and cast you hand into my side, and do not be faithless, but faithful!” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 26 – 28).
Joy, gratitude (or thankfulness), and trust are attitudes of faith. These are not optional, but are essential. By the exercise of these attitudes, they are strengthened within our lives and become attributes. By such exercise, faith is increased in our lives. The exercise of these attitudes also leads to deeper prayer, charity, and discipline, and other virtues of our faith. Psalm 15, according to the Septuagint accounting of the Psalms, Psalm 16 by the Masoretic accounting (common in western traditions), is an inspired declaration of joy, gratitude and trust.
When the Church comes to Forgiveness Sunday, she is at the very threshold of Lent. Lent begins the next day, and we then walk in its themes, hymns, and preparations for the coming glorious day of Pascha. During the weeks of Lent, we are not to be grumbling about its disciplines. Even more, we are not to be gloomy and downcast. No, we are to engage Lent with a joyful, thankful energy. Why? Because we are to engage these weeks working with the Holy Spirit that we might be revived spiritually.
The Sunday of the Prodigal Son is the second pre-Lenten Sunday. The gospel reading for the day, is of course, from St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable. This parable is well known — even among those who embrace secularism and have never heard from, or read from, the Scriptures.
As we all know, a father’s youngest, selfish, and ungrateful son shockingly asks his father for his portion of his inheritance while his father is still alive. The father agrees and gives it to this son. The son of course leaves for a distant country where he squanders his wealth in immoral living. He comes to poverty, and a famine hits this land. He is forced to the despicable role of tending swine. He awakens to his condition and repents. He plans to return to his father, family, and home, but as a hireling — he is no longer worthy of sonship. His rehearsed confession before his father is composed, “I have sinned before heaven, and before you!” He journeys home in shame. However, his father graciously embraces his repentant son. The son is clothed, welcomed, and feasted back into the company of the family — as a son! All is forgiven, and all is restored!
A passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews regarding Jesus Christ as our High Priest reads,
For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself (Heb 7: 26 — 27).
The phrase in the above text of interest is “once for all” coming from the Greek word ephapax. This word has brought about a good deal of argument from Protestants. Let me make it clear: it is not the Eastern Orthodox position, nor Roman Catholic position, that the bloodless sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy (or the Latin Mass) is a re-offering of Christ. In other words Christ is NOT sacrificed again, as far too many ill-informed Protestants teach about our understanding of this sacrament. No, the sacrifice of Christ was done once, and done for all! It is very clear in the Orthodox Church’s prayers found in the anaphora and elsewhere in the Eucharistic prayers, that the offering of the Eucharist is a thanksgiving offering, reasonable, and bloodless. The prayers of the Eucharist make this very clear — Christ’s once for all sacrifice is RE-presented to us by the Eucharist!
When Christmas is about two weeks away the Church commemorates the ancestors of Christ. On this Sunday Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and many other men and women are remembered and honored. All were flawed, but all proved, in the end, to be faithful. One by one their lives of faith in the flesh led to the birth of Christ who took flesh from their daughter, Mary. Here in their numbers we find a family. This lineage begins with Abraham and Sarah, expands into multitudes, and then is compressed to one young virgin from whom the One prophesied about takes flesh. From him we have another expansion into the multitudes of all who have faith in Jesus Christ. In our numbers we, too, are incorporated by adoption into this family of faith.
The scriptural readings for the 17th day after Pentecost are 2 Corinthians 6: 16 – 7:1, and the St. Luke 8: 5 -15, or the epistle and gospel respectively. From the epistle we read St. Paul’s words which he, in part, takes from both the Law and Prophets:
For you are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I shall indwell and walk among them, I shall be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor 6: 16).
Thus, the Triune God desires relationship with humanity. The Creator desires communion with his creatures. St. Paul is in agreement with St. John’s recording of Jesus’ words found in his High Priestly Prayer: “in order that all might be one, just as you, Father are in me and I in you, in order that even they might be in us…” (John 17: 21). Our salvation is not simply a juridical reality — a legal absolving of guilt. Christian salvation is a relational union with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then, Jesus speaks of this union with himself by the Eucharist: “The one who is eating my flesh and drinking my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6: 56).