It is always particularly interesting to me when the Gospel reading has Jesus issuing some command, and today’s very short Gospel lesson has a number of interesting features.  In fact, it covers a somewhat famous event, but I think that there is some deeper meaning than that understanding with which I grew up.  So, let’s take a minute and read over the passage from St. Mark VII:30-34:

And he charged them that they should tell no man of him. And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the presbyters, and the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he spoke that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about, and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men. And when he had called the people [to him] with his disciples also, he said to them, Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

This follows directly from yesterday’s reading, where Christ heals the blind man by spitting on his eyes.  This is one of those curious passages where Jesus strictly charges both the man he healed, and those who witnessed the healing, to say nothing about it.  Of course, the scriptures tell us in many places that often, these commands were not heeded.  But what is more curious, to me at least, is that He here goes immediately into teaching about His death and resurrection.  Almost as if there were a causal connexion.

Which, of course, there is.

As in the parable about the man who owned a vineyard, and improved it, and let it out to tenants who beat and stoned his servants, and finally conspired to murder his heir and take his inheritance, here we see that the chief men of Israel (the presbyters, chief priests, and scribes) reject Jesus for the very reason that He came to those who were lowly and in need, and rejected the way of temporal power.  He was not the sort of Messias they had been expecting; and it seems from the reading here today, His teaching on this matter was not what Peter–who, let us remember, was the first to confess Him as God–had been expecting either.

How often it is that I am like Peter.  I know that He is God, but rather than bring that understanding the the fore and interpret everything that I see through that one truth, I more often than not ‘savorest the things that are of men.’ I was raised in a tradition where that is what prayer was: asking God to do things for you.  Old habits die hard–especially when one is unwilling to crucify ones self upon one’s cross.  And yet, that is precisely how today’s teaching ends, with Jesus telling all of us “Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John tells us that after He told the people that they could not be saved unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood, many left Him because of this hard teaching.  Times like this morning, I feel far more wretched than they, because I believe that at the Eucharist I partake of His very Body and His very Blood, but I imagine myself to be greater than my Master.  “He was crucified for me” takes on a dangerous meaning in the minds of many; yes, He was crucified for each of us, to destroy Death in His flesh and make an end of the Law of Sin and Death…but He was not crucified so that we do not have to suffer our own cross, following Him and His example.  Today’s Gospel clearly teaches that this worldly understanding that “Christ did it for me” is of the things of men–and of Satan.  And if St. Peter, who was the first to confess Him, who saw Him transfigured upon Mt. Tabor, could fall into that trap, then so can any one of us.

May Christ, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief, illumine and enlighten all of us through the coming Feast of His Nativity according to the flesh. Amen.

Dominus vobiscum+

How strange it is that we hardly ever think about Christ’s human family.  We Orthodox acknowledge that He took on flesh for our sake from the Theotokos, and respect her accordingly–but what of her mother? Her father? Her family…which is, in a very real and literally human way, the family of God Himself, chose by Him outside of time?

Today, the Church celebrates the Conception of the Theotokos, and honors her mother, St. Anna, who is the grandmother of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.  Even in contemplating this, it seems strange to me, that God has a grandmother, just as I do.  And if the Theotokos becomes our mother through adoption when we join the Church, being identified with her son and our God, then in some sense, St. Anna becomes our grandmother.  Perhaps that is why she is so faithful to hear and answer the prayers and petitions given her–particularly about healing.

St. Gregory Palamas says this of the ancestors of God, of whom He is descended through His mother:

This is why the Lord God said on that occasion of the rejected ones, “My Spirit shall not abide with these men, for they are flesh.” Although the Virgin, of whom Christ was born according to the flesh, came from Adam’s flesh and seed, yet, because of this flesh had been cleansed in many different ways by the Holy Spirit from the start, she was descended from those who had been chosen from every generation for their excellence. Noah, too, “a just man and perfect in his generation,” as the Scriptures say of him, was found worthy of this election.

Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then Zerubbabel, those in between them and their ancestors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God. By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion.  Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.

And so it is that today, we celebrate the most immediate of the forebears of the Theotokos, her mother, the righteous St. Anna, and her conception by God’s grace and mercy of the Theotokos–for our salvation and the restoration of mankind.

Troparion of St Anna    Tone 4
Today the bonds of barrenness are loosed;/ for God listened to Joachim and Anna./ He promised them – although it was beyond hope -/ that they should bear a divine child./ From this child was born incarnate the Infinite God,/ Who told the Angel to cry to her:/ Rejoice, full of grace; the Lord is with thee.

Kontakion of St Anna    Tone 4
Today creation celebrates Anna’s conception which was effected by God./ For she conceived the Maiden who conceived the Word/ Who is beyond all words.

Orthodoxy and Triumphalism

September 26, 2008

It seems recently that accusations of “triumphalism” have been thrown around pretty wildly. I find it curious that it is being used by (presumably) Orthodox to denigrate other Orthodox, most especially when, on the first Sunday of Great Lent every year, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. If we make our boast in the Lord, or in his Cross, what is the harm in that? Did not the blessed St. Paul do the same?

Perhaps we need to turn our attention to what is meant by triumphalism.

It seems to me that, when I look at accusations of someone being “triumphalistic,” such an accusation normally occurs when one is chiding another about scaring off inquirers. Such people argue that it is unkind, even not Orthodox, to disturb the delicate sensibilities of those inquiring about the Faith, even to the point of not clearly saying what we believe. Don’t mention the ever-Virginity of the Theotokos, don’t mention full immersion baptism, and, whatever you do, don’t say anything about there being only One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—we don’t want to offend people by telling them that they are not part of the Church, as they might “take that the wrong way.” In the approach the anti-triumphalists would take, we would lie to people—either blatantly, or by omission, or by presenting them with long, circuitous explanations that explain nothing—to bring them to the True Faith.

I must say, I most stringently disagree with this approach. There is a god who is the father of lies, but he most certainly is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who became man, who died to set the captives free from Hades, and will return again with glory to judge the living and the dead. The Christian God is the God who is Truth incarnate, and what congress can Truth have with lies? How will you bring someone to the Truth without telling them the truth? If, by refusing to lie to people to “bring them to the Church,” one becomes a triumphalist—by all means, let us all become triumphalists. Better that than a liar.

If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then the gates of hell will prevail over her—and Our Lord is made a liar. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then she is just one more “church” among many, and there is therefore no truth to be found in the world. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, plainly stated, Christianity itself is a lie; and, if that is the case, St. Paul was right, and we are the most wretched of all men.

Often I am told “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” My answer to that is, the purpose of catching flies is to kill them; the Lord did not call us to catch flies, but to become fishers of men. We are to pull them out of the deep water of sin in which they are downing, and give life to them—how can we do that if we are deeper in the water than they? If we do not believe that there is one truth, one cross, one savior, one Lord, and one Church, then what have we to offer anyone that cannot be found elsewhere—and, elsewhere, requires less of people? Vinegar is bitter, yes, and sour tasting; but so, too, is the Truth to those who are accustomed to imbibing lies. Yet, that bitter draught of repentance, indeed, leads to nothing other than the Living Water of Christ Himself.

Are we afraid that the exclusivity of the Church will turn people away? Are we ashamed that the Church is exclusive in her understanding of those who are part of her and those who are not? If so, perhaps it is because we have forgotten that it is not we who exclude them; those outside the Church exclude themselves from her communion. If we were to say to a person “You cannot be part of the Church”—that would be sin. But it is no sin to tell someone “You are not part of the Church,” especially if you do so in the context of telling them how they can become part of the Church. The door is open, the table laid, and all are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb; but those without a wedding garment will be cast out, for many are called, but few are chosen (St. Matthew 22:13-14).

It is no sin to say what the Lord said Himself. This is made plain in the Gospel of St. John, in the sixth chapter; there are hard sayings, and many who followed turned away, because they could not bear them. The servant is not greater than the master, after all. If we would lead men to worship in spirit and in truth, we tell them the truth, the whole truth, about our Faith. We tell them, up front, what we believe. If they cannot receive it, they cannot—and that is not the fault of the Church. All are bidden equally to the feast; those who do not come, or who send excuses, are excluded; others will be brought in, from the highways and hedges.

For this particular sinner, nothing I can imagine is as full of life or joy as this understanding: that God became a man, so that I might become like Him. In return for this great gift, I will do whatever He asks of me, for as long as he gives me the strength to confess Him, and the Truth of His Holy Church, that is what I will do. If that is triumphalistic, so be it.

Pax vobicum+

The Pilgrimage

April 19, 2008

We rounded the turn just as the clouds began to give a soft drizzle, providing a welcome comfort from the hot North Carolina sun. The sun was still shining, most obviously noticeable on the white triple bar cross in the clearing — the harbinger of our arrival to the Panagia Prousiotissa monastery, a treasure of spiritual wealth, where a handful of nuns have been called to work out their salvation…

The Abbess and the nun beneath her welcomed us with the warmest smiles and gentlest eyes I had seen since my childhood. It was no task of obedience for them to greet us warmly, nor was it an act of obligation for them to welcome us as pilgrims to a part of their inner life, they were genuinely happy to see us, we were their joy, and we were their blessing. From the moment we stepped foot onto the grounds, it was as though I found a small paradise, where the earth itself was sanctified, and nature, in all ways, glorified its Creator… from the soft drizzle of rain, the gentle southern wind, the pine trees and the beautiful gardens which the nuns there had labored diligently for — how manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In Wisdom You have created them all.

The moment of arrival in and of itself was worth the trip, but truly, beauty had not even begun to reveal itself.

I bowed my heads humbly to the nuns, honoring them as the angels that they were, and they smiled back to me. The peace and love they seemed to show, and their gentle eyes, seemingly windows into their very souls, haven’t left me to this day. I count it a blessing to know that they remembered me even for a moment in their prayers. They led us all after their warm greetings to a place where they had prepared a wonderful Lenten meal, a pasta with shrimp sauce, some fresh cut fruit, and homemade bread, all served with water. The nuns left us to our meal, whether because they had their own obediences or as was their custom, I could not say. I was blessed to sit next to Father, who told me stories of his own obediences at this very monastery.

He had helped plant many of the flowers that we were now seeing fully bloomed, which was more than a blessing to Father Mark. He asked the nuns, humbly, if he could just put his face in lilacs and smell them. Seeing Father, with his cassock, pectoral cross and hat bury his nose in the lilacs as a warm smile grew across his face is an image that has also stuck with me to this day. Truly it is a blessing from God to find such happiness from such a relatively simple creation. We went into their small bookstore, where they had icons, incense, charcoal, censers, candles, Lenten foods, and other such things ready. I left with a beautiful prayer rope, an icon of St. Elias, of St. Paul the Apostle, and the Transfiguration. The nuns were happy with my choices, telling me that I had picked such beautiful icons.

After we had made our purchases with them, we sat for a small dessert with the nuns, who naturally touched nothing but were eager to serve. This, my friends, is where the most beautiful and striking part happened. It’s hard, even now, to not be visited with joyful tears at the recollection of such a beautiful thing. I won’t share it all, as words cannot rightly do it justice, but I will do my best to recall some of what has stayed with me to this moment.

The nun under the Abbess, who seemed to do a little more of the speaking, welcomed us once more with a smile. To this point, none of them seemed to say very much, but now was the time when their grace-filled mouths would bless us with the edification we came so eagerly seeking.

We spoke of several things…

Father Mark told us of how he began to come to Orthodoxy, and it set the tone for all of what was to come. He is a convert from Roman Catholicism, who, in a nutshell, visited holy places of Russia. He had lapsed from his faith, and went to confess to his priest of the time… and as he recalled this, he said in a soft whisper, “I always loved confession…” tears filled his eyes, as they grew distant, and I knew that he was recalling something of spiritual importance. It wasn’t long after this that he was Orthodox. He went on to tell us of how, visiting places such as those are by no accident, they are not mistakes, nor was it an accident or mistake that we were are Panagia Prousiotissa, but Divine Providence had led us here. I looked at my surroundings as one of the nuns began to speak after him, that “Here at the Panagia’s monastery, she visits us and blesses us in a very special and individual way… many come here and ask us, ‘What is this peace I feel?’ ‘What is this beauty I see?’ and we know that it is the Panagia smiling warmly upon us all.” She went on to tell us of how this was all built under the care of Father Ephraim, who told them upon leaving that their obedience is to show sheer love and hospitality to everyone, let this monastery be known for these things, and surely they had been succeeding in this for some time.

The nun under the Abbess, upon being asked by one of our parishioners, “When did you feel called to this life?” She spoke, after going silent and tears filled her eyes, and recomposing herself enough to speak: “I believe that the Almighty inscribed upon my heart the desire for this life before I was conceived. It is the hardest thing I have ever done… but it is the most peaceful, the most free…” the room was peacefully silent for a short time afterwards, as I glorified God within my sinful heart.

This was not armchair theology. This was not something I was reading in a book. This is not something to be pondered with the mind. This was living Orthodoxy.

A nun asked the Abbess, “Would you like to say anything?” Nothing. It was silent. At first thought, my sinful mind moved me to think that perhaps it was rude of her to not respond to such a question, but I remembered the story of the Desert Fathers, and of the Abbot who told his novice “If they are not edified by my silence, they will not be edified by my words.”

Father asked the Abbess, softly, “Can you tell us about prayer?” She looked down, and Father added, “If this is an unfair question please forgive me.” She was very quiet, and only seemed to say what was beneficial. She leaned towards the nun next to her and spoke perhaps 8 seconds in the Greek language.

“She says that she cannot answer, for this is something that is so new to her. She is only beginning herself.” Father again asked her forgiveness, slipping his prayer rope through his fingers.

Forgive me, for all of this is only a glimpse into what took place, and so much of this I have to lock within my own heart.

Upon leaving, I went to the nun who spoke more often, as her edifying story of being born to be a nun edified me so greatly. I thanked her for showing me such sincere hospitality, and told her that I am greatly blessed simply to have stood in this place. She held my arm and smiled at me, a smile which nearly causes me to weep, and told me that we are their joy, and I am always welcome to come back. She gave me a small card which I keep in my wallet, with a phone number which I intend to call very soon, if only to hear the voice of angels.

Know only that this brief recollection cannot possibly do justice to the visit… make an effort to visit this place for yourself and know, with certainty, you will be standing in a new Eden. Know that if your heart is even slightly open to it, it will be filled with such graces as will never leave you.

Forgive me a sinner.