The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for March, 2007

You Would See the Glory of God

Six days before the Passover—that particular Passover that would forever change the course of human destiny—Jesus decided to relax a bit and enjoy a supper at the home of his friends—one of whom had died not long before, but who was now sitting with Him at table, also enjoying his supper. We are entering a time of the celebration of the greatest mysteries of our faith, of our salvation, and so we should expect to be immersed in wonders. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, manifesting that as the Son of God, life and death are in his hands. So if He can raise Lazarus, He can raise us too—but in a much more glorious way. Lazarus had to die again, but when Jesus raises us from the dead, we will live forever in the glory of his Kingdom. Jesus was also giving a sign (miracles are called “signs” in John’s Gospel), a confirmation of his words about his own death and resurrection: “I have power to lay down [my life], and I have power to take it up again.”

The raising of Lazarus is one of the climax points in the Gospel of John. For one thing, it is the turning point after which all our attention is focused on the imminent Passion. There are no more miracles in the Gospel after this. Once Lazarus was raised, the hearts of the chief priests and Pharisees were definitively hardened against Jesus, and the arrangements would soon be made for his arrest and condemnation. But there is another reason that this is a climax point. John’s Gospel as a whole is about the manifestation, the revelation of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son. In a very striking way, the raising of Lazarus opened the eyes of all people of good will to the glory of God. At the entrance of the tomb, when Martha objected to its opening, Jesus uttered a cry which is not only a key to the understanding of John’s Gospel, but also (for me anyway) one of the most powerful utterances in the Scriptures: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).

Believe and see the glory of God: this is also a key to entering the profound meaning and experience of the Passion and Resurrection narratives, and a key to the whole of Christian faith. On this Palm Sunday we are to believe and see God’s glory in Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, was one who believed and saw his glory. This glory is not, for the most part, a blinding radiance perceptible to the bodily eyes. It is a spiritual perception granted through faith and love, an awareness of who Christ really is, and an ability to recognize in all He says and does the wisdom and power of God. Mary, recognizing the glory of God in Him, placed an act of love and humility—which Jesus described as a prophetic act, a symbolic preparation for his burial—as she anointed his feet with costly oil and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil, says the Gospel, and it was also filled with the spiritual fragrance of both divine and human love. Unfortunately there was another odor in the house, and it was not a pleasant one. Judas objected to Mary’s loving extravagance, protesting that the poor could have benefited from the money wasted on expensive oils. John comments that this was just a ruse. Judas would have liked to have received the money as a donation from Mary, so he could spend it on himself, for, as John tells his readers, Judas, the community treasurer, was a thief.

Thus, in this atmosphere of both love and treachery, and of joyful exultation and bitter vindictiveness (which were the two responses to Lazarus’ return from the dead)—this ambivalent atmosphere which so characterizes the whole human condition—Jesus left the house to move resolutely toward his Passion. palm-sunday-icon.JPGJohn said earlier in his Gospel that Jesus had no illusions about the nature of man, of the human heart, knowing full well what lay within. So He wasn’t deterred from his mission by the adulation of the crowds on that first Palm Sunday. He entered the city acclaimed as a King, and rightly so, but He didn’t allow this passing praise to make Him think that perhaps He wouldn’t have to suffer and die after all. For, as He would later tell Pilate, his Kingdom is not of this world, so He is not interested in being made an earthly king. Some time earlier He actually fled when the people wanted to declare Him king. But there was no fleeing now, for a prophet can only die in Jerusalem, as He said, and He knew He was riding straight into the jaws of death. If only we could know his thoughts as He slowly rode into the holy city…

In the film “The Passion of the Christ,” there is a flashback to the entry into Jerusalem—as Jesus is exiting Jerusalem, carrying the cross. He remembers how a few days ago they were waving palm branches and singing his praises, but soon after that they were spitting on Him and reviling Him, pushing and kicking Him as He fell under the crushing weight of the cross of our sins. Yes, He needed no one to instruct Him on the unstable and treacherous nature of the human heart.

The Pharisees, says St John, were highly distraught as Jesus entered the city to the sound of universal acclamation. “What can we do?” they cried in dismay. “The world has gone after him!” They needn’t have been so worried. The world goes after many idols and phantoms and dead ends, and its opinions are easily swayed or bribed. What the Pharisees should really have been concerned about—and after Pentecost they were concerned about this—was not the superficial hero-worship of a fickle crowd, but the determined fidelity of a small group of dedicated followers who were willing even to die for Jesus. It is these who will turn the world upside down, not the mindless and uncommitted masses.

We have to find our own place in the events of these days we are celebrating. At the tomb of Lazarus, are we among those whose faith is strong enough so as to enable us to see the glory of God in Jesus, or are we among those who become dismayed because his ways are not our ways, because He does things that upset our own plans or desires? In the home of Mary and Martha, would we be like her who humbled herself to make a public and extravagant act of love and devotion to her Lord, or would we be like him who grumbled about it, wishing he could gain some personal benefit, yet at the same time putting on a phony act of care for the needy?

(Contrary to what some people think, Jesus was not disparaging the poor, or exalting Himself, when He said, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.” This was an indirect reproach to Judas: “You, who say you care for the poor, have had many opportunities to help them, but you did not, because of your selfishness. But now you have a chance, and one chance only, to minister to Me, who alone can heal your avarice and forgive your sins. You have Me now, and only for a short time; abandon your pretense of love for the poor and repent in earnest; you will die in your sins unless you come to believe that I AM.”)

On the road to Jerusalem, how shall we receive Him? On Palm Sunday we hold palm branches and sing “Hosanna in the highest”—just like the ones who called for his crucifixion a few days later. Are we going to crucify Him by returning to our sins once this celebration is over? Or are we going to follow Him all the way to the Cross, standing with Mary and John, professing our love and fidelity to Him?

Palm Sunday is a feast day; we are called to rejoice, to welcome our Savior into our church and into our hearts. On Monday we begin the great and holy week of our Lord’s Passion. Let us embrace the Cross with the same zeal with which we eat and drink and celebrate a feast. The Lord has enough fair-weather friends in the world, enough of those who show up for feasts and then leave Him alone when He is hanging naked and scourged on the Cross. Our share in the sweetness of the resurrection will be proportioned to our share in the bitterness of the passion. So let us go the whole way—the joy, the sorrow, the agony, the ecstasy—for only in this way will our faith mature, our spiritual perception and awareness be sharpened. Let us abandon all wavering and embrace Him wholeheartedly in faith. For Jesus told us that if only we would believe—really believe—we would see the glory of God.

Having Completed the 40 Days

Some people have asked me, when looking at the seven weeks that stretch from the beginning of Lent until Easter, how we can call it a 40-day period. I’m not sure how they figure it in the Latin Church (since their Lent starts two days after ours), but in the Byzantine tradition it is like this: Lent ends today.

How can that be? We read in texts for Vespers on the sixth Friday of Lent: “Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our souls…” Lent for us begins on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. That means by the fifth Sunday we have gone through five full weeks, or 35 days. Friday of the following week makes the fortieth day. In the Byzantine tradition, Great and Holy Week is a liturgical entity unto itself. It is not technically considered part of Lent—but that doesn’t mean we cease to fast or make prostrations! Holy Week is the liturgical celebration and ritual re-enactment of the awesome mysteries of the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and hence it transcends the general penitential and devotional nature of Lent. Every day of Holy Week is solemnly celebrated, and each day is “Great and Holy”: Great and Holy Monday, Great and Holy Tuesday, etc, right through Saturday.

There is a kind of a festal interlude between the end of Lent and the beginning of Great and Holy Week. On lazarus.jpgSaturday we celebrate the raising of Lazarus from the dead, which dramatizes the great mystery of Christ’s power to raise the dead—a prefiguring of his own resurrection and of ours on the Last Day. After a long Lent of dark liturgical colors, we wear white on Lazarus Saturday, in anticipation of the coming feast of the Resurrection. Historically, according to the Gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus was the catalyst both for the glorious entrance into Jerusalem and the subsequent passion of our Lord. The people had come out to welcome Jesus because they had heard (or seen) that He had raised Lazarus from the dead. And we too, by celebrating Palm Sunday, acclaim Him as King and Lord, offering Him our grateful and loving adoration in the midst of a world that ignores or hates Him. The Pharisees and chief priests (progenitors of this anti-Christian world), being stung by this exuberant and irrepressible adulation of the Galilean preacher, finally made their irrevocable decision to kill Him.

Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our souls, there are two things we still need to do. We have to look back over the 40 days to assess the quality and fruitfulness of our Lenten efforts, our prayers and sacrifices. If we have been lax or lazy, then these days have not brought profit to our souls. We can still repent and confess our sins so as to be cleansed for Holy Week, but we will have lost precious time and opportunities for coming closer to Our Lord and for storing up treasure in Heaven. We also have to look forward to the coming celebrations of this weekend and Holy Week. This is a time, as far as possible, to “lay aside all earthly cares,” as we pray in our Liturgy, and focus undistractedly on the great mysteries of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord.

Aside from the great spiritual benefit we will receive from a full and fervent participation in the liturgical celebrations and our own meditations, we should be aware that the Church—and the whole world—are in need of our greater fervor and faithfulness. For we, the relatively few, are called to walk the way of the Cross with our Lord, while the world couldn’t care less or even mocks our devotion. “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice” (Jn. 16:20). It doesn’t matter. The Lord will turn our sorrow into joy—and the laughter of the world into misery. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Lk. 6:25). We have a calling, a vocation, to worship the Lord and celebrate lovingly all that He has done and suffered for us, not only because this is fitting and right, but because we hope the Lord will withhold his just wrath from the world for the sake of his few faithful ones. He would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if He could have found only ten righteous men there. I don’t know what the proportion is between the population of those cities and that of the world, but I would guess that the Lord still needs at least several million righteous people to preserve the world from its deserved destruction.

Regardless of all that, however, let us go to the Lord simply because we love Him. We have been forgiven much; let us love much in return. However we have spent the 40 days, let us now run to Him as his faithful disciples and friends, let us not fear to sing his praises in the midst of those who blaspheme Him, and let us not fear to stand with Him in his humiliation and sufferings as did Mary and John. Then will our souls be fully open to grace. Then will we be worthy to celebrate the holy Resurrection.

Be Wretched

That’s the advice of St James in his famous epistle (4:9). It might not be just what we’ve been waiting to hear,unhappy_man.jpg though it does have its place in our Lenten observances. But wait, there’s more: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection.” At this point we may think the Apostle is going out of his way to be a killjoy. I mean, come on, turn your joy into dejection? Isn’t life hard enough as it is? I’ve often had some difficulty with this passage, but recently I’ve gained a bit of understanding.

Let’s go back a verse and see who he is talking to. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.” So this exhortation to be gloomy and wretched is addressed to sinners and waverers, in which company we may often find ourselves. St James is not counseling wretchedness and dejection as the standard modes of Christian living, but rather as the first stages of sobering up from heedlessness and sin.

Repentance is not only the work of Lent but of our whole lives, and if we’ve lightly blown off all admonitions to clean up our act, we are living in a dangerous illusion, not taking seriously the life-or-death issues with which the Gospel of Christ presents us. So St James is first of all saying: recognize and weep for the gravity of your sins, give up frivolity and making light of serious things. Don’t have a partying mentality, a superficial good cheer that masks a soul that is languishing in sin or simply in a lazy negligence of its spiritual duties. It’s a wake-up call, a reality check. If one is an alcoholic or drug addict on the way to recovery, for example, he will not find a “happy hour” at the rehab center. He first has to get real clear about the mess he has made of his life and begin to find healing—through renunciation—before he can return to normalcy and the life of Christian joy. So he has to be wretched, or rather simply recognize his wretchedness, wipe that stupid drunken grin off his face and get serious about changing his life.

The Scriptures are a stiff tonic, strong medicine, and we have to take their serious words seriously. There is much joy to be gleaned as well, the first fruits of an everlasting happiness that we embrace now in hope. But it is a joy that is won through struggle, through repentance, through a sober realization of the facts of life in this fallen world, and the fact that we have a Redeemer who lifts us up out of our dejection, once we realize our desperate need for Him.

Going back another verse, we see that St James gives us the double-edged sword of our spiritual life: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Resist the devil and draw near to God—our Lenten program in a nutshell. But we can’t resist the devil if we’re going to be nothing but “good-time Charlies.” We have to soberly assess the state of our souls and turn wholeheartedly to God. When we are secure in divine grace and love, when the happiness we seek is that profound inner joy that the Lord says no one can take from us, then let’s go ahead and shed our dejection and wretched gloominess! But let’s also be aware that such joy is for mature souls, and that in the meantime we might just need to be a little wretched while we’re taking stock of our lives. It’s OK; we’re on the road to recovery, on the road to joy everlasting.

Prayers from St Basil

[I have to take back what I said a few posts ago about WP not being able to wrap text around pictures. I was spoiled; my previous blog did it automatically, but here it has to be done manually. But as you can see, it can be done. I discovered--accidentally, as usual--how to do it a couple days ago. Perhaps my lifestyle is too sedentary: the only exercise I get is jumping to conclusions!]

 

On the Sundays of Great Lent we celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. It is similar to, though longer and fuller than, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, which is the Liturgy most often celebratesaint_basil_icon.jpgd in the Byzantine Churches. I’ve shared a few things from St Basil’s Liturgy before, but I’d like to present here a couple of my favorite prayers, just to share something of their richness and spiritual power. They are among the prayers that the priest prays during the Liturgy. The first one comes right after the “Great Entrance,” when the bread and wine are brought to the altar, and the second one is the prayer before the “Holy, holy, holy…”

“O Lord our God, who created us and brought us into this present life, who showed us the ways of salvation, who granted us the revelation of the heavenly mysteries, who established us for this office in the power of your Holy Spirit: deign, O Lord, to accept us as the servants of your New Covenant and the ministers of your Holy Mysteries. Receive us according to your great love when we come to your holy altar, so that we may be worthy to offer You this spiritual and unbloody sacrifice for our sins and the unawareness of the people, so that receiving it upon your holy, heavenly and spiritual altar as a perfume of agreeable fragrance, You may send down to us in return the grace of your Holy Spirit. Look upon us, O God: consider our sacrifice, and accept it as you accepted the gifts of Abel, the offerings of Noah, the holocausts of Abraham, the sacrifices of Moses and Aaron, the peaceful presents of Samuel. As you accepted this worship from your holy apostles, likewise, in your goodness, O Lord, receive these gifts from our sinful hands, so that having been deemed worthy to serve without blame at your holy altar, we may obtain the reward of the faithful stewards on the fearful day of just judgment. Through the mercies of your only-begotten Son, with whom You are blessed, together with your all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

“O You who are Being, Master and Lord, God Almighty and adorable Father: it is truly fitting and right and worthy of the immensity of your holiness that we praise You, sing to You, bless You, adore You, give thanks to You, glorify You who alone are truly God, that we offer You a spiritual worship with a repentant heart and a humble spirit, for it is You who granted us the grace of knowing your truth. How could anyone tell your might or sing the praises You deserve, or describe all your marvels in all places and times, O Master of All, Lord of heaven and earth and of all creatures visible and invisible, who are enthroned upon a seat of glory, who plumb the depths, who are eternal, invisible, beyond comprehension and description and change, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the great God and Savior, the object of our hope! For He is the Image of your goodness, the Seal bearing your perfect likeness, revealing You his Father through Himself. He is the living Word, the true God, the Wisdom from before all ages, the Life, the Sanctification, the Power, the true Light. By Him the Holy Spirit was made manifest, the Spirit of Truth, the Gift of adoption, the Foretaste of the future inheritance, the First-fruits of eternal good, the life-giving Power, the Fountain of sanctification. Empowered by Him, every rational and intelligent creature sings eternally to your glory, for all are your servants. It is You the angels, archangels, thrones and dominations, the principalities and the virtues, the powers and the cherubim of many eyes adore. It is You the seraphim surround… and they cry one to another with tireless voice and perpetual praise, singing, proclaiming, shouting the hymn of victory and saying…”

Holy, holy, holy!

Handmaid of the Lord

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We celebrate today what seems to be at first glance another “Christmasey” feast during Lent. It’s all about the conception of the Son of God in the immaculate womb of Mary of Nazareth. But the other readings (the epistles—Heb. 2:11-18 and 9:11-14—and also the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent—Mk. 10:32-45—which is read along with the Gospel of the Annunciation) help put it in context and direct us to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us first take a look at the mystery itself. The highest honor or blessing that one can receive, in biblical terms, is to have found favor with God. Mary is thus honored three different ways (or four, if a variant reading is accepted as canonical) within a few verses of the Gospel. First, the Archangel Gabriel addresses her as “Full of Grace,” which is sometimes, though more weakly, translated, “highly favored.” Then he says, “The Lord is with you!” Then (according to some ancient manuscripts) he adds, “Blessed are you among women,” which, in the Hebrew idiom, means: “You are blessed above all women.” (Even if that reading is not in the original, Holy Spirit says the same words through Elizabeth later in the chapter.) Finally, the Archangel comes right out and says: “Mary, you have found favor with God.”

She knew that all these were terms of the highest praise, and they were spoken by a light-bearing messenger from Heaven. This is why the Scripture says that she was troubled at this greeting, wondering what it could mean. Being as humble as she was, she did not go around assuming that she was blessed, full of grace, and highly favored by God. “You will bear a son, the angel said, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Apart from the fact that she was a virgin and (arguably) intended to remain one, the conception and birth of a child is not so extraordinary. But suddenly the Archangel revealed the identity of the Child, everything changed, and human comprehension fell prostrate before the incredible mystery: “He will be called the Son of the Most High… He will be called holy, the Son of God.” At this point there is nothing that isn’t extraordinary about this conception and birth. The Holy Spirit and the Power of the Most High will be upon her, and that is how she is going to conceive the Son of God.

Though she led a devout and holy life, she could not have been quite prepared to hear news like this. Not only would she be the Mother of the Messiah—for Gabriel had said that He would receive the throne of David and reign forever—and this was something that all devout Hebrew women dreamed of, but the Messiah would be the very God of Israel, whom her people had worshipped for millennia, God becoming man inside the body of this devout girl from a non-descript (and even somewhat contemptible, see Jn 1:46) village in northern Israel. Too much to grasp? You bet! But God, through Gabriel, didn’t ask her to grasp it all, only one thing: “with God nothing will be impossible.” She did, and so she said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” Satisfied with a successful mission (and probably overflowing with joy at the young virgin’s loving acceptance of the will of God), the Archangel departed at that moment.

This is the beginning. This is the annunciation—not only the annunciation to Mary of an ineffable divine mystery—it is the annunciation to the whole world that our salvation came through her, that her acquiescence to the divine will opened the door for the Incarnation, without which no one would be saved. So the Church celebrates this mystery with great solemnity. This is the beginning of the kenosis of the Son of God, his sacrifice, his obedience unto death for our salvation. The womb of Mary was his first true home on earth. In temple and mountaintop theophanies in days of old, He was present in fire and smoke, in thunder and lighting. But his presence then was granted or withdrawn as He willed. When He chose to become man, however, He committed Himself to stay, first within the warm confines of the virginal womb of his mother, and then walking the earth itself as boy and as man, remaining with us unto death. He who existed without beginning as God, being eternally begotten of the Father, could now look into the eyes of a young woman, whom He Himself had created, and say, in all truth: “Mother.” With what love must He have loved her who was for Him the gate into this world He came to save, the human source of his own humanity, which He would bear as his glory—that is, as the ultimate testimony of his love for us—for all ages to come!

We hear in the Letter to the Hebrews that He is not ashamed to call us “brethren,” sharing in our flesh and blood through the pure Maiden who gave Him birth. And being one of us, he chose to die like us in order to deliver us from the ancient dominion of death, destroying the works of the devil, whom Scripture says had the power of death. So He became the High Priest of redeemed humanity, but He could experience the weight of our sins and sufferings only as man, and He could forever deliver us from their effects only as God. So it was not merely fitting but absolutely necessary that the Son of God become man, absolutely necessary that Mary should say “yes” to his invitation to help usher in the salvation of mankind.

We begin to see how the mystery of the Annunciation takes us to the Cross, and so is an appropriate element of our Lenten worship. Again it says in Hebrews that Christ took his own blood into the Holy of Holies to offer it for the cleansing of the sins of all mankind. This blood, this flesh, which were offered on the altar of the Cross, He received from Mary, who gave herself to Him, body and soul, for the accomplishment of his will—and that will was nothing less than the forgiveness of our sins, the salvation of our souls. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus’ precious blood purifies our consciences, so that we can serve the living God. So this relationship we have entered into with Him, by his becoming man and thus calling us his own brothers and sisters, is an ongoing one, one from which we need to draw strength and grace every day, every hour. For even though his death in the flesh reopened Paradise once and for all, we still have to walk the narrow path of the Gospel to get there, still have to fight the good fight to overcome our sinful inclinations and the traces of the primordial rebellion that still mark our souls. If this Blood is to purify the conscience, our own experience (as well as the admonitions of Christ and the Apostles) tells us that this is a long process, that we have to keep growing, keep getting purified, keep opening more fully to grace, keep laboring to eradicate the last bit of stubborn sinfulness that still may cling to our souls.

The Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday of Lent turns us toward Jerusalem, toward the Passion. “Behold,” Jesus solemnly announces, “We are going up to Jerusalem.” There will the Son of Man be condemned and scourged and crucified. The Apostles didn’t get it, but if Mary happened to be among them at the time, those words would have been hot razors in her heart, for she would have known that his hour had finally come. She received not only joyful prophecies from Gabriel, but sorrowful ones from Simeon. The soul-piercing sword was inexorably approaching. The sweet and beautiful divine Infant that she lovingly held in her arms would be, as a grown man, torn from her motherly embrace, and slaughtered like a sacrificial lamb. In the film, “The Passion of the Christ,” when Mary heard from John that Jesus was arrested, you could see in her face that the sword was already beginning to pierce her heart. “So, it has begun,” was her only response, and later: “So be it.” As she said “yes” to the joyful mystery of the Annunciation, she said “yes” to the sorrowful mystery of the Cross. This was because she was the Handmaid of the Lord, and she lived so that his will would be done.

As we celebrate this feast, let us not seek only to cling to the Annunciation of joy: the conception and birth of the Child. Let us also willingly accept the annunciation of his Passion: for the hour of the Son of Man is coming. The only way we can embrace both joy and sorrow is to embrace first the will of God, as Mary did. She rejoiced at his birth, wept at his suffering and death, rejoiced again at his resurrection. Those who accept the will of God—in joy and in sorrow—will find that God will give them a joy that no one can take from them. This joy doesn’t come from attempting to avoid suffering, but comes from walking straight through it, held by the arms of her who held the Savior, and who pressed Him to her heart—in Bethlehem and on Golgotha. To say yes to God is to say yes to the Cross—and that yes will be the password, as it were, that admits us to an eternity of joy in the Paradise of the saved.

St Ephrem’s Prayer

 

 

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I mentioned a few posts ago that there is a simple prayer by St Ephrem that is the characteristic prayer of Lent in the Byzantine tradition. It is prayed at all the Offices, even the Little Hours, on weekdays of Lent. It sets the theme or program for Lenten observances. While it may be a little late to start your Lenten spiritual program, this is offered to any eleventh-hour stragglers that still may be hoping to worthily celebrate the paschal mystery of Christ.

The prayer goes like this: “O Lord and Master of my life, dispel from me the spirit of discouragement and slothfulness, of ambition and vain talk (make a prostration here). But rather, grant to me the spirit of purity and lowliness, of patience and brotherly love (another prostration). O Lord and King, make me aware of my own faults and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed both now and forever. Amen” (one more prostration). Then: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner, and have pity on me” (12 times, each with a deep bow). Finally, say the whole prayer again, with just one prostration at the end.

Doing this several times a day will get you into the spirit of Lent, all right! Let’s take a quick look at the prayer itself. First we ask about the negative things, that is, what we wish to be “dispelled” from our souls. Discouragement is the first, and rightly so, since it is regarded by the saints as one of the chief enemies of spiritual life and growth. It crushes joy, obliterates hope, weakens zeal, sees everything from the most bleak and gray perspective possible—in short, it make you look and feel about as unlike a Christian as one could. That does not at all reflect the Good News that is the Gospel! Next is slothfulness. This is a real anti-virtue for Lent, because Lent is about spiritual vigilance and diligent effort. (If you haven’t started your Lenten spiritual program yet, you are probably afflicted with sloth!) Perhaps slothfulness can be seen as a fruit of discouragement, for if one is discouraged, one reduces or ceases altogether his efforts to do good, and thus ends up in that spiritual torpor called sloth.

Ambition is something that also is incompatible with Lent, for Lent is about humility and prayer and detachment from worldly pleasures and honors. As members of the Body of Christ, each of us has his own function, and no one should be ambitious for anything more than to do the will of God perfectly in our state in life. Last among the negatives, let’s talk about vain talk—now there’s one that many need to have dispelled from their lives! Ours is a garrulous society, unable to cease from its vain and mindless chatter. Cell phones stuck to every ear, constant noise and useless gabbing everywhere! You wouldn’t believe (or maybe you would) how often in the confessional I hear people accuse themselves of gossip. To curb one’s unnecessary (and especially harmful) speech and to enter into silence for the sake of prayer, examination of conscience, spiritual reading, and generally getting to know God and yourself better is one of the best things you can do for Lent (and for the rest of the year as well!).

Now for the virtues we pray for. First, the “spirit of purity.” If that blessed spirit were to take up residence in every human heart, the world would change overnight! We are constantly inundated with words and images, with seductions that create inordinate desires and wayward lusts, so much so that one might wonder if it is really possible to remain pure in the midst of it. The usual response is simply to lower one’s standards, but that approach will find no sympathy on Judgment Day, nor will it add any strength or nobility to one’s soul. We simply must pray, pray, pray, and guard the eyes, thoughts and hearts, redirecting our energies and attention to all that is good, true, beautiful, noble, and spiritually elevating. And God will have mercy.

If we attain the next virtue, lowliness or humility, we’ll have a better chance at preserving the first one. For if we recognize our lowly condition, our vulnerabilities, weaknesses and defects, we will be more likely to turn frequently to the only One who can deliver and heal us, who can lift up our souls to higher things. To be lowly is to walk the way of the One who said: “Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” For pride, as C.S. Lewis clearly demonstrates in Mere Christianity, is the foulest of vices, and can corrupt an otherwise virtuous life. Humility is the only antidote.

Patience is something that you may have been praying for even before you heard the Prayer of St Ephrem. This is another virtue that practically everyone needs and practically no one has. Patience with ourselves, patience with others, even patience with God, whose providential plans for us we may think are unfolding all too slowly. God is not in a hurry about anything, though it may seem that He urgently demands certain things. That is because we have been so dull of hearing that we don’t even have a clue what He wants until the last minute! But the more we are in union with Him, the more at peace we will be, and hence the more patient. And the more patient, the more understanding and forgiving. It’s worth the prayer and the effort.

Last in this series is brotherly (or sisterly, or motherly or fatherly) love—which is simply Christian love expressed to all who come our way, those with whom we live and work or even see on the street. Love is the queen of all virtues and the one, as St Paul says, that binds them all together in perfect harmony (see Col. 3). If we have not love, as he says in another place, we are nothing. But if we have love, all the other virtues will much easier be acquired and practiced.

Finally, we pray to be able to recognize our own faults and not to judge others’ faults. This alone would be a great achievement if we could integrate this awareness and practice into our daily lives. It would make it easier to acquire the spirit of lowliness and help dispel the spirit of ambition and vain talk. Thus our mouths and hearts will be free to bless our Lord and King forever.

So try it out. Pray the Prayer of St Ephrem and reflect on its meaning. It’s a whole program in itself, but hey, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Even in the short run it will help you to prepare to offer acceptable worship, in reverence and awe, as you celebrate the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Spiritual Death

In the Byzantine tradition, there are several Saturdays during Lent in which the deceased are commemorated and specially prayed for (something akin to All Souls’ Day in the Latin tradition). The common Gospel reading for the deceased is John 5:24-30. I’ll give the key verses here: “Amen, amen, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live… the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

In only one of the verses above is Jesus actually talking about bodily death; the others talk about spiritual death. That is not hard to see: one who hears his word and believes has already passed from death to life, and this can only mean spiritual death, for there are many who hear and believe and have not yet endured bodily death. Twice Jesus speaks of an hour that is coming, but the first time he adds, “and now is,” meaning of course that He is talking of the present time, or at least of a moment imminently to arrive. The “dead” will hear his voice, and those who hear will live, that is, will enter the life of grace and communion with Him which is called “eternal life,” and which begins even before bodily death. The second time He speaks of a coming hour that clearly has not yet come, for he makes it clear here that the dead are “those in the tombs” who will rise at the general resurrection, the quality of whose lives will determine their permanent destination.

William Barclay is a rather well-known Bible commentator, though I don’t like him all that much—too many errors in his commentaries. But sometimes he gets it right. One of the monks here recently used his commentary in preaching on spiritual death. I think that Barclay has a few good insights here, so I’ll share them with you.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped trying. It is to have come to look on all faults and ineradicable and all virtues and unattainable. But the Christian life cannot stand still; it must either go on or slip back; and to stop trying is therefore to slip back into death.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped feeling. There are many people who at one time felt intensely in the face of sin and the sorrow and the suffering of the world; but slowly they have become insensitive. They can look at evil and feel no indignation; they can look at sorrow and suffering and feel no answering sword of grief and pity pierce their heart. When compassion goes, the heart is dead.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped thinking… When a man’s mind becomes so shut that it can accept no new truth, he is mentally and spiritually dead. The day when the desire to learn leaves us, the day when new truth, new methods, new thought simply become a disturbance with which we cannot be bothered, is the day of our spiritual death.

“To be spiritually dead is to have stopped repenting. The day when a man can sin in peace is the day of his spiritual death; and it is easy to slip into that frame of mind. The first time we do a wrong thing, we do it with fear and regret. If we do it a second time, it is easier to do it. If we do it a third time, it is easier yet. If we go on doing it, the time comes when we scarcely give it a thought. To avoid spiritual death a man must keep himself sensitive to sin by keeping himself sensitive to the presence of Jesus Christ.”

That’s a little something to reflect upon during Lent. We pray for the dead, but we need to pray for the spiritually dead as well, and to make every effort that we do not ourselves gradually enter their moribund ranks. Christianity is about the abundant life made available to us by divine grace, but it is up to us to hear the voice of the Son of God and believe in the Father who sent Him. Thus we will not only “pass from [spiritual] death to life,” we will at length rise to the everlasting resurrection of life!

Universal Patron

Today’s feast of St Joseph is not on the Byzantine liturgical calendar, but it has always been our custom to celebrate it here at the monastery anyway. Our founder, Archimandrite Boniface, initiated it, and far be it from me, who bear the name Joseph, to discontinue this venerable tradition! I think it is a grave defect of the Byzantine calendar that it virtually ignores St Joseph, having only a single relatively minor commemoration on the Sunday after Christmas, a day on which several other saints are celebrated as well. That seems to me to be quite unfitting for the man who was not only deemed worthy of angelic visitations, but who was the chaste spouse of the all-holy Mother of God and the foster father of the divine Savior of the world! Many good things can commonly be said about the saints, but those two incredible things can be said only about St Joseph! Who else, besides Mary, lived in such daily intimacy with the incarnate God? This, along with the fact that in the 19th century St Joseph was formally proclaimed by the Pope as the “Patron of the Universal Church,” of which we are a part, makes it truly fitting and right that we offer an extra day in honor of St Joseph as a special friend and patron. And, rather than pull a date out of thin air (we don’t know the day of his death), we chose the day that many other Catholics are celebrating his feast. Since it is Lent, however, we celebrate it in a somewhat muted fashion but, being a man of humility and silence, St Joseph won’t mind if we don’t get too boisterous on this day.

When I was preparing to enter the novitiate—many, many, many years ago!—I wanted to receive Joseph as a monastic name, partly because of my developing devotion to him, but mainly because I was aware that he was everything I was not, and, being such a powerful intercessor in Heaven, he could help me grow in all the virtues in which he himself excelled. I think I’ve proven to be something of a tough nut to crack, but St Joseph hasn’t given up on me yet!

It’s a little difficult to write about St Joseph during Lent, since his whole story in the Gospels is so, well, Christmasey. It’s all about the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, and the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ. But what we learn about St Joseph in the Gospel accounts, especially that of St Matthew, are some lessons in virtue, which the time of Lent is perfect for developing.

The first comes from St Joseph’s righteousness under the law. When we first meet St Joseph, the grace of Christ is still a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled, so the only known word of God was found in the law and the prophets. The Gospel describes Joseph as a righteous man, faithful to the law which said he could not marry his betrothed if she became pregnant by another man, which at that moment he could only assume was the case. Yet even before the time of grace, he showed himself greater than the law, for he did not insist on carrying out the punishment the law required. Out of love for Mary, even though he must have been indescribably wounded by what he thought was a betrayal of their love and fidelity, he decided simply to quietly end the relationship, so she would not come under the condemnation of the law. Hurt though he was, he wouldn’t dream of exacting vengeance upon his beloved.

Next is St Joseph’s faith in God. That is what prepared him to be ready for what God was to do next. He could have argued his case or asked God why He allowed it to happen, but when he heard the word of the Lord from the angel, he simply obeyed. In this he is like the patriarch Abraham, about whom the Letter to the Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called…” (11:8). By faith Joseph obeyed when he was told to receive Mary as his wife, even though she was already pregnant with a child not his. What he may have understood by the angel’s words, “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” we can only guess, but it was enough to motivate his faith and obedience. He would be required to exercise this faith and obedience again, when the angel woke him up to send him to Egypt, and then again to return to Israel. Each time, St Joseph immediately did what he was told, for it was the will of God and, remember, he was a righteous man, which means he was in a right relationship with God.

St Joseph’s humility is another virtue, one which we can all stand to grow in. It is first manifested in his unquestioning obedience, but we can speculate a bit on how his life must have been. Given his general reserve, and his inclination to act in a quiet and gentle way with those whom he loved, we can be sure that Joseph conducted himself with reverence and humble availability for the needs of his wife and foster Son. We have no indication that Joseph played the proud father, announcing to all that his boy was the Messiah, and that those who cast aspersions on his chaste bride were all wet, because this boy came straight from God! In fact, we probably can’t even say, in the ordinary sense, that St Joseph was proud of Jesus, because this type of pride comes from the fact that one’s son is one’s own flesh and blood, and that it is somehow because of the father that the son has turned out so well. If St Joseph couldn’t be proud of Jesus in that sense, he certainly stood in awe of Him, knowing that his true Father in Heaven was well pleased with the One He had entrusted to St Joseph’s care.

St Joseph’s occupation was a humble one as well. Today’s carpenters and cabinet-makers are often rather well to do, and their skills command a high price. But in those days, a carpenter did not enjoy wealth or prestige from his work, for it was for the most part considered common and simple. And this was the trade he would hand on to his humble Son. Perhaps Joseph said to the child Jesus, concerning this skill, something that Jesus would later say to us concerning our whole life: “Learn from me.”

Finally, we can perhaps make some valid assumptions about St Joseph’s life of prayer and contemplation. How could he not have been a man of deep prayer, living as he did daily with the Son of God and his holy Mother? He must have learned a lot from them about God and his ways. He must have breathed the very air of holiness in their presence. For Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and St Joseph, the humble carpenter, was living under the same roof as Him who created worlds and galaxies.

So let us strive to learn from St Joseph, not carpenter’s skills, but this holy carpenter’s virtues: deep prayer and humility, faith and obedience, and the righteousness that manifests itself in love of God and neighbor, and in readiness to do the Lord’s will at all times.

As we celebrate the Patron (which means father) of the Universal Church—recall that Jesus said: he who humbles himself will be exalted; and He exalted his foster father immensely, another proof of St Joseph’s humility—let us realize that like Jesus, we have only one true Father in Heaven, who is God of all. But let us also remember that, like Jesus, we also have a foster father in Heaven, St Joseph: our friend and father and intercessor and model for a life of righteousness in communion with Jesus and Mary.

The Blessed Life

On the 4th Sunday of Lent we commemorate the life and teachings of the monastic father St John Climacus, and in his honor the Gospel reading is the beatitudes from St Matthew. They open the Sermon on the Mount, which is an expression of the radical uniqueness of the Christian life, and a summary of its requirements.

In St Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the beatitudes, he begins by noticing that Jesus went up on a mountain to proclaim them, so that we can ascend with Him “from superficial and ignoble thoughts to the spiritual mountain of sublime contemplation… lit up on all sides by the rays of the true light, that from its summit all things…may be seen in the air of pure truth.” He then says that the words of blessing Jesus pronounces bring happiness even in the mere hearing of them.

I won’t comment on them one by one; that will be your work in your private meditation, for we have to ask the Holy Spirit how they apply to us individually, not just to the Church or humanity as such. I’d rather look at what they mean as a whole, as the overture of all of Jesus’ teaching, for this is his first sermon (not bad for a beginner!). He starts by showing what kind of people are blessed in the sight of God. Some translate “happy” instead of “blessed”. This is not quite accurate, but happiness is an element of blessedness, or perhaps a fruit of it. Maybe to modern people it is better to say “happy,” since the term “blessed” is incomprehensible to many today and connotes something “religious” that may not be high on their list of priorities. But everyone wants to be happy, so—you will be happy if you follow the beatitudes! If you are living in the Holy Spirit, you will be happy even in this life, but if the beatitudes don’t make you particularly happy at the moment, know that they are the keys to eternal happiness.

The goal of living the beatitudes is entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Sometimes Jesus mentions this explicitly, sometimes implicitly, in terms of “seeing God” or becoming “sons of God.” This is why the beatitudes cannot be set aside as if they applied only to those seeking perfection, only the saints. They apply to everyone who is interested in seeing God and entering the Kingdom of Heaven, so they apply to you and me. The Kingdom of Heaven is the ultimate good, and it is marvelous beyond all human imagination or comprehension. Such immeasurable happiness cannot be obtained cheaply or automatically, hence the beatitudes are demanding—they cut right to the heart, to show what we are made of; they put us to the test, to see if we shall be found worthy of the Kingdom.

It is not easy to be poor in spirit, that is, setting all your hopes on God alone and on nothing in this world. It is not easy to be pure of heart and merciful, not easy to be so focused on doing the will of God that you can be said to hunger and thirst for righteousness, not easy to endure persecution and reviling for the sake of Christ and his Gospel. For some, these may seem unattainable, or at the very least impractical. For others, the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven may seem too far off—and the heat of the struggle too immediate—to live these demanding words on a daily basis, over the long haul. Something more is needed, something that will reveal the burden and yoke of Christ to be easy and light.

That something, according to Pope Paul VI, is the joy that comes from knowing that we are loved by God. That is the power behind living the beatitudes with grace, fruitfulness, and perseverance. Here is a rather lengthy excerpt from his Apostolic Exhortation “On Christian Joy.”

“But it is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him… If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father. When He is baptized on the banks of the Jordan, this love, which is present from the first moment of His Incarnation, is manifested: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you’(Lk 3:22). This certitude is inseparable from the consciousness of Jesus. It is a presence which never leaves Him all alone (Jn 16:32). It is an intimate knowledge which fills Him: ‘The Father knows me and I know the Father’ (Jn 10:15). It is an unceasing and total exchange: ‘All I have is yours and all you have is mine’ (Jn 17:10)…

“And the disciples and all those who believe in Christ are called to share this joy. Jesus wishes them to have in themselves His joy in its fullness (Jn 17:13). ‘I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and so that I may be in them’ (Jn 17:26). This joy of living in God’s love begins here below. It is the joy of the kingdom of God. But it is granted on a steep road which requires a total confidence in the Father and in the Son, and a preference given to the kingdom. The message of Jesus promises above all joy—this demanding joy; and does it not begin with the beatitudes? ‘How happy are you who are poor: yours is the kingdom of God. Happy you who are hungry now: you shall be satisfied. Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh.’”

This is more evidence that the Christian life does not consist in learning and abiding by a long sheet of rules. CS Lewis says that God is not primarily interested in securing obedience to a set of rules; He is interested in forming a certain kind of people. Christianity, then, is about entering into a relationship with Someone and thus learning what makes for true peace and happiness, and then living accordingly, in constant communion with Him who grants the grace and hence the joy to do so. Pope Paul referred to the text from John’s Gospel in which Jesus prayed that his disciples would not merely be happy, but would have his own joy in them. That is what beatitude is—not the superficial “happiness” that comes from an abundance of comforts or a lack of trials, not mere fun and stimulation of the senses or simply having everything go your own way. The happiness that is true blessedness comes from Christ abiding in us, learning from Him what true joy is, for He said, “Learn from Me.” He will teach us that genuine joy is first recognized and experienced through the knowledge of God’s love for us, and then it is expressed by our loving others, communicating to them both our love and the truth that God loves them too. This is how joy is meant to spread through this world.

So we have to situate ourselves interiorly in the proper way. We can’t just take a look at the beatitudes and say: “Oh no, it’s too hard to be poor and pure and merciful and persecuted. That doesn’t make me happy at all!” If we look at them that way, we must admit that we are still of the mindset of the world, of those who do not know Christ, those who do not have his joy in them from knowledge of the love of the Father. We need to begin by seeking the awareness, the certainty, that we are loved by God. Then the joy of Christ will be in us, for we will be partakers of his joy in the Father’s love. Once we have that love and joy in us, God can ask of us what He will, and with confidence we will put the best of our efforts into the task. We’re not trying to measure up to a standard, we are trying to respond joyfully and wholeheartedly to a calling from Him who loves us and who prepares for us the unbroken joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us choose the blessed life, the authentic life that tests our true worth, tests the genuineness of our profession of faith and our hope for eternal life. We can do this if Christ’s joy is in us, the joy that comes from security and confidence in the Father’s love. And ours will be the Kingdom of Heaven.

Akiane

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the 12-year-old child prodigy, Akiane Kramarik. She is rather well-known, if website hits are any indication (150 million annually). I heard of her a couple years ago, but didn’t pay close attention until a friend recently lent me a book about her. Any little kid whose artwork is good enough to sell paintings for over $100,000 apiece ought to attract some attention, but there is much more to her than that.

She was raised by unbelieving parents, never even heard the word “God,” was homeschooled and didn’t have a TV. One day, when she was four, she told her mother, “Today I met God.” Her mother asked her how she knew it was God. She replied, “Just like I know you are my mommy, and you know I am Akiane.” Then, “Who even taught you such a word, God?” “You won’t understand.” That marked the beginning of a series of heavenly visions and gifts from the Lord, primarily in art and poetry. She began with drawings when she was four and five, and began painting when she was six. Many of her paintings by age eight and nine were at least as good as those of professional artists of many years’ experience. Akiane never had any training in art. She painted what she saw, and she did it to draw people to God. The picture here is her self-portrait (age 11), in which she saw herself as working with God in the creation of beauty. You can see more of her paintings by clicking here.

The following are just a few stanzas from her poem, “Conversation with God,” written when she was eight years old. Quite incredible!

I receive an envelope with the seal of Your lips
As I am waiting for You I get covered with dust
My heavy rope is full of holes and now it’s in a cast
But why are Your gates always higher than us

As we used to talk to each other before
The depth for notions true friendship deepens
Would you tear the tears from my salty fists
The leftovers of my house are just the seeds…

When questions question the questions
The docile answer kneels gently on dull knife
When I see You, Lord, my eyes do not blink
For if I blinked I would lose my whole life

Can I still grow up in the same womb
Can I hide inside your whitest hair
You say the narrow mind passes the answers
And whoever screams cannot see or hear

I see Your hands without the wrinkles, bones, or veins
Just the maps, just events, just the worlds, just the time
I see the waterfalls full of songs under stairs by Your feet
The poems whisper by the millions from Your mouth in rhyme…

I’d like to share a couple of things she described from her visions of Heaven. Her parents had wondered why she cried and refused to listen any kind of music they would play in their home (she was five at the time). She said, “…the music that I hear in heaven is better than here. This music hurts my ears and my head really bad, but heavenly music is always gentle. I can’t tell you how different it is from what you hear on earth! It feels like joy, looks like love, smells like flowers, and dances like butterflies. Music there is alive! You can even taste it.”

About one of her meetings with God (at eight years old), she said, “I was with God again, and I was told to pray continually. He showed me where He lived, and it was so light… I was climbing transparent stairs; underneath I saw gushing waterfalls. As I approached my Father in paradise, His body was pure light. What impressed me most were his gigantic hands—they were full of maps and events. Then He told me to memorize thousands upon thousands of wisdom words on a scroll that didn’t look like paper but more like intense light. And in a few seconds I somehow got filled up. He showed me the endless universe, its past and its future, and He told me that from now on I needed to get up very early and get ready for my mission. I hope one day I’ll be able to paint what I’ve been shown” (all quotes are from Akiane: her life, her art, her poetry, by Akiane and Foreli Kramarik).

I think it is beneficial and encouraging for us to receive a few glimpses of Heaven through the pure eyes of a child. She could never have learned what she did, not only in art and poetry, but also in the awareness of God and his heavenly mysteries, without a special grace from on high. We tend to get so caught up in the cares of life, or our own troubles and preoccupations, that we lose sight of the One Thing Necessary. It is then that a four-year-old girl walks up to us and says, “Today I met God,” and our own forgotten longing for Paradise is rekindled. We may even hear within our hearts a faint echo of the music of Heaven. We must renew our search, realize we are on pilgrimage, and lay aside all that makes us grow old in selfishness, all that makes us give up on the promises of God. For delight and wonder beyond all measure await us in those extra-large hands of his!

I hope and pray that Akiane will not be adversely affected by her growing fame, and that she will continue to use her gifts to glorify God and draw others to Him. Her ingenuous faith and her passion for her art—along with her incredible talent—can make her an effective instrument in the hand of her Lord. Would that hardened hearts be broken open by the words and images of a child whose eyes have seen the light of Paradise!

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