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

Archive for May, 2009

Wind + Fire + Water = Eternal Life

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11) begins: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  Of course the reference there is to the Old Testament feast ofpentecost-icon Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai.  But now the Christian day of Pentecost has come once again for us, and we gather together to celebrate not the giving of the Law, but the giving of the grace of the Holy Spirit.  We may not experience the extraordinary phenomena that the disciples experienced on the first Pentecost, but the same Holy Spirit of God is present with us today, desiring to fill us with Himself as He filled those gathered in the upper room nearly 2000 years ago.

The Scriptures give us several lists of various gifts of the Holy Spirit.  But aside from the manifestation of the Wind and Fire, we learn of only one in the account of the first Pentecost, which the people of many nations gathered in Jerusalem described as follows: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”  The “gift of tongues” here is not the same as the charismatic gift of the same name, which is an ecstatic (though unintelligible) utterance that is a form of prayer.  When the Holy Spirit first came upon the apostles, the gift was actually an ability to speak in many known languages, which were quite intelligible to those who heard them.  That is because this gift was not for the sake of personal prayer but for the sake of evangelization, for they were impelled by the Spirit to speak of “the mighty works of God,” so that those who heard would come to believe in Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Savior, and Son of God.

We might be astonished at the sudden God-given ability of the unlettered disciples to speak in different languages, but perhaps there was a gift given that is greater still.  That is the fearless courage of the disciples to put themselves at risk for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ.  Recall that before the Spirit had come they were still in hiding, afraid of reprisals from the authorities, for they were known to be disciples of the One who had recently been executed for blasphemy and sedition.  Suddenly, filled with the Holy Spirit, they abandoned their hideout and marched into the public square, free from fear and filled with zeal to proclaim the mighty works of God accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  As events would bear out, there still were reasons to fear—from a purely human perspective—for the apostles would be threatened, beaten, and otherwise persecuted for their witness to Christ.  But the power of the Holy Spirit made all that irrelevant for, as St Peter would later say, they had to obey God rather than man and thus they could not keep quiet about what they had seen and heard.

St Peter even became an expert in the Scriptures due to the grace of the Spirit, for he saw how the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled in their presence.  In his very first address to the people—with the divine Fire freshly blazing within him—he said: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel… ‘I shall pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,’ says the Lord… ‘and they shall prophesy.  And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth beneath…’ And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Peter would make it clear that the fulfillment of this prophecy was not only in the striking manifestations of the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, but that now it is on the name of the Lord Jesus that people must call in order to be saved.  He would later say that there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12).  This is an incredible claim to make to people who believed in God but who had crucified this same Jesus as an imposter and blasphemer.  Yet the power of the Holy Spirit was so strong that on that very day there was a mass baptism and 3000 souls repented and believed in Jesus and his Gospel.

As for us, we may already believe in the Lord Jesus and call upon his name, but we are still greatly in need of the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.  Declaring faith in Christ is but the beginning of living our whole life in Christ, and for this we need the Holy Spirit every day.  Perhaps we are looking for extraordinary gifts, but what the Spirit is actually giving us is the same fearless courage He gave to the first apostles, the strength and the zeal to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to hear the word of God and to keep it.

Many years ago, I would approach the feast of Pentecost wondering what gift the Holy Spirit might wish to grant unto me, having in mind St Paul’s lists of charismatic gifts in First Corinthians (12:4-11).  How about prophecy, or healing, or even miracle working?  Well, I never received any of those, and I think anyone who desires extraordinary charisms will probably not be granted them, because there’s always a danger of self-aggrandizement, of receiving the glory for oneself instead of giving it all to God, humble disclaimers notwithstanding.  Shortly after Paul lists the charismatic gifts, he says: “Now I will show you a still more excellent way.” What follows is his incomparable hymn to love as the greatest of all gifts, one which does not pass with this world, like prophecy or healing or tongues, but which endures for all eternity—for God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and He in them.  It would perhaps have been a subtle but powerful liturgical master-stroke if First Corinthians 13 were chosen as one of the readings for the feast of Pentecost.  St Paul says elsewhere that the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  The Gift of the Holy Spirit is the love of God.

Having learned from the Spirit-filled St Peter that we must call on the name of Jesus to be saved, let us turn to the Gospel and hear the words of Christ, for if we are to receive the Holy Spirit, we must come to Jesus.  In the Gospel (Jn. 7:37-52; 8:12) the Lord exclaims: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” For as the Scripture says: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  The evangelist hastens to add that this Living Water referred to the Holy Spirit, who would be given to those who believed in Christ, after his glorification, that is, his death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven.

The Holy Spirit is often spoken of in Scripture as being “poured out,” and to receive Him is to be “filled.”  So here in the Gospel Jesus invites us to come and drink.  All this symbolizes an intimate and personal communion.  We eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus so that He can abide in us and impart his own life to us.  Likewise, though in a less tangible manner, we “drink in” the grace of the Holy Spirit—the River of Living Water poured out from the Heart of Christ—to satisfy our insatiable thirst for love and peace and wisdom and immortality.

All the gifts of the Holy Spirit are contained in the one Gift of the Holy Spirit which is Himself, given personally to us, first in the sacrament of Chrismation, and then in all the other means of sanctification provided by the Church, as well as our own faith and prayer.  Whatever specific gifts may be given by the Spirit are given in view of the particular vocation He has granted to us.  He doesn’t give us gifts so that we can amaze crowds with signs and wonders, but He gives us whatever we need to do his will in this world, fearlessly and courageously, calling on the name of the Lord Jesus and inviting others to do so as well.  The Holy Spirit gives us whatever works toward our sanctification and salvation, and this River of Life, this Living Water of divine grace, will continually flow into all those who ceaselessly come to the Lord Jesus to receive it.

There may be a drought here in California and in other parts of the country and the world, but there is no drought of the grace of God.  If our souls are dried up it is because we ourselves have cut off the flow, have severed ourselves from the Source, through our lack of openness and surrender in love to Him whose Heart overflows with Living Water.  If we close ourselves up, living in our own little world of thoughts and feelings, the Living Water flows around us rather than within us.  The Lord always looks for an opening to come in, but He has to wait for our free choice to come out of our fearful hiding and receive the power and the joy to live fully in the grace of the Holy Spirit, and to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, not merely with our lips but in the witness of our whole life.

With the Living Water of the Spirit, we will bear sweet and abundant fruit for the glory of God, for Jesus said: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn. 15:8). We see again that it is not sufficient to merely consider ourselves disciples, or say that we are disciples.  Jesus requires that we prove we are disciples by bearing much spiritual fruit for the glory of his Father.

We know from St Paul what the fruit of the Holy Spirit is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).  If we bear this fruit in abundance, we know we are in the Holy Spirit, that we are disciples of Christ, and that we are giving glory to the Father.

So let us come to Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit.  For Christ has been glorified and longs to let the grace of his Spirit flow into us.  We come directly to the overflowing Heart of Christ as we approach the Eucharistic Chalice.  Let us open ourselves wholly, and never close ourselves, through grievous sin or self-centeredness, to this heavenly flow of grace and thus become like a “dry, weary land without water” (Ps 62/63).  Jesus says at the end of the Gospel that He is the Light of the world.  Let us enter that Light, then, and therein expose ourselves without reserve to the Wind, the Fire, and River of Living Water, which is the irrepressible life and love of the Holy Spirit, which will bring us, laden with spiritual fruit, to the lush and eternally refreshing repose of the life of the Blessed in Paradise.

God’s Answer

Way back toward the beginning of human history, not long after the death of Methuselah, God took a kind of assessment of man.  He saw that the wickedness of man on earth was great, and that man’s heart was continually occupied with evil (Gen. 6:5).  He was grieved at this and regretted creating man in the first place.  God knew that the creation of man as such was not a bad idea (for God doesn’t have bad ideas), but that these men had made a mess of everything, had spoiled his wonderful plans.  So God decided to save man, in the persons of Noah and his family, but also to send a flood to wash the earth clean of the iniquity of all the rest.

Is God taking an assessment of man today?  If so, would he find the same thing that He found so many centuries ago when He wiped humanity’s slate clean?  The scandals, crises, corruption, tornadoinjustice and other evils in the world and even in the Church are too well known to need any detailing here.  So what is God going to do, send another flood and destroy everything again?  No, because He said He wouldn’t (Gen. 8:21).  I would say no also because it didn’t really work the first time, since man went back to doing evil once he flourished again on the earth.  I think that instead of a great flood God is going to send a Mighty Wind.

In the beginning, the Wind, Breath, Spirit (same word in Greek and in Hebrew) of God was moving over the primordial chaos and thus fashioned the whole universe (Gen. 1:1-2).  God has a way of bringing order and beauty out of chaos, of transforming evil to good, of turning sinners into saints.  In the time of the New Creation, after the incarnate Son of God died, rose, and ascended to Heaven, that great Wind/Breath/Spirit of God began to move again in quite an astounding manner.

“Suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4).  What was happening?  St Peter will tell you. “This is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel: ‘And in he last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…and I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath… And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Acts 2:16-21).

We can see, though we live in times that surpass even Noah’s time in wickedness, that the promised Spirit is at work right now in many ways, places and persons.  But more is yet to come.  The Holy Spirit has still not transformed the entire face of the earth, but the day is coming.  Our resistance slows Him down but will not stop Him.  Call on the name of the Lord so that not only you but also many others will be saved.  He will not give up on us, so we should not give up our hope in the Lord’s manifest victory over all that stands against his truth and love.

God takes no pleasure in the destruction of sinners but desires that they repent and live (see Ezek. 33:11).  He doesn’t want to wipe us out but to change us for the better.  He doesn’t want to punish us but to enlighten and heal us.  That is why He is sending his Spirit and not a worldwide flood.  True, we are free to reject his offer of renewal and restoration in his Spirit, and we could reap the bitter harvest of the evil we have sown.  But as long as there is still time before Judgment Day, the Lord will seek reconciliation with rebellious man, for God is love.

All of us sinners have, in one way or another, “profaned the holy name of God among the nations.” God is therefore going to vindicate the holiness of his great name.  But how—by wiping us off the face of the earth in a display of sheer power?  No, He is even more powerful than that.  He is going to cleanse us from our impurities and our idols. He is going to give us a new heart and a new spirit.  And He will put his own Spirit in us, so that we can live according to his word (see Ezek. 36:22-28).

Let us pray frequently and fervently for this Divine Deluge of grace to be released in its fullness.  Don’t regard Pentecost as a passing day on the liturgical calendar.  Let it chart the direction of the rest of your life.

Love and the Power to Heal (Part 2)

We must go still further. Our communion with God cannot be limited to set times of meditation and prayer.  How can we truly live and love if our relationship with the Source of Life and Love is only on a part-time basis?  Now we obviously cannot be explicitly praying 24 hours a day, but there are things we can do to maintain in our everyday life what we have experienced in our more profound moments of communion with God.

These are the “spiritual disciplines” which need to be applied to our daily lives and relationships with God and other people.  According to author Dallas Willard (The Spirit of the Disciplines), there are two basic types: the disciplines of abstinence and the disciplines of engagement.  The former include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, and sacrifice.  The latter include study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission to God.  Now these cannot all be practiced in the same way and to the same extent by everyone.  But it would be quite helpful to incorporate these disciplines into daily life according to one’s own capacities and life-situation.

SuitcaseManThe effort required by these spiritual disciplines is necessary because we are not angels or pure spirits that enjoy unhindered access to God.  We are human beings with many limitations to transcend.  Most likely we are hauling around a lot of interior “baggage” that clutters up the inner house of God and hence robs our souls of peace.  We have allowed (or have been forced to allow) much to obscure the face of God within us.  Others have hurt us and we have hurt others, and so we have become proficient at erecting defenses. Such defenses impede the flow of love and compassion—both to and from others.  So there is some interior “housecleaning” that has to be done if ours are to be the hands guided by God’s hands with the touch that heals.

All of us have, to one degree or another, created a “false self” which we present to the world, and out of which we usually live.  This false self is egocentric and has been constructed with approval-seeking and survival techniques, with defense and coping mechanisms, and has been conditioned so much by our environment and by society in general, that we usually end up thinking that this is who we really are.

But there is a “true self” underlying that artificial ego-veneer.  This true self is the very depth of our being where the image of God is untarnished, where we are in communion with God, and hence where genuine love is born.  There is an “I” that is not to be identified with our bodies, our intellects, or our emotions, but which is deeper than them all.  It is the vast, profound, and unique center of consciousness and awareness where the divine and the human are in communion.  We may experience this true self from time to time, but we don’t often live out of it.  But we must do so more and more if we are to live with full integrity and true spiritual vitality, and especially if we are to be effective instruments of healing love.

To live in love is a full-time job.  The reward is great, but the investment is also substantial.  It will cost you something to bring love to a world that often speaks of love but which has lost the true meaning of it. Love has the power to help us heal wounds and transcend differences. But here’s the rub: for the most part, the world doesn’t live by love and doesn’t encourage us to do so either.  Modern industrial, commercial, and technological society has in many ways reverted to the “law of the jungle”: kill or be killed.  To survive, one must play the game, beat the system, do unto others before they have the chance to do unto you.

But is survival in the jungle worth the sacrifice of our integrity and of so much of our humanity created in the image of God, that is, in the image of Love?  Should we not still strive to live from our true self without counting the cost?  Is not the cost of maintaining the false self ultimately much greater?  Many are the altars upon which people sacrifice their true selves, and therefore many are the broken places within that cry for healing.

You may find (perhaps to your surprise or dismay) that people actually find it difficult to receive love and compassion, because their defenses are meant to shield them from the vulnerability and openness that love invites.  You may even discover that your attempts to bring love into others’ lives will meet with suspicion or rejection.  That’s OK.  Love anyway.  This task is not for the timid.  The call to love unconditionally and consistently is for the one who desires to bring God’s presence to others in whatever way He wills.

Let’s attempt to summarize a bit for the sake of clarity.  God created the universe and is present in it through love.  This love is the power that keeps all creation in being, harmony, and integrity.  This divine love is powerful enough to restore the sick to health and the wounded to wholeness.  The same power of God is with us to heal. Through faith, prayer, meditation, and spiritual disciplines, we can open ourselves to receive this healing love, not just for our own benefit, but in order to communicate it to others.  As we connect more surely and securely with God in our true inner self, we become more “transparent” to the presence of Lord, and hence our capacity for receiving and giving love grows.  We find that we are moved with compassion in the face of others’ suffering, and when we stretch out our hands to touch them, divine grace flows through us to heal.

If we aspire to be healers, we can only aspire to be people who love and who open our hearts and souls to Love.  We must be people who pray and who listen, who see with eyes of compassion and who bring the hand of God to touch others in need.  Then we will “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28) in God and in the eternal rhythm of that Love which moves the planets and stars.  Then we will be able to bring the blessing of God upon all creation, and also be the mouthpiece of the praise and thanksgiving of creation back to God.

What would life be like if we were all more loving—and less selfish, fearful, anxious, and calculating?  What if we could drop our ego-defenses and, piece by piece, dismantle the whole false-self structure? What if more of us undertook to walk the demanding yet rewarding walk of the healer, and chose love as the basis of our whole way of life?  We would become spiritual reservoirs, overflowing with peace, joy, and the fullness of life, despite the inevitable hardships.  We would surely renew the face of the earth.  And we can do it, for God is with us and within us.

Perhaps we are now becoming aware that we have not yet really learned to love in ways divine and true.  I hope that we are also becoming aware that now is the time to begin.

Love and the Power to Heal (Part 1)

[This is an article I wrote seven or eight years ago.  It seems to me to have a somewhat “new-agey” feel to it.  I must have been going through a phase.  So if it gives you the creeps, just skip it.  I publish it here anyway because I think there still might be something worthwhile in it, and also because I’m “running out of gas” and am desperately rifling through my files to find old articles that I haven’t already recycled here.  Hopefully I can keep this thing going.  I’ve published nearly 900 reflections in the past few years and I wonder if I have much left to say…]

The power of God is with us to heal.  The most profound realities of the world are beyond the grasp of our immediate sense perception or rational analysis.  We have not yet begun to discover the secrets of the human body and soul, let alone the infinite mysteries of the Triune God.  Yet the power of God is with us to heal.  We need only learn something of the nature of that power and how personally to connect with Christ.  Then we can become actively engaged with Him in the work of healing humanity, one soul at a time.

Learning how to heal is not a matter of accessing arcane teachings and esoteric knowledge.  It is not even primarily a matter of mastering special techniques. The basic principle is this: learning to heal requires learning to love.  For the goal of healing is not merely to remove pain or disease.  It is to give vitality to both body and soul.  In the gospels, especially Luke, when someone is healed he begins immediately to glorify God. This means that something deep within has opened up, that enlightenment has accompanied restored health.  If they merely walked away disease-free but otherwise untouched, they might be “cured” but they wouldn’t be fully healed.

Jesus heals leperWhat does it “look like” to exercise the power of God to heal?  In the life of Jesus it looked like this.  A man afflicted with leprosy came to Jesus, believing He could heal him, if only He willed it.  Jesus was moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him saying, “I do will it.  Be healed.”  And the leprosy disappeared (Mark 1:40-42).  While such healing power is a special gift from God, we still ought to recall that Jesus said that if only we would believe, we would do the works that He did, and even more (John 14:12).

Love that is worthy of the name is much more profound, precisely because it is rooted in God.  Such love lasts forever, even if its various manifestations or expressions change.  Simply (and most powerfully) put, “God is love” (1John 4:16).  We cannot therefore produce it of ourselves.  Rather, we receive it and pass it on.  “We love because God first loved us” (1John 4:19).  The love that we seek to receive and to give, that which will heal and transform and energize us (and the whole world as well), must come from God and return to God. Insofar as we truly love, we are communicating the presence and power of God to others.

Let us return to the story of the leper.  What was Jesus’ reaction to the man’s affliction?  He was “moved with compassion.”  Now compassion is simply the form love takes when it meets with suffering or need.  One who has attained some degree of spiritual maturity has also attained compassion.  This quality is essential in one who would aspire to heal others. So if this is your desire, test yourself and see if you are ever indifferent to the sufferings of others.  The heart of a healer will always be moved with compassion in the presence of a person in need.

Jesus disregarded the double risk that touching the leper presented.  The obvious risk was that of physical contagion.  The other was the contraction of “ritual uncleanness” which the religious law of the time decreed concerning contact with lepers.  Neither of these hazards mattered to Christ, since his oneness with God transcended all limitations and arbitrary restrictions.  Love cuts through the red tape of all fear-based or self-protecting human conventions.

There is another element in the ministry of healing that may seem self-evident, but it deserves some attention: will it.  The leper said, “If you will it, you can heal me.”  Jesus said, “I do will it.  Be healed.”  (Literally, “be made clean.”  In this case, the physical healing also freed the man from ritual defilement.) The faith of the leper met with the will of Christ, and therein the power of God was communicated.  It is important that a person in need of healing believe in the power of divine love to “make all things new.”  One author wrote: “A miracle is not magic but the result of synergy, of cooperation, of human actions placed within the divine… Thus he brought to life the limitless powers of faith and created the situation for their manifestation.” It is equally important for the healer consciously to will and intend the healing, also with faith in the God who heals.  A general presupposition that positive results are desired is not enough.  Bringing God’s power to another person requires that you explicitly will it, aligning yourself consciously with the divine will to heal.

We have seen that God creates and sustains all things by the power of love.  If faith can “move mountains,” and if “love makes the world go round” (a silly lyric, but a metaphysical fact when it is Divine Love!), then there is a tremendous power available for the restoration of humanity and its elevation to greater union with God.  But how do we connect with that immeasurable wealth of healing power and bring it to the world?

The answer is simple: connect with God.  But the process is not always easy, or at least not instant, as we have come to expect everything else to be in our fast-paced high-tech society.  This is where meditation and prayer come in.  When we pray or meditate we are making ourselves receptive to the presence of God, to divine love and to whatever gift God wishes to grant us.  It is not sufficient simply to believe that God is everywhere and then to conclude that we can summon divine power at will.  Such an approach reduces God to a kind of cosmic vending machine from which we draw his power when we put in the coin of some wish or incantation.  That is why I said above that healing is not a matter of secret knowledge or techniques.  We would then be forced to the assumption that Eternal Love is quite impersonal, even mechanical.  But the power to heal flows out of a relationship.

It belongs to the nature of God as well as to the nature of love to be personal.  No one can love impersonally or generically.  Neither can we consider God to be impersonal when we speak of the Love that sustains all creation in being.  The point is that meditation and prayer (especially contemplative prayer) are important in the process of receiving the love-power that heals, because they open us up to the Source of that power.  We have to spend “quality time” with God, because the gift of the ability to heal with divine love flows from a relationship with God.  We have to discover the presence of God deep within our souls as well as in the created beauty and goodness around us.  We have to live from our “true self,” that “place” within us where we are in union with God, where we realize that we have been made temples of the living God.

To be continued…

Post-Ascension Epiclesis

We have entered now into a time of waiting, a relatively short time, but one that is meant to be filled with fervent prayer.  This time in the liturgical year corresponds to the time that the Lord told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would clothe them with powerrublev's trinity from on high.  These days immediately following the Ascension of the Lord are days in which we are to call down the grace of the Holy Spirit. Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov writes: “The ascension of the Lord, his going up to the Father, is the Trinitarian epiclesis of the Son who asks the Father to send down the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus explicitly said before He returned to the Father that He would ask Him to send the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who would dwell within his disciples and teach them all they still needed to know.  Every invocation of the Holy Spirit is in some sense an epiclesis, which simply means a calling down upon.  The most profound epiclesis known to the Church is that which is done in every Divine Liturgy, when we ask the Father to send down the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine placed before Him on the altar, that they might be changed into the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice, his precious Body and Blood.

So we wait, and we call upon the Holy Spirit.  In doing this we are following a venerable tradition which began at the time of the apostles and continues to this day, and which was also evident in our commemoration this Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.

But let’s go back to the beginning.  In summarizing some of the great mysteries of Christ, it may at first glance seem like there was simply one amazing wonder after another: Resurrection, Ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  But in fact there was much tension, fear, and uncertainty about what all this meant and what the first generation of Christians had to do about it.  They had discovered just before the Passion that there was a traitor in their midst. There were some doubts concerning Jesus’ resurrection at first, and then there was some uncertainty about what Jesus intended to do, once He had risen from the dead. “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” the apostles asked Jesus, evidently having understood little of what He had been telling them the past three years. Now Jesus was gone, ascended to the Father, and they wouldn’t see Him again in the flesh.  Shortly before He left He warned them that they could expect persecution because of Him.  So in these days of waiting in Jerusalem they remained in hiding, in constant prayer, imploring the coming of the mysterious “Promise of the Father” whom Jesus said He would send to them.

We have a similar situation in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (20:16-18, 28-38).  This episode was after Pentecost, but the tensions and fears were similar to those experienced in the upper room after Jesus’ departure.  This time is it Paul who is going away—from the Christian community at Miletus.  They wept and embraced him, knowing that they would never see him again.  And, as Jesus did before He went away, Paul warned them of traitors and persecutors who would attempt to mislead and scatter the flock of Christ.  The Apostle spoke to the leaders of that church, saying: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw the disciples away after them.”

This brings us to the next group of people waiting in prayer, making their epiclesis to the Holy Spirit: the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  In this case no one was going away, but the situation St Paul described nearly 300 years earlier could easily be applied to the Church in the fourth century.  The bishops who gathered in Nicea in 325 AD were the guardians whom the Holy Spirit had appointed to care for the flock of Christ, and at that time fierce wolves were threatening the flock, speaking perverse things and drawing many disciples away from the true faith.  These wolves were the Arians, promoters of a heresy that nearly overwhelmed the Church.  But the truth prevailed through the tireless efforts of such saints as Athanasius the Great and those bishops who upheld the doctrine of the divinity of Christ at the first Council. They began the drafting of the profession of faith (concluded at the second Council in 381) which we still use today in our worship as an infallible guide to the faith handed on to us from the Apostles by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The time of that first Council was a time of great turmoil in the Church, a time of great need to interpret correctly and definitively the Person of Jesus Christ, based on what He had revealed through his words and works.  And so, like the original apostles in the upper room, the leaders of the Church gathered in one place and devoted themselves to prayer and to waiting for the grace of the Spirit to inspire their discussions and formulations of the content of the Faith.  Given the ferocity of the opposition, the proceedings were not exactly a paradigm of diplomacy and courtesy.  It is even said that our father among the saints, Nicholas of Myra, slapped the arch-heretic Arius right across the face for his blasphemous assertions!  Even if that little snapshot of the Council is legendary, it still is accurate in portraying the emotional ferment and righteous indignation of those struggling to free the Church from the pernicious influence of this heresy which had denied the divinity of Christ and hence placed the whole theology of salvation in jeopardy—all the way from incarnation to passion, resurrection, and ascension.

Now that we’ve made it all the way to the fourth century, we have to go back again, further back even than the first apostles waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit.  We have to go back to the time just before the Passion, when Jesus uttered the words proclaimed in the Gospel for this Sunday (Jn. 17:1-13).  The Lord foresaw all that was going to happen to his Church, from his original disciples to the many generations of believers that would follow.  So He offered a solemn prayer to his Father, entrusting them all to his grace, protection and guidance.  Today’s Gospel only gives us about half the prayer, so I’m going to have to reach a little beyond it if I’m going to share what Christ intended for his flock.

There is one essential matter that is the foundation for all that Jesus asks his Father to do, and everything that follows is in service of this one thing necessary, which is: eternal life.  Jesus acknowledges that his mission from the Father was to give eternal life to all those whom the Father had given Him.  (Evidently Judas lacked the qualifications to be in that blessed number, because Jesus said “none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”)

Anyway, the whole mission of Jesus was to give eternal life to those who would receive it, and He describes this life as knowing the true God and his only Son whom He sent.  This does not mean that salvation is merely about knowledge.  Many people have intellectual knowledge of God but do not love or obey Him.  It can’t rightly be said of them that they thus have eternal life.  But to “know,” in the Hebrew sense, which Jesus was likely referring to here, is to know as one knows another person, and this knowledge is intimate and profound.  The most intimate example is when you read in the Old Testament that a man “knows” a woman and the result of that knowledge is the conception of a child.  Our Lady was speaking of the same thing to the Archangel Gabriel, who said she would conceive a son.  She wondered how that would come to pass, for, as she said, “I do not know man.”  So eternal life is the result of a personal and intimate communion with the Father and the Son, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In order to accomplish his task of granting eternal life, Jesus says He revealed the name of the Father to his disciples, that is, He manifested who the Father really is.  Jesus then says that He gave them the words of the Father, that is, the message of the Gospel of our salvation.  And Jesus prayed for them and guarded them, and they responded by receiving his words and putting their faith in Him, believing that it was indeed God the Father who sent Him to save the world.  Jesus then prays that they might be sanctified and kept from the evil one—and the work of the evil one includes all that I’ve already mentioned: the errors, the heresies, the threats to the unity, peace, and integrity of the flock.  Finally, Jesus prayed for you and for me.  Are you aware that Jesus prayed for you shortly before He died?  He prayed for all those who would believe in Him through the words of his apostles (Jn. 17:20).

This brings us back to the upper room in Jerusalem, to the early Church on the shores of Miletus, and to the fathers of the Councils.  This is the dynamic of Holy Tradition, which began with the words from Christ’s own mouth, to the preaching of the first apostles after the Holy Spirit filled them, to the life of the early Church, to the formulation of the doctrines of the Church, definitively held as divine revelation.  This is how we have come to believe in Christ through the words of the apostles, and hence are among those whom the Father has given to Jesus, heirs of eternal life.  Thus too we are among those for whom Jesus prayed, and for whom He still lives to intercede before the Father, as the Epistle to the Hebrews says (7:25).

So let us spend this week before Pentecost not only in a fervent epiclesis of the Holy Spirit, but also in gratitude for being placed in that life-stream of divine grace which is the Holy Tradition, the word of Christ handed on through the apostles and the saints.  Above all, let us pray to the Holy Spirit that we may know, in the most profound sense of the word, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

God Goes Up

The feast of the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a kind of a link between Pascha and Pentecost, the Resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The liturgical texts for the feast of “Mid-Pentecost” make the same claim for that feast, but that is just a bit of rhetoric without any real theological foundation—only the reminiscence that in the middle of a certain Jewish feast, Jesus came to the Temple to teach the people (and even then they get the chronology mixed up in some of the texts).  A day was chosen exactly halfway between Easter and Pentecost and they decided to make a little feast day out of it.  But in reality, the feast of the Ascension of our Lord is the real feast: the theological, if not the chronological, mid-Pentecost.

Both of the readings for the Liturgy (Lk. 24:36-53; Acts 1:1-12) mention all three mysteries: the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, so there is a clear link between them, and not merely because one follows another in time.

The Gospel reading is one of the post-Resurrection accounts, which is read in turn with the others at Matins on almost all Sundays of the year.  But this one was chosen for the feast because of its clear reference to all three mysteries.  According to Luke, this is the first appearance of the risen Christ to all the disciples together, which happened shortly after he revealed Himself to the two disciples at Emmaus.  Before He could go back to Heaven or tell the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, He had first to convince them that it was truly He who was risen from the dead and was standing before them—in the flesh, albeit without the earthbound limitations.  So He showed them his wounds, invited them to touch Him, and even ate in their presence—something that ghosts are not wont to do.

Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, to realize how He had fulfilled the prophecies through his Passion and Resurrection, and that now was the time to proclaim this message to the world, preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.  But for this they would need the grace of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus refers to here as “the Promise of My Father.”  Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit would come and they would be “clothed with power from on high.”  Later, as He blessed them, He was lifted up to Heaven in their sight.

ascensionIn the Acts of the Apostles, the information is basically the same, though with different details and emphases.  We learn that after Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days, “speaking of the Kingdom of God.”  That, of course, is the basis for our celebrating the feast of Ascension 40 days after Easter.  We get a couple more details about the Ascension in Acts.  Here it says Jesus was lifted up on a cloud, and that when He disappeared from sight, two angels appeared and asked them why they were still looking up into the sky (perhaps that was a reminder that they still had a lot of work to do).  In any case, another mystery is introduced here, because the angels said that Jesus would return the same way He left.  Indeed, Jesus had prophesied during his trial before the Sanhedrin that all would see the Son of Man “coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.  We’re still linking the mysteries of Resurrection, Ascension, and the coming of the Spirit.  I think it is clear that the Ascension couldn’t have happened without the Resurrection. In St John’s theology, they are two inseparable elements of the glorification of Christ.  Jesus Himself then links the Ascension and Pentecost thus: “Now I am going to him who sent me… it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete [i.e., the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn. 16:5-7).  And the very first line of the proper texts for Vespers on the feast of Ascension reads: “The Lord ascended into Heaven to send the Comforter into this world.”

So the Ascension presupposes the Resurrection (that is, only in his glorified state could Jesus return to the glory of Heaven), and the sending of the Holy Spirit presupposes the Ascension (that is, the Lord ascended in order that He could send the Holy Spirit to us).  Thus the feast of Ascension truly is a theological mid-Pentecost, connecting Easter and Pentecost.  But all these things didn’t happen just so we could develop a neat system and have coherent liturgical celebrations.  These are the great mysteries of God’s personal intervention into human life and history, thus manifesting his will for human destiny.  This is what He has done to liberate us from enslavement to sin and from eternal punishment; this is what He has done to triumph over death and to give new life and hope and salvation to the world.

Therefore this is a feast of great joy, as we repeatedly sing the psalm verse: “God goes up with shouts of joy.”  Yet there’s a curious text from Vespers that reads: “O Lord and Giver of life, when the apostles saw You ascending upon the clouds, a great sadness overcame them; they shed burning tears and exclaimed: O our Master, do not leave us orphans; we are your servants whom You loved so tenderly…”  It concludes with a plea for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  This text may seem a little out of place among all the joyous ones, but I think it may reflect even better the profoundly human experience of the permanent departure of a loved one.

It was a kind of second grief for the apostles.  They had already grieved Jesus’ death 40 days ago, and then rejoiced to see Him alive again.  But now they realized they would never see Him again in this world, because He was returning to his Father’s glory in Heaven.  They could rejoice for his sake, and they could even joyfully anticipate the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit (although they probably were still rather unclear on just who the Holy Spirit was).  But the fact was that Jesus was going, and He wasn’t coming back—at least not until the end of time.  So they would have to do without his bodily presence, his smile, his teachings and admonitions.  They would not eat with Him, walk and talk and go fishing with Him, go to weddings at Cana with Him, camp out under the stars with Him, or simply sit at his feet and listen to Him.  They would eventually discover, however, the ways in which the Holy Spirit would bring his presence to them, and they could then rejoice that by the grace of the Spirit, Jesus would not be simply with but rather within them.  Yet at this moment of Jesus’ ascension, they just watched Him go.  Then He was out of sight.

Immediately, according to the Acts of the Apostles, they returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer.  Prayer for the coming of that mysterious Spirit whom Jesus said would clothe them with power from on high.  Prayer for that Counselor whom Jesus said would remind them of all He had told them, and who would dwell within them.  Prayer for that Spirit of Truth, whom Jesus said would guide them to the whole truth, to all those things Jesus would have told them if they had had the capacity to receive them.  Prayer for the One whom Jesus said would declare to them the things yet to come, who would take what is Christ’s and give it to them—meaning He would take what is the Father’s, for all that is the Father’s is the Son’s also.

In all this, their grief would have been eased, their hope strengthened, and their joy renewed.  For indeed, the Gospel concludes by saying that the disciples were to be found continually in the temple, blessing God.  Perhaps the time between the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit was a time for them to reflect on all the incredible events of the past three years that had forever transformed their lives.  They would never be the same again for having chosen to follow the Carpenter from Nazareth, who would teach them through his Spirit how to build the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps this feast ought to be something of the same for us:  sadness, joy, reflection, hope.  We are happy to celebrate the glorification of our Lord and Master, who suffered so much out of love for us and who deserves infinite glory in return.  We may be a little sad to see the paschal days come to a close, especially if we did not fully enter into the grace of the Resurrection or respond sufficiently to the Lord’s invitation to enter into a deeper level of life with Him.  We may also be painfully aware that in this land of exile we will never get to see Jesus face to face, or live and relate with Him as another human being whom we can see and touch and share life with.  We may need to think and pray deeply about the mystery of faith, of divine love and spiritual presence, of communion with Christ through the sacraments, through lectio divina and silent contemplation.

Finally, this feast turns us in hope toward Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter who will lead us to all truth and to the fullness of life in our Lord Jesus.  The Holy Spirit is our only link, so to speak, with God, for after the Ascension of Christ, God is present in this world only through his Holy Spirit.  As we are turned toward the Holy Spirit, let us also remember the angelic apparition after Christ’s ascension, for Christians are to be essentially oriented to the Second Coming of Christ on the clouds of Heaven.  Part of the whole truth that the Spirit of Truth brings us is the mystery, the hope, of the return of our Lord, who promised not to leave us orphans, but to come for us and take us to Himself, that where He is, we may be also: in the eternal glory, love, and joy of the All-holy Trinity.

Dare to Call Him Father (Part 2)

The issue of the way we talk about God should not come down to trying to divide God up into male and female Persons, or making God wholly male or female.  Aside from what we have said about the Father and the Son and the mystery of the Incarnation, there is a deeper underlying reason for the use of masculine language in reference to God.  It has to do with God as Creator, and everyone and everything else as creation.  God is the giver, created beings are the receivers.  God is the initiator, creation is the responder.  In a common biblical image, God is the husband, and Israel (later, the Church) his bride.  God plants the seeds, and the earth and all who live on it bear the fruit.

Thus all human souls (of men or of women) have a kind of “feminine” relationship to God.  Again, God is the Giver of grace and all good things; we are the receivers who are expected to bear spiritual fruit.  When you read spiritual writers of an earlier time, they usually speak of the human soul in feminine terms, and the mystics are often quite explicit about this in their writings.  A man can be, like John the Baptist, a “friend of the Bridegroom,” but in the depths of his soul, in his contemplative receptivity to grace, he is Jesus’ beloved, the receiver of the Lord’s outpoured gift of Himself.  The usual Christian interpretation of the Song of Songs is that Christ (or God as such) is the Lover, the Bridegroom, while the individual soul (or the Church as a whole) is his beloved bride, the object of his ardent affections.  In the Book of Revelation, the faithful all together constitute the Bride of Christ (19:7-9; 21:2, 9-10; the “city” is the redeemed and glorified Church).

This is one reason, though not the only one, that the Church must have a mbyzantine priestale priesthood.  The priest is the icon of Christ the Bridegroom who is offered in sacrifice and gives Himself to his Bride through the sacraments (see Ephesians 5:25-27), especially the Holy Eucharist.  Only a male can be an icon of a bridegroom. A female priest could not image Christ in this essential, visible, sacramental way, and the symbolism of the Liturgy would thus be grossly distorted by the image of “two brides.”  We have enough of that kind of nonsense in our present-day degenerate society, which tries to legitimize same-sex “marriage,” but all that must be kept out of the Church’s worship.

The priesthood is not merely a functional ministry of prayer and counseling, or of spiritual and corporal works of mercy, which some women could surely perform better than some men.  Ability to perform, however, is not the chief criterion for ordination.  There are many fruitful ways in which women can and do serve God and the Church.  But the priesthood, on its profound level of ontological reconfiguration of a man to Christ the Priest, has more to do with a correspondence of signs, which is essential to the sacramental nature of the Church.  A woman cannot signify Jesus Christ in his sacrificial role as High Priest of our salvation and hence as Bridegroom of the Church.  Remember, from the passage from Ephesians quoted above, that the role of bridegroom (or husband) is a sacrificial one.

The person of the priest becomes the instrument or extension of Christ, who says through him: This is my body.  The Holy Eucharist is sacramentally and literally the body of Jesus Christ.  Though his body has been transfigured by his resurrection and heavenly glory, he nevertheless remains a man for all eternity.  He can embrace and identify with all of humanity in Himself, but in order to do so it isn’t necessary, for example, that He incarnate Himself again as a woman.  Still less does He have to be cast as some sort of divine hermaphrodite or androgynous something-in-between.  In becoming incarnate, He simply chose one of the two ways of being human (let us not join the ranks of those who would recognize—or produce!—additional and bizarre alternative “genders”).  There is thus a definite logic to his choice of men to act in persona Christi in effecting the sacramental Mysteries.

As I go on writing, I see how unwieldy this topic can become, how many issues are related to it, and in how many directions it can go.  Obviously, I could only briefly touch on few here.  But perhaps I should close with the conclusion at which Fr George Montague arrived in his book quoted in the previous post.  He acknowledges the maternal imagery of God in the Old Testament, but he also reminds us that God never chose any maternal titles for Himself.  Rather, “to reveal his maternal face God chose not a maternal title but a human mother.”  For Jesus, God is “Father” and Mary is “Mother.”  Need we go further for an example to follow?

In the New Testament and thereafter, how is God imaged?  “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  Jesus Christ is the definitive Image of the Father.  Through whom, then, shall the “maternal” love of God be communicated to us?  “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27).  Regardless of the opinions or feelings of certain people in our time and culture (which opinions, it should be needless to say, are not normative for all times and cultures), Christ, who is the eternal Word of God and the final and complete Revelation of God in this world, did in fact reveal God as Father.  What Jesus Christ has said and done is normative for all times and cultures.  Jesus called God “Abba” and invites us to do the same.  The creature doesn’t “reinvent” the Creator but listens to the One whom He has sent, whose word is truth, and who is the Savior of our souls.

So, we build our faith and understanding of God on the Rock, the foundation that is Christ, and on Peter (and his successors), upon whom Jesus built his Church (see Matthew 16: 16-19).  Our Lady will be our guide, mother, protectress, and intercessor on the way to the fullness of life in God, who is the Creator and Lord and Author of Life, and who brings the Church to ultimate perfection as the heavenly Bride.  To Him be glory and praise forever!

Tag Cloud


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers