Month: September 2010

Can you then think that you are still among men?

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St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople

For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that “what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels.” (2 Corinthians 3:10) For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them?

Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:— these are marvellous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvellous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? Or do you not know that no human soul could have endured that fire in the sacrifice, but all would have been utterly consumed, had not the assistance of God’s grace been great.

—St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 3.4

Arise, O Lord, Thou and the Ark of Thy holiness

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The Nativity of the Theotokos

The Nativity of the Theotokos, September 8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In the Book of Exodus, after the Hebrew people left the land of Egypt, they wandered in the desert for some forty years before they finally came to the Promised Land. During this time, they met with God on the holy mountain of Sinai. There, they worshiped God by offering up sacrifices to Him. One of these sacrifices is described in the 24th chapter of Exodus, and then the next passage is dedicated to a meeting that took place between God and the Prophet Moses.

Moses ascends up the mountain to meet with God, and there God gives Moses some very detailed instructions regarding worship. Everything is there for how to construct the mobile worship space for the Hebrews, called the Tabernacle, including details on dimensions, building materials, tapestries, specific designs for iconography, what the priests should wear, and so on. Anyone who takes the time to read chapters 25 through 29 of Exodus could never come away with the impression that God does not care about the details of how we worship Him.

The first chapter with these instructions is dedicated to an object which is at the very center of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a large wooden chest covered with gold and adorned with images of angels. On it was a golden throne called the Mercy Seat. Eventually the Ark was used to contain several holy objects, including the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a bowl of the manna God sent down from heaven to feed the Hebrews, and the miraculously budding staff of Aaron, the brother of Moses.

The Ark was a throne where God communed with His people. It was so holy that to touch it unworthily was to die. It was at the very center of Hebrew worship of the One True God, and it was sometimes even carried into battle with them to bring the power of God to bear in the face of Israel’s enemies. The Old Testament Scriptures mention the Ark a number of times, and several rare scriptural expressions are used when referring to the Ark.

When we come to the New Testament, we see a repeat of some of these rare expressions of language, but this time, this language refers not to the Ark, not to the Temple in Jerusalem, nor to any other object. Rather, this language is used when referring to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the One True God. When the Gospel writers wanted to refer to the Virgin, they realized by the power of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that all the symbolism and real power that surrounded the Ark of the Old Covenant now had been transferred to the Ark of the New Covenant, the Virgin Mary herself, the Theotokos.

This is why when we come to the feasts of the Mother of God, such as we celebrate today, we often hear in the hymns quotations from the Old Testament referring to the Ark of the Covenant. In the Virgin Mary, we approach the new Ark of the New Covenant, no longer a lifeless golden box but a living, breathing human being who mystically and physically contained within herself the Everlasting God of the Universe.

In the Old Testament, to approach the Ark of the Covenant was to approach the Lord God Himself. This was not because God could be contained within a golden box, but rather because God chose that golden box as a place of utmost holiness and divine presence on Earth. There on that Mercy Seat God communed with His people in a powerful, mystical way. And now the Lord has approached us once again, but the locus of His coming to Earth is a human woman.

And just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was carefully constructed and prepared by human hands, so, too, was the new Ark carefully prepared. But instead of the preparation of carpenters and goldsmiths, the preparation of the Virgin Mary was by her quiet and humble obedience to and cooperation with the will of God.

This is why we honor the Virgin Mary, not because we want to elevate her to the status of a goddess and worship her, but because she is the carefully prepared vessel which bore the God of the Universe, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through her came our salvation. Through her came a new life for every human being and the whole world. Through her came union between God and man.

Therefore, we approach her today and venerate her on her birthday because we desire to approach and come close to the Son of God. We respect her and sing about her glory because that glory is the glory of the awesome God. We call upon her here at the center of our worship just as the Hebrews placed the old Ark at the center of theirs, not because she or a golden box are to be the object of worship, but because the Ark is the place of worship, because the Ark of the Old Covenant and now the Ark of the New Covenant are the place where God has chosen to draw near to His people.

As we look upon the icon of the Holy Virgin, we see that she points us to her Son. Today, as we celebrate her birth into this world, may we hear her call to draw near to her holy Son. As we gaze upon the glory that surrounds her as more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, may we be drawn into a true encounter with that glory, the glory which is God’s and may also be ours if we are in union and communion with Him, just as she is.

To the Holy Trinity therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Priorities and Practicalities

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The following is a recycled post from my previous weblog, originally posted in October of 2008.

In a conversation I had recently, I was struck by how religious fervor is so often given over to nearly everything but religion. In this particular discussion, my interlocutor was greatly concerned about people who had no health insurance, because of a frequent interaction with such people, some of whom are genuinely suffering seriously with life-threatening illnesses. My position in the discussion was that health care, while important, is of relatively lower importance compared to questions of eternal significance. What I didn’t know was that that statement would reveal that I “live in la-la land.” Something real has to be done, I was told, and I got the strong impression that that meant it had to be some kind political action.

In all honesty, I regard much of politics as the real “la-la land,” and not only because the candidates usually lie about what it is they’ll do once in office (either deliberately or through a change of course after inauguration). Rather, my concern is that those who genuinely want to see real help for real suffering so often believe that the best (and perhaps only) way to effect such a change is to vote for it. This attitude is directly related to the common (and specious) maxim that “You can’t complain if you don’t vote.” This whole paradigm is based on the diversion of devotion which is deserved only in religious matters to questions of politics.

And yet it was the non-Christian Gandhi who is remembered for saying, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Voting, while a potentially useful measure in a limited way, is in my experience one of the remotest and impractical things one can do in order to effect change for the good. What most of us (including myself) are usually unwilling to do is to meet suffering in front of us with a direct action on our own part. It may not be the case that I will be able to pay another’s health insurance premiums, but I can say a kind word, offer prayer, offer comfort in numerous ways, or perhaps I may have the funds to pay for one doctor’s visit. Or maybe I can try to find doctors who help people at discount or gratis rates. Or perhaps I can work for the reconciliation of that person with the family who were previously helping them with their health needs. Or I may be able to help on a grander scale and put together a private foundation dedicated to helping people in such crises. In comparison with all these sorts of direct and meaningful ways of addressing suffering, voting and all political action seem to me to be a relative “la-la land.” Anything which makes responsibility for doing good someone else’s responsibility rather than my own is a drift off into unreality.

The spiritual problem that we face in our culture is ultimately one of priorities. Most of us say that God is real, and most of us probably believe that what we do in this life matters in the next. Now, either this is true or it isn’t. If it isn’t true, then of course we should live for the next pleasure or (perhaps on a somewhat nobler plane) the “common good.” But if it is true, then that means even living an ethical life can never be “enough.” The reality of God does of course propose a certain ethics to us, but His existence and (especially for the Christian) His interaction with mankind propel us into a realization and an experience far more intense and powerful than mere ethics. For God wishes to know His people and wishes us to know Him. This is what He says salvation actually consists of. “Going to Heaven when you die” is, by comparison, almost a spiritual afterthought.

I’ve been told that it’s a “hard sell” to convince folks that our investments in this life yield dividends in the next. That’s been true from the beginning of the Gospel’s preaching. But what really astounds is that this is a hard sell even for those who claim to believe in God and in an afterlife. True faith, it seems, is a “la-la land” of impracticality.

But what is practical, our praxis, is what we make of it. If our life’s praxis is only ever to pursue goals which will all find their sudden and abrupt erasure at the moment of death, then of course, all that is practical will also be temporary for us. If we have never or seldom actually tried living another kind of praxis, we will not have any concept of what can actually be attained. But those who redirect their praxis in the direction of what is eternal find that what is practical involves a great deal more than what is temporary. And truly, even the temporal can be transformed to have not only temporal but eternal significance.

The ministry of Jesus in the Gospels included a lot of temporal work. He healed many diseases and brought people back from the dead. But in all those cases, those people eventually died. The 5000 hungry He fed all eventually died. The paralytic He healed died. The lepers He healed died. Does this mean that His ministry was useless? Indeed, no, because His purpose in all of that temporal care was to lead people to eternal life. Sometimes, He used it as a “hook” to get people to listen to His words. Sometimes, He used it as a demonstration of the power of God to engender faith. Sometimes, He used it to demonstrate what happens after people show their faith. But in all cases, He used the temporal aspects of His ministry to lead His suffering creation to what is eternal. I cannot imagine Jesus ever merely voting for change.

A well-known statement from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity sums up this whole question well: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither.” I like the rest of that paragraph, too: “It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining that there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more—food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.”

This axiom is true for all of us. If our aim is at Heaven, whether in terms of the charitable and compassionate acts we do for others or how we direct our finances or whatever else, then we will find earth to be “thrown in,” though often not in the ways we initially might prefer. But it’s usually better. Here’s some more from Lewis:

Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all—except in so far as ‘Heaven’ means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.

And, since we are on the subject of “la-la land,” and also because I have always appreciated wit, I couldn’t help but finish up this little reflection by yet another quote from Lewis’s beautiful “Hope” chapter in Mere Christianity: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.”