The just shall live by faith

The Third Day of Trinity – Tuesday of Pentecost Week

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Having completed reading the Acts of the Apostles on the Saturday before Pentecost, we now begin the great annual cycle of the apostolic epistles, hearing today St. Paul’s opening words to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God,(Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,)Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh;And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name:Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ:To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles.I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also.For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. – Romans 1: 1-7, 13-17

“The just shall live by faith.” St. Paul begins his annual tutorial for us on what it means to be a Christian by stating his main thesis. First, we must have faith. But also, by the power of that faith, we must be just.

There are people who think that if they strive for justice, they do not need faith in Jesus Christ. These are the humanists, the Freemasons, and the universalists. They think they can be right and do good without the right faith in Jesus Christ. On Judgment Day, they are in for a surprise.

There are other people who think that if they have faith in Jesus Christ, it does not matter whether they strive to attain the virtue of justice or not. These are all they who are not humbled by the moral demands of faith but are, on the contrary, smug about having faith while others do not. They think that “being saved” gives them a free pass not to struggle with sin. On Judgment Day, they are in for a surprise.

How do you know if you have the potential to be just? Well, first of all, ask yourself if you are in the True Faith. Apart from the true faith and the true baptism, all of man’s “justice” is worthless. How do you know if, assuming you are in the True Faith, you not only have faith in its potency but are also co-energizing with the grace you have received unto salvation? Well, ask yourself if you are consciously struggling, with total reliance on the all-sufficing grace of Christ’s Sacrifice, and according to the unerring apostolic and patristic tradition, to overcome your passions and sins, and thereby to attain the Original Justice man had with God in Paradise.

By the prayers of St. Paul and all the Holy Apostles, O Christ God, have mercy on us and save us.

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The prize of our high calling

Friday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Leave-taking of the Ascension of the Lord

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In today’s Gospel, we are privileged to hear very words of the God-Man addressed to His heavenly Father on the night before He died, the conclusion of the Great High Priestly Prayer which is the entire content of chapter seventeen of the Gospel according to St. John:

At that time, Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “As thou, Father, hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me. And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” – John 17: 18-26

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that the Lord’s words here mean that it is all or nothing for us, becoming one with the Holy Trinity or total damnation. No one gets to settle for anything in between.

“As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…I in them, and thou in me (John 17:21-23).” This is the golden chain that ties us with the Divinity! We have fallen away and a Mediator has arisen, Who is one with God the Father and has become one with us. Becoming one with Him, we are united in Him, and through Him with God the Father. Glory to Thy boundless mercy toward us, O Tri-hypostatic God, Who was well-pleased to establish for us such a bright path to deification! The Lord raises us up high; do not refuse His good gift. Confess His mercy and praise His unspeakable goodness! You think it humble to refuse such a height, but you are actually revealing crude ingratitude and carelessness toward a lofty gift. Know that there is no middle ground – it is all or nothing. If you do not want this loftiness, you will remain outside in bitter abasement, both temporally and eternally. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 117

A little scary, is it not?   Well, we need to be a little scared. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” after all.  But St. Theophan is not saying here that we all have to become strict ascetics and hesychasts immediately, or we are doomed. What he means is that wherever we are spiritually, and whatever the duties required by our station and state of life, we always have to be looking upwards, remembering what our ultimate destiny and our true calling is, and always pushing ourselves a bit, prudently but definitely. “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).”

It is not humble, the saint remarks, to refuse union with God; it is base ingratitude.   It is also completely unrealistic, for there is no “safe place,” no middle-ground where those uninterested in spiritual life who are nonetheless moral citizens of the world of man may retire in anesthetized spiritual indifference for the duration of this life and for all eternity after death. It really is all or nothing. Every being in existence is truly happy only when fulfilling its purpose, its telos, says Aristotle, and the Holy Fathers agree with him. Our purpose is to attain the indwelling grace of the Trinity and abide in God’s bosom for all eternity. Those who attain this purpose will be forever happy, and those who do not will be forever sad.

One of the telltale marks of the image of God in man, prima facie evidence that man is made according to the image of God, is man’s thirst for God, experienced as the thirst for spiritual life. St. Augustine says famously that our hearts are made for God and that they are restless until they rest in Him. Therefore it is of utmost importance that we not quench this thirst but slake it daily and hourly. As we slake it, we feel delight, and yet – behold – the thirst grows. We must drink more deeply, and then more deeply, constantly, always, until we come to the Fountain of Life in Person and behold Him face to face. Then, according to the words of Truth Himself, spoken to the woman at the well, we will thirst no more.

“In Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light shall we see light. O, continue Thy mercy unto them that know Thee!”

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The Ascension of the Savior: Our life is hid with Christ in God

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After the high point of Holy Week and Pascha, a lot of Orthodox slack off and start focusing on their worldly plans for the summer, and one does not see much of them until (one hopes) the Dormition of the Theotokos in August, which takes place when the secular school vacation period has ended and people are feeling that “church season,” along with the “school year,” has arrived again. One of the casualties of this unfortunate habit is a profitable celebration of the Ascension of the Lord, a sublime mystery that reveals the true purpose of life and puts everything into perspective.

When Christ ascended in His resurrected human flesh into the heavens, He glorified our humanity by seating it at the right hand of God the Father, and then He sent the Holy Spirit to us so that we can join Him there. What could be better than that? It should make one happy to be alive.

St. Theophan the Recluse says the following:

St. Paul expresses the power of the Lord’s Ascension in this manner: “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men (Ephesians 4:8 [quoting Psalm 67]).” Having satisfied God’s righteousness, the Lord opened for us all the treasures of God’s goodness. This is indeed a capturing or taking of spoils after victory. The beginning of the distribution of these spoils to people is the descent of the Holy Spirit, Who, having descended, always abides in the Church and gives everyone what he needs, receiving all from that captive captivity. Let everyone come and take. But prepare for yourself a repository for that treasure, which is a pure heart; have hands with which to take it, that is, unreflecting faith. Then step forth, searching hopefully and praying relentlessly. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 112.

The Redeemer’s sacrifice on the Cross, in which He offered His Precious Blood to the Most Holy Trinity and satisfied all righteousness, took away our sins.  By His Resurrection, He saved us from the power of death. These mighty deeds, however, as infinitely great as they are, were only the beginning. Not content with saving us, the Lord also glorified to the utmost the humanity He shares with us, ascending beyond every visible and invisible creature and placing our human nature, in His Person, in the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity. Having glorified our nature thus, He then sent the Holy Spirit to enable each of us personally to attain this glory. Knowing this, what steps should we take to get there too and be with Him?

The first step is to understand, accept, and internalize the meaning of our Baptism. St. Paul says in Romans 6, the reading we hear at every baptism, that we have died in Baptism. He says in Colossians 3:3, “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” So, to begin with, let us remember that, for all ultimate purposes, in relation to anything that really counts, we are already dead. Once we have put everything in this perspective, we can actually get started. Knowing that we are dead, we have nothing to lose, and we can with absolute freedom and perfect faith do what St. Theophan says:   “…step forth, searching hopefully and praying relentlessly” for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today, after you read this, tell yourself that in fact you are already dead, and therefore all the things you worry about do not matter that much. Then pray earnestly for the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. Then pray for the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Make a strong act of will to put absolute trust in the Lord, that He will bestow these seven gifts.  Do it again tomorrow and every day.

You will realize that, indeed, your life is “hid with Christ in God,” and that, far from being dead, you really have begun to live.

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You don’t take a knife to a gunfight

Tuesday of the Week of the Samaritan Woman; Afterfeast of Mid-Pentecost

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In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul deals with a sorcerer:

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark. Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus. And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister. And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord. – Acts of the Apostles 12:25-13:12

People today – even, strange to say, some Orthodox Christians – would regard St. Paul’s blinding the sorcerer as an act of “intolerance” or being “mean.”    If only St. Paul had preached Luv and Peace, perhaps old Elymas would have realized the error of his ways and come to his senses! Thank goodness – so goes this new and improved line of thought – today we have kinder, gentler methods to deal with people who are, you know, diverse!

Elymas was not simply different; he was evil in the extreme. Not only was he evil, but he also actively sought to rob Sergius Paulus of the truth of Jesus Christ.   What could be worse than that – to destroy another man’s soul on purpose? Someone who would do that is not open to gentle persuasion, for his heart is hard, he is given over to the service of the devil, and he needs to be “taken out,” as they say. According to the Mosaic law, St. Paul could have justifiably slain him. The treatment he chose was mild by comparison.

Man today recoils at the Church’s strictness in her judgment on such matters, because he does not believe in the soul or eternal salvation or eternal punishment. There are people who readily undergo all manner of torture – chemotherapy, drastic surgeries, the myriad pills and potions of “Big Pharma” with their terrible side effects, etc. – in order to eke out a few more years or even months of their miserable, corruptible biological existence, who think it dreadful that the Church would endorse severe measures to save their souls and bodies for eternity.   It all depends on what you think is real and what you think is important.

We are not sorcerers, and we pray that we will never require the Elymas treatment. But we will never have peace until we accept every pain and sorrow in this life as the necessary correction for our sinfulness, a correction willed by God from all eternity. And when Holy Church, in the person of a bishop or a confessing priest, decides to correct us by her ecclesiastical and spiritual methods, how grateful we should be: We can suffer a little here for a time and not there for eternity!

O All-Wise Lord, Who has given us the Apostolic Church to guide us to salvation, glory be to Thee!

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Come to Me and drink

Wednesday of Mid-Pentecost

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Today we celebrate Christ as the Wisdom of God. In the Gospel, the Jews ask, “How can this uneducated man have such wisdom?” And the Lord responds that it is because His wisdom is from the Father, not from men. When He says that His doctrine is “not mine,” He means that it is not from His humanity but is divine, flowing from the divinity He shares with the Father.

About the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him. Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? The people answered and said, Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee? Jesus answered and said unto them, I have done one work, and ye all marvel. Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is. Then cried Jesus in the temple as he taught, saying, Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am: and I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not. But I know him: for I am from him, and he hath sent me. Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come. – John 7: 14-30

Inspired by and expressing the Divine Wisdom, today’s hymns and readings are a theological feast, bringing together and glorifying the three great acts of Christ – the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Giving of the Holy Spirit – by which He saved us from the devil, sin, death, and hell, glorified our human nature, and established His Holy Church. Being the mid-point of the sacred Fifty Days (the Pentecost) between Pascha and Pentecost, it gives us a moment to pause, so to speak, and marveling, to behold as with a single glance all that the Lord has done for us. St. Theophan the Recluse, in his commentary for today, refers to the Dismissal Hymn for the feast, which looks forward to Pentecost:

At Mid-feast give Thou my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of piety, for Thou, O Savior, didst cry out to all: Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. O Well-spring of Life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

St. Theophan writes:

On Mid-Pentecost a cry is heard from the Lord: “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink (John 7:37) [from the Gospel reading at Pentecost].” If that is the case, then let us all go to Him. Whoever thirsts for anything, as long as it is not contrary to the Spirit of the Lord, will find satisfaction without fail. You who thirst for knowledge, go to the Lord, for he is the only Light that truly enlightens every man. You who thirst for cleansing from sins and the soothing of your conscience, go to the Lord, for he has lifted up the sins of the whole world upon the tree (cf. I Peter 2:24) and torn up their handwriting (cf. Col. 2:14).   You who thirst for peace of heart, go to the Lord, for He is the Treasure, the possession of which will make you forget all deprivations and despise all goods in order to possess Him alone. You who need strength – He has every strength. If it is glory – He has glory on high. If it is freedom – He is the giver of true freedom. He will resolve all of our uncertainties, break the bonds of the passions, disperse all sorrows and grieving, enable us to overcome all the impediments, temptations, and snares of the enemy, and will smooth out the path of our spiritual life. Let us all go to the Lord! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 101

The Lord, then, is everything to us, and He wants to give us what we truly need. Notice to whom St. Theophan directs his encouragement: Those who thirst for knowledge, those who thirst for a pure conscience, those who thirst for peace of heart, those who need strength, those who desire certainty, those who wish to break the bonds of the passions, those who wish to overcome all grief, those who want to overcome the devil, and those who want a smooth path for spiritual life. In other words, the saint is saying, Our Lord will give everything needed to those who want what He wants for them – true spiritual life. Everything needed for life and salvation, He will give in abundance, if only we heed His words, “…let him come to me and drink.”

Reflect on the stunning, paradoxical reality that the Lord is waiting to give us the very highest, most desirable things in life, and we do not ask for them. When is the last time we asked Him to give us the four cardinal virtues – Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude?   When is the last time we asked Him to give us the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord? When is the last time we asked Him to give us the three theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (Αγάπη, spiritual love)? Think about it.

The Holy Apostle James writes, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (James 4:3).” We have to learn from Our Lord, the Wisdom of God, what to ask for and how to ask for it. 1. What to ask for: We must ask for spiritual things, those virtues that please the Lord above all, as well as those earthly things which we truly need, which contribute to doing His holy will. 2. How to ask: We must ask with thirst for spiritual knowledge, with thirst for a pure conscience, with thirst for certainty of theological faith, with thirst for freedom from the passions, in short, with thirst for doing the will of God, as the Lord thirsted and hungered to do the will of His Heavenly Father.

Suggestion: The next time you are in a practical bind of some kind, and you are really asking God to help you, and nothing seems to happen, put aside the immediate, earthly problem you are worried about, and beg God for all the good things listed above, for the virtues.   Tell Him that you want, above all, to do His most holy will. This will be very pleasing to Him, and surely He will give you (as much as you can receive according to your state of soul at this point in your life) these holy gifts. And – you know what? – you may very well see, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Gordian knot of your earthly predicament cut as well.

O Wisdom of God and Well-Spring of Life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee!

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The man of divine desires

Third Friday of Pascha

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:40-9:19) is the famous account of one of the most far-reaching events in history, the conversion of Saul, who became St. Paul:

In those daysPhilip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea. And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth, And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.

 St. Theophan the Recluse goes to the heart of St. Paul’s motivation, which was zeal for doing the will of God:

St. Paul at first defended the Old Testament observances as zealously as he did because he was sincerely certain that it was the unalterable will of God that thse observances remain unchanged. He was not zealous because it was the Faith of his fathers, but because in being zealous he was offering service to God. In this lay the spirit of his life – to devote himself to God and direct all his energy toward things pleasing to Him. Thus, in order to bring about his conversion, or to make him stand for the New Testament order of things rather than that of the Old Testament, it was sufficient to show him tangibly that God no longer wanted the Old Testament but rather the New, and that He transferred all of His goodwill from the former to the latter.   The Lord’s appearance to him on the road accomplished this. There it became clear to him that he was not directing his zeal where he ought, that he was not pleasing God by acting as he did, but was acting contrary to His will. This vision of the state of things, with the help of God’s grace, immediately changed his strivings, and he cried out, “Lord what wilt Thou have me to do (Acts 9:6)?”   And from that moment he directed all of his zeal toward what was shown to him, and he did not forget this event for his entire life, but thankfully remembering it, stirred up his zeal with it – not sparing anything to work for his Lord and Savior. This is how all people act who have sincerely turned to the Lord. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 97-98.

If we were born into an Orthodox family, we should love Orthodoxy, among other reasons, because it is the Faith of our fathers. Filial piety demands no less. This reason, however, is not enough to enable us to find our salvation through Orthodoxy. To love Orthodoxy only as the tradition of our ancestors, and for no higher reason, puts us on the same spiritual level with the Shintoists of Japan, with the same eternal consequences, or perhaps worse, since more is expected of us than of Shintoists. To be Christians truly, we must love Orthodoxy because every man, regardless of his birth, must be obedient to this Faith and no other if he desires to conform his will to the will of God.

This was the great driving force, one might say the only driving force, in the life of St. Paul: to do the will of God.  With the great Elias, he could honestly say, “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts (III Kings 19:10).”   To desire to please God, to do His will, to defend His honor, to give Him glory – this was all in all to both of them and those like them.   When the Incarnate God, Jesus, revealed Himself to the zealous persecutor Saul, that was all it took for him to make a 180 degree turn and go 100 miles per hour in the opposite direction.   “Done,” as they say.

This kind of person, “the man of divine desires,” may make mistakes, even big ones, but he does not risk hearing those terrible words of the Son of Man to the Laodiceans: “…because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth (Revelation 3:16).” As we increasingly appear to be facing apocalyptic circumstances, it is probably time to get off the Laodicean fence and be the good zealots all Orthodox should be.

The late Archbishop Averky of Jordanville wrote an essay on the virtue of zeal which should be required annual reading for everyone in our generation.   You can find it at Let us all read it (or re-read it), and pray for the determination to put it into practice and the prudence to know how.

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The clarity of the Gospel

Saturday of Thomas Week

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In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the holy apostles remind the Jewish Sanhedrin that our duty is to God first before any earthly authority:  

And when they heard that, they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the high priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, and found them not in the prison, they returned, and told, Saying, The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we had opened, we found no man within.  Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these things, they doubted of them whereunto this would grow. Then came one and told them, saying, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people. Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.  Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.  When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them. – Acts 5: 21-33 

St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on this passage, reflects on the continuity of the apostolic grace in the Church through all ages until now:  

What Peter and John first said to the authorities, later all the apostles said to the authorities: We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey Him (Acts 5:29–32). What sincerity, fullness, definiteness and clarity of confession! God arranged in such a way for the Crucified to be our Saviour through the forgiveness of sins in repentance. The witnesses are the Apostles as observers, and the Holy Spirit, manifestly acting in the apostles and in all believers. The same witnesses are powerful through to our own days. What the holy Apostles say is the same as if we ourselves saw and heard it with our eyes and ears. And the Spirit of grace acts uninterruptedly in the holy Church, in miracle-working, in the conversion of sinners, and especially in the transformation of those earnestly working for the Lord, in their sanctification and filling with obvious grace-filled gifts. The transformation of people gives great power to miracle-working, and these together are powerful in forming a firm conviction of the truth of Christ, in all truth-loving souls. Thanks be to the God of truth, Who hath revealed His truth to us so clearly! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year 

St. Theophan characterizes the apostles’ witness by four qualities: Sincerity, fullness, definiteness, and clarity.  If our witness lacks these qualities, we will not partake of the grace of confession that is so abundantly available to the Church even to this day.  

“Sincerity” – The outward beauties of Orthodoxy can be misused by religious authorities, like the Sanhedrin of old, to hide behind, pretending that they are the real deal while they avoid preaching the hard truth of the Gospel, so that they will not be convicted of their sins.  Only relentless work on himself to do God’s holy, pleasing, and perfect will, and consistent following of conscience, will open to the preacher of the Word the power of the apostolic grace. 

“Fullness” –  Orthodoxy is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  If we are to inherit the apostolic grace with power, we cannot cherry pick the Church’s teachings to avoid offending people.    Christ will always be a rock of offense.     We cannot conceal any of that which we have received from Him without betraying Him.    

“Definiteness” –  “Definition” comes from the Latin word for a boundary.   The Greek word for the definitions of the councils, choros, also means a limit, a boundary.    The Holy Scripture, viewed through the lens of the God-inspired Holy Tradition, has given us the boundaries of the language we are allowed to use about God, man, creation, redemption, and sanctification.  When we depart from the definite language of Scripture, replacing its simple and concrete terms with the complicated and abstract language of modernist theology, lessening its power to convict men of their sins and ignorance in order to avoid being rejected by them like the apostles and martyrs, we have lost the power of the apostolic preaching.  

“Clarity” – With definiteness comes clarity.    “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (I John 1:15).”  Godly, truly apostolic preaching sheds God’s light on all the dark places of our soul, making clear our sins and passions, and cleansing them by the power of that light.   Beneath this searching and purifying light, nothing can be hidden and all will be revealed.   May our sins be revealed in this life, unto forgiveness and eternal life, and not in the next, unto condemnation and eternal death!  

At the end of today’s passage from Acts, we read that the Sanhedrin was “…cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay…” the holy apostles.     Thus it has always been:   The true prophets, apostles, and martyrs of the Lord will always face the threat of persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of the the powerful of this world.  Yet they have boldness in the face of death, because by obeying God rather than men, by doing the will of God, they acquire infinite divine power, the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the definitive and unanswerable conquest of sin, the devil, death, and hell.     

May this grace be ours, with all the sincerity, fullness, definiteness, and clarity of the Gospel preaching and the Gospel grace, which the Lord desires to give us in all abundance.    

Christ is Risen!  

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VI Lent Thursday – Esaias 65: 8-16

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Thus saith the Lord:  As a grape-stone shall be found in the cluster, and they shall say, Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it: so will I do for the sake of him that serves me, for his sake I will not destroy them all. 9 And I will lead forth the seed that cameof Jacob and of Juda, and they shall inherit my holy mountain: and mine elect and my servants shall inherit it, and shall dwell there. 10 And there shall be in the forest folds of flocks, and the valley of Achor shall be for a resting-place of herds for my people, who have sought me. 11 But ye are they that have left me, and forget my holy mountain, and prepare a table for the devil, and fill up the drink-offering to Fortune. 12 I will deliver you up to the sword, ye shall all fall by slaughter: for I called you, and ye hearkened not; I spoke, and ye refused to hear; and ye did evil in my sight, and chose the things wherein I delighted not. 13 Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall hunger: behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall thirst: behold my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed: 14 behold, my servants shall exult with joy, but ye shall cry for the sorrow of your heart, and shall howl for the vexation of your spirit. 15 For ye shall leave your name for a loathing to my chosen, and the Lord shall destroy you: but my servants shall be called by a new name, 16 which shall be blessed on the earth; for they shall bless the true God: and they that swear upon the earth shall swear by the true God; for they shall forget the former affliction, it shall not come into their mind. 

As we close in upon the end of Great Lent and the end of our study of the Prophet Esaias, we come upon this passage that touches upon several of the great subjects of the hymns and readings of the Great and Holy Week of Christ’s Passion that will begin in a few days:   The rejection and punishment of the unrepentant Old Israel, the bringing out of a loyal remnant from the Old Israel who will be the  seed of the New Testament Church, and the new name given to the members of the loyal remnant, both the new name of “Christian” and the specific new name given to each of the baptized, signifying his true identity in eternity, the new name written on a white stone, known to God alone, as it is written in the Apocalypse: 

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. – Revelation 2:17

St. Cyril of Alexandria, commenting upon the “new name” spoken of in this verse (65:15), says the following:  

All things have been made new in Christ, worship and life and the making of laws.  For we do not adhere to shadows and ineffective types.  We offer adoration, and “worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23).”  Unlike Israelites in the flesh we do not take our name from one of the original ancestors or fathers, such as Ephraim or Manasseh or some other tribe; nor do we traverse the path of the scribes and Pharisees who value the antiquity of the letter above everything else.  We have instead embraced the new life in Christ by the gospel, and have been given his name [i.e., “Christian,” derived from “Christ”] to wear like a crown.   For we are called Christians.  This celebrated and blessed name has spread throughout the world.  Since we have been blessed by Christ, we in turn strive to gladden him with endless praise and adoration.  – St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Esaias.  

Most of us who live in the world find “endless praise and adoration” a tall order.   It is enough, we usually feel, if we can manage to say our morning and evening prayers and get to church on weekends.   But let us, at least for this one most holy week approaching, earnestly strive to step out of the enslavement of time and enter eternity, through attentively worshipping at as many services as possible, keeping a spirit of quiet and reflection in our homes, and working harder than usual at the Jesus Prayer, examination of conscience, and energetic preparation for Holy Communion.  

The Lord is waiting for us!   

“Behold, my servants shall drink…”

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VI Lent Tuesday – Esaias 49: 6-10

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Thus saith the Lord:    It is a great thing for thee to be called my servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob, and to recover the dispersion of Israel: behold, I have given thee for the covenant of a race, for a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation to the end of the earth. 7 Thus saith the Lord that delivered thee, the God of Israel, Sanctify him that despises his life, him that is abhorred by the nations that are the servants of princes: kings shall behold him, and princes shall arise, and shall worship him, for the Lord’s sake: for the Holy One of Israel is faithful, and I have chosen thee. 8 Thus saith the Lord, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I succored thee: and I have formed thee, and given thee for a covenant of the nations, to establish the earth, and to cause to inherit the desert heritages: 9 saying to them that are in bonds, Go forth; and bidding them that are in darkness shew themselves. They shall be fed in all the ways, and in all the paths shall be their pasture. 10 They shall not hunger, neither shall they thirst; neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them; but he that has mercy on them shall comfort them, and by fountains of waters shall he lead them. 

Today’s reading is one of many specifically Christological passages in the Prophet Esaias, that is, the passages which speak directly of the person of Christ and the Economy of the Incarnation:   His divinity and humanity, and His messianic mission of the salvation of mankind through His suffering and glorification.   Here God the Father is addressing His Son, revealing several aspects of His mission:   He will be the New Covenant with God for both the Israelites and the Gentiles; He will “despise his life”, i.e., He will freely give Himself over to death; though “abhorred by the nations,” the kings and princes of the nations converted to Christ will one day worship Him; He will say to those in bonds and in darkness, that is, those enslaved to the death, devil, and hell, “Go forth,” when He descends into Hades and looses the captives there; He shall feed them as a Good Shepherd in all the paths of this life, with His Precious Body and Blood; and, finally, He shall establish them forever in the eternal Kingdom, where “neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them,” and they will rest forever by the “fountains of waters” of Paradise.  

Words from the verse immediately before the beginning of today’s reading, verse five, “thus saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his own servant,” were among the passages that the Arians misinterpreted in order to argue that the eternal Word was not truly God but a creature.    The language of this verse, they claimed, was figurative, the “womb” spoken of being not the womb of the Virgin but the abyss of the Godhead.   Saying that He was “formed,” they said, meant that the pre-eternal Word was not truly eternal but came into being in time.   Other verses in the Old Testament were similarly twisted by them to support their heresy.   St. Gregory of Nyssa disposes of their false teaching with his customary insight and ease of expression, explaining that all the verses in the Old Testament that refer to the Son being “made” do not refer to His eternal Godhead but to His Incarnate economy, in which He was made man. His humanity is created; His divinity is uncreated, being the divine nature He shares with the Father and the Spirit.     

In response to those who quote the passage from Proverbs, “the Lord created me (Proverbs 8:22), and claim that it makes a strong case that the Creator and Maker of all things was created, one should say that the only-begotten God was made many things for us.  For he was the Word and was made flesh; he was God and was made man; he was without a body and was made a body.  Further, he was made sin (II Corinthians 5:21) and a curse (II Cor. 5:21), and a stone (Acts 4:11), and an axe (Matt. 3:10), and bread (John 6:32-33), and a lamb (John 1:29), and a way (John 14:6), and a door (John 10:7), and a rock (I Cor. 10:4).  He was none of these things by nature, but he became them for us during his sojourn among us. 

Just as he is the Word who was made flesh for our sake and God who was made man, so he is the Creator who was made a creature for our sake.  As he said through the prophet: “Thus saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his own servant (Is. 49:5).” And through Solomon he also said: “The Lord created me the beginning of his ways, for his works (Proverbs 8:22”….the one who was “created the beginning of his ways” is not God but the man in whom God was revealed in order to renew for mankind the way of salvation which had been corrupted. Since we recognize two things in Christ, the one divine, the other human…we attribute that which is eternal to the godhead, and that which is created we ascribe to his human nature. As he was “formed in the womb as a servant” according to the prophet [Esaias], so according to Solomon he was revealed in the flesh by means of this servile creation.   So, when some [i.e., the Arians] contend, “If he always was, he was not begotten, and if he was begotten there was a time when he was not,” they should learn that one should not ascribe to his divine nature those attributes that belong to his birth in the flesh.  – St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Faith, to Simplicius

Concerning the words from verse nine, “…saying to them that are in bonds, Go forth; and bidding them that are in darkness shew themselves,” St. Cyril of Alexandria says the following: 

That which had resisted being conquered – Death! – was conquered, corruption was made into something new, the seemingly invincible evil routed.  The relentless and insatiable desire of Hades for yet more dead had no one to welcome, and learned – much to its regret – what it had never had to learn before.  For now Hades no longer had the power to snatch those who are yet dying, it had to vomit forth those whom it had already caught, and by the power of our Savior it was left to endure splendid isolation.   For Christ came saying to those in bonds, “Come out,” and to those in darkness, “see the light of day.”   And after he preached to the spirits in prison (I Peter 3:19), he mounted up victorious, raising his own “temple” (John 2:19-21) as a kind of “first fruits” (I Cor. 15:20) of our hope.  He led the way for our nature to rise from the dead and for us to be showered with other good gifts. – St. Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter V. 

Next week we shall behold both the humiliation and death of the God-Man according his human nature, as well as the triumph of that same nature that He voluntarily shared with us, in His glorious resurrection.    Let us use this week well, preparing our hearts, through attentiveness, for this annual renewal of our pledge of eternal life. 

O Lord Who endured all things for us, and Who glorified us by Thy Resurrection, glory be to Thee. 

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VI Lent Monday – Esaias 48:17 – 49:4

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Thus saith the Lord that delivered thee, the Holy One of Israel; I am thy God, I have shewn thee how thou shouldest find the way wherein thou shouldest walk. 18 And if thou hadst hearkened to my commandments, then would thy peace have been like a river, and thy righteousness as a wave of the sea. 19Thy seed also would have been as the sand, and the offspring of thy belly as the dust of the ground: neither now shalt thou by any means be utterly destroyed, neither shall thy name perish before me. 20 Go forth of Babylon, thou that fleest from the Chaldeans: utter aloud a voice of joy, and let this be made known, proclaim it to the end of the earth; say ye, The Lord hath delivered his servant Jacob. 21 And if they shall thirst, he shall lead them through the desert; he shall bring forth water to them out of the rock: the rock shall be cloven, and the water shall flow forth, and my people shall drink. 22 There is no joy, saith the Lord, to the ungodly. 49:1 Hearken to me, ye islands; and attend, ye Gentiles; after a long time it shall come to pass, saith the Lord: from my mother’s womb he has called my name: 2 and he has made my mouth as a sharp sword, and he has hid me under the shadow of his hand; he has made me as a choice shaft, and he has hid me in his quiver; 3 and said to me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, and in thee I will be glorified. 4 Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have given my strength for vanity and for nothing: therefore is my judgement with the Lord, and my labour before my God. 

Once again, in verse seventeen, the Lord proclaims the Name He revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush:  “I AM.” St. Cyril of Alexandria notes this in his commentary and applies this revelation to ontology, to causality, to epistemology, and to soteriology:  

He says, “I AM your God.”  This “I AM” means “I am the beginning.”  He explained all this to the all-wise Moses saying, “I am the one who is (Exodus 3:14).”  For he as Lord is truly the God of everything.  Those things that are brought into being by him are said to be “beings” also and to share in the source of being…Again he works in them a steadfast thinking and a well-established mind so that they can see God to be truly existing in nature.  To these he reveals his glory so that they are not carried away by deceitful voices.  – St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Esaias

What does St. Cyril mean by saying that “I AM” means “I am the beginning”?   This does not mean that God’s existence is merely the first in a series of temporal events.  It means both that He is the only self-subsistent being – His being depends on no one and nothing else; it is absolute, not contingent – and that He is the cause of all else that is, the ultimate beginning of everything, because everything that exists outside of Him was created by Him and depends at every moment on Him to maintain them in existence.   

All human beings, then, are contingent beings; all have their existence from God.   Man is neither God nor an emanation from God nor a particle of God.  Each human being is a being distinct from God and from every other creature, but his being is not absolute; he is not self-existent.  He can neither keep himself in existence by any amount of willing or doing, nor is he free to make up the rules for his existence. Both ontologically and morally he is completely dependent on God.   

Nor is any human being exempt from the obligation to know the truth of these fundamental realities:  That there is a Creator, that he is a creature, and that he is bound by the Creator’s laws to govern his behavior in certain ways and not in other ways, and that he is justly damned by God if he does not acknowledge God as his Creator and obey God’s moral law.    St. Paul explains this in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans:  

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; [19] Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [20] For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: [21] Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. [22] Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, [23] And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. [24] Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: [25] Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

[26] For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: [27] And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. [28] And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; [29] Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, [30] Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, [31] Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: [32] Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. – Romans 1: 18 – 32

How this passage applies to our situation today need not be explained.  It is obvious.   

On the bright side:  St. Cyril states that to those who do acknowledge the natural law implanted by God in creation, the Lord takes them further along, by revealing to them “his glory”:  “Again he works in them a steadfast thinking and a well-established mind so that they can see God to be truly existing in nature.  To these he reveals his glory so that they are not carried away by deceitful voices.”  In other words, in all eternity the Lord beholds those who are disposed to believe in Him and to repent, and He grants them “steadfast thinking and a well-established mind” to see what all men can see if they choose to:  that the creation reveals to us the existence of the Creator and that, since He is our Creator, His rules must govern our lives.  Furthermore, such right thinking people also by God’s grace perceive that they fall short of being able to obey these rules and that they need a savior.  Inspired by this grace, the elect then move upward, through faith in God’s supernatural revelation of the Old and New Testaments, to Baptism and the sanctifying grace of the mysteriological life in the Church, by means of which they are enabled to see “his glory,” which ultimately means the glory that Christ revealed to the apostles at the Transfiguration.    

To summarize then:  All men are obliged to acknowledge the Creator, to acknowledge that they are creatures, that they are bound by the universal moral law revealed in the natures of created things, that they cannot by their own power always obey this law, and therefore they need a savior.  Those who do not accept these realities are justly damned.  Those who do confess the reality of these truths are invited by God’s grace to believe in divine revelation, and by faith and baptism are made fit for eternal life, in which they shall behold the glory of God.  

As for those who claim that all of this is unfair and cannot be true, their objections are in vain.  They will find out.  

Glory to Thee alone, O our God, glory to Thee.   

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