V Lent Wednesday – Esaias 41: 4-14

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Thus saith the Lord: Who hath wrought and done these things? he hath called it who called it from the generations of old; I God, the first and to allfuturity, I AM. 5 The nations saw, and feared; the ends of the earth drew nigh, and came together, 6 every one judging for his neighbor and that to assist his brother: and one will say, 7 The artificer hath become strong, and the coppersmith that smiteth with the hammer, and forgets also: sometimes he will say, It is a piece well joined: they have fastened them with nails; they will fix them, and they shall not be moved.  8 But thou, Israel, art my servant Jacob, and he whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, whom I have loved: 9 whom I have taken hold of from the ends of the earth, and from the high places of it I have called thee, and said to thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and I have not forsaken thee. 10 Fear not; for I am with thee: wander not; for I am thy God, who hath strengthened thee; and I have helped thee, and have established thee with my just right hand.  11 Behold, all thine adversaries shall be ashamed and confounded; for they shall be as if they were not: and all thine opponents shall perish. 12 Thou shalt seek them, and thou shalt not find the men who shall insolently rage against thee: for they shall be as if they were not, and they that war against thee shall not be. 13 For I am thy God, who holdeth thy right hand, who saith to thee, 14 Fear not, Jacob, and thou Israel few in number; I have helped thee, saith thy God, he that redeemeth thee, O Israel. 

Our reading today begins with the Lord’s solemn proclamation that He alone is the true God.  The prophet records this revelation in the strongest term possible to the Old Testament, repeating the mystical name that the Lord revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush:  I AM.  

If there is truly only one God, then He must be the God not only of one chosen nation but of all nations.  Thus verse five, prophesying the conversion of the nations, follows immediately upon verse four, which proclaims that the LORD alone is God.  This is the message of all the Old Testament prophets, which is why the leaders of the Israelite nation consistently persecuted and killed the prophets, for they made an idol out of their uniqueness, worshipping themselves instead of God.   

St. Cyril of Alexandria comments thus on verses four, five, and six:  

He declares that he is God the first and that there is no second God after him. What does that mean? There is one God of all whose existence had no beginning. It was he who called all things into existence.  He is the first and only God, without beginning, the maker of all things, and there will never be any other God in the unending ages to come.  He alone is God. When the nations beheld Christ and the righteousness he brought, they all beheld his glory with the eyes of the mind.  For the text says that those from the ends of the earth, that is, from all over the earth, became afraid.  They were gathered together and drew near, no longer remaining far off and alien because of sin.  By a spiritual relationship they were gathered together with a single mind in the one faith.  This is apparent from the words of the text, drew near and came together.  When they tasted of the Lord and understood his goodness and were amazed at the beauty of the truth, they did not keep the gift to themselves; rather, they generously reached out and each decided to help his brother and friend. St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Isaiah 

These three short verses demonstrate, once again, that the central teachings of the New Testament are contained, in a mystical and partial form, in the Old Testament.  Here, for example, we see the teachings that there is one God,  that the I AM of the Burning Bush is the Logos of God Who is incarnate in Christ, that the inspired preaching of the Church works through enlightening the vision of the mind, that the One God is the God of all nations and calls all nations into unity in the Church, and that, when one starts worshipping this one, true God in the Church, one will also realize that he must help his neighbor. 

The corrupt royal and priestly authorities of the holy prophet’s time, who persecuted him and finally slew him by sawing him in half, hated him because they hated the Christ Who was to come and  Who was the chief subject of the prophet’s inspired preaching.   Neither they, nor their descendants who murdered the God-Man, wanted a loving Savior Who would enlighten the minds of men of all nations to know Who God really is.   They wanted an earthly king who would gratify their sinful passions by making them the lords of this fallen world.  To this day, those who desire dominion over all the nations of the earth hate Christ.  Thus it will be to the end.

As we prepare to worship Christ in His saving and pure Passion, let us crucify our sinful passions and allow our true King to enlighten the inner king of the soul, that is, the spiritual mind.   Only by the eyes of the mind can we understand Who He is, as long as we live in this fallen world of types and shadows.   If only we shall have appropriated the fruits of Holy Illumination, that is of our Baptism, and with illumined mind shall have persisted in His service to the end in faith and good works, through the grace of final perseverance, we will, one day, see Him as He is, and bask in His light for all eternity. 

Through the prayers of Thy holy prophet and martyr Esaias, O Christ God, enlighten our minds to the understanding of Thy Holy Gospel.  Amen. 

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V Lent Monday – Esaias 37:33 – 38:6

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Thus saith the Lord concerning the king of the Assyrians, He shall not enter into this city, nor cast a weapon against it, nor bring a shield against it, nor make a rampart round it. 34 But by the way by which he came, by it shall he return, and shall not enter into this city: thus saith the Lord. 35 I will protect this city to save it for my own sake, and for my servant David’s sake. 36 And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew out of the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and eighty-five thousand: and they arose in the morning and found all these bodies dead. 37 And Sennacherim king of the Assyrians turned and departed, and dwelt in Nineve. 38 And while he was worshipping Nasarach his country’s god in the house, Adramelech and Sarasar his sons smote him with swords; and they escaped into Armenia: and Asordan his son reigned in his stead. 38:1 And it came to pass at that time, that Ezekias was sick even to death. And Esaias the prophet the son of Amos came to him, and said to him, Thus saith the Lord, Give orders concerning thy house: for thou shalt die, and not live. 2 And Ezekias turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord, saying, 3 Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before thee in truth, with a true heart, and have done that which was pleasing in thy sight. And Ezekias wept bitterly. 4 And the word of the Lord came to Esaias, saying, Go, and say to Ezekias, 5 Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, and seen thy tears: behold, I will add to thy time fifteen years. 6 And I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of the Assyrians: and I will defend this city. 

Today’s reading is a portion of one of the historical narratives in the book of the Prophet Esaias. The end of chapter 37 records God’s miraculous destruction of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib during his siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. and his murder at the hands of his sons after he returned to Nineveh.   The beginning of chapter 38 gives the account of the healing of King Hezekiah after his earnest prayer and the Lord’s granting him an extension of his life in this world by the space of fifteen years. II Chronicles, chapter 32, testifies also to these events.

Notice the content of the king’s prayer:  He does not ask to be healed or to have his life extended, but rather weeps in repentance, and for the forgiveness of his sins, offers to the Lord the good works he has done during his reign.   God hears his prayer and unexpectedly delivers him from imminent death and extends his earthly life. 

The Blessed Jerome notices this, and he comments thus:  

Hearing that he was about to die, Hezekiah prayed not that he be granted several more years of his life but that he be permitted to stand before the judgment of God, as he wished.  For he knew that Solomon pleased God by not asking for a longer life.  Preparing to journey to the Lord, therefore, Hezekiah chronicled his works, how he had walked before the Lord in truth and in perfection of heart.  Happy is the conscience that remembers good works at a time of affliction:  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God…”.  – Commentary on Isaiah 

At the end of each day, we say our night prayers, in which the theme of preparation for sleep repeatedly leads to the theme of preparation for the body’s sleep in the grave, the departure of the soul, and standing before God’s judgment.  A most salutary practice, before or after night prayer, is to examine our day, thinking over both our bad and good thoughts, words, and deeds, repenting of the former and offering God thanks for the latter, in that His grace alone enables every good deed.  We recall that at the tollhouses, the good angels will take from the treasury of our good deeds the needed compensation to offset any sins for which we have not repented, or at least not repented thoroughly enough.   As St. Peter writes, charity covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.”).  Let us resolve at the beginning of each day to do works of love towards God and man, and so cover the multitude of our sins, inciting the Giver of gifts to grant us many more years for repentance and a happy Christian death, full of hope in His mercy.  

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IV Lent Friday – Esaias 29: 13-23

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Thus saith the Lord: This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me: but in vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men. 14Therefore behold I will proceed to remove this people, and I will remove them: and I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will hide the understanding of the prudent. 15Woe to them that deepen their counsel, and not by the Lord. Woe to them that take secret counsel, and whose works are in darkness, and they say, Who has seen us? and who shall know us, or what we do? 16 Shall ye not be counted as clay of the potter? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Thou didst not form me? or the work to the maker, Thou hast not made me wisely? 17 Is it not yet a little while, and Libanus shall be changed as the mountains of Chermel, and Chermel shall be reckoned as a forest? 18 And in that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and they that are in darkness, and they that are in mist: the eyes of the blind shall see, 19 and the poor shall rejoice with joy because of the Lord, and they that had no hope among men shall be filled with joy. 20 The lawless man has come to nought, and the proud man has perished, and they that transgress mischievously have been utterly destroyed: 21 and they that cause men to sin by a word: and men shall make all that reprove in the gates an offence, because they have unjustly turned aside the righteous. 22 Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the house of Jacob, whom he set apart from Abraam, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall he now change countenance. 23 But when their children shall have seen my works, they shall sanctify my name for my sake, and they sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel. 

The first verse of today’s reading may be understood on different levels, addressing different but related aspects of the same problem.  The first level is theological, the second is about our practical choices on how we spend our mental energy, and the third deals with the inner life of the soul.   

The theology of this verse is made clear by the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who quotes this verse from Esaias in the midst of an argument with the scribes and Pharisees over the true interpretation of the Mosaic Law (see Matthew 15).   Christ, the Incarnate Logos of God, the One Who gave the Law to Moses, tells these men that they are twisting the meaning of the Law because their hearts are far from God.   The direct and unrepentant spiritual descendants of these false teachers, the rabbis who fabricated the false religion of Talmudic Judaism and imprisoned their people in this dark and suicidal religious system, to this day stand condemned by the words of Christ Himself.   Talmudic Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament; it is the antithesis of the Old Testament.  The only true interpretation of both Testaments, Old and New, is Orthodox Christianity. 

We must be careful not to take lightly the false claims of Judaism or any other false religion, especially if they claim to be based on the Holy Scriptures.  We have a moral obligation to reject these claims not simply as an academic exercise, but with all the powers of our soul, not only with our intellects but also with our sentiments, our will, our words, and our actions.  For, as St. Cyprian of Carthage says, the stubborn refusal to admit the true meaning of the divine plan is not a light thing; it offends and angers God. Here is what he writes: 

What is this obstinacy or what is this presumption to place human tradition before the divine plan and not to notice that God is offended and angered as often as human tradition subverts and disregards the divine precepts?  He cries and says through Esaias the prophet, “This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me: but in vain do they worship me, teaching the commandments and doctrines of men.”  St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 74 

St. John Chrysostom quotes this same verse for a pastoral and practical purpose, to reprove his listeners for taking secular education more seriously than sacred study, for thinking that all they have to do for their salvation is go through the motions for a short time at church services, and for ignoring the active labor of sacred study to purify their intellects.

If we do not see our children deriving any benefit from the teachers we send them to, then we blame the teachers and take our children to other teachers.  What excuse will we have for putting so much emphasis on earthly things but not putting emphasis on virtue?  Our teachers here [in the Church] are far more numerous.  No less than the prophets and apostles and patriarchs and all righteous people are set over you as teachers in every church.  And there is no profit in merely chanting two or three psalms, making the accustomed prayers at random and then being dismissed.  Do you think this is enough for your salvation?  Have you not heard the prophet (or rather God through the prophet) say, “This people draw nigh to me with their mouth, and they honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me”?  To keep this from being the case with us as well, then wipe out the letters and impressions the devil has engraved on your souls, and bring me a heart that has been set free from worldly tumults so that I can write on it what I want to.  – St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily Eleven

Ultimately, of course, the purpose of this sacred study that the great Chrysostom is calling us to is  our salvation, but the proximate goal must be the purification of the mind and of the heart.  If our hearts are to be close to God, and not far from Him as were the hearts of the scribes and the Pharisees, we must go within daily and continually, to acquire the unceasing remembrance of God and abide in repentance.  Then the thoughts of our minds will be pure, and therefore our words will be pure.  Only thus will the words of our mouth and lips be pleasing to the Lord, unto our salvation.   St. Gregory of Nyssa says the following: 

For speaking in this way or in that is not the cause of the thought within us, but the hidden conception of the heart supplies the motive for such and such words, “for from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34).”   We make the words interpret the thought; we do not by a reverse process gather the thought from the words.   Should both be at hand, a person may certainly be ready in both, in clever thinking and clever expression; but if the one [that is, cleverness in speech] be wanting, the loss to the illiterate is slight, if the knowledge in his soul is perfect in the direction of moral goodness. “This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” What is the meaning of this?  That the right attitude of the soul toward the truth is more precious than the propriety of phrases in the sight of God, who hears the “groaning that cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26).”  Phrases can be used in opposite senses; the tongue readily serving, at his will, the intention of the speaker; but the disposition of the soul, as it is, so is it seen by Him Who sees all secrets. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 1.37

Whenever we are tempted to skip or cut short our prayer or sacred study, let us think instead carefully on what these Holy Fathers are telling us, and get back to work on ourselves.  The eternal and irreversible outcome of our entire lives, after all, depends on the purity of our minds and the inclination of our hearts.  As ones chosen and elect, as Orthodox Christians, we have undeservedly received in Holy Baptism the sanctifying grace from the Lord that alone can enable the mind and the heart to acquire this purity and to persist in this inclination.  May His gracious gift to us be not given in vain! 

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. 

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IV Lent Thursday – Esaias 28: 14-22

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Thus saith the Lord: Therefore hear ye the word of the Lord, ye afflicted men, and ye princes of this people that is in Jerusalem. 15 Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with Hades, and agreements with death; if the rushing storm should pass, it shall not come upon us: we have made falsehood our hope, and by falsehood shall we be protected: 16 Therefore thus saith the Lord, even the Lord, Behold, I lay for the foundations of Sion a costly stone, a choice, a corner-stone, a precious stone, for its foundations; and he that believes on him shall by no means be ashamed. 17 And I will cause judgement to be for hope, and my compassion shall be for just measures, and ye that trust vainly in falsehood shall fall: for the storm shall by no means pass by you, 18 except it also take away your covenant of death, and your trust in Hades shall by no means stand: if the rushing storm should come upon you, ye shall be beaten down by it. 19 Whenever it shall pass by, it shall take you; morning by morning it shall pass by in the day, and in the night there shall be an evil hope. Learn to hear, 20 ye that are distressed; we cannot fight, but we are ourselves too weak for you to be gathered. 21 The Lord shall rise up as a mountain of ungodly men, and shall be in the valley of Gabaon; he shall perform his works with wrath, even a work of bitterness, and his wrath shall deal strangely, and his destruction shall be strange. 22 Therefore do not ye rejoice, neither let your bands be made strong; for I have heard of works finished and cut short by the Lord of hosts, which he will execute upon all the earth. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ applies the image of the foundation stone to Himself in the Gospel, quoting Psalm 117:   “The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.”  St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke all record this saying of the Lord (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, and Luke 20:17).   St. Peter, in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost (see Acts chapter four), also quotes the same psalm verse in order to accuse his fellow Jews of rejecting their Messiah and to call them to repentance, with the result that 3,000 men were baptized that day.  Later, in chapter two of his first epistle, St. Peter again quotes this verse of Psalm 117, as well as today’s passage from Esaias, in order not only to assert that Our Lord is the foundation of the Church, but also to expound on the character of the Church built upon this foundation and to call those recently united to Christ in the Church (“newborn babes”)  to live according to this character:  

Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings,

As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. – I Peter 2: 1-10.  

If then, the Church built upon Christ the Cornerstone is a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, those who belong to the Church are obliged to show forth this election, this royalty, this priestliness, this holiness, and this specialness in their lives. That’s a tall order, a maximalist goal that will take up our whole lives in its pursuit.   Where do we start?  

St. Ambrose of Milan, with the concision and directness characteristic of the Latin Fathers, makes it simple:  Before we can move on to holiness, we start with faith and with justice. 

The foundation of justice is faith, for the hearts of the just dwell on faith, and the just man that accuses himself builds justice on faith.  For his justice becomes evident when he confesses the truth.  So the Lord said through Isaiah: I will lay a stone for a foundation in Zion (Esaias 28:16).   This means that Christ is the foundation of the Church.  For Christ is the object of faith to all; but the Church is, as it were, the form that justice takes.  The justice of all is found in her.  For she prays in common for all, she works in common for all, she is tested in the temptations of all.   Whoever denies himself is a just man and worthy of Christ.  For this reason Paul said that Christ is the foundation so that we might construct the works of justice [see I Corinthians 3: 11 – 14: “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.”]  Faith is the foundation.  If our works are evil, they are without justice, but if good, they are just. – St. Ambrose of Milan, De Officiis (On the Duties of the Clergy)

“The just man that accuses himself builds justice on faith”:  In other words, the Christian acknowledges the reality of the ancestral sin and of his actual sins, accuses himself, gives up all hope of acting justly apart from faith in Christ, and builds a life of justice on the only possible foundation, which is faith in Christ.  “His justice becomes evident when he confesses the truth,” that is, we cannot be justified by erecting a defense of our own character and actions, but only by claiming for ourselves the justification offered to us by Christ from the Cross.  “…the Church is, as it were, the form that justice takes”:   The life of justification through Christ can be lived only in the Church; outside the Church, our lives are not built on the foundation of Christ, even if we claim to be Christians.  

The sacred season we now enjoy is the pre-eminent time for reflecting on the vows we made at Holy Baptism, when we rejected Satan and united ourselves unto Christ.  By confessing our faith in Christ and accepting Baptism, we proclaimed that we have no justice of our own: all of our justification is through Him.   Also, by Holy Baptism, we were united, not merely in symbol or in concept, but ontologically, to the Body of Christ the Church, that structure of justification built on the one Foundation stone, Christ Himself.  

Let us use well this season of repentance to accuse ourselves, to acknowledge once again that we have no justice in ourselves but only in Christ, and by the power of His grace to obey His holy commandments in order to live as true children of the Church, with the ultimate goal of our complete sanctification, in order to attain our vocation to be a priestly and holy nation built upon the Rock of Christ. 

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IV Lent Wednesday – Esaias 26:21 – 27:9

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Thus saith the Lord: For, behold, the Lord is bringing wrath from his holy place upon the dwellers on the earth: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall not cover her slain. 27:1 In that day God shall bring his holy and great and strong sword upon the dragon, even the serpent that flees, upon the dragon, the crooked serpent: he shall destroy the dragon. 2 In that day there shall be a fair vineyard, and a desire to commence a song concerning it. 3 I am a strong city, a city in a siege: in vain shall I water it; for it shall be taken by night, and by day the wall shall fall. 4 There is no woman that has not taken hold of it; who will set me to watch stubble in the field? because of this enemy I have set her aside; therefore on this account the Lord has done all that he appointed. 5 I am burnt up; they that dwell in her shall cry, Let us make peace with him, let us make peace, 6 they that are coming are the children of Jacob. Israel shall bud and blossom, and the world shall be filled with his fruit. 7 Shall he himself be thus smitten, even as he smote? and as he slew, shall he be thus slain? 8 Fighting and reproaching he will dismiss them; didst thou not meditate with a harsh spirit, to slay them with a wrathful spirit? 9 Therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be taken away; and this is his blessing, when I shall have taken away his sin; when they shall have broken to pieces all the stones of the altars as fine dust, and their trees shall not remain, and their idols shall be cut off, as a thicket afar off. 

The majority of today’s reading, chapter 27, verses two through nine, returns to the theme of Israel as a vineyard the Lord has planted, or as a city that He has built, which will suffer tribulation on account of the apostasy of the husbandmen or inhabitants thereof, but will be blessed, will “bud and blossom” when “their idols shall be cut off,” that is, when, having been chastised, they repent of their idolatry and return to the Lord.  In his commentary on this passage, St. Cyril of Alexandria states that the punishment described here is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., the just chastisement for the rejection of their Savior by the majority of the Old Testament Church, and he goes on to say that the restoration which the prophet predicts is the New Testament Church and the coming of the Gentiles into the Church when they, the formerly pagan nations, cast aside their idolatry and turn to the Lord.   

Prior to this passage,  in verse one of the same chapter, the prophet foretells the final destruction of the power of Satan, the “dragon, the crooked serpent.”  St. Cyril writes the following: 

…the Father will bring his holy and great and strong sword – that is, the only begotten Word – upon the dragon, the crooked serpent; he shall destroy the dragon.  By “dragon” and “snake” he refers to Satan, who is bitter and venomous, not to mention timid; his invariable tendency is to flee.   But he is terrifying and malicious; he twists and turns like a wild beast, but will be wiped out.  Eventually, in fact, he will be ineffectual, he will pay for his sacrilegious words, subject to the ultimate penalty, becoming imprisoned in the gates of Hell, food for the everlasting fire and subject to extended and unending retribution.  – St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Esaias, chapter 27.   

This final destruction of Satan is a mystery that has Christological, eschatological, and ascetic aspects.  It is a Christological mystery, because Our Lord Jesus Christ has already made certain the final destruction of Satan, when on the Cross He destroyed the power of Satan over us and, descending to Hades, freed all of Satan’s captives from ages past.  It is an eschatological mystery, because, though already defeated, Satan is allowed to come forth and wage war against the Church until the end of time, in order that the virtue of the saints might be made manifest, but when the trials of the present age are ended, he will be imprisoned in Hell forever. The final destruction of Satan in the particular lives of men is a moral and ascetic victory that occurs at the end of each soul’s unseen warfare in the temporal life, which culminates in the holy death of the righteous man and his vindication at the Particular Judgment.  

Though our enemy is indeed bitter and venomous, as St. Cyril says, he is also timid:  When we wield the sword of the Word of God against him, he flees, because the Lord has already made him powerless over us. Satan’s warfare against us is not our problem; it is a circumstance, and, moreover, a circumstance allowed by God for our salvation   Our only real problems are our own freely chosen sins and unhealed passions.   Our sins, however, are not greater than God, Whose will for our salvation is infinitely greater than our own, and whose power to save us is also infinite.   We have abundant reason for hope.  

Try this:  The next time you are present at Vespers, Matins, or the Divine Liturgy, you will hear these petitions –   

That we may complete the rest of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask of the Lord.  

A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense at the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask.  

For the rest of that day or evening, and throughout the week, you could keep repeating these petitions mentally, and think, “This life is so short, and I have only to complete it in peace and repentance.   God is good, and the prayers of the Church are all-powerful:  surely He will grant me the Christian death for which the Church petitions Him on my behalf so often in the divine services. I will be brave and keep repenting no matter how often I fall, and soon it shall all be over, and I will be happy with the Lord forever in heaven.”  Our efforts at this exercise in repentant mindfulness will not go unheeded by the Giver of all good gifts, for He is a munificent Master who graciously receives our feeble efforts and makes them irresistibly mighty by uniting to them His own irresistible might.   

O our Savior, invincible Victor over sin, death, the devil, and hell, glory be to Thee!   

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IV Lent Tuesday – Esaias 25: 1-9

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O Lord God, I will glorify thee, I will sing to thy name; for thou hast done wonderful things, even an ancient and faithful counsel. So be it. 2 For thou hast made cities a heap, even cities made strong that their foundations should not fall: the city of ungodly men shall not be built for ever. 3 Therefore shall the poor people bless thee, and cities of injured men shall bless thee. 4 For thou hast been a helper to every lowly city, and a shelter to them that were disheartened by reason of poverty: thou shalt deliver them from wicked men: thou hast been a shelter of them that thirst, and a refreshing air to injured men. 5 We were as faint-hearted men thirsting in Sion, by reason of ungodly men to whom thou didst deliver us. 6 And the Lord of hosts shall make a feast for all the nations: on this mount they shall drink gladness, they shall drink wine: 7 they shall anoint themselves with ointment in this mountain. Impart thou all these things to the nations; for this is God’s counsel upon all the nations. 8 Death has prevailed and swallowed men up; but again the Lord God has taken away every tear from every face. He has taken away the reproach of his people from all the earth: for the mouth off the Lord has spoken it. 9 And in that day they shall say, behold our God in whom we have trusted, and he shall save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, and we have exulted, and will rejoice in our salvation. 

Throughout the book of the Prophet Esaias, the long and gloomy passages of rebuke and warning are punctuated by brief passages full of light, ringing announcements of God’s Kingdom to come, short victory hymns bursting with consolation, thanksgiving, rejoicing, and praise.   Today’s reading is one of the latter. 

St. Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote a very complete commentary on Esaias, shows meticulous care in discerning which passages address only certain events contemporary with the prophet, which prophesy the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament, and which passages function on both levels.  Today’s reading, he says, clearly prophesies the establishment of God’s Kingdom by the coming in the flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ:  

In this passage the prophet announces the kingdom of Christ.  For he has said [in the previous chapter, verse 23], that “the Lord will rule on Sion and in Jerusalem, and he will manifest his glory before the elders.”  Knowing that all these things would take place, the prophet is filled with great joy, and he pays tribute to the one who will accomplish these marvelous deeds in the words, “O Lord God, I will glorify thee, I will sing to thy name; for thou hast done wonderful things, even an ancient and faithful counsel. So be it.” He says “thou hast done,” although he is referring to things that had not yet happened.  This was to show that what is promised in the future will certainly and surely take place.  For that reason he adds, “So be it.”  With the eyes of the mind the prophets saw the time of Christ’s sojourn as though it were present.  They knew what was to take place. The phrase, “…wonderful things, even an ancient and faithful counsel…” refers to the mystery of the Incarnation of the only Son and of the things that would happen all over the earth because of it.  The most wise Paul asserted, “We were saved in Christ, who was chosen before the foundation of the world and manifested at the end of the age (Ephesians 1:4).” Paul also said that the mystery of Christ is neither new nor recent; though he appeared only at the fitting time, God chose him before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4,9).  This is the “faithful counsel,” the certain decrees of God who has power over all things. – St. Cyril of Alexandria,  Commentary on Esaias 

Our reading today, then, prophesies the First Coming of Christ.   St. John the Theologian shows us that this same passage also prophesies the Second Coming of Christ and the final establishment of the eternal Kingdom of God, by alluding to verse eight (“the Lord God has taken away every tear from every face”) twice in the Apocalypse, in chapter seven and then again in chapter 21: 

And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat.

For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. – Revelation 7: 13 -1 7

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. – 21:4

Thus Esaias has seen in mystical vision God’s pre-eternal counsel from before the beginning of the world, he has seen the first coming of the Incarnate Word in lowliness to save us by His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and he has seen the Lord’s final coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, to create a new heaven and a new earth, and to enthrone His faithful witnesses forever in the heavenly Jerusalem.    This ability of the prophets to transcend time and to see things past, present, and future is perfectly consistent with what it means to be in theoria, which means to see things as God sees them, which is the way things really are.  The prophet sees it all at once, in the light of eternity.  

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, says that a prophet is not, precisely speaking, only one who foretells the future; he is, rather, simply one who is commissioned by God to speak to man.  St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist, explains that whether the prophets speak of the past, the present, or the future, their statements in all three tenses are all equally prophetic:    

Prophecy has three tenses: the past of course, the present, and the future…We shall speak more truly of the three tenses of prophecy if we quote the evidence of Holy Writ.  Prophecy concerning the future: “Behold, the Virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son (Esaias 7:14).”  Prophecy concerning the past:  “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1).”  For [here] a man [the Prophet Moses] speaks of a time when man was not.  A prophecy about the present is when Paul the Apostle says, “But if all keep prophesying, and some unbeliever or unlearned should come in, he is reproved by all, he is examined by all.  And thus are the secrets of his heart become manifest; and so falling upon his face, he will make obeisance to God, reporting that God is verily among you (I Corinthians 14: 24, 25).  Indeed, when it is said, “the secrets of his heart are made manifest,” it is truly shown that through this mode of prophecy the Spirit does not predict what the future will be, but reveals what is.  How then may it be called the spirit of prophecy which lays bare no future event but reports the present?  In this case, attention must be paid to what is rightly described as prophecy, not because it predicts future events, but because it uncovers hidden truths.  – St. Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, Book 1, Homily 1.  

This ability of those with the prophetic gift to see the past, present, and future has been continued even into our own time, in the persons of the holy elders who have gone through the entire course of praxis, active struggle with the passions, and, having received the grace of purity of heart, have entered the state of theoria, in which God reveals to them the true nature of reality: the mysteries of His pre-eternal counsel, the noetic meaning of created essences, the hidden things in the hearts of their contemporaries, and the true meaning of events past, present, and future.  We, who are still partially blinded by our unhealed passions and have only occasional glimpses of reality,  rely on the prophetic writings of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the prophetic sayings of the Holy Fathers and the guidance of spirit-filled men of our time, to enlighten the steps of our journey, as pilgrims who travel to holy places of which they have only heard and never seen rely on the experienced traveler to guide them on the way. 

God’s revelations through holy men, however, do not enlighten us against our wills or without our cooperation.  We must freely pre-dispose ourselves to hear their words to our profit and not to our condemnation.  One simple and excellent practice to help us do this, when we read the Scriptures and the Fathers,  is to read or recite the prayer before sacred study composed by St. John Chrysostom:  

Illumine my heart, O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open Thou the eyes of my mind to the understanding of Thy Gospel teachings. Implant also in me a love for Thy blessed commandments. Grant me the grace to overcome all my carnal desires, so that I may enter more completely into a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing to Thee; For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we ascribe glory, together with Thine all-holy, good and life-creating Spirit; now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

O Lord Jesus Christ, open Thou the eyes of my heart, that I may hear Thy word and understand and do Thy will, for I am a sojourner upon the earth. Hide not Thy commandments from me, but open mine eyes, that I may perceive the wonders of Thy law. Speak unto me the hidden and secret things of Thy wisdom. On Thee do I set my hope, O my God, that Thou shalt enlighten my mind and understanding with the light of Thy knowledge, not only to cherish those things which are written, but to do them, that in reading the lives and sayings of the Saints I may not sin, but that such may serve for my restoration, enlightenment and sanctification, for the salvation of my soul, and the inheritance of life everlasting; For Thou art the enlightenment of those who lie in darkness, and from Thee cometh every good deed and every gift. Amen.

Let us also cry out day by day, with tears, in the favorite words of St. Gregory Palamas: O Lord, enlighten my darkness! We will not be alone and unsupported when we make this humble cry, for the intercessions of the great Chrysostom, along with the prayers of Ss. Irenaeus, Cyril, and the two Gregories, as well as those of the inspired authors themselves – the exalted Theologian, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and trumpet voiced Esaias –  are all with us.    Empowered by their prayers, and coming to see all things in the light of eternity, may we be delivered from the paralysis of being imprisoned mentally by the passing and deceitful events of the present life, and thus come to rest secure in the knowledge of the One Who was, Who is, and Who is to come, the Faithful Witness who promises an eternal kingdom to those who persevere as His faithful witnesses to the end.  

May we all receive the grace of that blessed perseverance. 

“He that endureth to the end,” saith the Lord,  “shall be saved.” 

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III Lent Thursday – Esaias 11:10 – 12:2

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Thus saith the Lord: And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall arise to rule over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust, and his rest shall be glorious. 11 And it shall be in that day, that the Lord shall again shew his hand, to be zealous for the remnant that is left of the people, which shall be left by the Assyrians, and that from Egypt, and from the country of Babylon, and from Ethiopia, and from the Elamites, and from the rising of the sun, and out of Arabia. 12 And he shall lift up a standard for the nations, and he shall gather the lost ones of Israel, and he shall gather the dispersed of Juda from the four corners of the earth. 13 And the envy of Ephraim shall be taken away, and the enemies of Juda shall perish: Ephraim shall not envy Juda, and Juda shall not afflict Ephraim. 14 And they shall fly in the ships of the Philistines: they shall at the same time spoil the sea, and them that come from the east, and Idumea: and they shall lay their hands on Moab first; but the children of Ammon shall first obey them  15 And the Lord shall make desolate the sea of Egypt; and he shall lay his hand on the river with a strong wind, and he shall smite the seven channels, so that men shall pass through it dry-shod. 16 And there shall be a passage for my people that is left in Egypt: and it shall be to Israel as the day when he came forth out of the land of Egypt.  12:1 And in that day thou shalt say, I will bless thee, O Lord; for thou wast angry with me, but thou hast turned aside thy wrath, and hast pitied me. 2 Behold, my God is my Saviour; I will trust in him, and not be afraid: for the Lord is my glory and my praise, and is become my salvation. 

Verse ten, which begins today’s reading, repeats the expression “…the root of Jesse,” which has already been introduced in verse one of this same chapter eleven.  Jesse is the father of King David, and chapter eleven of Esaias is one of the prophecies of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ from the Holy Virgin, who is descended from the House of David. Here is the beginning of chapter eleven: 

11:1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a blossom shall come up from his root: 2 and the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness shall fill him; 3 the spirit of the fear of God. 

The word “rod” (rabdos) in verse one signifies a shoot coming forth from the root.  The shoot from the root of Jesse is the Holy Virgin Mary:  

“…And there shall come forth a shoot from the root of Jesse, and a blossom shall come up from his root…”.  It is certain that this shoot signifies the Blessed Virgin Mary, who sprang from the stock of Jesse and David and was made fruitful by the Holy Spirit, bringing forth a new flower of human flesh, from a mother’s womb to be sure, but through a virgin birth. – St. Leo the Great, Sermon 24, On the Nativity of the Lord. 

Verse two is a prophecy of the Holy Spirit coming to rest upon the Lord at His baptism in the Jordan.   As God, of course, He is always one with the Holy Spirit, but at his baptism, He received the Holy Spirit according to His human nature.  Verses two through three are also the  source for our knowledge of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit:  wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, godliness, and the fear of God.  

St. Maximus the Confessor addresses the question of why the prophet uses the single noun “Spirit” but then goes on to speak of multiple “spirits”:  

The holy prophet Isaiah says in his prophecy that seven spirits rested on the Savior who rose up from the root of Jesse.  He knows that these were not seven spirits of God.  What he has in mind is that there are seven activities of the Holy Spirit, and these he calls “spirits,” because the Holy Spirit brings about each individual activity perfectly and proportionately. 

The divine apostle, on the other hand, speaks about the different activities of the one Holy Spirit as “varieties of gifts (I Corinthians 12:4) brought about by one and the same Spirit.  If then the manifestation of the Spirit is granted to each person according to the measure of his faith, then each believer who shares in such a gift does so in proportion to his faith and to the interior disposition of his soul.  He receives the appropriate action of the Spirit granted to him in the degree that he is able to perform this or that commandment. 

One person receives, as it were, the word of wisdom, another the word of knowledge, another the word of faith, and still another something other of the gifts of the Spirit enumerated by the great apostle (I Cor. 12:8ff).  In this way one receives through the Spirit, according to the measure of one’s faith, a gift of perfect, direct, and wholly spiritual love for God, while another receives from the same Spirit a gift of perfect love for the neighbor.  As I said, the gift that is proper to each one is brought about by the same Spirit.  If, like holy Isaiah, one calls these gifts “spirits,” he has not gone wrong. For as the Holy Spirit is the perfect agent of every gift, so He is found proportionately in every gift to a greater or lesser degree. –  Questions to Thalassius, 29

Upon the Lord Jesus Christ, then, according to His human nature, rests all of the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit, that Spirit with Whom, according to His divine nature, He is always one in eternity, in the unity of the Holy Trinity.  He did not receive the Spirit into His humanity for His own sake, however:  How could He Who as God is co-essential with the Holy Spirit possibly lack the Holy Spirit?   He deigned to become a man, and as a man He received the Holy Spirit, in order to share the Holy Spirit with us by means of our union with Him as One who shares our human nature.  He shares with us, according to His uncreated energies, all the fullness of His divinity, not by simple fiat as though from an external source, but most intimately and personally through the medium of His deified humanity. 

Each of the baptized, according to the measure of grace each receives, manifests the gifts of the Spirit according to the inscrutable will of God, Who understands each of us perfectly, not only according to the human nature we all share, but also according to the unique characteristics of each person’s hypostatic character, which He takes hold of and molds according to His unique plan for each unique soul.  Thus there comes to be in the Church a delightful variety in unity.  The Church is not an undifferentiated mass of zombified, uniform automatons, as we see in the “ideal citizens” of manmade utopias;  She is, rather, a perfectly coordinated and unified organic ensemble of inexhaustibly various and lively permutations of holiness.  

How, then, shall I discover what my unique manifestations of the Spirit are to be?  Simple: By keeping the commandments of God.   Here is what St. Mark the Ascetic says about this:  

Everyone who has been baptized in the Orthodox way has mystically received all Grace.  He is informed about this while fulfilling the Commandments. – Concerning Those Who Think That Men Are Justified by Works, 92.  

Let that sink in for a minute:  I have received all Grace. In other words, the fullness of what the Lord Jesus Christ received in the Jordan at His Baptism, He has already bestowed upon me, completely and unreservedly, in my baptism and chrismation. This is according to dynamis, however, according to potentiality.   I do not perceive the grace according to energeia, according to the felt activities – the effects – of grace, until I begin struggling to fulfill His commandments.  “If you love me,” Christ said to His disciples, “keep my commandments.”   As we run the path of His commandments, our hearts expand with this love, and we begin to manifest Christ to others, each according to the measure given Him by God.  

That thought alone should motivate us to keep a good Lent!   

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III Tuesday – Esaias 9:9 – 10:4

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Thus saith the Lord: And all the people of Ephraim, and they that dwelt in Samaria shall know, who say in their pride and lofty heart, 10 The bricks are fallen down, but come, let us hew stones, and cut down sycamores and cedars, and let us build for ourselves a tower. 11 And God shall dash down them that rise up against him on mount Sion, and shall scatter his enemies; 12 even Syria from the rising of the sun, and the Greeks from the setting of the sun, who devour Israel with open mouth. For all this his anger is not turned away, but still his hand is exalted. 13 But the people turned not until they were smitten, and they sought not the Lord. 14 So the Lord took away from Israel the head and tail, great and small, in one day: 15 the old man, and them that respect persons, this is the head; and the prophet teaching unlawful things, he is the tail. 16 And they that pronounce this people blessed shall mislead them; and they mislead them that they may devour them. 17 Therefore the Lord shall not take pleasure in their young men, neither shall he have pity on their orphans or on their widows: for they are all transgressors and wicked, and every mouth speaks unjustly. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is yet exalted. 18 And iniquity shall burn as fire, and shall be devoured by fire as dry grass: and it shall burn in the thickets of the wood, and shall devour all that is round about the hills. 19 The whole earth is set on fire because of the fierce anger of the Lord, and the people shall be as men burnt by fire: no man shall pity his brother. 20 But one shall turn aside to the right hand, for he shall be hungry; and shall eat on the left, and a man shall by no means be satisfied with eating the flesh of his own arm. 21 For Manasses shall eat the flesh of Ephraim, and Ephraim the flesh of Manasses; for they shall besiege Juda together. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is yet exalted. 10:1 Woe to them that write wickedness; for when they write they do write wickedness, 2 perverting the cause of the poor, violently wresting the judgement of the needy ones of my people, that the widow may be a prey to them, and the orphan a spoil. 3 And what will they do in the day of visitation? for affliction shall come to you from afar: and to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory, 4 that ye may not fall into captivity? For all this his wrath is not turned away, and his hand is uplifted still. 

The northern kingdom of Israel has now involved itself in a fratricidal war against the southern kingdom of Judea, and for this the Lord promises to punish them severely, especially because they have not paid attention to the many chastisements He has already sent upon them but are persisting in their sinful ways. In verses fourteen and fifteen, Esaias calls the corrupt leadership of the kingdom the “head and the tail,” the head being the royal government and established priesthood (“the old man and them that respect persons”), and the tail being the false prophets (“the prophet teaching unlawful things”).   Both the institutional authority, then, and the charismatic authority have gone astray, and with no one to lead them, the people shall be destroyed.  

The New Testament Church, which fulfills the types and figures of the Old Testament Church, also has set over Her an institutional as well as a charismatic authority.  The institutional authority consists of the episcopal and clerical hierarchy, who govern the Church, teach the Faith, and administer the Holy Mysteries.  The charismatic authority consists of the holy ascetics who receive inspiration directly from God, and whose vocation is to inform and to correct not only their individual spiritual children but also, and especially, the Church’s institutional leadership as well.   The latter, in short, exercise the prophetic office.  But what happens when not only those who hold the outward authority go astray, which is predictable, given the perennial tendency  of men who wield power over others, but even those who should be known for their poverty and simplicity of life, for purity of soul, and for right judgment – that is, the ascetics, elders, and prophets – what happens when they also go astray?  Then we are really in for a bad time of it, because the ordinary mechanism of reproof and reform has been removed, and the people are left leaderless to face the wrath of God as the only remaining source of correction.   

St. Gregory the Dialogist says that by this double betrayal, “…the church is destroyed on every side”:   

Where the head and the tail are said through the prophet to be destroyed, it is clear that priests are designated by the head and prophets by the tail.  The crown, therefore, is removed from the head when those who are seen to preside over the body of the church abandon the rewears of heavenly compensation.  Once its leaders fall, normally the army that follows them also succumbs. Hence, soon after the condemnation of the leaders, Job comments on the manifold afflictions of the church: “He destroyed me on every side, and I perish; and he has removed my hope like uprooting a tree (Job 19:10).”  For the church is destroyed on every side and perishes in the person of its sick members when those who seem to be its strength are corrupted, that is, when the crown is removed from the head because its leaders have abandoned their pursuit of eternal rewards.  It is in reference to the sick who have fallen that Job then adds, fittingly: “…and he removed my hope like uprooting a tree.”  A tree is felled by a gust of wind.  And what is more similar to a person who falls into unrighteousness as a result of being terrorized with threats than a tree that loses its straightness because of the wind?  – The Moralia on Job 3.14.43-44

St. Gregory gives two reasons why the priests and the prophets go astray:   They abandon their pursuit of eternal rewards, and they allow themselves to be frightened by threats.    Worldliness leads to cowardice, because a weak worldly man will sacrifice his principles when threatened by a strong worldly man, in order to preserve his comfort.    When bishops, priests, and monks become worldly men, they also become weak men, for their only power was from the God Whom they have betrayed.  Being traitors, they receive the reward of all traitors, which is to be despised even by those to whom they have sold their souls.  They will always be toadies to the big worldly men who really know their business.  A pitiful spectacle, and it would be comic if only it did not yield the consequences of eternal damnation.  

Dear Christ, our true Shepherd Who laid down Thy life for the sheep, deliver us from the hirelings that have abandoned Thy flock, and save us. 

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III Lent Monday – Esaias 8:13 – 9:7

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Thus saith the Lord: Sanctify ye the Lord himself; and he shall be thy fear. 14And if thou shalt trust in him, he shall be to thee for a sanctuary; and ye shall not come against him as against a stumbling-stone, neither as against the falling of a rock: but the houses of Jacob are in a snare, and the dwellers in Jerusalem in a pit. 15 Therefore many among them shall be weak, and fall, and be crushed; and they shall draw nigh, and men shall be taken securely. 16 Then shall those who seal themselves that they may not learn the law be made manifest. 17 And one shall say, I will wait for God, who has turned away his face from the house of Jacob, and I will trust in him. 18 Behold I and the children which God has given me: and they shall be for signs and wonders in the house of Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells in mount Sion. 19 And if they should say to you, Seek those who have in them a divining spirit, and them that speak out of the earth, them that speak vain words, who speak out of their belly: shall not a nation diligently seek to their God? why do they seek to the dead concerning the living? 20 For he has given the law for a help, that they should not speak according to this word, concerning which there are no gifts to give for it. 21 And famine shall come sorely upon you, and it shall come to pass, that when ye shall be hungry, ye shall be grieved, and ye shall speak ill of the prince and your fathers’ ordinances: and they shall look up to heaven above, 22 and they shall look on the earth below, and behold severe distress, and darkness, affliction, and anguish, and darkness so that one cannot see; and he that is in anguish shall not be distressed only for a time.  9:1 Drink this first. Act quickly, O land of Zabulon, land of Nephthalim, and the rest inhabiting the sea-coast, and the land beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 2 O people walking in darkness, behold a great light: ye that dwell in the region and shadow of death, a light shall shine upon you. 3 The multitude of the people which thou hast brought down in thy joy, they shall even rejoice before thee as they that rejoice in harvest, and as they that divide the spoil. 4 Because the yoke that was laid upon them has been taken away, and the rod that was on their neck: for he has broken the rod of the exactors, as in the day of Madiam. 5 For they shall compensate for every garment that has been acquired by deceit, and all raiment with restitution; and they shall be willing, even if they were burnt with fire. 6 For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, whose government is upon his shoulder: and his name is called the Messenger of great counsel: for I will bring peace upon the princes, and health to him. 7 His government shall be great, and of his peace there is no end: it shall be upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to support it with judgement and with righteousness, from henceforth and forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform this. 

The first part of today’s reading, chapter eight, verses 13 to the end, depicts once again the near-universal apostasy of Israel, as the great majority of the people seek the truth not from God but from false prophets, mediums, and witches. Yet in their midst there is “one” who does not follow the trend. Remaining faithful to the true God, he says “…I will wait for God, who has turned away his face from the house of Jacob, and I will trust in him. Behold I and the children which God has given me; and they shall be for signs and wonders in the house of Israel, from the Lord of hosts, who dwells in mount Sion.”  The Blessed Jerome reminds us that St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, interprets this “one” to be Christ Himself: 

…the blessed apostle in the letter written to the Hebrews…teaches that this passage ought to be understood with respect to the Lord and Savior.  “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, ‘I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee (Hebrews 2: 11-12). And again, ‘I will put my trust in him (Hebrews 2:13).’ And again: Here am I, and the children God has given me. Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself also shared in their sufferings (Hebrews 2: 13-14).” How these children became signs and wonders…that same apostle teaches, who said that the Lord and Savior “…chose what is foolish in the world and what is weak that he might shame the wise and strong (I Corinthians 1:27).”  And the Savior said to the apostles:  “Unless you turn and become like a child, uno will not enter into the kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 18:3).”   – Homilies on Isaiah 3.8.1-4

Throughout the Old Testament, there are these lone figures, these unpopular righteous men like Noah and Moses, and Esaias himself, who buck the prevailing fashion of unbelief and corruption, remain faithful to the Lord, and thereby preserve the true belief, true worship, and true morality for future generations.  By their heroic exploits of faithfulness, they not only prepare the way for Christ, but they also become types of Christ, that is, partial and mystical prophetic foreshadowings of the One Who was to come, not only by words but by their lives and deeds. Each one, according the measure of grace given him, can rightly say to God, “Behold I and the children whom Thou hast given me.”  To attain this stature before God, they had to become fools in the eyes of the world.  By becoming strangers to the world, they prefigured that Stranger who had nowhere to lay His head. By becoming like little children, they inherited the kingdom of God. 

The point here is not that we should cultivate being odd for its own sake; this is not virtue but a species of vanity.   Orthodox Christians do not aim at becoming the angry antiheroes of existentialist novels or eccentric dilettantes amusing themselves with the exotic rituals and religious artifacts of bygone ages,  or Live Action Role Players in some kind of ecclesiastical Renaissance fair.   Our faith is not a distraction from real life.  It is real life. If we believe aright and strive to obey the commandments, the world will naturally become foreign to us, and we to the world.  Our becoming outcasts is not the goal; it is a byproduct. Our eyes, after all, are not on ourselves; they are on the Lord.   We go to him “outside the camp” not in order to to distinguish ourselves from the people in the camp, but in order to be with Christ. What the world thinks about us is neither here nor there.  

The second part of today’s reading is, of course, one of the best known prophecies of the coming of Christ, quoted in part by the Holy Evangelist Matthew in the Gospel itself:  

Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. – Matthew 4: 12-17 

St. Matthew is stating that the words of Esaias are now fulfilled in his time, when he saw with his own eyes the true Light, Christ Himself, Who began His public ministry among His own neighbors the Galileans, who inhabited what was once the northern kingdom of Israel, which had become mixed with the pagans after the Assyrian conquest and therefore were a “people which sat in darkness.”  St. Symeon the New Theologian reminds us that we too are sitting in darkness, and that to be enlightened we must choose to look towards the light:   

You must learn and be convinced that those who sit in darkness will see the great light shine if only they look toward it.   Also, though it shone in the past, one should not think that people today cannot see it while they are still in the body.  If it were impossible to see it, why did it shine then, and why does it still shine even when it is not seen?   In fact, the light always existed (John 1:1) and always shone and still shines in those who have been cleansed.  It shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5), and it shines now, and the darkness does not overcome it.  It does not even touch it.”Discourses 34.12 

We have a choice to make:  We can become fascinated by the darkness in the world, even though we hate it, and we can become hypnotized by all the bad news, or we can occupy our minds with the Good News and let the light of Christ shine in our minds continually through the struggle for attention, the remembrance of God, and unceasing prayer.   Through the prayers of the holy prophets and evangelists, our holy fathers like St. Symeon, and all the saints, may we tear our minds away from the darkness and turn towards the true Light daily.  If we dwell in the light which the world cannot overcome – or even touch – the darkness of the world shall never overcome us.   

“Be of good cheer,” saith the Lord.  “I have overcome the world  (John 16:33).”

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II Lent Friday – Esaias 7: 1-14

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And it came to pass in the days of Achaz the son of Joatham, the son of Ozias, king of Juda, there came up Rasim king of Aram, and Phakee son of Romelias, king of Israel, against Jerusalem to war against it, but they could not take it. 2 And a message was brought to the house of David, saying, Aram has conspired with Ephraim. And his soul was amazed, and the soul of his people, as in a wood a tree is moved by the wind. 3 And the Lord said to Esaias, Go forth to meet Achaz, thou, and thy son Jasub who is left, to the pool of the upper way of the fuller’s field. 4 And thou shalt say to him, Take care to be quiet, and fear not, neither let thy soul be disheartened because of these two smoking firebrands: for when my fierce anger is over, I will heal again. 5 And as for the son of Aram, and the son of Romelias, forasmuch as they have devised an evil counsel, saying, 6 We will go up against Judea, and having conferred with them we will turn them away to our side, and we will make the son of Tabeel king of it; 7 thus saith the Lord of hosts, This counsel shall not abide, nor come to pass. 8 But the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus, Rasim; and yet within sixty and five years the kingdom of Ephraim shall cease from being a people. 9 And the head of Ephraim is Somoron, and the head of Somoron the son of Romelias: but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand. 10 And the Lord again spoke to Achaz, saying, 11 Ask for thyself a sign of the Lord thy God, in the depth or in the height. 12 And Achaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord. 13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a little thing for you to contend with men? and how do ye contend against the Lord? 14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel. 

Here is the best-known and most explicit Old Testament prophecy of the Incarnation of God the Word:  “…behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.”  When the fullness of time had come, neither an angel nor an ambassador came to save us, but the Lord Himself, Emmanuel, whose name being interpreted means “God with us.”  

Long before the time of Esaias, however, Moses had mystically learned of this in his encounter with God at the burning bush.   St. Gregory of Nyssa says the following: 

It seems to me that Moses already knew about this mystery by means of the light by which God appeared to him when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (Exodus 3:2).  For Moses said, “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision (Ex. 3:3). I believe that the term “go up closer” does not mean motion in space but drawing near in time.  What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once a period of time had passed.  Just as on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted.   Nor should you consider comparing the Virgin to a bush to be inappropriate, for the bush prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Birth of Christ 

Neither Moses nor Esaias – nor Gregory of Nyssa for that matter – were what people today would call academic theologians.  They had wisdom, because they feared the Lord.  They had faith in Who He is, and they had hope in His promises. Advancing from Faith in His Truth to Hope in His Goodness, finally they came to that true knowledge of God which is the union of the mind with the ultimate Beauty, Who is Love.   

So Faith comes first.  The Lord Himself makes this plain in today’s reading, through the mouth of Esaias.   He tells King Achaz that the king does not understand the prophetic revelation because he does not believe:   “…but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand (v.9) .”  

Blessed Augustine of Hippo explains this relationship between faith and understanding thus: 

The sacred and hidden mysteries of the kingdom of God require people first to believe so they become people who understand.  Faith, you see, is a step toward understanding; understanding is the well-deserved reward of faith.  The prophet says this plainly enough to all those who impatiently put the cart before the horse by looking for understanding and ignoring the need for faith.  He states, “…but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand (Esaias 7:9.)” Faith too, of course, has a kind of light of its own in the Scriptures: in the readings from the prophets, from the the gospel, from the apostle.  I mean, all those texts that are chanted to us at the appropriate time are lights in a dark place, to keep us going until the day.  The apostle Peter says, “We have the prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention, as to a light in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (II Peter 1:19). Sermon 126

St. Peter understands that his flock often perceive that their lives in this world are in “a dark place,” and of course we often feel that way too.   What he and St. Augustine offer as a cure for this is that we hasten to the Church and hear, at the appropriate time, that is, according to the Church’s liturgical calendar, the sacred prophecies of the Old and New Testaments, which throw light into our darkness and give us the strength we need to persevere, until “…the day dawns and the morning star rises” in our hearts.  The light of spiritual understanding does come if we keep struggling in faith and hearing God’s word with an open heart; we know that, for we periodically experience it, and no one can tell us that it does not happen.  And we know that this is not delusory, because it is the most solid, stabilizing, consistent, and joy-giving interior experience we ever have. Each of us can say to himself, “I am certainly not a a Moses or an Esaias or a Gregory of Nyssa, but the Lord in His greatness does reach down to my lowliness and enlighten my darkness, whenever I take off the sandals of my self-sufficiency and vain knowledge, and fall down before the Burning Bush with faith and the fear of God.”  

Panagia herself exercised this active faith that is prior to knowledge, regarding the very prophecy we read today.  She had read it too, and she believed.  When the great archangel came to tell her that she was to enact its fulfillment, she did not for one moment doubt the prophecy.  Her question to St. Gabriel was simply out of a desire to grow in understanding; as one thirsting to grow ever  in divine knowledge, she wanted to know more about the details.  Here is what St. Ambrose says about it:  

When Mary asked the angel, “How shall this be? (Luke 1:3-4),” she was not doubting what the angel said; she wanted to know how it would come about.  How much more measured is her response than the words of the priest Zechariah.  She asked, “How shall this be?” [Zacharias, by contrast, asked] “How shall I know this? (Luke 1:18).” She responds to what is to happen; he remains doubtful of the news. He shows that he does not believe by saying that he does not know, and seeks to find someone else as warrant; she declares that she is ready to do what she is called for and does not doubt that it will take place.  She asks only how it will happen when she says, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”  Such a marvelous and unheard-of birth needed to be announced so that she could believe it.  For a virgin to give birth is a sign of a divine mystery, not a human affair.  Further, Mary had read the words, “Receive a sign: Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Esaias 7:14).” Therefore she believed that the prophecy would come true, but how it would happen she would not have read, for how it would be fulfilled had not been revealed even to so great a prophet.Commentary on Luke 2:15 

When we struggle with weakness of faith, let us not then obey the suicidal impulse to pitch our feeble minds into the swirling cesspool of human curiosity and vain reasonings.  Let us instead kneel before the icon of the Most Holy Virgin, read her Akathist Hymn, and cry out to her in the words of the archangel.   This pleases her greatly, and her all-powerful intercession will invincibly incline the will of her divine Son, the Daystar of God, to send His light into our hearts. 

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