20 August OS 2019: Monday of the Twelfth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Prophet Samuel
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In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord is baptized, defeats temptation, dwells in the desert with the angels and wild animals, and begins to preach the Gospel of repentance – all in six verses.
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. – Mark 1: 9-15
Today we begin reading from the Gospel According to St. Mark, the shortest and most direct of the four Gospels. St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter, wrote his Gospel for the Church at Rome, and the terse and concise character of the Gospel corresponds to the old Roman character: sober, no-nonsense, and to the point. In today’s reading, St. Mark recounts in six pithy verses the Lord’s baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of His preaching.
St. Mark’s brevity brings into relief a fact about all the Gospels: They are not biographies of Jesus Christ, but rather a proclamation of Who He is. They contain only what we need to know, to believe, and to do in order to find salvation. We must read and hear these words – literally, physically read and hear them – make an act of faith in their truth, pray for understanding, and resolve to live according to their demands. This must happen day after day, or we forget what a Christian is.
If we have been slack in reading the Gospel lately, this new beginning, with the shortest Gospel, is a good place to start again. We need to open the Gospel, stand or kneel in front of our icons, and read aloud the daily assigned passage or perhaps a whole chapter, going chapter by chapter day by day. Read aloud, at a moderate pace. Struggle for attention. The words of the Gospel are infused with the infinite divine power of the Holy Spirit, and they are self-acting. If we read them with the struggle for attention, they will bring about spiritual fruits.
This actual reading of the Gospel is the most important, first step, and the Holy Spirit will grant us understanding, if we ask for it. If we desire to take another step and study the Gospels as well as read them, we should use a patristic or patristically inspired commentary. Though the commentaries of the ancient Fathers, pre-eminently St. John Chrysostom, are the most complete, most of us (99% of us?) need something shorter: the normative short commentary is the explanation of the Gospels by St. Theophylact of Ochrid. This essential Orthodox reading was made available in English, in four volumes, from Chrysostom Presss in House Springs, Missouri, some time ago. Unfortunately Chrysostom Press is temporarily inactive and not fulfilling orders, but if one hunts about for copies of the commentaries for sale, one can find them. Besides, or after, St. Theophylact, the best guide to the Gospels for our time is the commentary by Archbishop Averky, available from Holy Trinity Monastery at http://bookstore.jordanville.org/9781942699002. Just reading a page every day from one or both of these commentaries will change us greatly for the good.
Today marks the 37th anniversary of the repose of Fr. Seraphim Rose, one of whose several trenchant “quotable quotes” was, famously, “We know we are Orthodox, but are we Christians?” Of course, he did not mean that being Orthodox and being Christian are really two separate things: being Orthodox assumes being a Christian, and to be a Christian in the most accurate sense, to be in the Church, one must be Orthodox. He was using irony to make a point, that one can be taken up with the various aspects of Faith that manifest the Gospel and forget the Gospel itself. If one’s mind is not immersed in the Gospels, and if one is not submitted in obedience to the commandments of the Gospels, then the canons, hierarchical structures, church buildings, liturgical services, liturgical arts, domestic customs – the various manifestations of Church life – easily become idols, ends in themselves. Our understanding of them becomes fragmented, alienated from their true meaning and their coherence in the light of the Gospel, and instead of using them as instruments for our salvation, we misunderstand and misuse them in such a way that their power – which is indeed great, whether to salvation or damnation – transforms us into Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees worship the liturgical cult and the church organization. Pharisees worship rules and outward piety. Christians worship the Holy Trinity.
Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov writes in The Arena that we will be judged, both at the particular judgment following death and at the general judgment at the Second Coming, according to the commandments of the Gospel. This judgment determines our fate for all eternity. Let each of us hasten to make himself most intimate with the book by which he will be judged, and compare to it daily and continually that book which shall be opened at the Judgment, the book of his heart.