Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Innumerable Facets of Scripture
The Holy Prophet Jeremiah

 "'Is not My Word like...a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?' (Jer 23:29).  As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings."--Sanhedrin 34A

These words of the Jewish Midrash reveal an essential truth: the Light within the Scriptures is unfathomable.  Yet how much more incomprehensible is the fullness of the Lord!

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Believing Thomas
 The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601) by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

"Because you have seen Me, Thomas, you have believed."--Jn 20:29

Yesterday we heard the episode related by John the Theologian of that octave of Pascha, the week after Christ's Resurrection.  When He rose, He appeared to many: to Mary Magdalane, to the other myrrhbearing women, to His apostles in the closed room, to His disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  Yet to one in particular He did not appear in that first week: Thomas, called Twin (Didymos).  Why Thomas was not with the rest of the Eleven in the upper room is unknown.  All we know is the fact that he was not there.  Because he was not there, He did not see the Lord's theophany that morning, and it was such a glorious happening that Thomas could not believe the news of it.  Maybe he was a pessimist who was reluctant to believe such news; perhaps he was, as he is often presented now, a man who needed evidence.  Regardless of his underlying thought, we know his declaration: "If not I see in His hands the place of the nail, and place my finger into the place of the nail, and place my hand into His side, not will I believe."  It is such a direct statement that he even wished to touch the rib of Christ, if one translates it such, for it is the same word for that of which Eve was made.  Thomas wanted to touch the rib of Him through Whom all things came to be, the rib revealed by Longinus' lance.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mary, Tier and Untier of Knots

"Rejoice, Binder of the faithful to the Lord!"
--The Akathist of St. Romanos the Melodist

Since the election of Pope Francis, the originally German devotion to the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary as the "Untier of Knots" as become quite popular.  And it is popular for its truth, for she is the one "who gave birth to the Captives' release," the one who "ripped the Athenians' meshes," the one through whom "we have been liberated from terror."  She can truly free us from so many ills through the grace that fills her: thus in our ails we pray to her, and we have confidence in her help, whether it is with cancer (the Pantanassa) or addictions (the Inexhaustible Cup) or any other ill.  She can truly undo knots, whether those of the devil or merely our own fallen nature.  She is, through Christ, "the freedom from our chains," and thus, "in her hands there is no knot that cannot be undone."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Death During Bright Week
Icon found in Benaki Museum in Athens

"The last enemy to be rendered powerless is death."--1 Cor 15:26

On Great and Good Friday, the mother of our parish's founder fell asleep in the Lord, and her funeral was today.  Yet a funeral during Bright Week is less a time of mourning than a triumphal celebration.  It is a common saying that a Christian who falls asleep or else his funeral during Bright Week is taken immediately to Heaven, for it is during that week that all of creation is aglow, radiating the triumphal light of the Resurrection.  Thus the typical hymns of sorrow are replaced with those of victory: "Christ is risen from the dead! Shine in splendor, O New Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord is risen upon you!"  Indeed, the entire Paschal Canon prayed on the Paschal morn is again prayed at a funeral.  Death is barely acknowledged, for all know that Christ has made him powerless.  He has been crushed and trampled and conquered, with his own gates pressing into his back while his captives enter into Heaven in his very sight.  All this occurred at what he thought was the time of his final triumph, when God Himself had entered his grasp: yet the Christ was not subject to corruption, and the bait Death swallowed was his own undoing, as so many of the Fathers painted the image.  "He sought the bait of the flesh, but was hooked by the divinity" (St. Gregory the Dialogist).  Truly did St. Ephraim speak: "Death knelt before Him in Sheol, / and Life worshipped Him at His Resurrection."

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Jesus met them, saying, 'Rejoice!'"

"Thus then they went to announce to His disciples, and behold!, Jesus met them, saying, 'Rejoice!'"--Mt 28:9

What Paschal message could be more fitting than Christ's own: "Rejoice!" He told the myrrhbearers.  "Rejoice, for I am risen!  Rejoice, for salvation has come!  Rejoice, for death has been trampled!  Rejoice, for the long-suffering just are freed from Hades!  Rejoice, for his grip on you is broken!  Rejoice, for Heaven is open for you!  Rejoice, for the earth rejoices!  Rejoice, for the heavenly rejoice with the earthly!  Rejoice, for all creation exclaims the most joyous and glorious hymn: 'Christ is risen from the dead, by death He trampled death, and to those in the tombs He granted life!'"  What more is there to say today, as we celebrate Pascha anew.  What Gabriel said truthfully and Judas twisted in his betrayal as been brought aright again by Christ, as He brings alright all that is fallen and straightens all that is twisted.  That great Gospel message now resounds in all its fullness: "Rejoice!"  Recalling the words of Ilias the Presbyter, "He who does not rejoice lacks hope," let us exhort one another as did St. Barsanuphius his brethren, "Rejoice in the Lord, my brother!"  For now is the greatest time to rejoice, for Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed, and yet He has been gloriously raised.  I can say nothing more of this glorious time than that one single word: "Rejoice!"  And let us rejoice for all the days of Pascha, the joyful counterpart to the Fast, being instructed by Yovhan Mandakuni as he contrasts the Fast to the Feast:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Pascha: The Blessed Renewal
"From on high He came down as Lord,
from within the womb He came forth as a servant;
Death knelt before Him in Sheol,
and Life worshipped Him at His resurrection.
Blessed is His victory!"
--St. Ephraim the Syrian

Christ is risen!  Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!  Christos voskrese!  Today the whole earth rings out its joy, echoing the Paschal hymn, for death is vanquished and our Light has returned from the three-day night.  So all shall praise the all-glorious and life-giving Resurrection of Christ!  One voice, St. Proclus of Constantinople, here echoes from Heaven to proclaim the meaning of this Feast of Feasts.  Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jesus, the Slayer of Death

Today we remember Christ, the conqueror of Hades.  For death could not restrain Him, but He broke the bounds of death to bring the faithful departed to eternal life.  While His Body lay in the tomb, His soul was liberating the just.  Let us praise the Lord's mighty work this day, and let the following words of the great Aphrahat the Syrian (270-345) help us recall Jesus' glorious victory:

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Rejoice, Rabbi"
 "And immediately approaching Jesus [Judas] said, 'Rejoice, rabbi': and he kissed Him."--Mt 26:49

The apostate who ran to the high priests with the Bread of Heaven still in his mouth betrayed our Lord with a kiss.  What is a symbol of filial love, the kiss (φιληματος), Judas turned into a symbol of betrayal.  He who was one of the twelve chosen by Christ to follow Him gave full rein to his greed and allowed Satan entrance into his heart.  Since he betrayed with an act of love the Lover of Mankind, it is fitting that Jesus said, "It would be better for this man if he were never born."  And if the betrayal by an act of love were not horrific enough, ponder the words Judas spoke: "Rejoice, rabbi."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Upon Moses' Chair

A replica of the Chair of Moses found at the Synagogue in Chorazin

"Upon Moses' chair sit the scribes and the Pharisees: all things whatsoever they tell you to keep, keep and do: but their works do not do, for they speak and do not do."--Mt 23:2-3

How great was Moses' authority, that even his chair continues to be reverenced millennia after his falling asleep!  God ordained him to be the lawgiver of the Israelites and to guide them in the commandments of the Lord, and his authority succeeded him throughout the ages.  First it passed to Joshua, the prototype of Christ in name, then to the many judges the Lord raised, then to the kings of Israel and Judah through the mediation of Samuel, and then to the elders and the teachers after the Exile.  Jesus Himself affirmed this succession of authority, for He affirmed that even the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees had an authority to be heeded.  If even they, successors of the prophet and lawgiver Moses, were to be heeded, how much more the successors of the honorable and glorious apostles?

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fruits of Repentance

Jesus Curses the Fig Tree (1684) by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib

"O faithful let us fear the punishment of the fig tree which was dried up for not having borne any fruit; let us offer worthy fruits of repentance to Christ, who grant us His great mercy."
--From the Aposticha of Bridegroom Matins on Great and Holy Monday

When Christ hungered and approached the fig tree, He expected it to be bearing fruit; when it was not, He cursed it.  Just so, the foolish virgins not possessing oil were barred from the feast.  It is as if Christ said to them as He said to the high priests and the presbyters of the people, "For this I say to you that will be taken from you the kingdom of God, and it will be given to a nation producing the fruits of it."  This too will occur to us if we are not watchful, if we are not prepared in a wedding garment when the Lord comes to invite us into His bridal chamber engulfed in light.  Let us beg Him, "Fill the garment of my soul with light," and let us work to enkindle that light in ourselves.  Without an overflowing union with He Who is Light, "we are soulless wood, fruitless and withered, matter which is fit for the unquenchable fire" (St. Symeon the New Theologian).

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Woman of Valor
A lithograph of the Eishet Chayil in Hebrew by Shuki Freiman

" A woman of valor who can find?  More honorable than costly stones is such a one."--Prv 31:10

As we complete our reading of the Proverbs of Solomon for this Lent, we come across that great praise of the Godly woman that ends this book.  It is a well-loved passage among the Jews, who call it by the Hebrew name Eishes Chayil (or Eishet Chayil), which means "Woman of Valor."  It is the Jewish tradition to recite the passage before the Friday meal every Sabbath to praise the women of the house or all the women of Israel; thus the man recites it to his wife or to any woman there, and if there are only women in the household, they recite to praise all the women of Israel.  The passage describes the characteristics of a wonderful wife or "the perfect wife," as Fray Luis de León calls it in his commentary of the same title (La perfecta casada).  Such a woman works to beautify her home and to support her family; she weaves scarlet clothes for them and never has idle hands in providing for her household.  Her virtue is such that all the other men of the town will praise her and congratulate her husband for having such a worthy life.  Above all, she is devoted to the Lord, and it is this which truly makes her surpass all other women.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Fast of Intercession
"Not such a fast I have chosen, says the Lord, but loose all bonds of iniquity, separate knots of violent covenants, send forth the shattered in release and all wicked contracts tear asunder."--Is 58:6

When we fast, we are not to merely refrain from food, though it is praiseworthy to do so to control our passions and offer our sacrifices to God; we are also to do good to our neighbor, as the Spirit spoke through the prophet Isaiah.  We are to fast from wickedness and fast for good, for the more exact fast, the true fast, is to abstain from sin, as St. John Chrysostom remind us, and while we abstain from sin we should also actively do good; thus the Lord directs us to do good for our neighbor during our fasts, expanding the normal definition of almsgiving, calling us to all of the corporal works of mercy.  Yet, are there not other ways we can assist our neighbor during the Fast, in addition to the physical assistance?  If we do not have a brother bound in wicked contract, if we do not keep men bound by iniquity, and thus we cannot release them, what can this verse mean to us?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Continual Fire
Aaron and the Tabernacle, from the Synagogue at Dura-Europos, Syria (c. 245-256)

"And fire through all will be kindled upon the altar, it will not be quenched."--Lev 6:6 (LXX)

Among the many regulations the Lord gave to His servants the Israelites, and particularly to the priestly Levites, we can see two key meanings, among others: a meaning for them in their literal worship in the Temple, and a meaning for us in our interior worship in the temple of our hearts.  When Leviticus thus speaks of the fire upon the altar, to draw forth spiritual meaning from the text, we should interpret the altar as the one within our hearts.  Just as the Levites were called to offer burnt offerings upon the physical altar, so are we called to immolate our wills for the Lord.  We are to destroy our souls to save them, to sacrifice all we have for He Who saves us.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Illuminating Our Baptism

 A Maronite icon of the Theophany, when Christ sanctified the waters for our Baptism

"Going forth therefore make into disciples all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I have commanded you."--Mt 28:19-20a

Baptism is the door through which we enter the Church, the first Mystery every Christian experiences.  It is what marks one as a Christian.  To understand it, then, is key to understanding the Christian life in truth.  In Baptism, we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection so that we die with Him and rise with Him so that we may life and rule with Him.  The effects are myriad, but the basic fact is this: "The power of Baptism is to be understood as a covenant with God for a second life and a purer lifestyle."  We enter into the Lord's New Covenant through our Baptism, and in this covenant He gives us innumerable graces and we give Him our lives, our souls and minds and bodies, our heart and strength, in their entirety.  We must always, then, keep in mind the fundamental importance of our Baptism and all the graces it was the doorway for, and so I hope these words for St. Gregory the Theologian will inspire us all to a deeper understanding of our Baptism, our Illumination.  "This is also an illumination, to know the power of the mystery."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Answer of the Tongue
Holy Prophet King Solomon, traditional author of Proverbs

"To man are the preparations of the heart:
from the Lord is the answer of the tongue."
--Prv 16:1

The Lord holds sway over all: with Him is all power, and for this we call Him Pantokrator, All-Mighty.  Heaven and earth and all their inhabitants are under His command, for "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein," and "He stretches forth the heavens like a tent," a tent which He can set up and take down at will.  If He wills, He could wipe out man from the face of the earth, as in the time of Noah, yet instead He wills that we work out our salvation in fear and trembling in this world.  Though He does not use His power in its most sweeping way, He still has all power over all created things, down to the smallest speck, and He watches over all and cares for all, as He even numbers each hair on our heads.  Thus He has rule even over the answers of our tongues.