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THE RANSOM FROM SORROW


This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
A Pascha of delight, Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha, an all-venerable Pascha has dawned for us, Pascha. Let us embrace one another with joy. O Pascha, ransom from sorrow! Today Christ shone forth from a tomb as from a bridal chamber, and filled the women with joy, saying, ‘Proclaim it to the Apostles’
.  (from the stikhera Vespers of Pascha)

What is the deepest message of Christ’s resurrection? Is it the end of death, sin, and alienation? Of, course! But the joy of the resurrection is that it brings an end to sorrow. It frees us from the crushing sorrow of death, sin, and alienation.

Death—the death of those whom we love and the anticipation of our own death—is a heartbreaking loss, a terror, the threat of annihilation. Indeed, death is the ultimate alienation and the knowledge of death is the ultimate source of sin (at least since the first sin was committed—the sin that lead to death).  This knowledge is engrained into our very being. It expresses itself even in infants in the cry for food, the demand for attention, the requirement for care. Looked at this way, the knowledge and fear of death is a universal—extending even beyond human beings into the animal world.

Most of us spend our entire life avoiding the thought of death. When it happens to others we are speedy in making it go away. The body is shipped off to a funeral home where it is made to look as much like it is alive is possible, or it is cremated, or locked in a casket so that no one can see it (increasingly, at least among the non-Orthodox  caskets are kept closed even at wakes). Once the funeral is over we urge mourners to ‘let go’ of their grief, to work it out and to move on with their lives. We Orthodox, with our open casket funerals, our forty day’s memorials and Soul Saturdays are something of an exception to this cruel practice. But even here changes are occurring; one of the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States does not permit open casket funeral and more and more families are electing not to have the traditional memorials. Soul Saturday services are often attended only by the elderly.

The cruelty of our modern approach is that it artificially suppresses the natural sorrow and grief we feel in the face of what appears to be annihilation. Our modern approach is unnatural and perverse; it attempts to convince us of the lie that we can ever get beyond the catastrophic impact that death has on all of life.

Now that sounds like a terribly morbid statement. In fact, it is the modern attitude toward death or, rather, our denial of death that is morbid and unnatural because it deprives us of hope. In attempting to limit and ultimately deny sorrow we deprive ourselves of joy. Against common sense and practical experience we are asked to treat death as natural, normal, and perhaps even good—and in doing so we repudiate the saving work of Christ and refute His resurrection!

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up--if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15: 12-26 NKJV)

Our modern attitude toward death ultimately rejects the possibility of resurrection. By attempting to make peace with death, or more aptly, by trying to push it aside and forget it, we have forsaken the resurrection. By denying our sorrow we have forfeited out joy!
The message of the resurrection is that, yes, death matters. It really is a terrible obstacle, the source of sorrow, the birth-giver of sin, and the ultimate alienation.
Christ did not make peace with death. He overcame it. He humiliated it. He destroyed it. The incomparable St. John Chrysostom put it this way in his sermon on the Resurrection:

He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, "Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions." It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!"O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!


Christ does not make peace with death; He does not surrender to it, He annihilates it! Annihilation is annihilated, alienation is alienated, sin is erased, and sorrow is replaced by joy. At last we are liberated from the need to either tremble in the presence of death or to deny it because Christ has redeemed us from it.

This is the very heart of the gospel—the good news of salvation—that we have been set free both to mourn and to rejoice. Or, better yet, we have been freed to mourn in the knowledge and hope of joy. This is a great paradox, that the very source of our sorrow should be turned into joy.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Our Paschal proclamation declares that the means of sorrow has become the means by which sorrow has been undone. Death is defeated by death and the life that emerges from it can never die again. This is the beginning and end of the Orthodox Christian faith, our hope and our joy. And it gives us good reason not to surrender to the great paradox of modern life wherein death is both embraced and denied. (We embrace death as the solution to life’s problems through abortion, ‘euthanasia’, suicide, and the death penalty. We deny it when we sweep it away in the sanitized confines of our funeral homes, our desire for closed casket funerals, and our insistence that mourning be kept to a minimum and that it be very, very  private).

In the Resurrection of Christ, we both acknowledge the reality and the unreality of death. It is real because until Christ comes again at the end of the ages, we must die. It is unreal because in Him death has been defeated. His resurrection is the promise of what is to come. Thus, we weep for our loved ones when they die and we dread the day of our own death and we rejoice because we know that death no longer has the last word.

The joy of Pascha has nothing to do with the cycle of life and death; the emergence of spring from winter. It is has to do with the end of death; its complete destruction.  Once we understand this we can be ‘real’. We can shed real tears and experience real joy. We can have a truly sane (healthy) attitude toward death, free from both morbidity and from the false attempt to make friends with it.

Why? Because we have been set free from its power. We have been ransomed from its sorrow. Its bitterness has been made sweet for us and its fearsomeness has been transformed into hope.

This is a message worth proclaiming. In the end, it is the most important message of all.




HOLY WEEK 2015-MEDIATION 1


The people saw a four-day corpse walking.
They were struck with wonder at the miracle.
They cried out to the Redeemer:
O God, we glorify You in song!
You have confirmed my faith in Your resurrection, O my Savior,
Even before it came to pass,
By freeing Lazarus from hell when he was four days dead.
I magnify You in song!
(verses on Canticle 9—Matins, Lazarus Saturday)
Why do you nations rage?
Why do you priests and scribes imagine vanities,
Saying: Who is this, whom children praise with palms and branches,
Crying: Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!
You rebels!  Why have you placed stumbling blocks before us?
Your feet hasten to shed the Master's blood,
But He will rise again, saving all those who cry to Him:
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
(verses on Canticle 9—Matins, Palm Sunday)

Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, "Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me." Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Loose him, and let him go." Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, "What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation." And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish." Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad. Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death.
(Gospel of St. John 11: 39-53, NKJV)

The hymns and gospel reading above give us the context for the last days of our Lord’s ministry on earth, but they also reveal something about the extraordinary fickleness of the human heart—every human heart, our own heart included.
How was it possible that the same voices that cried, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” on Palm Sunday would scream, “Crucify Him!” on Holy Friday? How is it possible that the same religious leaders who were demanding signs of Christ’s authority would use the greatest and most powerful sign of His divine nature as an excuse to murder Him? What excuse was there to plot to put Him to death after the public manifestation of His power in the raising of a man whom everyone knew was four days dead? Note that Caiaphas and his allies did not dispute the fact that Jesus had raised the dead man, Lazarus, when they determined that it was expedient to kill him. No, their excuse was political—“better than one man should die than that the whole nation should perish”.

It is easy to say that we would have done differently. We would have fallen down in awe in the presence of the Almighty had we seen the raising of Lazarus. We would have believed. Perhaps, but when I examine my own sinful heart, I am not quite so sure. Expedience and excuses have formed the basis for many terrible choices in my own life—contrary to what I knew and believed to be right and true. I suspect that an honest appraisal by any serious Christian will reveal much the same in his or her own life. We know the right, we know the truth, we know what we ought to do and how we should behave, but in a crisis situation where we are afraid or tempted, we are quite capable of consciously—even coldly—acting in an utterly contrary manner. We find reasons and make excuses for irrational and inexcusable behaviors.
Recall, if you will, the story of another Lazarus (Luke 19:16-31) in which the rich man (Dives) in hell calls on Abraham to send Lazarus to his five still living brothers in order to convince them to change their ways before it is too late. But Abraham replies, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” In other words, even the physical evidence of the final judgment and the resurrection from the dead is not sufficient to keep us from consciously doing wrong!
How do we explain the hard heartedness of Caiaphas and his allies? How do we understand the willingness of Pilate and Herod to join in the plot? How do we make sense of the fickleness of the crowds? The answer is to be found in our own hearts, our own thoughts, our own behaviors. We can play the expediency of Caiaphas, the malice of Pilate, the small-minded cruelty of Herod, the unfaithfulness of the crowds, the cowardice of Peter, and the betrayal of Judas out in our own life story using the same shifty excuses and justifications as they did. And we can do it with extraordinary ease when we want to. Think for a moment of the worst, the cruelest, the basest thing you ever did—whether out of lust, vengeance, pride, desire for gain, or cowardice (or any combination thereof) and of how easy it was to make an excuse for it at the time. If anyone can examine his or her heart and find nothing of the sort, then either he or she is a truly great saint or a dishonest scoundrel!

The great and terrible days of Holy Week bring us into a direct encounter with the darkness and ugliness at work in our broken nature. Satan, Hell, and Death are in full battle array against God’s Anointed and they find willing allies in people just like us. Not a single motivation that Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, or Judas had for their actions is alien to any one of us. The cowardice of the apostles, the meanness of the crowds, the hateful bullying of the Roman soldiers—none of it is alien to us. The terrible thing is that, once we look deeply into our own heart and examine our own conscience we find it all too easy to understand them! The cheap and easy assertion that we would have been different had we been there is blown away by the evidence of our own actions.

If this is true, then how can we be saved?

I submit that this is exactly the question we have to ask, with a broken and contrite heart, if there is to be any hope for us. I submit that this is precisely where the apostles found themselves when they realized the magnitude of their cowardice and betrayal in running away from Jesus when He was seized by His enemies. It is exactly the question that the noble hearted Joseph and righteous Nicodemus confronted when they went to Pilate to retrieve the body of the murdered Lord. All of them, realizing the darkness that had allowed them to run away or acquiesce, repented and turned to God for forgiveness. Others, like Judas, could not do any better than feel remorse and despair; they destroyed themselves as a result. Still others held on to the “rightness” of their decisions and were consumed by madness or rebellion or denial. We face the same range of choices when we confront the darkness within us.

Whatever we do, if we are mature adult Orthodox believers, we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of easy confidence that we are somehow different from the characters we will hear about in the scripture readings and hymns of the coming week. If we are wise and mature we will see ourselves in each and every one of them---and we will tremble. That’s the first step in the right direction.

The following words from the Prophet Isaiah are read during the Vespers service at 3 o’clock on Holy Friday afternoon. Let them be inscribed in our own hearts and may they speak to each of us as both a judgment against us and a consolation to us.

Thus says the Lord: See, my servant will understand; he shall be exalted and glorified exceedingly. Just as there many will be astonished at you, so your appearance will be without glory from men, and your glory from the sons of men. So many nations will marvel at him; kings shall shut their mouths; for that which had not been told them about him they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? We brought a report as of a child before him, as a root out of dry ground; he had no form or glory, and we saw him, and he had neither form nor beauty. But his form was without honor and inferior to the children of men. He was a man in suffering and acquainted with bearing weakness, because his face has been away, he was dishonored and not esteemed. He bears our sins and is in pain for us. We reckoned him to be in toil and in affliction and trouble. But he was wounded for our sins and crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment of our peace, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; everyone has gone astray in their own way, and the Lord handed him over for our sins. And he, because of his affliction, does not open his mouth; like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away; who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth; because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death. And I will give the evil for his burial and the rich for his death, because he practiced no iniquity, nor was there guile in his mouth. And the Lord wishes to cleanse him of his blow. If you give an offering for sin, your soul will seed a long-lived descendence. And the Lord wishes to take away from the toil of his soul, to show him light and to fashion him with understanding, to justify the just one, who serves many well, and he will bear their sins. Therefore he will inherit many and divide the spoils of the strong. Because his soul was handed over to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sin of many, and was handed over because of their iniquities. Rejoice, barren one who do not give birth, break out and cry, you who are not in labor, for the children of the desolate are more than those of her that has a husband.
(Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Septuagint)





The Prayer of St. Ephrem is, perhaps, the quintessential Lenten prayer. When you think of it, it should be the quintessential prayer for each and every day of our life. For, in just a few sentences, it expresses the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

" O, Lord and Master of my life! Do not give me a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. But give, rather, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for You are holy to the ages of ages. Amen"



"O, Lord and Master of my life..."


We immediately call to mind that our lives are not our own but that we belong to God. Contrary to the philosophical, political, psychological and ethical theories centered on the needs, rights and desires of the "sovereign self" that one can find in just about any bookstore today, we are not autonomous beings and we are most certainly not the "captain of (our) souls--the master of (our) own destinies". We are always dependent creatures--never independent. Deprived of oxygen not a single one of us can live for more than a couple of minutes, no matter how great our intellect, will, or physical courage. Our 'creatureliness' makes us by nature to be dependent on others, and most especially, to be dependent on God. It is when we finally accept this that we can turn to Him as "Lord and Master" and hope to acquire the treasures necessary for eternal life.

" Do not give me a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk...."

The Greek form of the prayer (the original--or, at least the oldest version we have) implores that God should not give us a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. Some of the later versions ask Him to "take from" us those vices. The original version is more striking because it, (like the famous lines in the Lord's Prayer which ask, "lead us not into temptation"), reminds us that God has made us free and will give us over to our inclinations if we will not repent. Think of Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened against Moses and the people of Israel; he was not a good man whom the Lord led astray, but a vain and prideful man whom the Lord "gave over" to his wickedness until he went down in defeat and humiliation.

In St. Ephrem's prayer we are asking specifically not to be handed over to some very common sins. Let's look at them more closely.

Sloth is the state of spiritual laziness, the ennui or boredom and lack of purpose that seems to have become a hallmark of modern life. We are constantly seeking to be entertained, stimulated, distracted. These are symptoms of sloth, the condition in which a person does not take responsibility for his or her own state of consciousness (and conscience!).

Despair is the state of futility or hopelessness; it is the "I give up" mentality that whines that we are not in control of our own thoughts, desires, and habits. Note that this is very different from the false sense of "being in control" that our society so values. It is an inner, rather than outward, state. Despair allows us to make the excuses we use when we fall into sin, the "I can't help myself. It's just the way I am" mentality (spoken outwardly or inwardly) that says we are beyond change and, thus, beyond all hope. Don't be mistaken, this is no small sin; it is one of the very greatest because it blocks the way to repentance. A despairing person may feel remorse by she or he cannot summon up the energy to repent.

Lust of Power is the desire to "be in charge", the "control freak" in us that demands that we "are the captain of (our ) own ship, the master of (our) own destiny"--and not only our own, but everyone else's too! We often think that this sin is requires a position of great power--an important job as a corporate executive, a political leader, or something of the kind. But lust of power can and often is practiced by the parent who tries to micro manage his or her children's lives, the spouse who must always make the plans and give the commands, the small time manager who cannot leave others to make the simplest decisions. We clergy are very often guilty of this one!

Idle talk is not just gossip, though it is certainly that, too. It is all the wasted, silly, meaningless words we utter in the course of a day--the "conversations" that do more to hide our true selves than to reveal them (though we often have reason not to want our 'true selves' to be revealed!). How many office conversations have to do with sexual relationships (0ur own or someone elses) that in themselves are ungodly and demeaning to both partners? How many mean spirited digs do we get in about co-workers under the pretense of 'discussing' a project or job at hand? How often do we murder the reputations of our fellow parishioners by gossipping about their habits, faults, and human short-comings? The psalmist urges us to 'set a guard' over our lips, but how difficult it is to do!

Now, for the positives, "but give, rather, a spirit of chastity, humility, and patience to Your servant". Just as God will give the wicked over to their desires He will also give those who truly desire to be good over to goodness--though it will come with effort. Both evil and good require work. Our goals and desires are not accomplished without effort. Even despair is a habit of the heart and soul that must be cultivated. One cannot have it without screening out the beauty and goodness of God's creation.

Chastity is very far from being a matter of sexual purity alone. It is certainly that--the purity of refraining from sexual relationships outside of marriage and the unselfish and loving enjoyment of them within a Christian marriage is an essential. But, all too often, our understanding of chastity stops with sex, which is profoundly sad. True chastity is a way of being, it is the 'purity of heart' that Jesus spoke of in His sermon on the mount. To be chaste means to approach all things with a 'clean heart' and a 'right spirit' (Psalm 51). It excludes gluttony, sexual lust and perversion, deceit, gossip, and all the other vices. The spirit of chastity is truly beautiful because it refuses to allow anything twisted or sinful to reside within us. It doesn't deny that those things exist; it simply does not make excuses for them--in ourselves.

Humility is another Christian virtue that is greatly misunderstood. Americans do not hold it in high regard because we often interpret it to mean one must "act like a doormat" and allow herself or himself to be "stepped on". True humility means to have a proper sense of our mortality, our limitedness, our status as creatures. Humus in Latin refers to the earth we walk on, the elements from which we are taken and to which we will one day return. It is the profound recognition that we are not self-sufficient and that our hopes rest not in our own accomplishments and strengths but in the love and mercy of God.

Patience is another virtue that is often honored in the breach by modern Americans. We are a people who want things to happen "yesterday". We don't like to wait for anything; our whole culture is geared toward action. We create "labor saving devices" so that we can find other things to do! But Jesus tell us, "in patience you posses your souls" (Luke 21:19). Indeed, we cannot even begin to make spiritual progress until we admit that we are in it for the long haul, meaning for the rest of our lives. There are no quick fixes in the spiritual path, no easy "enlightenment". Orthodoxy rejects the idea that a simple declaration of faith in Jesus is enough to save us (for, again, as the Scripture teaches, even the devils believe--but to no good end). To be a follower of Jesus is to patiently carry our cross to the end. This means that we accept the fact that our life will be one of constant struggle with many set backs. The only way to make it through is to plod ahead, patiently, day after day knowing that we are never left alone in our struggles. The Lord is with us along with the entire company of saints and our guardian angels. And we are given the great grace of sacramental confession and absolution when we fall. All that is required of us is repentance and patience that, with God's help, we will be triumphant in the end. The greatest danger is giving up (the spirit of sloth and despair).

Love is perhaps the least understood of the virtues. The word is so misused that we have almost forgotten its true meaning. We say we love our car, our house, our various possessions. We confuse mere sexual attraction and fornication with loving another leaving the greatest of the virtues dispossessed of its beauty and depth. Christian love always involves a relationship that requires giving up something of oneself for the sake of another. It is profoundly sacrificial and absolutely never concerned with self satisfaction. Clearly, this eliminates the vast majority of situations that modern people associate with "love". Our contemporary understanding of the term usually involves first and foremost self fulfillment and self satisfaction; love, in this case, is about what one gets not what gives. This is the absolute opposite of what is meant by love in the New Testament. When St. John declares, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (Jn 3:16), he is declaring what God gave to us in Christ; he is setting the stage for the great mystery of the Divine Self-sacrifice for the sake of our salvation.

Love requires a response--either positive or negative; we can embrace the One who loves us or spurn Him but cannot remain indifferent because the Divine Lover will not go unanswered. Likewise, those who claim to love God must also love their neighbor (which the gospels have shown to mean everyone). Those who don't (or at least aren't trying to) are liars. This commandment is even more powerful when it comes to those who are closest to us. In America today over half of all marriages fail. People who declared that their love was so deep that they wanted to be united for the rest of their lives often abandon each other within a couple of years. Why? Obviously because they understood marriage in terms of what they could get, not what they could give but for what they could get. For when the guaranteed day arrives when they realize that their partner is incapable of giving them everything they desire, they abandon the relationship, (though it is questionable whether any real "relationship" ever existed in the first place). Marriage, as anyone who has been in one for a long time knows, is far more about giving--and forgiving-- than with taking.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother. For You are holy unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The final lines of St. Ephrem's prayer take us back to Jesus'steaching about fault-finding, where are told to "remove the plank from (our) own eye" (Matthew 7:5-7) before we go about taking the "speck" from an other's. Orthodox spirituality is very serious about the need for each person to acknowledge his or her own sins. In the prayer before communion we speak of ourselves as "first among sinners" and this is not hyperbole. We are called to believe it! Why? Because we can only be responsible for repenting of our own sins. We can only work out our own salvation and no one else's (Philippians 2:12-18). Our broken nature, however, makes us want to concentrate on "improving" others--our spouse, our children, our students, our fellow workers, the people in our parish and so on. It is so easy to see their shortcomings and so hard to acknowledge our own!

But the gospel makes it abundantly clear that if we do not learn to point the finger at ourselves we, like the Pharisee in the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, will find ourselves locked out of the Kingdom. Our attitude towards the faults of others must always be to look within ourselves. It doesn't mean that we excuse evil, but we look for the first (and ultimately the only place) where can actually do something about it. And, if we practice the habit of self examination, we will generally discover that what we hate in others can be found in ourselves. Do we call someone else neglectful? Where are we being neglectful ourselves? Do we call someone else manipulative? How are we attempting to manipulate others and so on.

The very last reminder in the prayer is of God's holiness. He is the only truly "good" one and, just as we began the prayer by acknowledging Him as "Lord and Master" we end it by proclaiming that He alone is set apart (the true meaning of 'holiness') from sin. The Christian confession that Jesus is God, the eternal and only-begotten Son, reminds us that there is only One good enough and strong enough to save us from the multitude of sins that we commit both "willingly and unwillingly". The only hope we have for moving from the sinful spiritual states described in the first part of the prayer to the righteous state of the latter part is through uniting ourselves to Christ and His Church, remembering that the Church is the 'school-house of salvation" according to the Fathers. Our lessons are life long and we will not master them completely in this world. Our "homework" each and every day of our life is to keep trying.




THE GREAT BLESSING OF WATER


The Old Testament Readings from Isaiah and the Prayer of Blessing over the water today are full of images of joyful deliverance. We are reminded of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea; we are told of deserts blooming, of bitter waters being made sweet. In the Jordan, the 'heads of serpents'-- meaning the devil and his legions--are crushed by Christ in His baptism   ( a baptism which He does not need, but one which He accepts on behalf of us all, so that our baptisms may be effective).
Water today is sanctified, filled with light and life and the whole creation--even the very moon and stars rejoice with us in its transformation!

Why such joy and delight in this blessing? Because we know that water, like the other elements of creation, also bears a curse.

When removed, cut off from its original state and placed in the broken, fallen state of this order water, the source of all life can become source of death and immense destruction. The terrible images of the Indonesian tsunami and the destruction of the city of New Orleans over the past couple of years are more convincing than any number of words can be.

Our ancient forbears knew this well; the Psalmist spoke of the terrors of the deep, of the waters going up over our heads. The pagans worshipped the natural forces out of fear of them. Today's 'New Ager's' fool themselves when they pretend that those pre Christian cultures were composed of gentle earth loving peoples; the people of those days lived in terror of the universe which surrounded them because it could swallow them up at any moment.  

We Orthodox Christians have never been afraid to point out that the consequences of the original sin, the first Fall, were cosmic--involving the entire created order. Everything went awry when the angelic powers rebelled and when our first forebears disobeyed in that proverbial garden.
The Blessing of Water reminds us that in spite of the disorder of this, the broken, sin filled universe is not the last word. God is in control. God has responded. God will set things right. And nothing, NO ONE is lost to Him.
The Divine response to the ruination of the Universe was for "the Only Begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father" (see John 1:18) to come into the world for loves sake (Jn 3:16) for its salvation.

Water, the sign of life, cleansing, and deliverance (recall the images of Noah and the flood, the escape from Egypt, and finally of baptism itself) stands as a paradox: the cleansing flood of Noah was the death of a world; Israel's escape was the death of Pharaoh's army, and even baptism is a reminder of Christ's burial as well as of His resurrection.

We rejoice as the water is blessed because it anticipates the Kingdom that is coming and is even now mystically among us for in that day all things will return to their intended state and there will be only rejoicing in the seas and on land and in the heavens above.

"Today the Sun that never sets has dawned and the world is made radiant with the light of the Lord. Today the Moon with its radiant beams sheds light on the world. Today the stars formed of light make the inhabited world lovely with the brightness of their splendor Today the clouds rain down from heaven the shower of justice for mankind
Today the streams of Jordan are changed into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today all creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the failings of mankind are being washed away by the waters of Jordan. Today Paradise is opened for mortals and the Sun of justice shines down on us. Today the bitter water as once for Moses’ people is changed to sweetness by the presence of the Lord".
From the Great Blessing of Water






NATIVITY MEDITATIONS 2014

“What mysteries beyond mind and speech! God in His compassion is born on earth, putting on the form of a servant that He may snatch from servitude to the enemy those who with fervent love cry out: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who loves humankind” (Matins of the Pre-feast of the Nativity of the Lord)

Why did God become a man? Why did He take on the weakness of our human nature? What was the true purpose of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity?
The answer to those questions reveals the fundamental mystery of our salvation; the “mystery of mysteries” which we ponder as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.
Over and over again the answer is given: because He loves us, because it is His will to save us from our oppressor, from the malice of the enemy who has enslaved us to fear, to sin, to death.
The surpassingly beautiful hymns of the Christmas services proclaim over and over again the mystery of Love Incarnate.

“The holy sayings of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the city of Bethlehem within a cave. The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy He delivers us who were made subject to corruption. In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

Not only does He come for the sake of lost humanity, but, “the whole creation is made rich”! The very cave in which He is born is sanctified; the lowly beasts are witnesses to the unfathomable compassion of the Lord of All the Worlds!
Orthodoxy has never forgotten the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter eight  where we are told that the whole creation has waited expectantly for the revelation of the Son of God, for the healing of the whole universe, which had been subjected to futility and suffering on account of the rebellion, first of the angels and, through temptation, humankind.
What beauty! What a sublime and lovely revelation of God’s mercy and compassion! He comes for the sake of all—no one, no thing, is excluded!

“Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding You the Creator made a child. For through Your birth You shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”
Here are echoes of the hymns which we sing in Great Lent, reminding us of the “rustling leaves of Paradise” which we lost through disobedience. Now they are spiritually restored to us, now the whole creation is put back on the road to salvation—to it’s original beauty.
“Behold, the Most Holy Word comes unto His own in a holy Body …. By a strange birth He makes His own the world that was estranged. To Him let us sing in praise, who became poor for us.”
What is the purpose for His coming? Why did God become a man?
To put an end to alienation and estrangement, to reconcile, to heal, to redeem, to undo the curse of separation.
“Let the kings of the whole earth sing rejoicing, and let the companies of the nations be exceedingly joyful. Mountains, hills and hollows, rivers and seas, and the whole creation magnify the Lord who now is born!”

The world is no longer separated into hostile ethnic groups, no longer subject to the caprice of fallen nature, because we recognize the “new creation” which is being established mysteriously in our midst—the Church! The wise men from Persia and the Chosen nation, Israel, come together to witness the birth of the Savior. The stars bear witness, the earth offers a cave, the lowly beasts offer their warmth, the human race offers our flesh through the Virgin mother. The old divisions are overcome! Who can fully comprehend this mystery?

“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!”

Look as hard as you will in the hymns that proclaim the Lord’s birth, look as hard as you will in the Scriptures that record His coming among us and you will find no other message than that of liberation from darkness and perversion. You will discover no other reality than the joyful response of God’s creation to His infinite Love and Mercy. There is no wrath, no anger, no talk of judgment (except for the judgment laid against the enemy who corrupted us--and against those, like Herod, who consciously and knowingly reject Christ and attempt to destroy Him). There is only the gospel (good news) message of restored communion between God and His creation.

“Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior, glory to Thee!”

How beautiful this mystery! How infinitely gracious, our God! Who can possibly tell of all His mighty works? Who can fathom the depths of His compassion and love? How precious the Name of the one by Whom we are saved: Jesus, our Emmanuel (God-with-us)!




SINGING THE MYSTERY OF SALVATION: AN ORTHODOX CHRISTMAS MEDITATION


Bethlehem has opened Eden.  Come, let us see! We have found joy in a secret place. Come, let us seize Paradise hidden in the cave! There the Unwatered Root has appeared,  blossoming with  forgiveness. There is found the Undug Well,  from which David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has borne a child,  quenching Adam’s and David’s thirst. Let us hurry to this place, where the eternal God was born as a little Child!


Orthodox Christianity expresses its deepest theology in prayer—specifically in liturgical prayer. What we believe we proclaim in our worship and when we do so we tend to sing it! The Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, or, more simply, Christmas is especially filled with sung theology in our tradition. The hymn quoted above and all the others in this article are sung as fixed parts of the various services of Christmas in the Orthodox tradition.

We begin our proclamation of the great mystery of the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God as a human being—not on December 25, but nine months earlier at the Feast of the Annunciation when the Church sings:

Oh, wonder! God is come among men! He Who cannot be contained is contained in a womb; the Timeless One enters time. Oh, great mystery! His conception is without seed, His emptying past telling! So great is this mystery!!For God empties Himself, takes flesh, and is fashioned as a Creature…

This has tremendous moral and ethical ramifications, as it teaches us that God becomes one of us at the very moment of conception—at the very beginning of our existence and explains the Orthodox Church’s unyielding pro-life stand.

In the Christmas hymn at the beginning of this meditation our understanding of the sacredness of human life is given an added dimension; in it we are told something of the why God became human. He did so to show us the way to a deeper joy than this world can ever provide; He did so to show us the way back to Paradise through the healing grace of forgiveness; He did so to quench our thirst for understanding and hope in the face of what  often appears to be a meaningless and hopeless existence. As an aside, I often think that the best response to ardent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens isn’t to engage them in a battle of logical statements but to confront the meaninglessness and hopelessness of their universe with the richness and joy of the universe revealed to us in Jesus Christ, God become a man for our salvation.  I see little hope of changing any atheist’s mind, but a clear articulation of the ultimate emptiness of what they believe in (can one actually believe in nothing?) certainly makes the Orthodox affirmation of life, light, and joy much more powerful.

The hymn below speaks of a whole universe filled with joy and light—one in which every creature (recall the cattle in the manger and the sheep in the fields) join with the human race to rejoice in the coming of the One who will deliver us from all sorrow and confusion.  There can be no doubt that all life has a meaning and direction in the mind of God and that He concerns Himself with each and every creature He has made.

Your Kingdom endures forever, O Christ our God. Your rule is from age to age. Made flesh by the Holy Spirit, made man of the ever-virgin Mary, You have filled all creation with joy. The light of Your coming has shone on us; every living creature praises You, the Image of the Father’s glory. Light of Light, the radiance of the Father, the same yesterday, today, and forever, You have shone forth from the Virgin. O God, have mercy on us!

But the celebration of God with us in the infant Christ is not unidirectional. We have a part to play in it, too. We are called to make a response to the offer of salvation. In fact, the whole creation has a role to play—as is made wonderfully clear below.

What shall we offer You, O Christ, Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature made by You offers You thanks: the Angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star;
the Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger, and we offer You a virgin Mother


In order for God to become one of us, one of us had to be willing to allow Him in and the one to do so was none other than the Virgin, Mary. This event occurred on the day of the Annunciation when she accepted the Angelic greeting from Gabriel and said, “Be it done to me according to your word!” (Luke 1:38) and in so doing opened the way for God to enter into human existence. What a wonderful affirmation of human freedom and Divine humility! It explains the Orthodox veneration of the Virgin better than a hundred books filled with theological rationalizations. Why do we love and honor her so? Look what she has done for us—expressed so beautifully in these words:

All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace: the assembly of Angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise, the glory of virgins, from whom God was incarnate and became a Child –our God before the ages. He made your body into a throne, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens. All of creation rejoices in you, O Full of Grace.  Glory to you!

Again, all of this is sung as part of the various Christmas services. All we need do is open our ears and hearts to contemplate the deepest and most beautiful of mysteries—the coming of God in the flesh as one of us.  The hymns sung at Matins on Christmas tell us more specifically about the reason for His coming among us; they answer the question, “Why did God become a man?”

Christ is born, glorify Him! Christ comes from heaven, go to meet Him! Christ is on earth, be exalted! Sing to the Lord, all the earth, and praise Him in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified!

Man was made in the image of God, but he sinned, and lost immortality.  He fell from the divine and better life, enslaved completely by corruption.  Now the wise Creator fashions him again, for He has been glorified.

The Creator shaped man with His own hands, but when He saw us perishing eternally, He bowed the heavens and came down to earth, and clothed Himself completely in our nature, truly incarnate from a pure and holy Virgin, for He has been glorified.

Wisdom, and Word, and Power, Christ our God is the Father’s Son, His Radiance.  He was made man, a mystery concealed from every spirit above or on the earth.  He has won us for Himself, for He has been glorified.


Why did He do it? To “win us for Himself” when “He saw us perishing eternally”; to refashion us back into the image He had given us in Paradise; to show us that life does indeed have a meaning and purpose and that His light and love are stronger than the darkness and despair that is so powerful in our world today.

The great, good, and wondrous message of Christmas as we experience it in our Orthodox tradition is that there is still hope—hope for each and every one of us personally and hope for the entire world and all the creatures in it. Everyone and everything counts. We know this, we pray it and we sing it in our celebration of the festival of God’s birth in the manger—for us and for our salvation.




“What mysteries beyond mind and speech! God in His compassion is born on earth, putting on the form of a servant that He may snatch from servitude to the enemy those who with fervent love cry out: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who loves humankind” (Matins of the Pre-feast of the Nativity of the Lord)

Why did God become a man? Why did He take on the weakness of our human nature? What was the true purpose of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity?

The answer to those questions reveals the fundamental mystery of our salvation; the “mystery of mysteries” which we ponder as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.

Over and over again the answer is given: because He loves us, because it is His will to save us from our oppressor, from the malice of the enemy who has enslaved us to fear, to sin, to death.

The surpassingly beautiful hymns of the Christmas services proclaim over and over again the mystery of Love Incarnate.

“The holy sayings of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the city of Bethlehem within a cave. The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy He delivers us who were made subject to corruption. In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

Not only does He come for the sake of lost humanity, but, “the whole creation is made rich”! The very cave in which He is born is sanctified, the lowly beasts are witnesses to the unfathomable compassion of the Lord of All the Worlds!

Orthodoxy has never forgotten the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter eight where we are told that the whole creation has waited expectantly for the revelation of the Son of God, for the healing of the whole universe, which had been subjected to futility and suffering on account of the rebellion, first of the angels and, through temptation, humankind.

What beauty! What a sublime and lovely revelation of God’s mercy and compassion! He comes for the sake of all—no one, no thing, is excluded!

“Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding You the Creator made a child. For through Your birth You shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”

Here are echoes of the hymns which we sing in Great Lent, reminding us of the “rustling leaves of Paradise” which we lost through disobedience. Now they are spiritually restored to us, now the whole creation is put back on the road to salvation—to it’s original beauty.

“ Behold, the Most Holy Word comes unto His own in a holy Body …. By a strange birth He makes His own the world that was estranged. To Him let us sing in praise, who became poor for us.”

What is the purpose for His coming? Why did God become a man?

To put an end to alienation and estrangement, to reconcile, to heal, to redeem, to undo the curse of separation.

“Let the kings of the whole earth sing rejoicing, and let the companies of the nations be exceedingly joyful. Mountains, hills and hollows, rivers and seas, and the whole creation magnify the Lord who now is born!”

The world is no longer separated into hostile ethnic groups, no longer subject to the caprice of fallen nature, because we recognize the “new creation” which is being established mysteriously in our midst—the Church! The wise men from Persia and the Chosen nation, Israel, come together to witness the birth of the Savior. The stars bear witness, the earth offers a cave, the lowly beasts offer their warmth, the human race offers our flesh through the Virgin mother. The old divisions are overcome! Who can fully comprehend this mystery?

“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!”

Look as hard as you will in the hymns that proclaim the Lord’s birth, look as hard as you will in the Scriptures that record His coming among us and you will find no other message than that of liberation from darkness and perversion. You will discover no other reality than the joyful response of God’s creation to His infinite Love and Mercy. There is no wrath, no anger, no talk of judgment (except for the judgment laid against the enemy who corrupted us--and against those, like Herod, who consciously and knowingly reject Christ and attempt to destroy Him). There is only the gospel (good news) message of restored communion between God and His creation.

“Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior, glory to Thee!”

How beautiful this mystery! How infinitely gracious, our God! Who can possibly tell of all His mighty works? Who can fathom the depths of His compassion and love? How precious the Name of the one by Whom we are saved: Jesus, our Emmanuel (God-with-us)!




“How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.” (Christmas Day Matins)

The great mystery of the Orthodox Christian faith is that the incomprehensible, almighty, eternal, and infinite Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, also partook of the finite, limited, ignorant, and mortal human nature that we all share. It is an article of faith that He became “like us in every way but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). In other word, the infant Jesus really and truly was utterly helpless, in need of the same care as any other baby. Though, as the eternal Son of God He continued to uphold the universe, as the Son of Mary—the “Son of Man”—was completely dependent on others for survival. This is the great paradox of the Christian faith and forms its central theme: He became like us that we might become like Him (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of Christ; The Liturgy of St. Basil: “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory”).

He became like us, so that we might become like Him!


What an astonishing affirmation of God’s love—and of our potential! Think of it, if He had simply come down from heaven in the full power and might of His divinity, He would have merely shown us what we already know: that He is perfect and we are not. But in choosing to share in the fullness of our nature—from the very moment of conception—He also chose to make our nature perfect, to show us that we can truly be healed of our afflictions, sin, and death because He has taken all these things on and redeemed them. What we could not do because of our weakness, He has done through taking on our weakness. This can only be expressed adequately in the poetry of Scripture and the Church’s hymnody. The rational mind cannot grasp it, which is why our faith is opaque to those who would rely solely on philosophy or science to make sense of the world. To accept the mystery of God-with-Us in the flesh, we must take a leap of faith, in love.

We must take a leap of faith, in love! Love alone can explain (if that word is even adequate) why God would become one of us and faith alone can accept it. There is no logical reason for the gift we receive in the incarnation of Christ. Strict justice would demand the annihilation of our race for its sins (and the condemnation of each one of us, for our constant failure to repent). Love alone can explain God’s compassion and forgiveness—to the point of even lowering Himself to become what we are.

Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian writer and poet, in a poem about the Virgin Mary contemplating the birth of Jesus (alas, I cannot trace the poem anywhere) portrays the Mother of God watching a cockroach run across the door-sill and imagining a love so strong as to be willing to become such a creature! The point of the poem, at least as I took it, was that the willingness of God to condescend to our nature was akin to our willingness to become cockroaches for the sake of their nature! Of course, she was taking poetic license—but the whole, extraordinary point is that God’s leap from His infinite holiness to our finite brokenness is far, far, greater than the leap from being human to becoming a cockroach!
The hymns and carols of Christmas are full of such poetry and wonder. As we enter the season of Advent and contemplate through prayer and fasting the mystery of Christ’s birth, let’s take time to read the Scriptures and hymns appointed for the pre-feasts and festivals of Christmas and Theophany and let them sink deeply into our hearts.

May the Light of Christ which fills this Holy Season, enter each and every home and bring with it the joy that comes from that “wondrous love” which knows no limits or bounds in its compassion for us.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, andcoming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 1that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 NKJV)




JESUS IS GOD


Nearly 1600 years ago there arose a great controversy between the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople over the nature (or natures) of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Nestorius, the Patriarch of the Imperial City (Constantinople) had declared that it was wrong to refer to the Virgin Mary as ‘Theotokos’  (Birth-giver, or, Mother of God).  He stated that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus, but could never be the Mother of God (who has no beginning  and who cannot be limited in any way). He stated that it was foolish, if not sinful, to refer to a mortal woman as the mother of the immortal God.

On the surface Nestorius’ argument seemed quite logical. But Cyril saw more deeply into the implications of his opponent’s point of view If Mary is not the Mother of God but simply the mother of a man, he reasoned,  then why should we worship him? In fact, offering worship to a mere man would make us idolaters!

Nestorius said that He believed that Christ consisted of two separate subjects (identities) one of which was human and the other of which was divine. When the Gospels spoke of the human subject (the one who hungered, was afraid of death, wept for his friend Lazarus, etc.), it was the man, Jesus, that they were referring to. When they spoke of the One who raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, who walked on water and stilled the raging storm, then it was the Eternal Word of God who was being referred to. For Nestorius the two were united in the “Christ”.

St. Cyril objected to this by saying that there could only be one ‘subject’ in Christ—only one ‘identity’, only one ‘Person’, the Eternal Word and only begotten Son of God. In this case, Mary, as the one in whose womb the Eternal Word of God took flesh, could and must be called the Mother of God. Of course, Cyril did not believe that Mary gave birth to the Son of God from all eternity. She gave birth to Him in the flesh, at a certain time and place in history—in the ‘fullness of time’ as the Scriptures teach (Galatians 4:4-5).

And that is very heart of why Cyril’s teaching matters so much. In the fullness of time God Himself became a man—a human being in the tininess of a young maiden’s womb, carried for nine months, born among animals in a manger, growing in wisdom and strength through the years of childhood and adolescence, preaching the Kingdom of God and doing miracles in His manhood, and suffering a violent death at the hands of His own creatures that He might rise in glory by His own divine power! God, Who is without beginning, Who is infinite and without any kind of limitations, became finite and limited, “emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7).

The great mystery of the Incarnation, according to St. Cyril, is that we can truly say that God—Personally— united Himself to our broken and limited condition in order to heal our nature and to restore us to communion with Himself.

He left nothing that is natural to us outside His experience. He took on a human body (from the moment of conception); He had a human mind, soul, will, emotions—everything that pertains to being human, while at the same time remaining unchanged in His divine nature. He became what He was not (human) while remaining what He was ( the eternal, almighty, all knowing Word of God).  We confess this every week when we sing:

“Only Begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change became man and was crucified, Who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!”

St. Cyril, as with all truly Orthodox teachers, was wise enough to say that this is a mystery beyond human comprehension. We can believe it, but we cannot fully explain it. In fact, Nestorius’ problem was exactly the same problem that all heretics have—he relied too much on intellectual reasoning alone to try and ‘solve’ the mystery of God. He attempted to put everything into neat, logical, categories, forgetting that the wisdom (logic/reason) of God is foolishness to the world and the foolishness of God undoes the wisdom of the world (see 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

This directly relates, of course, to the great mystery we celebrate on Christmas—that a weak and tiny baby is at the same time the eternal God. He is not merely ‘veiled in flesh’, He is made flesh. He unites Himself fully and completely with human flesh, and He will never again be separated from it.

We can never speak of Jesus without at the same time speaking of the Eternal Word and Son of God. Jesus is the Eternal Word and Son of the Father. JESUS IS GOD.  And on that our salvation depends.
If Jesus were a man somehow united to the Word of God (as ‘the Christ’—whatever that means), then we are not saved. Unless Jesus IS the Word of God made flesh, then He can do nothing for us. He would be nothing more than another prophet, as the Muslims teach.

St. Cyril, along with all the Orthodox teachers, confessed that the flesh of Christ is life giving because it has been united inseparably with God. The fact that we receive holy communion—believing it to be the “body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ”—is a concrete statement of our faith that Christ is one, that He cannot be divided into a ‘human’ side and a ‘divine’ side. They is only One Christ, One Divine Person, who has taken on our human nature so that we might be lifted up from degradation, death, and satanic oppression.

Our faith is not ‘neat’. It does not accommodate itself to human categories of thought. It cannot be explained or contained by philosophical arguments. But neither can love. Love cannot be explained or contained in mathematical equations. It must be experienced. It must be given and received. It is a mystery beyond comprehension, and yet, anyone who has ever experienced it knows that it is real—perhaps the most real of all experiences. And in the end, the deepest and truest expression of God is that of Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…”
St. Cyril knew that. Nestorius just couldn’t get it.

The mystery of Christmas is that Infinite and everlasting Love entered into the world, into our smallness, into our weakness, into our foolishness that we might one day be made great and strong and wise in Him—that we too might Love fully and without limit, even if we will never be able to find words to adequately explain it.


 
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